From Biblical Nonresistance to “Peace”

March/April, 1999
Volume 34, Number 2


It is necessary to be reminded again of basic New Testament teaching for the Christian. The Sermon on the Mount is not rigid law, but rather is a description of the believer’s life in following Jesus Christ. The Sermon is for Christians, not pagans. “Our Lord never asks a natural man, the dupe of sin and Satan, and under the dominion of Hell, to live a life like this, for he cannot,” wrote Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

  • War is a result of sin (James 4:1). The purpose of the military is “to kill people and break things.” The armed forces are not educational institutions, international relief agencies, or social engineering models. Armies are just large manifestations of the evil that lurks in human hearts, and of the great force that is necessary to keep that evil in check.
  • Christ stated that wars would continue until His return. Christians will not outlaw conflicts or cause wars to cease. It is the height of naivete to think that Christians, by political action, will change the evil hearts of human beings so that they will not war.
  • The Christian is not of this world (John 18:36), but is a citizen of Heaven. We should be cautious about involving ourselves in politics, and by extension, involving ourselves in human conflicts. The world’s method’s are not our methods (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
  • Christians want people to be saved. Our interest is in the spiritual outcome of souls involved. This should cause us to redouble our efforts to present the Gospel to all who will hear. We indeed fight a battle, but it is a spiritual one (Ephesians 6:11-18).
  • We recognize the legitimate use of force (police, armed forces) to contain evildoers (Romans 13), but we maintain that the Christian is not to participate in these activities (Romans 12). The only reason, ultimately, for the Christian not to participate in the military or war is that Jesus Christ forbids him to do so. This means that war is permitted for civil government.
  • We recognize the proper role of government (1 Peter 2:12-17). The government is in place to make and enforce just laws for the harmony of unregenerate society. Christians ought to be the best subjects a ruler should have, and every Christian should be in prayer for our rulers.
–Craig Alan Myers

From Biblical Nonresistance to “Peace”

by Mark A. Ray

Amidst the modern pleas for “diversity” and “inclusiveness” can be heard the faint whispers of the Brethren past calling forth for “distinctiveness” and “nonconformity.” The greater the push for diversification in our beliefs and inclusiveness of all people regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles, the more our Brethren heritage and doctrinal standards fade into history. A church cannot remain distinct in anything if it seeks to adopt and welcome everything.

Such has been the general fate of such Brethren ideals as nonconformity, non-litigation, and non-swearing. While many in the Brotherhood still hold to these New Testament teachings, the broader denomination has neglected them. Despite history’s recollection of the Brethren as a “Historic Peace Church,” current trends toward openness and inclusiveness in addition to the successful acculturation of the Brethren to American society and mainstream Protestantism have eroded the Brethren teachings on biblical nonresistance. The doctrine of nonresistance is a core Brethren belief that has undergone considerable transition in thought and practice, resulting in a peace position that is only a shadow of biblical nonresistance.

Nonresistance Defined

Matthew 5, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, contains a great discourse of Jesus on the subject of nonresistance. He taught about revenge, obedience, and love.

Regarding vengeance, Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39-41, NIV). The Apostle Paul warns, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:17, 19, NIV). The words of Jesus and the teachings of Paul were in complete contrast to the sentiment of the world around them, for their world was one of self-defense and retaliation, not unlike our own. An “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was the accepted view. Jesus ushered in a new covenant and a new way of living. For the believer, the right to retaliate or take revenge does not exist. Instead, Jesus taught His followers to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, pray for their persecutors, and resist not an evil person.

Regarding obedience, the believer is called by Christ to be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9), and one who “lives peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). This simple commandment has far-reaching implications that range beyond war and peace and turning the other cheek. Living at peace with a neighbor, for example, would include such New Testament practices as non-litigation, nonviolence, and even non-political involvement, as well as acts of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. In a Christian home, abuse and divorce would be absent, and training in the Word of God would be present. Living at peace with our brothers and sisters in the church would require biblical reconciliation as taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. However, living in peace with men everywhere would never require the church to live at peace with the world and its pattern.

Regarding love, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34). His radically different teachings included the admonishment to “love your enemies, and bless those who curse you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul reminds the church that “love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10). When love that is of Christ fills the life of the believer, there is no room for enmity, revenge, violence, or murder. These things become foreign to the believer who earnestly seeks to be at peace with God and man.

These New Testament Scriptures played an important role in the development of a nonresistant lifestyle among the earliest Anabaptists and Pietists. The principal ideas of these groups included a return to the New Testament, imitating the ethics of Jesus, and, of course, reading the Bible. Nonresistant themes have often been pursued by sects seeking to imitate primitive Christianity as modeled by the apostolic Church. Among these groups were the Waldenses and the Unity of Brethren.

Nonresistance continued to be affirmed through such Anabaptist statements as the Schleitheim Confession of Faith prepared by the Swiss Brethren in 1527. This confession stated that a Christian could not be a magistrate or one who was responsible for passing judgment and executing sentences in worldly disputes. The use of the sword for punishment and protection was viewed as necessary outside of the perfect will of Christ, but it had no place in the church.

Anabaptists taught a “Two Kingdoms” view in which there was a separation of the Kingdom of God (the church) and the kingdoms of man (governments). At the time of the Radical Reformation, church and state were united, and the thought of their separation was almost unimaginable. Such, too, was the case in Germany at the time the Brethren began to emerge. Some of the differences between the church and state in this theory are explained as follows.

The Church:


  • is spiritual
  • operates by love
  • has Christ as her Head
  • must proclaim the Gospel
The State


  • is political
  • operates by force
  • has a king/president as head
  • must maintain order

It is the state’s prerogative to wage war and not the church’s role. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). When the laws of man differ from the laws of God, the believer should choose obedience to God and be willing to accept the consequences of such a choice. Historical accounts of Mennonites, Quakers, Hutterites, and Brethren detail their willingness to suffer imprisonment and even death rather than disobey the teachings of the New Testament. The Christian, therefore, lives under the greater authority of God and should not choose to go to war.

Following the examples of Anabaptists and Pietists before them, the early Brethren sought to restore the primitive church. Alexander Mack described the young Brethren movement as a simple group seeking to return to the “old church” founded by Christ. Mack’s views on war were formed through study in the Scriptures, a desire to return to the purity of the church, and a lifetime of tragic war experiences. These experiences, coupled with New Testament teachings, created among the Brethren a sincere desire to live nonresistant lives.

The early Brethren sought to separate themselves from the sinful nature of the world around them, and their doctrine of nonresistance began to solidify. They were not only taught to refuse to bear arms, but they were instructed to avoid using any force or violence at all. They avoided initiating litigation, because it usually meant pursuing one’s own interest by “legally” forcing the other party. They refrained from interpersonal violence such as quarreling and abuse and rebuked members who participated in such lifestyles. They refused to vote in political elections, because it was the government that initiated force to maintain order. They chose not to serve in law enforcement or political office for the same reason.

Development of Nonresistance in Times of War

The Brethren remained nonresistant even in the face of savagery and war. In 1777 and 1780, Brethren families were massacred by Indians at Morrison’s Cove, Pennsylvania. Christopher Sauer, Jr., lost his possessions as a result of his nonresistant stance during the American War of Independence.

In 1775, a joint petition authored by both Mennonites and Brethren was sent to the Pennsylvania Assembly thanking God for the liberty of conscience for those “persuaded in their conscience to love their enemies, and resist not evil . . . ” They presented their intent not to bear arms but offer assistance to the needy. They emphasized their willingness to pay taxes and give humanitarian assistance but not bear arms in conflict. At the 1780 Annual Meeting at Conestoga, Brethren were admonished not to pay the substitute fee to hire someone to serve in their place, for this was considered direct participation in the war effort. Annual Meeting declared in 1790, “Should there be anyone among us having such a conscience as to be able to fight and swear oaths, such a one would not be of us.”

The Brethren remained steadfast and unified in their nonresistant determination through the wars of 1812 with England and 1845 with Mexico. Heavy fines were levied on those Brethren who refused military conscription. The Annual Meeting of 1815 encouraged the weight of these fines to be carried by the entire congregation. In 1822, Brethren were discouraged from “marching at the muster grounds” and attending Independence Day celebrations. The first statement on the use of a weapon for self-defense was released in 1855.

The unity and steadfastness of the Brethren continued during the Civil War. Participation in war remained a test of membership. It was at the 1864 Meeting that another statement concerning war was prepared and recorded in the minutes of the church:

“We exhort the Brethren to steadfastness in the faith — and especially to our nonresistant principle, a principle dear to every subject of the Prince of Peace, and a prominent doctrine of our fraternity, and to endure whatever sufferings and to make whatever sacrifice the maintaining of the principle may require, and not to encourage in any way the practice of war . . . . “

The progression of the doctrine of nonresistance can be summed up in the following statements:

1.  Nonresistance is one element of the Biblical teaching on separation from the world.
2. There is a definite separation of church and state according to the Bible.
3.  Because the church and state belong to different kingdoms, the methods for defense and offense are also different.
4.  Physical violence is forbidden to believers as a method of operation for any purpose.
5.  The church has no right to use physical violence in the propagation of Christianity.
6.  It is a breach of order for the church to join with the world in the exercise of physical force.
7.  Since physical force is forbidden to the believer as a means to an end, he is always obligated to exercise spiritual means to do good and to bring blessing to others.

Later Developments

Following the Civil War, the Brethren took steps to move out of their cultural and spiritual isolationism and gradually began to move toward acculturation. They began to experiment with social and Protestant movements that were gaining in popularity. Many of the cultural distinctives began to fade out of Brethren life, resulting in division in 1881 and the loss of the Old Orders who desired to maintain Brethren distinctives.

By the time of World War I, the Brethren had experienced a radical change toward “Americanization” and many were uncomfortable with their peculiarities which had separated them. Innovations such as Sunday Schools, salaried ministers, and voting in government elections were commonplace in the church. Nationalism began to flourish, and “constructive patriotism” became a theme of the church. When the United States was ushered into war, there had been over twenty years of silence on peace and war at Annual Meetings. A strong statement on nonparticipation in war was adopted by the special Goshen Conference in 1918, but it was withdrawn under threat from the government.

The 1935 Annual Conference declared that “all war is sin; it is wrong for Christians to support or engage in it.” However, by 1939, Conference added that for those who choose to participate in war, “the attitude of the church toward such should be one of brotherly love and forbearance, endeavoring by faithful teaching to restore him as long as he expresses desire to continue membership in the Church of the Brethren.” A unified stance on traditional nonresistance was rejected in 1939 as participation in war no longer was a test of church membership. During World War II, only twenty percent of the Brethren drafted for military service took the conscientious objector position, while most Brethren entered the armed forces.

The transformation of the doctrine of nonresistance was practically completed in 1948 when the Conference ruled that the church would seek to maintain fellowship with all who sincerely follow the guidance of their consciences.

Official denominational statements gradually shifted the church toward a more secular and even militant pacifism. Author Donald Fitzkee describes this shift: “While statements prior to World War I had primarily urged nonparticipation, during the world wars, church position papers increasingly advocated positive peacemaking efforts. Official statements during the Vietnam era took the Brethren one step further: Not only were Brethren to promote peace; increasingly the church called on its members to actively oppose war in Vietnam.”

Nonresistance and Pacifism Contrasted

Today, organizations such as On Earth Peace Assembly, Peace Studies at Manchester College, Brethren Colleges Abroad, and Christian Citizenship Seminar seek to promote the “peace position” of the church and strengthen the “social justice witness.” Despite new efforts at promoting a peace witness, most Brethren (nearly two-thirds) would either enter regular military service or noncombatant military service if faced with a draft. Only one-third would maintain the historical Brethren premise that it is wrong to help in any war by fighting. Arguably, a complete transformation had taken place, and the differences between biblical nonresistance and today’s secular pacifism stand in stark contrast of one another when compared side by side.

Biblical Nonresistance1. Thinks in terms of individual peace with God, with peace among the nations coming only when men submit to the rule of Christ.2. Sees failure in any attempt to effect a permanent reformation of human nature apart from God’s grace.


3. Refuses to participate in military service because such service conflicts with the new nature received in Christ.

4. Believes his allegiance is to the higher kingdom which forbids his involvement in earthly government.

5. Has a passive interest only in the activities of state and makes no effort to influence international diplomacy.

6. Considers himself a pilgrim and stranger here and gives priority to citizenship in God’s kingdom.

7. Regards war as an inevitable and recurring evil so long as the heart of man is not at peace with God through the blood of His son.

8. Works primarily to bring people in the world into peace with God.

9. Believes in a complete separation of church and state.

10. Sees no way to realize a worldwide friendly society without the work of intervening grace and divine power.

11. Primarily concerned with preaching the Gospel which is the ‘power of God unto salvation’, and with spreading the teachings of Christ.

12. Works for spiritual regeneration in the life of the individual through the new birth, and for the establishment of a Christian society within the church.

Secular Pacifism1. Thinks in terms of effecting peace among the nations.2. Has confidence in an evolutionary process of mankind through human achievement.
3. Opposes war because it conflicts with its ideology.


4. The ideal of a political order embracing international law and order requires participation in political activities.

5. Has an active interest in administering the affairs of the state motivated by the desire to influence policies.

6. Considers itself responsible for working for a just world order.

7. Urges disarmament as a step toward abolition of war.

8. Works directly for international peace.

9. Promotes legislation to accomplish ends.

10. Hopes to achieve ends through education and legislation.

11. Concerned with the use of various types of propaganda to accomplish its purposes.

12. Often ignores the necessity of regeneration and works for the reconstruction of society through social reform.

(John Mumma, Vital Differences.)

In short, biblical nonresistance supports separation from the world, while the peace position supports a moral, global community, without regard for the regenerating power of Christ.

While it is true that the Church of the Brethren officially does not require nonresistance as a test for membership, some congregations still have such requirements and expectations of their members. Both the Old Order German Baptists and the Dunkard Brethren still maintain nonresistance as a test of membership.

It is difficult to imagine how such a radical transformation of such a central doctrine of the church could have taken place. Is such an evolution an inevitable response of a church influenced by culture and changing gradually with time? Or did the change take place as a result of snowballing compromises?

Either way, the doctrine has changed and absolute truth has been forgotten. The church cannot expect to maintain a distinctive nonresistant witness–or any witness for that matter–if current trends toward inclusiveness and diversity continue. A group cannot be both diverse in acceptance of all faiths and religious ideas and distinct or dogmatic on one particular issue. The core Brethren doctrine of biblical nonresistance has undergone a considerable transformation.

Every last Brethren ideal that may still exist is in danger of the same fate. It is time for the Brethren to once again “count well the cost” of biblical nonresistance with the tenacity and obedience displayed by those who laid the foundations of our church upon the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. That is where true peace will be found.

Mark A. Ray is pastor of the Leake’s Chapel Church of the Brethren, Luray, Virginia. He was ordained to the ministry in the Blue River Church of the Brethren in the Northern Indiana District.  He served as a missionary in Ireland (2000-2008), and church planter in Florida, and pastor in Ohio and Indiana.