Pacifism and Nonviolence are controversial and sometimes confusing topics. This is compounded by the fact that they mean different things to different people. Not everyone is in agreement as to what they mean as far as concepts, let alone what are their limits and goals.
For some Pacifism is an absolute. They extend this to refusing to eat meat or discipline their children. Others live in fear of harming the smallest of insects which represent Karma-condemned souls in a different stage of reincarnation or perhaps they've become confused about the uniqueness of humanity versus the animal world.
Some believe in a Pacifism that encompasses the political realm and believe that all nations are morally bound to lay down their arms. Others believe in a Pacifism that is personal and individualistic. Some embrace non-violence on the basis of such Pacifism. Others utilise non-violence as a means of political coercion. This latter example is quite common and not a few political figures are associated with it. These 'men of peace' in many ways are in fact quite willing to use the violent power of the state. They use it against itself and once attaining political power have no qualms about using the police and military to accomplish their own goals... even sometimes masquerading as 'humanitarian' concerns.
The Early Church was largely hostile to the military or the notion of Christians holding political office. This belief, reflected in the doctrine and ethics of the New Testament was slowly abandoned in the late 2nd century as we read of Christians appearing in the army. At that point it was still controversial and many Churches would not tolerate their brethren enlisting. By the late 3rd century the Church was becoming more at home with Rome. The Diocletian Persecution would almost certainly have led to a return to the New Testament except all these questions were thrown into doubt and confusion by the conversion of Constantine.
Defenders of Christian military service and government office discount the teaching of the New Testament because of its hostile pagan context and contend the many teachings and examples from the Gospels and Epistles are no longer applicable in the post-Constantinian milieu.
Obviously the vast majority of post-Constantinian 'Christians' embrace forms of violence that they view as legitimate. There are many different criteria and all of them are (in one way or another) mistaken. The seemingly 'orthodox' viewpoint not only undermines New Testament ethics, in the end it is an assault on Scriptural authority itself.
The confusion is compounded as there are many varieties of Christian Pacifism that are in one way or another mixed or blended with some of these aforementioned notions. These too are mostly in error.
We must be clear. The notion of Pacifism as an Absolute or Pacifism taken in an Idealist sense must be rejected. Pacifism must not be 'written into' the doctrine of God. This latter tendency is especially prevalent in Theologically Liberal circles where God is not the Holy Sovereign but is instead a Grandfather-Gandhi-like figure of their own imagination. Or in other cases 'god' is little more than an impersonal force representing some kind of cosmic balance. Of course it must be acknowledged that many if not most theological liberals do not embrace pacifism. In fact some of their chief thinkers (Niebuhr for instance) are hostile to it.
This view (Pacifism within the Godhead) approaches the kind of sharp Old Testament/New Testament dichotomy that must be rejected. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is complicated and one of the major doctrinal concerns of both the New Testament and the whole of Church History. It's safe to say that most have answered and even framed the question wrongly. There have always been tendencies (and temptations) to Judaize and over-emphasize formal continuity and from time to time there have arisen groups that dangerously overplay the dichotomy or discontinuity. Dispensationalists, Theological Liberals, and Liberal Pacifists tend to fall into this camp. Syncretism has also plagued the Church from the days of the Apostles. Many have wed Biblical doctrine to philosophy and/or culture. Its prevalence is in no way diminished in our own day and in fact this syncretism reigns supreme in many Churches professing to follow Scripture.
Regarding the Christian view of the Old Testament, there's a tension at work that can be fleshed out through careful study of the New Covenant. It is the Apostles who show us the way, who teach us how to read and understand the Old Testament. The New Covenant supersedes the Old and while there is a profound change in form and context, the substance (Christ) always remains the same. This is the starting point for all discussions of doctrine including this one.
Christian Pacifism is a New Testament teaching and yet most manifestations claiming that label fall far short of it. And when cast in an improper form and context these 'false pacifisms' can indeed represent serious error. In terms of temporality they are in one sense to be commended to the degree they're not championing war and in some cases murder, as the historical Constantinian Church has been all too eager to do. This 'Constantinian' label would include both the Greek and Latin entities as well as the proponents and descendants of Magisterial Protestantism. The latter would include both Confessionalists Churches as well as modern Evangelicals.
As a quick aside I hope to explore in another piece... it has almost been forgotten that at one time many Fundamentalists largely embraced a Pacifist position. Sadly that legacy has been lost, both in terms of memory and doctrine.
In other words it must be admitted the non-pacifist view is the 'majority' position vis-à-vis Church History. But given that the New Testament (built on the examples of the Old) anticipates large-scale world-affirming apostasy, this sad reality is hardly surprising, if not to be expected.
Though they're rightly not celebrating the spilling of blood, many Christian Pacifists introduce distortions within the doctrine of God that ultimately work themselves out in a destruction of Biblical Christology. Christ is the Prince of Peace but not the Holy Judge. The Herem or Divinely sanctioned Holy War of the Old Testament becomes so offensive that many fall into blasphemy when dealing with it. For some, Eternal Punishment is transformed from being righteous judgment to a monstrous denial of the Pacifist principle.
Many Traditionalists (embracers of the Constantinian heritage) rightly condemn these syncretic forms of Christian Pacifism. By rejecting as it were 'half' of Christ's nature and person they have but half a gospel... in another words, no gospel at all.
And yet many pro-war and violence Constantinians even while defending Christological orthodoxy have actually devoted their lives to evil service, murder, lies and theft. They do these things wearing uniforms, wrapping themselves in flags and deceived by empty words. They justify their deeds by hiding behind man-made institutions. Knowing nothing of Christ and His Kingdom they too make shipwreck of the faith. They are known by their fruits.
Genuine Christian Pacifism as taught in the New Testament is something quite different. Again it is not absolute or universal vis-à-vis This Age. It is contextual. It is eschatological, an ethic of Heaven which we as citizens of that Kingdom live out in This Age to the glory of God. It is covenantal, an ethic only properly understood by those who possess Heavenly citizenship.
We, like our Lord are called to be slaughtered sheep. This does not mean that all of us will feel the whip or face the executioner. But all who live godly (in whatever culture) will suffer to some extent. Is Paul to be taken seriously or are his words only for a pre-Constantinian audience? The suffering may be in the form of disadvantage, second-class citizenship and poverty accompanied by ridicule and scorn. Genuine Christians have particularly suffered in the context of 'Christendom' within the so-called Christian State. By definition false, and warned against in the New Testament, all so-called Christian states are necessarily heretical and thus faithful Christians will undoubtedly suffer under their rule... at the very least in terms of Spiritual suffering. The persecution, while at times extreme, during other eras can all but disappear. But with that comes the danger of seduction. The latter has largely been the story of the Enlightenment/Christian syncretism represented within the United States and its culture.
Though there is suffering here too... for the faithful. Perhaps those who have flourished need to revisit these questions.
The Peace Ethic we live by is rooted in Heaven... the realm that knows no sin. Our union with Christ allows us (through the Spirit) to experience that now. We have a foretaste and through the Spirit we begin to desire and live out that ethic and reality even though in This Age and in this sin-corrupted flesh we are doomed to fail... and the world will eagerly use violence against us.
Failure does not mean that we are therefore justified to embrace the inverse. The Heavenly Peace Ethic is rooted in Spirit-life and indwelling. It is in that sense individualistic and redemptive. It is part of the antithesis we experience vis-à-vis the world. Once again it is covenantal and this is essential in understanding the next question.
Is the Pacifist Ethic binding on the unbeliever? The unbeliever is called to turn away from sin and embrace Christ through faith. Until that bridge is crossed, there is a vast chasm between us and them. We live in and by the Kingdom of Heaven. They live in and by the world. The commandments of God are foolishness to them. That's not to say that they're just something 'silly'. No, according to Romans 8, they're literally incomprehensible. Without a heavenly context with which to place such concepts, the Kingdom Ethic is to them not only insane but immoral and anti-social. They will hate us as we're told. They will call us evildoers. They will consider us to be the immoral ones because we're not 'contributing' to the Babel they would build. This is also true of the disciples of Constantine, the apostates building Babel with a cross on top.
So be it. Trying to impose Christian ethics upon the unbeliever can only be described as folly and in reality harms the testimony of the Gospel in producing a pseudo-righteousness. One need only listen to many presidential speeches to discern how unbelievers can utterly twist Scriptural phrases and concepts. For that matter one need only attend the average Evangelical church to hear much of the same.
Lost, they make shipwreck of the meaning of Scripture and fall into blasphemy, usually applying the Spirit-redemptive work of Christ to their labours and wars as a nation... waged in the name of and for the purposes of peace.
These are lies, straight from the pit.
Men will proclaim their affection for the Sermon on the Mount, but only as a wistful ideal. No one believes it to be an ethic that can govern society. And indeed, it cannot. That's not what it's for. Unbelievers can neither follow it nor understand it. It's really that simple. The idea of legislating it is absurd. It is the ethic of Heaven, for those born from above and led by the Spirit.
So does that mean the state is off the hook? No, the unbelievers will answer for their unbelief and their wicked deeds. God will judge them as Paul says. In terms of Providence they serve a purpose. They are unwitting agents, servants and ministers of God's Restraining Hand. They don't exercise power and vengeance to glorify God. In fact they cannot and this is true on several levels. That's not what the state is for. It is as Paul teaches a means of restraint, a means of keeping the world from descending into chaos, so that the Gospel can go forth. We can be thankful (on one level) for the state but that's a far cry from venerating it, let alone signing on to its mission. It's not for us. Paul is drawing a sharp contrast between the Christian in Romans 12 with the sword bearing vengeance machine that is the state. The 'good' the state defends and promotes is not covenantal. It is a fallen and imperfect 'good'. It is a self-righteous good.
It is a 'minister' in the same sense that Pagan Rome was (the context of the Epistle to the Romans) or Assyria, Persia or Babylon in the Old Testament. Assyria was God's servant-axe, Cyrus was on the one hand a head crowning a Beast-power, and on the other hand he was (in Providential and prophetic terms) a deliverer-king, a quasi-messianic figure who metaphorically provided the political basis for the Covenant People returning to the Edenic Promised Land.
And yet it must be understood, especially with Cyrus, that the illustration breaks down, because like Solomon the earthly picture was incomplete and a failure. It was only a shadow hinting at the Christocentric Reality that was to later appear.
We are called to follow the laws, pay our taxes and live godly lives. The state will (ideally) leave us alone which is what we desire. Paul makes this clear in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Thessalonians 4. Peter also reflects this in 1 Peter 2.
Pacifism could be described as part of our calling to be in Christ and to come out from this world. We live as strangers and pilgrims. In abandoning vengeance in the light of grace, our faith is in God's Providence and the final judgment. God's vengeance will fall on the earth. We don't believe that because God is described as love or that Jesus being the Prince of Peace necessitates or results in Divine Nonviolence. Man seeks his own prestige and power. Violence rooted in covetousness and pride.
God's violence (as it were) is holy and just and for a right motive. Love and peace can only exist in the realm of righteousness and holiness.
Those that hear the command to take up the sword in Luke 22 have misunderstood Christ's words. We are not called to take up the sword but to take up the cross.