The Principle of Nonresistance

by John Horsch


The Christian Church in general has in all ages of its history recognized the fact that our Lord taught the principle of nonresistance, and yet, excepting the earliest Christian centuries, the great majority of Christian professors have always found a way to circumvent the practical requirements of this principle. The Roman Catholic Church has always held that Christ taught nonresistance, not however as a commandment but as an advice; hence, according to the doctrine of this church, those engaging in war do not transgress a divine command and do not become guilty of sin. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, defended a peculiar view on this question, a view which is even today held by many Protestant theologians. He taught that a Christian is to be strictly nonresistant and that no one can as a Christian have a part in violence and bloodshed, be it in self-defense or in war. No one can do so as a Christian. But a Christian, he says, is also a "world person," or a citizen, and as such he is under duty to use violence in the service of the government, as a magistrate, officer, or soldier. when in such capacity he acts contrary to the precept and example of Christ, it is not a sin to him but is his duty. He does this as a citizen, not as a Christian. Luther divided the Christian into two personalities, the duty of the one being the opposite to that of the other.[1] The fact will bear repetition that he in theory defended the principle of strict nonresistance of the Christian. He also emphatically agreed with the Mennonites in the opinion that civil government using force would not be necessary if all men were true Christians.[2]

Nonresistance Pre-Eminently a New Testament Doctrine

Many fundamental Christians, outside the so-called peace churches, believe that the Old Testament commands, except the ceremonial law, are binding for the Christian Church, the same as the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In plain fact, however, there are many portions of the Mosaic law, besides those containing the ceremonial law, that are not binding in the New Covenant. It is noteworthy that Herbert Booth, the author of the book, "The Saint and the Sword," which is the most thoroughgoing defense of the principle of nonresistance from the Bible viewpoint, is not a member of one of the so-called peace churches.

Our Lord, after quoting literally from the Old Testament law: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21), goes on to say: 'But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil. . . . Love your enemies," etc. (Matt. 5:38-48). On such points as war, the oath, and divorce, Christ's teaching is at variance with the Old Testament law. He is pre-eminently the Lord and Lawgiver, as well as the Saviour of men. In the light of His teaching, the law of the Old Covenant is not faultless. Heb. 8:7. War, being contrary to His teaching, is sin.

It has been supposed by various writers that Jesus in the words, "I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34), spoke of the material sword and declared Himself against the principle of nonresistance. The supposition, however, that He came into the world to send the material sword is simply contrary to fact. He did not come for any such purpose. That He should have made a statement to that effect is unthinkable and impossible. If the purpose of His coming had been to send the carnal sword, Christianity would necessarily be a "religion of the sword," somewhat of the order of Mohammedanism, possibly. The parallel reference in Luke (12:51) has "division" (separation) instead of "sword," and this is undoubtedly the meaning, as the context in both Matthew and Luke clearly indicates. The conflict which resulted from Christ's coming into the world is not one that is to be decided by the carnal sword. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (II Cor. 10:4). The conflict with evil is of a spiritual nature, as fully described in Eph. 6:10-18. The sword to be used by the Christian is "the sword of the Spirit."

As an argument against nonresistance, the passage in Luke 22:36 has also been quoted, "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." Opinions may differ as to our Lord's intended purpose in uttering these words. The question which concerns us here is, whether He intended to say that the disciples should make practical use of the material sword. As we may directly see, this was by no means the case. Yet the disciples may have understood Him so. Just a few moments later, when the multitude came on the scene to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples asked, "Lord, shall we smite with the sword?" Peter, without waiting for a reply, drew the sword and injured the high priest's servant, Malchus. Christ, then, while healing the injury Peter had done, addressed him with the solemn words, "Put up . . . thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Peter, as well as the rest of the disciples, evidently took these words of Christ to heart. Apparently none of them ever transgressed again by using the sword for self-defense. Peter, in his first epistle, points out with emphasis that Christ gave us the example of meekness and nonresistance, and that upon His followers devolves the solemn duty to "follow his steps." I Pet. 2:20-23.

Evidently the context of the passage under consideration (Luke 22:36) must be taken into account to understand the meaning of these words. Verse 38 reads, "And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough." Do not the words of Jesus, "It is enough," indicate that the two swords were not to be used by the disciples against their antagonists? Or was it Jesus' thought, as some have supposed, that, since He was about to return to the Father, the disciples needed the material sword for self-defense? Did Jesus mean to indicate that they should use the sword against the persecuting governments? Would they not have proved themselves transgressors by becoming insurrectionists against constituted authority? Or was it His thought that they should use the material sword in defense against their neighbors who would antagonize them? Would not the disciples, by taking in such a way the civil law into their own hands, have become guilty of glaring transgression?

Again, could it be supposed that Jesus meant to say that the disciples should have swords ready to be used against the multitude armed "with swords and staves" which was just then drawing near to take Him? Was it His thought that the disciples should engage in an armed struggle with the multitude? Would in this case two swords have been enough for the eleven disciples? Would eleven disciples, even if they all had swords, have been enough to defend themselves with the sword against the multitude? Would not the disciples, by making Gethsemane the scene of carnal struggle and bloodshed, have made our Lord the head of a band of wrongdoers, if He had permitted it? Think of the defeat which His cause would have suffered, had the disciples made such use of the carnal sword. Such is the absurdity of the opinion that they were to use the two swords for self-defense and that Jesus here taught against peace and nonresistance.

Clearly, Jesus' words, "It is enough," could not have meant that the two swords were "enough" for self-defense, or were to be used for such a purpose. But they were enough to give occasion for an impressive object lesson to the disciples concerning the use of the sword: "Put up . . . thy sword." Besides, the two swords may have had some symbolic significance as is the opinion of various commentators.

It is of interest to note that in recent decades various prominent theological writers in this country and Europe have admitted that war is sin, that it is indeed the most appalling outbreak and manifestation of sin in the world. And yet they do not disapprove of military service. It is a distinctive principle of Mennonitism that there never can be an excuse for sin.

If participation in warfare were consistent with Christian principles, war could not be so great an evil as it is generally recognized to be. Without question anything one may do that is consistent with true Christianity cannot be an evil. As already stated, the causes of war are ever present among the nations of the world. It is not within the power of the Christian Church to change the nature of the world and to remove the causes of war. The practical and highly important question is, What is the Christian to do in case of war, when he is bidden to have a part in it? It is an easy way out to say, as some do, that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended for this age. Any one reading this sermon carefully must realize that Christ asked His hearers to make it the rule of their lives. And the plain fact remains that war is absolutely and intrinsically contrary to Christian principles. It is the very opposite of what Jesus taught concerning practical Christian duty. If He had never preached the Sermon on the Mount, this would not change the fact of the anti-Christian character of war. The unsophisticated Christian conscience revolts against participation in war.

To say that war is consistent with Christian principles means that the Christian Church of the first three centuries misunderstood Christ's teaching. It is an established historical fact that the early church did not permit participation in war.

Nonresistance of the Early Christians and in Pre-Reformation Times

Until about two generations ago the Mennonite people were a unit in the belief that the Scriptures of the New Testament teach the principle of nonresistance, and that the early Christians accepted and defended this principle. We notice with regret that, with the growth of militarism in certain European countries, the opinion has been advanced, even among Mennonite people, that the church of the first centuries failed to take a decided position against war. This opinion is based principally on the writings of the late Professor Adolf von Harnack of the University of Berlin, Germany. Since this question does not fall under the scope of the present treatise, it must suffice to call attention to the standard work on this subject, namely, the book, "The Early Christian Attitude to War," by Professor C. John Cadoux of Oxford, published in 1919.[3]

It is of particular interest to notice that in a review of this book[4] Professor Harnack stated that it is thoroughly reliable; in fact, he uses the expression that the book is "the last word on this subject." This admission by Professor Harnack is the more remarkable since, as already intimated, he had previously held the contrary opinion. In his book, "Militia Christi," published in 1905, he had attempted to show that the early Christians' attitude in this regard was one of comparative in-difference. The book of Cadoux furnishes conclusive evidence that the Christian Church of the first centuries took a decided position as regards the principle of nonresistance, taking substantially the same attitude toward violence and war as did the early Waldenses, the Mennonites, and other nonresistant Christians. Participation in war as well as suing at law was forbidden.

The Waldenses have just been mentioned as a nonresistant sect. Their history dates back a number of centuries before the time of Martin Luther and Menno Simons. The question has been raised, How is it to be explained that the modern Waldenses (in Italy and America) do not object to military service, while in medieval times the Waldenses held the principle of nonresistance? The answer is that during the Reformation period the Waldenses yielded to influences of one of the leading Protestant churches which defended the rightfulness of a union of church and state and of war. In 1532, after the Waldenses had been in touch with theologians of the Reformed Church for a number of years, they held a synod at Angrogna in Northern Italy in the presence of William Farel and other theologians from Geneva. With the exception of a small minority they repudiated those doctrines and principles in which they differed from the Reformed Church including the rejection of the oath and military service, and accepted the doctrine of predestination.[5] They became a branch of the Reformed Church.

The Peace Testimony of Peter Chelchitzki

Peter Chelchitzki, a farmer of Chelchitz in Bohemia, was born about 1395. Little is known of his life and his religious connections. He was probably connected with one of the Hussite groups, the followers of John Huss who was burned at the stake at Constance, Germany, in 1415. That Chelchitzki was a consistent defender of the principle of nonresistance is evident from a number of his extant books. The following quotations will serve as evidence that about a century before the rise of the Mennonite Church there were, even outside of the Waldensian Church, those who maintained a strong and consistent testimony against violence and war. Chelchitzki says:

    Worldly rulers have contentions for the sake of material wealth and worldly honor. Let some one threaten their sovereignty, and at once they engage in war. They seize the men and bring them together like a herd and drive them into the conflict where those on the one side kill and rob those on the other. . . And the worst is that they undertake to compel Christians to engage in such conflicts, for on both sides there may be a few who cannot with a good, clear conscience kill and rob others. Yea, brother goes against brother to harm him, when according to the Christian faith he should be ready to die for him. Compelled by self-seeking authorities he goes out to kill and rob his brother, and does not have the conviction and the love to follow the Lord unto death rather than become guilty of such evil deeds.

    The one party is praying for their armies and the other party for theirs that they may he victorious. Each party prays for victory against the other. And both are named Christians though each one is wishing well only to his own party. The Christians on both sides engage wrongfully in the bloody strife and pray that they may be victorious over the other side. Whom, now, will God hear? Since on both sides there are Christians, they combat unlawfully with each other and theirs is not a prayer of faith. God does not hear them. The faith of these Christians is as if tom to shreds and their prayer is powerless since it is aimed at shedding the blood of brethren. And if those with whom they are engaged in such conflict are not brothers, they may be enemies and God has commanded to pray for such and to do them good.

    The whole rabble of these divided multitudes are called Christians and together they pray: Our Father which art in heaven. They approach God in this way while each party has in mind the destruction of the other. They think they are serving God by shedding others' blood. And on both sides they say: Forgive us as we forgive. And every party seeks to increase its military force and never thinks of forgiving the other so long as they can hope to overcome them. Therefore their prayers are blasphemies against God.[6]

The Original Position of the Earliest Protestant Leaders on the Principle of Nonresistance

It is interesting to notice that both Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (the founder of the Reformed Church), in the earliest period of their labors as reformers, were advocates of the principle of nonresistance. This was the period before they consented to the compromise of a union of the church with the state, or in other words to the establishment of all-inclusive state churches.

Luther, in the year 1520, wrote to his opponent, Dr. Johann Eck: "You say that I would give room to the peace-breakers and murderers, because I have taught that a Christian should abstain from violence and should not fight to recover his belongings of which he was robbed. Why do you not rebuke Christ who has taught this?" Again, in his booklet, "Why the Pope's Books Have Been Burned," written in the same year, Luther gives many reasons for committing these books to the flames. His twenty-fourth reason is, "Because the pope teaches that it is right for a Christian to meet violence by violence, contrary to Christ's teaching who says, 'Whoever will take thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.'"

Ulrich Zwingli also, in the first period of his reformatory labors, taught the principle of nonresistance. One of the editors of Zwingli's Complete Works, Professor Walter Koehler of Heidelberg University, concedes that Zwingli was in that period a pacifist. Zwingli wrote in 1522: "Considered from the Christian point of view it is by no means right to have a part in war. According to Christ's teaching we should pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us, and if an aggressor smite us on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Again, in one of his largest books, published in 1523, Zwingli says: "Christ commands that we should not go to law nor engage in carnal strife, but if one take away our coat, let him have our cloke also, and He has taught this by His own example as well. He also forbids all oaths." How radical was the change in Zwingli's attitude toward war in a later period. He personally took part in war, and died on the bafflefield of Kappel in 1531.

Johannes Oekolampad, the Zwinglian reformer of Basel, who, like Zwingli, in a later period renounced pacifism, wrote in 1524:

    How can a Christian approve of lawsuits and war? The approval of war among Christians is a doctrine of devils. Christians abhor hatred and war. Or show me a war that is waged in love! .. . What shall we say about those whose lifework consists of shedding blood? We are bidden to give our life for the brethren, and to consider even our enemies as brothers. But we go to war and wound and kill those whom we have never known, yea, who may have done us some good service. How is it that there are so many who make less of taking the life of a man than of killing a goose!

The Beginnings of the Mennonite Church

The first Mennonite congregation was organized in January, 1525, in or near the city of Zurich in Switzerland, by Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and others. They were known as the Swiss Brethren, and spread within less than a decade over Switzerland, South Germany, and Austria. By their opponents they were called Anabaptists (re-baptizers), because they disowned the validity of infant baptism. Menno Simons' conversion and baptism took place in January, 1536, near Leeuwarden, Holland. The brethren in the Netherlands, with whom Menno united, at that time were known as Obbenites, since Obbe Philips was their organizer and recognized leader. Between them and the Swiss Brethren there was substantial unity in faith and practice. In the course of time they both adopted the name "Mennonites." The Hutterian Brethren, whose first organization dated from the year 1528, differed from the Mennonites by owning their property in common.

There were various other sects and groups which were called Anabaptists. In fact, all who disowned infant baptism and baptized only those who were instructed and believed, were given this name. The differences between some of these sects and the Mennonites were fundamental indeed. In certain in-stances these differences were as great as are the contrast between the Mennonites and the Mormons of our day, who also practice adult baptism. The Muensterite Anabaptists, for example, were revolutionists and rank fanatics. Among all the sects called Anabaptists the Swiss Brethren were the first or oldest; all others were of later origin. When we speak of "our Anabaptist forefathers," as some do, we should therefore not lose sight of the fact that the Mennonites did not descend from any other Anabaptist sect.

The Testimony of the Swiss Brethren

The earliest testimony against war by a leader of the Swiss Brethren is that of Andreas Castelberger of Zurich, Switzerland, dating from the year 1523, about two years before the first congregation of the Swiss Brethren was organized by Castelberger and others. Castelberger had held meetings for Bible study which were attended by Lorenz Hochruetiner and others who later united with the Swiss Brethren. Hochruefiner, when asked what Castelberger had taught in these meetings, replied that he among other things "had said a great deal against war and had showed that the evangelical doctrine is radically opposed to it."[7]

Another important testimony to the point was given in September, 1524, by Conrad Grebel, the principal founder of the Swiss Brethren Church, in a letter to Thomas Muenzer who had taken the sword in the interest of the cause which he represented. Grebel wrote:

    The Gospel and those who accept it are not to be protected with the sword, neither should they thus protect themselves. . . . True, believing Christians are as sheep in the midst of wolves. . . . They must be baptized in anxiety and trouble, tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death. They must be tried in the fire and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by overcoming bodily enemies with the sword, hut by overcoming spiritual foes. They use neither the worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely, for we are no longer under the Old Covenant.[8]

Felix Manz, one of the most influential leaders of the early Swiss Brethren, said: "No Christian smites with the sword nor resists evil." [9] In the death sentence pronounced over him on January 5, 1527, it was charged that Manz held that no Christian can carry out the death sentence on any person, nor put to death any one.[10]

The attitude of the evangelical Anabaptists as concerns this question was set forth by Hans Schlaffer who suffered martyrdom on February 4, 1528, at Schwaz in the Tyrol. In his last confession he replied to questions regarding their principles, and in particular whether he knew of any one who was to be their leader in an uproar against the government. He said:

    Our faith, life, and baptism is founded on nothing else than the commandment of Christ, and all the days of my life has no uproar or sedition come into my heart. Yes, I have fled from a house whose inhabitants lived in discord. There is no plot or other intention among us except to amend our lives and to abstain from the vicious, unrighteous life of the world. Not the least among our doctrines is that which enjoins subjection and obedience to the government in all that is good. I know of no other leader or beginner of my faith than Jesus Christ, the Son of God alone.

George Blaurock, who was burned at the stake on September 6, 1529, wrote in a hymn: "I pray thee, Lord, from my whole heart to forgive all our enemies and do not account unto them their transgressions."

The first confession of faith of the Swiss Brethren is the Schlatten Confession drawn up by Michael Sattler and adopted by a conference held at Schlatten in southern Baden near Schaffhausen, February 24, 1527. Sattler was, after the death of Grebel and Manz, the most prominent leader of the Swiss Brethren. He died a martyr, being burned at the stake on May 21, 1527, at Rottenburg on the Neckar. On the question of peace and nonresistance this confession contains the following articles :[11]

    Jesus Christ has made us free from the servitude of the flesh and meet for the service of God through the spirit which He has given us. Therefore we shall surely lay down the unchristian, yea satanic weapons of force, such as sword, armor and the like, together with all their use, whether for the protection of friends or against personal enemies; and this in the strength of the words of Christ, "I say unto you that ye resist not evil."

    The government using the sword to punish and put to death the wrongdoers and to guard and protect the good is an appointment of God outside the perfection of Christ. In the law of the Old Covenant the sword is ordained against wrongdoers for punishment and death, and to exercise it the worldly governments are appointed.

    In the perfection of Christ, however, church discipline alone is used for the correction and exclusion of those who have sinned, not indeed for the destruction of the flesh but as an admonition and injunction to sin no more.

    Here it is asked by many who do not know Christ's will toward us whether a Christian may or should use the sword against wrong-doers for protecting or defending the good, or for love's sake. Our unanimous answer is: Christ teaches and commands that we should learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly in heart and we shall find rest to our souls. Now Christ did not say concerning the woman taken in adultery that she should be stoned to death according to the law of His Father, and yet He says: "I do nothing of myself hut as my Father has taught me." He spoke to her words of mercy and forgiveness and admonition to sin no more. In such a way we also should act, according to the rule of church discipline.

The Schlatten Confession and nearly all other Mennonite confessions contain articles on the question whether a Christian may be a magistrate, or an executive of the civil government.

A confession written in June, 1527, by a minister of the Swiss Brethren, named Carlin, who was imprisoned for his faith in Basel, has the following article:

    That the government is ordained of God and that the power is given of God, is stated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13. Besides, Christ said that the power of Pilate was of God (John 19:11). But according to the command of the Father (Matt. 17:5) we should hear Christ, the Son of God, alone. Since, now, Christ fled when He was to be chosen king, also He did not pass sentence upon the adulterous woman, and would not judge between two men in matters pertaining to earthly possessions (Luke12:14), and His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36); moreover nowhere in Scripture is the government said to be of a Christian nature and it is not the Christians' province to judge those that are without (I Cor. 5:12, 13), but Christians should use church discipline alone; therefore, according to Christ's example it is not in place for a Christian to be a magistrate, but he should avoid all that is doubtful and shun the office of the magistracy. But this does not say that the government should be abolished.[12]

The following is taken from a sermon preached by Hans Marquardt, a minister of the Swiss Brethren, at St. Gall, Switzerland, in 1528.

    We confess that civil government is necessary and is a divine appointment and that the use of the sword by the government is good and necessary, and we say with Paul, Rom. 13, that every man should be subject and obedient to the higher power, not only to a mild and peaceful but also to a tyrannical government, for the reason that there is no power but of God. Therefore all believers, under whatever government they may live, will not complain of heavy burdens, nor will they resist the government or cause trouble or uproar on account of what they may be called upon to hear. In matters of their faith, however, the believers are responsible to God alone to whom they owe greater obedience than to man. Therefore all our brethren esteem their faith in God through Christ Jesus, our Saviour, as the highest, greatest and most valuable thing, and of this we do not suffer ourselves to be robbed even if our life is at stake. But in matters which do not concern faith and conscience and do not conflict with our duty to God, we are ready to obey the civil government in anything that may be asked of us. And if the government, contrary to justice and right, confiscates our property and reduces us to poverty, we bear and suffer it, since it is impossible for us to escape such oppression without transgression and disturbance.

    But that the Christian should be an executive of the government, or a magistrate, we do not admit. Christ says, Luke 22, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But among you it shall not be so, but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve." Here the believers are forbidden the execution of government by force. And the fact that under the Old Covenant God has permitted His people the use of the sword does not concern or bind us, for the old law has been replaced by the new commandment of Christ that we should love our enemies. . . . The believer is not to be an earthly ruler, or to use violence, or go to war, or use the sword.[13]

In the discussions held in Zofingen, in the Canton Bern, Switzerland, in July, 1532, the spokesmen of the Swiss Brethren said:

    In Matthew, chapter 5, Christ forbids the believers all use of force. He says that rather than go to law they should permit others to defraud them, they should not strive with any one and should give the cloak to him who takes away their coat. The civil government was ordained of God to punish the evildoers and protect the good. . . . We believe the civil government should be separate from the church of Christ and not be established in it. Whatever we owe to the government: interest, tithes, taxes and customs, we give willingly and obediently. We obey the government in everything that may be asked of us that is not contrary to the will of God.[14]

In March of the year 1538 an eight days' discussion was held in the city of Bern. Here the representatives of the Brethren said:

    Christ, in teaching the principle of nonresistance, does not desire to abolish the civil government. He recognizes the rightfulness of the government, but teaches that it should be outside the Christian Church. This is our position on this question. . . . On this point the Gospel differs from the Mosaic law.[15]

Heinrich Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli as the head of the state church of the Canton Zurich, wrote two books against the Swiss Brethren which were published in 1531 and 1560. He states that the Brethren considered war "the greatest evil conceivable."[16] Further he says:

    They believe that Christians should stand ready to suffer (rather than strike back). No Christian may be ruler. The government should not undertake to regulate matters of faith and religious practice. Christians do not resist violence and do not take recourse to law. They do not use the law courts. Christians do not kill. The punishment used by them is not imprisonment and the sword but only church discipline. They do not defend themselves, therefore they do not go to war and are not obedient to the government on this point.[17]

Appended to Bullinger's second work just mentioned is a booklet written by spokesmen of the Swiss Brethren giving their reasons why they did not make common cause with the state church. The following citation is taken from this booklet:

    The theologians of the established church have in the first period of their reformatory labors advocated the Christian, evangelical opinion that Christians should not protect themselves, or their evangelical doctrine, by worldly, carnal force, sword, weapons or resistance, nor defend themselves in this way against their adversaries and opponents, but should use only the Word of God as the sword of the Spirit and other weapons which are mentioned in Ephesians, chapter 6; and that they should not avenge themselves, not resist evil; the worldly, Mosaic sword should not be found among them; they should not seek justice before a court of law on account of our earthly possessions or honor, but should be willing to suffer and bear the cross, if they would be Christians. And this, their former doctrine, is clearly founded on the New Testament Scriptures.[18]

Pilgram Marpeck (1495?-1556), who after Michael Sattler's death was the most prominent minister of the Swiss Brethren Church, wrote:

    To say that those of the Old Covenant were Christians . . . . though the earthly, Mosaic sword was used among them, is equivalent to saying that such use of the worldly sword is permitted in the church of Christ today. Through which the true spiritual order, the sword, discipline, ban, power and government of the Holy Spirit, of the true Church of Christ and the spiritual priests, would be broken up and annulled. And through such confusion (vermischung) of the two priesthoods and other things of the Old and New Testaments nothing follows but the introduction of a desolation and wasting of the holy city. Dan. 9, Matt. 24, etc.--Today [there is] another King, another Kingdom, another priesthood, another law, which is not a carnal law of ruling, or worldly, earthly judicial procedures as that of yesterday, but a spiritual, and a law or commandment of the Spirit,--love and patience, which God "yesterday" promised and "today" for the first time wrote in the hearts, and the Man Christ commanded His priests who were appointed today [in the New Covenant]. Also that they should love all people, not merely their friends or dear ones, but also their enemies, and not to resist evil, as is clearly shown in Matt. 5, Luke 6 and Rom. 12. Also that one should not use carnal weapons against another; nor they against their enemies. Isa. 2, Micah 4, Matt. 5. All bodily, worldly, carnal earthly fighting, conflicts and wars are annulled and abolished among them through such law. Psalms 4, 5, Hos. 2: Which law of love, Christ . . . then, as the present High Priest, Himself observed and thereby gave His followers a pattern to follow after. In contrast, the worldly government is not one which shows mercy, but is a revenger (Rom. 13), as the one breaking the law of Moses died without mercy (Heb. 10). And this law today outside of Christ stands unannulled by Christ for vengeance and discipline over the wicked.[19]

In the discussions held at Frankenthal in the Palatinate from May 28 to June 19 of the year 1511, between representatives of the Swiss Brethren and the Reformed state church, the spokesmen of the Brethren said:

    We agree with you in the opinion that a Christian should not revenge himself, but Christ teaches (Matt. 5) that even if we have been wronged, we should not cause the government to use violence against any one for our sake. Our thought is not that the office of the magistrate should not be recognized, yet we would not by our going to law be the cause that vengeance is exercised by the government against the transgressor.

    You say that a Christian could be a magistrate and punish wrong-doers with the sword. We cannot accept this without proof from Christ and the apostles.

    We confess that the magistracy, according to Paul's teaching (Rom. 13) is ordained of God. But that a Christian may serve in such an office to exercise vengeance by the sword, for such teaching we demand scriptural evidence.

    All believers are pointed to the example of Christ. His apostles have neither engaged in war nor used the sword for punishment but have manifested love toward enemies as well as friends.

    You say that the peace of Christ should be within the heart of the believer but that he could nevertheless engage in war if he is asked to do so. We do not find an apostolic example that would show. [20]

In 1589 the Swiss Brethren of the Canton Zurich in a "Supplication" addressed to the authorities, said:

    It is the business of the government to protect the good and, by the use of force, to punish the evil according to their transgressions. Therefore to be a magistrate using the sword and to be a Christian are two things which do not agree. We recognize the government as a necessary institution. . . . But we do not believe that the civil authority should be within the church of God.[21]

The Testimony of the Hutterian Brethren

Jacob Hutter, after whom the Hutterian Brethren were named, wrote in a letter to the Moravian authorities, in 1535, when the congregation under his care had been driven from their dwellings by a detachment of soldiers upon the command of the authorities:

    At the present time we find ourselves on the wide, wide heath; if God will, without disadvantage to any one. We will not do a wrong or an injury to any man, yea, not to our greatest enemy, neither to Ferdinandus (King of Austria) nor any one else, great or small. All our actions and conduct, word and work, life and walk, are open; there is no secret about it all. Rather than knowingly to rob a man of a penny we would willingly give up a hundred guilders. And before we would give our greatest enemy a blow with the hand, to say nothing of spear, sword or halberd as is the manner of the world, we would be willing to lose our lives.

As every one sees and knows, we have no weapons of defense, such as spears or guns. In short, in our preaching and speaking and our whole walk of life our object is to live in peace and unity according to the truth and will of God, as the true followers of Christ.[22]

Jacob Hutter was, after terrible tortures, burned at the stake in 1536, at Innspruck.

The confession of faith of the Hutterian Brethren, written by Peter Riedemann, contains articles on the point of nonresistance and war. The exact time when this confession was written is unknown. It is supposed that the first edition was printed in 1545. Following are pertinent quotations from this confession.[23]

    ON WAR

    Christ, the Prince of peace, has established His kingdom, that is His church, and has purchased it by His blood. In this kingdom all worldly warfare has ended. (Luke 2:14; Eph. 5:1, 2; Isa. 11:6-9; Micah 4: 3) --Therefore a Christian has no part in war nor does he wield the sword to execute vengeance, as also Paul exhorts and says: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Dent. 32:35; Rom. 12:19-21). Since vengeance is the Lord's and not ours, it should be committed to Him and is not to be exercised by us. Being followers of Christ we must manifest His nature who, though He had all power over His enemies, did not recompense evil for evil (I Pet. 2:21-23). He did not use His power against His enemies nor did He permit others to defend Him. He said to Peter: "Put up thy sword" (Matt. 26:52; John 18:10, 11). Here is seen with what sort of a mighty army our King met His enemies and in what manner He slays His adversaries and executes vengeance. He heals the high priest's servant's ear which Peter had cut off. Now He who has done this says: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:32; Luke 9:23).

    Christ wills that we should do as He has done, hence He commands us and says: "But I say unto you that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). This shows clearly that we should not avenge ourselves nor engage in war.

    But if it be said that David who was loved of God, and other saints, have waged war, therefore it is right now, if there be occasion or authorization for it; our answer is: No. That we should not do such things, although David and other saints engaged in them, is clear from the above quoted words of Christ: "Resist not evil," though "to them of old time it was said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Matt. 5:38). Here Christ Himself points out the difference, therefore there is no need of using many words. Christ's words indicate that a Christian must not go to war nor use vengeance. But he who notwithstanding does these things has denied Christ's nature and forsaken His ways.


    Since, as said above, Christians should make their swords into useful tools, or lay them down, they can much less make swords, for such weapons serve for nothing but to kill, for the wounding and destruction of men; and Christ came not to destroy men, therefore He rebuked His disciples and said: "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of" (Luke 9:55). As if to say: Does the spirit of grace teach you to destroy others, and would you act in a carnal way? (Gal. 8:3). If you would be my disciples, you must be led by my Spirit and not walk after the flesh; "for they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8).

    Now, since Christians should not use or exercise vengeance, they must not make the weapons by which such vengeance and destruction may be exercised, lest they make themselves partakers of others' sins. Therefore we make neither swords, spears, guns nor other similar weapons. But whatever is made in the interest and for the daily use of men, such as bread knives, axes, hoes, and the like, we may consistently make and do make. But if someone would say that it is possible even with such tools to injure or kill a man, our reply is that these things are not made for such purposes; therefore we are free to make them. But if some one would use these tools to any one's injury, this is not our responsibility; let him answer for his own deeds.


    Since, as said above, all that is temporal is foreign to us and is not our own (Luke 16:11, 12), therefore a Christian cannot quarrel or dispute or go to law about it but, as one who has turned away his heart from the world and directed it to the heavenlies, he is minded rather to suffer wrong, as also Paul says, I Cor. 6:7: "There is clearly a fault among you to go to law one with another. Why do you not rather take wrong? Why do you not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?"


In Moravia it was in the year 1579 that for the first time a sum of money was demanded from the Hutterian Brethren as a war tax. In accord with their principle of nonresistance and their Confession of Faith which forbids paying war taxes, they refused to give it. The authorities in consequence seized some of their property, such as horses, cattle, and sheep, to cover the amount demanded as war taxes. "We suffer the spoiling of our goods" (Heb. 10:34), wrote a chronicler of the Brethren, "rather than do that which would be a stain and burden on our consciences." Confiscation of property for this purpose was repeated in 1584, and again in 1589. Beginning with the year 1596 property to cover the demanded war taxes was for a long period taken annually by the authorities from the Brethren.

The Testimony of the Dutch Mennonites

The martyr Jan Claes, who had printed and distributed a number of Menno Simons' books, and was executed in 1544 at Amsterdam, wrote:

    Christ and those who are His own were in the beginning put to death. In this you may know who are His own. Not those who boast of His name and defend their own cause with the sword, but those who live after the example of the Lord and prove their cause by the divine Word. They are the true witnesses.[24]

Adrian Cornelis, who suffered martyrdom at Leyden, in 1551, wrote:

    Woe to you who shed the innocent blood of those who have no desire to defend themselves with material or carual weapons but only with God's Word. This is our sword, and it is two-edged and sharp.[25]

The martyr Jan Geritz, who was burned at the stake in 1566 at The Hague, wrote:

    See, my good friends, here is the weapon and sword of my faith, with this and none other. Not with the sword or spear of iron and steel, I would attack the kingdom of antichrist. I say with the Apostle that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty before God.[26]

Jan Pauw, deacon of the first Evangelical Anabaptist congregation at Amsterdam, wrote that he would not with material weapons protect himself in the persecution.

Menno Simons' writings contain many expressions on nonresistance. Following are a few selections:

    The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war. They render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. Their sword is the sword of the Spirit which they wield with a good conscience through the Holy Ghost. (Part II, p. 170b).[27]

    Since we are to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), how can we then fight our enemies with the sword? Does not the apostle Peter say: "For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow his steps; who did no sin neither was guile found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, reviled not again" etc. (I Pet. 2:21-23; Matt. 16:24). (Part II, p. 435b).

    Again, our fortress is Christ, our defense is patience, our sword is the word of God, and our victory is the sincere, firm, unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ. Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine's blood of well-nigh equal value. He that is wise, let him judge what I mean. (Part I, p. 81b).

    I am well aware that the tyrants who boast themselves Christians attempt to justify their horrible wars and shedding of blood, and would present it as a good work by referring us to Moses, Joshua, etc. But they do not reflect that Moses and his successors, with their iron sword, have served out their time and that Jesus Christ has now given us a new commandment and has girded our loins with another sword. . . . The defenders of war and bloodshed do not consider that they use the sword of war contrary to all evangelical Scripture against their own brethren, namely those of like faith with them who have received the same baptism and have broken the same bread with them and are thus members of the same body. (Part I, p.198).

    My dear reader, if the poor, ignorant world with an honest heart accepted this our hated and despised doctrine, which is not of us but of Christ, and faithfully obeyed it, they could well change their deadly swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, level their gates and walls, dismiss their executioners and henchmen. For all who accept our doctrine in its power, will by God's grace not have any ill will to any one upon earth, and not against their most bitter enemies, much less wrong and harm them by deeds and actions; for they are children of the Most High who from their hearts love that which is good and in their weakness avoid that which is evil; nay, hate it and are inimical thereto. (II:103a).

    O man! man! look upon the irrational creatures and learn wisdom. All roaring lions, all frightful bears, all devouring wolves, live in peace among themselves with their own species. But you, poor, helpless creatures, created in God's own image and called rational beings, are born without teeth, claws, and horns and with a feeble nature, speechless and strengthless, yea neither able to walk nor stand, but have to depend entirely upon maternal care-to teach you that you should be men of peace and not of strife. (I:76a).

    Peter was commanded to put his sword into the sheath. All Christians are bidden to love their enemies, do good to those who do them evil, and pray for those who abuse and persecute them; to give the cloak also if any one sue them at law for the coat; if they are stricken on the right cheek to turn to him who abuses them the other also. Say, beloved, how can a Christian, according to the Scriptures, consistently retaliate, rebel, war, murder, slay, torture, steal, rob and burn cities and conquer countries? Matt. 26:52; John 18:10; Matt. 5:12, 89, 40. (II:306b).

    We confess and have always confessed, as long as with our small talent we have served the Word of the Lord that the office of the magistracy is ordained of God; and we have always been obedient to them when their demands were not contrary to the Word of God, and we desire to do so all our lives. For we are not so ignorant not to know what the Word of God teaches and demands of us in this respect. Taxes and duties we pay, as Christ has taught and Himself has rendered. We pray for the imperial majesty, kings, lords, princes and all in authority, and honor and obey them. (Part II, p. 802b).

    Captains, knights, soldiers and such like bloody men are offering to sell soul and body for money[28] and swear with uplifted hand that they will destroy cities and countries, apprehend and kill the citizens and inhabitants and rob them of their possessions, although they have never harmed them nor given them any provocation. Oh, what an accursed, wicked, abominable business! (Part I, p. 137a).

Dirk Philips, the most prominent co-worker with Menno Simons, says:

    The people of the Lord arm themselves not with carnal weapons, as sad to say, some have done for want of understanding, but with the armor of God, with the weapons of righteousness, at the right hand and at the left . . . and with Christian patience, with which to possess their souls and overcome all their enemies.[29]

A conference of Waterlandian Mennonites, held in 1588 at Emden in East Friesland, made the following decision concerning those who had given offence by taking part in drilling for military service:

    If a brother has taken part in this, he shall desist from it, confess to sorrow for the offence and ask the forgiveness of God and the church before he may be recognized as in peace with the church. [30]

Henry Alewijus, of Middleburgh in Holland, who, with two other brethren, was burned alive on February 9, 1569, says in his extant confession of faith, written for his children:

    It is needful to distinguish between the New and the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant Israel engaged in war, revenge was taken on enemies, there was fighting and taking human life; and under the old Law this was done by the will, command, permission and also help of God. But now, in the dispensation of the Gospel under the New Covenant, these things cannot be permitted, they are plainly forbidden by the word and example of Christ, Himself God and the Son of God, whom we are commanded to hear (Matt. 17:5). These things, I say, are plainly and clearly prohibited, not by man but by God Himself. All revenge is denied and forbidden the people of God. They are commanded to commit all vengeance unto God, not to resist evil but to give to him that taketh away the coat also the cloak, and to turn to him that smites them on the right cheek the other also; yea to love their enemies, to pray for their persecutors and to flee from them from one city to another (Matt. 5:39; Rom. 12:17; I Thess. 5:15). And they that are thus afflicted are, according to Christ's words, blessed and are promised their reward in heaven.

    In short, the Christian must not fight at all; and yet he must fight, but not with weapons of iron, steel, stone, wood, or other carnal weapons but with spiritual weapons which are mighty before God. Read, my children, what weapons Christians wield and what war they wage, as it is plainly and clearly set forth in Ephesians, Chapter 6. Christians have no other warfare at this time, for the prophecy given with reference to this time is fulfilled that the swords should be made into plowshares and the spears into sickles, etc. Therefore we may not engage in war.[31]

In the discussions between Mennonite and Reformed theologians, held in 124 sessions at Emden in East Friesland, from February 27 to May 17, 1578, the spokesmen of the Mennonites said:

    From the Scriptures which you have cited it cannot be shown that the office of the government, including the use of the sword, should be exercised by those within the church.

    We say that during the time when the enemy is near or before the gates of the city, we would not with weapons of war do guard service, nor would we send another in our place. But so long as there is no occasion to fight an enemy we are willing to pay another to do such service.[32]

The short Mennonite confession of 1591, called the "Concept of Cologne," contains the following article:

    No vengeance is permitted; nay it is forbidden, not only with outward weapons but also to give railing for railing.[33]

In the public discussions of Leeuwarden in Friesland, in 1596, Peter of Cologne, one of the Mennonite speakers, said that a believer in Christ may fight with no material weapons but only with the weapon of the Spirit which is the Word of God.[34] He said further:

    War is forbidden the believers, for we find that those who would ascend into the hill of the Lord must walk in His light and that they shall make their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles, etc. Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:l.[35]

A Baseless Charge

In the Reformation era the persecutors of the evangelical, nonresistant Anabaptists often advanced the charge that their teaching on nonresistance was but a cloak to hide their evil intentions against the civil governments. Zwingli in particular often made this charge. He wrote:

    Anabaptism is practiced for no other purpose but to furnish an excuse for conspiracy against the government.[36] And again: As soon as the number of the baptized is strong enough for effectual armed resistance, they will rise in arms against the government.[37]

Zwingli said further, in June, 1525, that the proof for these assertions is found in their disobedience to the government, since they preached and baptized contrary to the orders of the civil rulers.[38] However, only a few years before Zwingli made these charges he had earnestly admonished his followers to obey God rather than men, even though to do so was interpreted as disloyalty to the government and as insurrection.[39]

It is needless to say that accusations of this sort against the Swiss Brethren and Mennonites were wholly unfounded. Neither Zwingli nor any one else could point to a single in-stance of tumult or riot, or any other transgression of this sort, caused by any Anabaptist. The rise of the revolutionary Anabaptists--the Muensterites--took place after Zwingli's death. It is of course a fact that they disobeyed some of the religious regulations and orders of the civil authorities, but this does indeed not prove the point. That the charges of disloyalty to the government are unfounded is recognized today by all writers who have studied their history from the sources. Dr. Adolf Fluri of Bern, Professor Wilhelm Hadorn,[40] and other impartial writers have pointed out that the Swiss Anabaptists always consistently adhered to the principle of nonresistance. The same is true of all the early Mennonites. Dr. G. Uhlhorn said in the great Protestant Encyclopedia,[41] that Swiss Anabaptism was of an absolutely peaceful nature.


1. Luther in his Sermons on Matthew, Chapters 5-7, Weimar Edition of Luther's Complete Works, vol. 32, pp. 299-555; J. Koestlin, Luthers Theologie, Stuttgart, 1901, vol.2, p. 326; J. Koestlin, Die Glaubensartikel der Augsburgischen Confession erlaeutert, Halle a. S., 1891, p. 80. Koestlin-Kawerau, Martin Luther, Berlin, 1903, p. 116; J. Horsch, Die biblisehe Lehre von der Wehrlosigkeit, Scottdale Pa., 1920, pp. 25-30.

2. Dr. Martin Luthers Saemtliche Werke, Erlangen Edition vol. 22, pp. 66-70; H. Boelimer, Luther im Lichte der neueren Forschung, Leipzig and Berlin, 1918, p. 245; P. Wemle, Der Evangelische Glaube nach den Hauptschriften der Reformatoren, Bd. 1, Luther, Tuebingen, 1918, pp. 124-37.

3. Published by Headly Bros., London.

4. Published in Theologisehe Literaturzeitung, Leipzig, 1921, No. 11/12, col. 126.

5. E. Staehelin, Oekolampads Beziehungen zu den Romanen, Basel,1917, pp. 26, 32; J. C. Fuesslin, Beytraege zur Kirchen-Geschichte des Schweitzerlandes, Zuerich, 1741-53, Vierter Teil, pp. 406ff.; F. Bender, Geschichte der Waldenser, Ulm, 1850, p. 135.

6. C. Vogl, Peter Cheltschizki, em Prophet an der Wende der Zeiten, Zuerich und Leipzig, 1926, pp. 92-94.

7. A. Egli, Actensammiung zur Geschichte der Zuercher Reformation, Zuerich, 1879, No. 623. The date given by Egli is incorrect.

8. C. A. Cornelius, Geschichte des Muensterischen Aufruhrs, Leipzig, 1860, Bd. 2, pp. 240-249. An English translation of this letter was published by Walter Rauschenbusch in the American Journal of Theology, January, 1905.

9. E. Egli, Die Zuercher Wiedertaeufer zur Reformationszeit, Zuerich, 1878, p.97.

10. Egli, Actensammiung, No.1109.

11. There are two modern reprints of the Schlatten Confession: by Walter Koehler, Leipzig, 1908, and by Heinrich Boehmer in Urkunden zur Geschichte des Bauernkrieges und der Wiedertaeufer, Heft 50-51, Bonn, 1910. A translation was published by W. J. McGlothlin in Baptist Confessions of Faith, Philadelphia, 1911. The citations here given are translated from the edition by Koehler. The title under which this confession was first published is, Bruederlich Vereinigung etzhcher Kinder Gottes sieben Artikel Betreifend.

12. J. Oecolampadius, Underrichtung von dem Widertauff, von der Oberkeit, und von dem Eyd, auff Carlins N. Widertauffers articket, Basel, 1527, sig. D3.

13. E. Goetzinger, Vadions Deutsche Historische Schriften, Bd. 3, St. Gallen, 1877, p.501.

14. Handlung oder Acta gehaltener Disputation und Gespracch zu Zoifingen inn Berner Biet mit den Widertoeuiffern, 1532, pp. 94b.

15. The protocol of these discussions, comprising about 75,000 words, is in the State Archives of Bern. It has never been printed. The Mennonite Historical Library in Scottdale, Pa., has an exact certified copy.

16. "Das ergist uebel das man erdeocken mag." H. Bullinger, Von dem unversehampten fraefel, ergerlichem vervyrren und unwarhofftem leeren der selbsgesandten Widertoeuffern, 1531, p. 139b.

17. H. Bullinger, Der Widertoeufferen ursprung, fuergang, Secten, Waesen, etc. , Zuerich, 1561, fol. 16.

18. Verontwortung etheher die man Toeuffer nennt, uff die fragen Warumb sy nit zur kirchen gangind; printed as an appendix to Bullinger, Der Widertocuiferen ursprung, fol. 214-31. Bullinger had frequently referred to this booklet of the Swiss Brethren and therefore decided to publish it. The quotation here given is found in fol. 2lb.

19. Geschichtbuch der Hutterischen Brueder herausgegeben durch Dr. R. Wolkun von Elias Walter, Macleod, Alta., 1923, p.112.

20. Protocoll, Dos ist Alle handlung des gesprechs zu Franckenthal in der Churfuerstlichen Pfaltz, Heidelberg, 1571, pp. 408, 410, 428, 470, 474.

21. C. Bergmann, Die Taeuferbevegung im Kanton Zuerich, Leipzig, 1916, p.63.

22. J. C. Wenger, The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck, Mennonite Quarterly Review, October, 1938, p. 240f.

23. Rechenschaft unserer Religion, Lehre und Glaubens. Von den Bruedern, die man die Hutterischen nennt, 1902, pp. 105-11.

24. Het Offer des Heeren, p.85.

25. The same work, p.116.

26. The same work, p.398.

27. The figures given with the quotations from Menno Simons indicate the places where they are found in English Complete Works, Elkhart, Ind., 1871. These passages were revised by comparison with the Dutch editions of Menno's Works, of 1664 and 1681.

28. Armies in that period consisted chiefly of those who served voluntarily for hire.

29. Enchiridion or Hand Book of the Christian Doctrine and Religion, Elkhart, Ind., 1910, p. 361.

30. Dyserinck, J., De Weerloosheid Volgens de Doopsgezinden, in De Gids, 1890, p.120.

31. T. J. Van Braght, Martyrs' Mirror, Scottdale, Pa., 1938, p. 752. 32. Protocol, Dot is Alle handelinge des Ghesprecks tot Embden, etc., Amsterdam, 1616, pp. 229, 232.

33. Concept van Ceulen, van den eersten Mey, Anno 1591, Vlissinghe, 1666, p. 6.

34. Quoted; W. Mannhardt, Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreussischen Mennomten, Marienburg, 1863, p.31.

35. Quoted; P. J. Twisck, Verscheyde Artikulen des Geloofs en Sententien, uit Oude en Niuwe Leeraers vergadert, Hoorn, 1694.

36. Zwingli, Säimtliche Werke, Vol. IV, p.383.

37. The same work, p.427.

38. The same work, p.592.

39. The same work, Vol.11, p. 514.

40. Hadorn, Die Reformation in der deutschen Echwetz, p. 108.

41. Hauck-Herzog, Realenzyklopedia, VoL 1, p. 482.

This Web page came from The Principle of Nonresistance as held by the Mennonite Church by John Horsch, First Printing, 1927, from Fourth Printing 1941. It is a shorten version, omitting much later Mennonite history.
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June 22, 2000