Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Q and A on the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article covers and reviews topics left unanswered in the rest of this series. A question and answer format is used because readers in the past have asked these questions online or in emails. However, some questions have a certain logic to them, whether verbalized or written down or not. They are included here as well.

We begin with the basics about Islam, to clear up common misconceptions.

1. Is Islam a religion?

Yes, very much so. It has rituals by which it worships a deity. It even has permanent institutions like the mosque and a sacred text (the Quran) and a large body of secondary sacred texts wherein their founder’s example is recorded: the hadith.

However, Islam also layers its religion with civil and religious and social laws that are intended to permeate and regulate all aspects of society. So it is a religion, plus a combination of religious, civil, and social laws, all rolled into one.

2. Are Allah and God the same?

The Arabic word for “God” is “Allah.” Arab Christians call God Allah in their native Arabic language. English translations of the Quran choose one or the other.

As far as their being the same deity, there is some controversy about that. Some Christians and Muslims say yes, because of the influence of Judaism and Christianity on Islam and the Abrahamic origins of the three religions. Others say no because of the doctrinal differences, especially in Christology (doctrine of Christ), between Christianity and Islam. So many Christians in non-Arab countries use “God” for the deity of the Bible, and “Allah” for the deity of the Quran.

In this series of articles the main translation of the Quran, by Abdel Haleem, renders “Allah” as “God.” But I use the term “Allah” because I see too many differences between the two theologies.

3. Does “Islam” mean “peace”?

No, “Islam” means “submission” or “surrender,” and “Muslim” means “one who submits or surrenders.”[1] More importantly, however, the original meaning of any word sometimes has little bearing on the character of the thing or person that the word represents.

Let us suppose we know a woman named Irene. In Greek of long ago “irene” meant “peace” (and still does). But what if she is not a peaceful person, but the exact opposite? She is constantly upset. Her name and character have little to do with each other. However, maybe she can become peaceful, so her name and character can match up. That’s up to her.

It is up to Muslims to represent their religion as peaceful.

4. If Islam wages war to advance religion (as one reason), why does it teach religious tolerance in Quran 2:256?

Recall that this verse says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” This verse was one of the earliest ones to be revealed, after Muhammad arrived in Medina in 622.

This tolerant verse – so admirable in its basic idea – soon gives way to jihad and qital verses. Many Muslims believe the later verses about war cancel or abrogate the earlier ones about peace.

5. Is this doctrine of abrogation one of the reasons that Islam has difficulty in reforming today?

Yes, very much so. If the later war verses cancel the earlier peaceful ones, Muslims may have to give up too much of Islam, in order to reform. It is very difficult for them to break the institutional genetic code that Muhammad set (jihad and qital), for they would feel like disobedient Muslims.

But Islam today must break the code and reform, and just focus on the Five Pillars and other ritual aspects. Culturally defined and conditioned rules like jihad and hitting one’s wife (Quran 4:34), even though they have made it into the Quran, must be seen only as part of seventh-century culture, and not for today. Ancient Arab culture chopped off hands for theft, and the Quran incorporated this custom (5:38), but it needs to be rejected because of its cultural expiration date.

6. Doesn’t the Islamic doctrine of Quranic inspiration hinder a cultural interpretation of jihad and qital verses?

Yes, this doctrine can hinder a reasonable cultural interpretation. The doctrine of inspiration says that Allah inspired his prophet and sent Gabriel down to dictate the Quran to him. Every word is timeless and fits in all cultures.

However, this doctrine must be modified. Muhammad was still part of his culture. Seventh-century Arabs raided, and so did he. In his cultural context wars were waged. He did the same. In short, he followed and conformed to his culture. Yet, in waging jihad and qital, his goal was the Kabah and its resources. He got it. Mission accomplished. So those verses that say to wage jihad or qital to get it back no longer apply to today.

A more problematic verse is Quran 9:29, which says to wage qital on the People of the Book (Jews and Christians, the Book being the Bible). Muslims today must take that verse as culturally and historically conditioned and restricted. It has an expiration date, and it was in 630 during Muhammad’s Tabuk military campaign. When Gabriel revealed the Quran (so says Islamic belief), he still had to speak to Muhammad about his own times and within his own seventh-century culture. Thus the Quran’s inspiration, despite what the Islamic doctrine officially says, has a cultural and historical aspect to it and therefore specific verses have an expiration date: the seventh-century.

Maybe early Christianity can provide a parallel of reform through the ancient ritual of circumcision.

Circumcision was (and is) an essential aspect of Jewish identity. It was nearly the only command given to Abraham for the establishment of God's covenant with Abraham's descendants.

Nevertheless, when the faith becomes universal, when the earliest believers in Jesus move beyond the Jewish community, they drop the demand of circumcision as an unnecessary burden. They viewed it as cultural (ethnic) and thus unnecessary for gentile believers. Even though circumcision was such an essential practice and defining element of God's people (the Jews) for some 1,800 years, Christians were still able to drop it as a cultural issue and non-essential in the New Covenant instituted by Jesus for all of humankind, not only Jews.

Similarly, Islam should drop the violence to make itself fit for today's global world and leave this custom of Arab tribal warfare behind.

However, all of these reforms are up to Muslims. I am merely suggesting hypotheticals and possibilities.

7. Can Islam separate the mosque from the state?

Not really, if Islam follows its law (shariah), which is rooted in the example of Muhammad and the Quran. And he saw himself as both a political and religious leader rolled into one, backed by the sword. Often he said to obey Allah and his messenger (Muhammad), particularly in the Medinan chapters, when he was getting stronger militarily (e.g. Quran 8:1, 13, 20, 24, 46; 9:54, 62-63, 71, 84, 91; 47:33; 48:10, 17).

And Islamic law – both civil and religious – pervades and regulates Muslim nations. So the only way that Islamic nations could possibly separate the mosque from the state is to place the religious aspects of shariah in private life (e.g. how to pray, go on a pilgrimage, and fulfill Ramadan). Then they can pass civil laws based on reason, not directly on Muhammad and the Quran. Religion can offer suggestions and general principles as guidelines for the state, but they should not form the basis of their constitutions and should not be legally binding.

But we should not suffer from illusions. Islam will be difficult to reform, if it can.

8. Are not religion and revelation better foundations on which to build and guide the state, since reason has often failed (e.g. the Nazi regime)?

Brilliant persons like Aquinas benefited from revelation (e.g. the Bible), but they did not abandon their reason. In this series of articles we have discovered reasonable truths and revelations from the New Testament that expresses the wisdom of God for society. But we should not abandon reason either. Aristotle teaches us, wisely, that extreme actions and policies are indicators that reason is not being followed.[2] Abandoning reason is irrationalism.

Further, the answer depends on what is meant by "revelations." States that depend on them can oppress their people, such as imprisoning or killing them if they leave the state religion. It is a sad reality that "revelations" themselves may teach violence and brutality and human rights abuses. Also, the church must truly follow its sacred Scriptures; then it will not make foolish and deadly errors like starting the Reich church in Nazi Germany. But the Confessing church opposed both the Reich church and Nazi ideology.

Thus, the church, interpreting its Scriptures properly, may guide the state, but the two shall not become one. If they do, we will witness a repeat of religious atrocities perpetrated by the church sometimes in its history.

In addition to the new and revolutionary teaching of Jesus, God-given reason (apart from direct revelations) confirms that it is best to keep the kingdom of God separated from the kingdom of Caesar. Enlightenment thinkers also figured that out, as they looked back on history, especially church history. Birthed in the Enlightenment and Christian revivals, the USA has learned that hard lesson of separation, and now its citizens live in religious peace. The state should never impose religion, and the church should keep its distance from controlling the government. Power corrupts. Corrupted power may lead to political violence in the name of religion. Religious violence is especially repugnant.

All governments, if they follow reason, should allow basic freedoms of religion, the press, and conscience – even if the conscience leads a citizen to leave or criticize a religion and join another one or none at all. If a religion denies these basic freedoms, then it does not follow justice, and it (or parts of it) should be rejected. It should certainly not form the foundation of any constitution.

Democracies that emerge in the Islamic world must allow for freedom of religion and conscience and the press, even to the point of criticizing or leaving the official religion. Those are fundamental and inalienable rights that do not come from a politician or the vote or humans who write and pass laws; those rights are simple justice that reason can discern. They are built into timeless moral law. If democracies do not promote these basic rights, then we can conclude that the democracies are defective and may soon become oppressive.

9. Why do Muslims yell Allahu akbar in battle?

The words mean, “God is greatest.” Muslims say (not necessarily yell) those words on many occasions, like praying, calling people to prayer, going to bed at night, shouting for joy, circling the black stone, sacrificing animals during the Festival Sacrifice, going on and returning from pilgrimage, and testifying there is no god but Allah.

It must be conceded, however, that they also say those words before, during, and after battle. So the reason they do so today is that early Islam did, which set the institutional genetic code. Saying it indicates their devotion to Allah, even when they kill.

10. You discuss geopolitical holy sites. Does this series of articles argue against pilgrimages to them?

Not at all. Hajj (pilgrimage) is the fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is required of Muslims and can be done peacefully, though Sunnis and Shi’ites can sometimes have conflict in Mecca.[3] But the requirement that says Muslims have to go there on a pilgrimage usually harms no one materially or physically – certainly not the rest of the world.[4]

As for Christians, they are not commanded by New Testament Scripture to take a pilgrimage anywhere. If they go on one, however, to a famous church or Christian shrine, for example, they do so out of their own free will and conviction. They are not under law, but under grace.

11. Does the Quran really promise male believers virginal companions in heaven?

Yes, it does. Quran 56:27-38 says:

27 Those on the Right, what people they are! 28 They shall dwell amid thornless lote trees 29 and clustered acacia 30 with spreading shade 31 constantly flowing water 32 abundant fruits 33 unfailing, unforbidden, 34 with incomparable companions 35 We have specially created – 36 virginal, 37 loving, of matching age – 38 for those on the Right.”[5]…. (56:27-38; cf. 76:6-22; 9:72)

Islamic heaven is a very physical existence, with food, drink, and sex being experienced, though more mystical Muslims take these (and other) verses as metaphors of spiritual bliss. In any case, traditional belief says that Muslim women remain wives of their husbands, but the women will be made attractive again and will have to share their husbands with the additional virgins.

12. Why are so many Islamic Arab nations run by dictators and authoritarians?

There are many historical reasons for this sad fact, like the brief military struggle for the caliphate during Ali’s life and shortly after he died in 661. But the answer to the question may be traced back to the days of Muhammad. The verses in the Quran that merge obedience to Allah and his messenger imply that one man gets too much political and religious power, backed by the sword (Quran 8:1, 13, 20, 24, 46; 9:54, 62-63, 71, 84, 91; 47:33; 48:10, 17).[6] The caliphs followed this institutional genetic code and also accumulated a lot of religious and political power, maintained by the sword.

However, Arab states today do not have to give in to this code. They can break free and follow true democracy, where a religious party does not dominate and impose oppressive laws which do not, as noted, permit freedom of conscience to follow a religion of one’s choice without being harassed. Freedom of conscience, the press, and religion is a sign that democracy and justice have taken root. If Islam is so great, people will gladly and willingly remain in it. But if they choose to change their religion or leave any religion and remain outside it, they must be free.

13. Are Muslims allowed to join the military in Islamic states?

Yes, jihad is permitted under the rules of Islamic governments. However, many jihadists don’t recognize these governments and wage war on their own. They believe they are waging war in the name of original and pure Islam.

14. Are Islam and the mosque pacifist?

No. Individual Muslims and mosques may be pacifist, but not the religion itself. Islam fuses together the sword and the mosque. It may be true that the Islamic government today is the only institution that can legally, officially declare war and recruit soldiers today. However, many religious scholars in Islamic countries, often working at the university, write fatwas (religious decrees or opinions) calling for jihad. And these same scholars lead prayers and deliver jihad sermons in the mosques. The Muslim political class takes their opinion very seriously.

Islamic theology follows Muhammad correctly and closely, who also preached jihad from the mosque pulpit, and so did the first four caliphs. This theology therefore does not forbid the mosque to preach jihad. Indeed, many mosques today call for it, even mosques in the West – especially in the West.

However, if any Imam (mosque leader) today disagrees with preaching jihad in the mosque, then he should write articles online and in scholarly journals explaining to his fellow Muslims why the mosque and the sword should be kept separate, and why the state and religion (Islam) should be too. He should consider writing a cultural-historical interpretation of the jihad and qital verses in the Quran. These verses may (or may not) have been valid back then, but they are certainly not valid today. He needs to work his way up in the religious hierarchy, gain respect there, and convene a council to reinterpret these verses (Muslim reformers outside of the hierarchy do not carry as much weight, though they are well intentioned).

He should write in both Arabic and English, and not just to an American audience, who desperately wants to believe that all religions are peaceful. His public advocacy of pacifism in the mosque would be a welcome development.

15. Why do Muslim terrorists fight?

They fight for a variety of reasons: to make Islam superior and prevail over all religions (a holy war); to get governments to meet their demands; to purify geopolitical holy sites; to get people to notice their grievances (real or imaginary); and so on.

But they are splinter groups who are not lawful per Islamic governments that alone have the legal right to declare war.

16. Do Islamic governments subsidize terror groups?

Yes, some do, and that is a serious problem. Free peoples around the globe need to work together to get these governments secretly funding terror groups to stop the flow of weapons and money.

17. Why do some (not all) Muslims fight for Jerusalem?

They believe it and the temple are sacred because Muhammad took a supernatural night journey there (cf. Quran 17). They now claim the Jewish temple as theirs, so they have mosques, not only near it, but also on top of it. But many consider these mosques as the ultimate sign of Islamic imperialism.

There are historical reasons, like an Arab Muslim presence in the city for a long time.

Also, since the Quran and Muhammad had a violent policy vis-à-vis the Jews in his day, many Muslims follow his institutional genetic code.

But there is no reasonable doubt that Jerusalem and the temple were exclusively in Jewish hands for many centuries before Islam arrived in the scene. Historically, Jews have original claim to the city and its temple.

18. Is Jerusalem mentioned in the Quran?

It is not in the Quran, but Muslims interpret Quran 17 and Muhammad’s supernatural night journey as alluding to it. But the chapter does not mention it by name.

19. Does Islam wage a holy war?

Original Islam did, and so did Islam throughout history. A holy war is done in the name of the religion in order to spread it by the sword. Parts Three, Five, and Eight lay out the evidence.

20. Are the church and the kingdom of God the same?

Basic New Testament theology says they are different. One scholar writes:

The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of women and men.[7]

The kingdom creates the church, not the other way round. The church testifies about the kingdom. The church is the instrument of the kingdom. And the church is the earthly custodian of the kingdom.[8] It is important not to fuse the church and the kingdom of God together. However, if a church denomination were to teach that the kingdom and the church are identical, then the New Testament still does not permit the two (fused as one) to wage military war. Jesus separates the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar on that one point at least.

21. Do Christians have to obey the war verses in the Old Testament?

Those verses are no longer applied to the world today. The ancient Israelites were told to clear the land of specific pagans, and they are no longer around. Plus, even if they were, Christians do not take those ancient commands as binding, because the New Testament fulfills the Old. Christians can study the Old to learn eternal themes like faith, redemption, grace, and holiness.

But they do not have to apply cultural verses like circumcision and warfare to the church today. This theme of the New fulfilling the Old is a significant one in the New Testament (Matt. 5:17-20; Hebrews 3:1-6; 4:14-10; 7:1-10:18).

Just as those Old Testament war verses are culturally conditioned and are not binding on Christians today, so too verses in the Quran must be interpreted as culturally conditioned and no longer binding on Muslims today. If Islam, like Christianity, can reach the same conclusions, then Islam can reform too.

See the article: How Christ Fulfills the Old Testament. See also Question 6, above.

22. Why did the Medieval church wage war so often?

The words "so often" in the question reflect the popular view, but the church enjoyed long stretches of peace in the Medieval Age (c. 500-1500). Also, Protestants attacked each other and Catholics, and Catholics attacked Protestants, all in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), to cite only one example. So we should not see the Medieval church as the only one that wandered off from the New Testament.

Most important, the Medieval and later churches do not set the institutional genetic code for Christianity; only Jesus does.

Further, the Western church called for the first crusade in 1095, but only after 400 years of Islamic armies were already taking vast territories and blocking the pilgrimage routes and shrines. Recall that Islamic armies coerced Jerusalem to surrender “peacefully” in 638. The Eastern church – the Byzantines – had been dealing with Islamic aggression even while Muhammad was alive (he died in 632).

See Timeline of the Islamic Crusades, Jihad begot the Crusades (1), and Jihad Begot the Crusades (2).

Ideally, the proper response for the church (Catholic and Protestant) throughout its history would have been to ask the state, such as the kings of Europe and the "Holy Roman Emperor," to fight the battles. Indeed the church did this, but confusion of the two realms often won out. They were not adequately separated. The kings and popes were in constant struggle to keep or win control of the church. This should not have occurred, but it did.

Yet it is too easy to condemn every policy of the Medieval and later churches. They faced hard reality. Both Protestants and Catholics had to confront the invasive armies of Islam. The entire church was doing the best it could with the light it had, in difficult circumstances. For us to look back now and only criticize it is too easy and shallow.

In any case, to follow the New Testament properly today, the church should fulfill its mission of saving souls, teaching believers, and helping the needy. It should not raise armies and wage wars. That is the job of the kingdom of Caesar, which alone is permitted to carry the sword (Romans 13:1-7). The churches in the USA (and other nations), thankfully, follows this divine order of not bearing the sword, but practicing and preaching peace within itself. They have handed the sword to the kingdom of Caesar. The two realms are separate. That is why we enjoy religious tolerance and peace in many places around the globe. Nations that do not follow this divine pattern too often perpetrate religious violence or are victims of it, within their own borders and from their own citizens. Governmental money and weapons flow to jihadists, and this must stop.

23. Should the government turn the other cheek?

The command to “turn the other cheek,” appearing in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:39) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:29), is addressed to the new kingdom community who heeds the call to a new way of life. The kingdom of Caesar has to deal with life-and-death danger, not a formal slap on the face between neighbors in a legal context (one interpretation of the two verses), or a personal, eschatological (end times) context of insults.

To be accurate and faithful to the verses, they say nothing about a national attack or criminal activity, which the kingdom of Caesar has to deal with. Therefore, we must be careful not to wrench out of context verses meant for kingdom Christians and apply them to the state as if the state is part of that kingdom. The two kingdoms of God and of Caesar must not be fused together.

Further, the passage should not be misinterpreted to ignore the helpless. It is one thing to let go of an offense if it happens personally to an individual Christian. But it is quite another to walk away if the insult happens to someone else. In that case, no one who can offer help should ignore the plight of the weak and persecuted.

To sum up, the military and law enforcement do not live under the same demands as eschatological kingdom believers do, though there may be some Christians who work in the two honorable, God-ordained institutions (see Question 26, below).

Therefore, it is unwise to force “turn the other cheek” on to the military and police officers who have to protect the weak and persecuted.

See the article: Should the State Turn the Other Cheek?

24. What does this series say about just war?

It says nothing directly, for that topic would take us too far afield from a comparison of early Christianity and early Islam – the focus of this series. But the just war doctrine is one area in which the church can counsel the state, provided the church does not teach only pacifism to the state. The church is pacifist within itself, while the New Testament hands the sword over to the state. So the state itself is not pacifist.

25. What should Christians do if the government refuses to protect them from bands of thugs and violent militias?

I have covered this complicated topic and sad reality in the article Fight or Flight?

26. What if a Christian lives under an unjust government? Should he join the military or law enforcement?

That question reflects a sad reality around the globe. If a Christian lives under an oppressive regime, such as a bloodthirsty dictatorship or communism, then he must take extra-special care about working for the state in the institutions that require weapons and killing. He may be propping up injustice in an irredeemable system. But if he is in a position to bring about reform or carry out peace and justice, purging out oppression, then in this extremely rare case he may stay in the institutions. He needs to pray for wisdom each day and go to church regularly (and safely) so he can receive wise counsel, if he is forced to remain in law enforcement or the military under an oppressive regime. Maybe he can work behind the scenes or in a department that fights only criminals, like drug pushers, not political dissidents.

However, Christians living in a democracy have an easier decision in working for the state. If such a privileged Christian joins the military, but concludes that a military operation is unjust, then he has a heavy burden of proof to make his case, especially when the majority of the lawmakers supported the action (never mind later backpedaling by these same lawmakers just to score political points). Maybe a compromise can be reached for the objector. Perhaps he can work behind the scenes, but still in the military. But he may have to pay a heavy penalty for prematurely quitting or escaping from the military that is overseen by democratic institutions following the law.

27. What does "the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing" mean?

One of the more difficult passages in the Gospels is Matt. 11:12, which reads, according to an accurate translation of the Greek:

12 From the time of John the Baptist . . . until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing; and violent and rapacious men have been trying . . . to plunder it.[9]

John is the forerunner of Christ, announcing repentance. Then God transfers the call of the kingdom from John to Jesus. Consequently, the reason why the kingdom is depicted as advancing forcefully is that it had never before been revealed with such energy and power. Jesus’ miracles and assaults on demonic strongholds and false ideas had never before been so striking. John the Baptist, in prison, heard of the miracles and asked Jesus if he was the Promised One. Jesus answers affirmatively, citing the miracles (Matt. 11:1-6).[10]

In addition, "violent and rapacious men have been trying to plunder it" means, as follows:

Herod’s imprisonment of John... the attacks by Jewish leaders now intensifying (Matt. 9:34; 12:22-24), the materialism that craves a political Messiah and the prosperity he would bring but not righteousness (Matt. 12:2-24). Already Jesus has warned his disciples of persecution and suffering (Matt. 10:16-42); the opposition was rising and would get worse[11]....

Thus, the kingdom was and is advancing forcefully, and it does not include swords or military holy wars. This interpretation of Matt. 11:12 fits the grammar and vocabulary of the verse as well as the entire sweep of the Gospels and even the whole New Testament.

28. Christians are commanded to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36). So why are Christian soldiers and police officers permitted to kill them?[12]

This question summarizes the objection some pacifists may have concerning Christians who join the state that God ordains, but they have to wield the sword. What if the State requires its agents – including Christians – to kill in some circumstances? The reply is fivefold.

First, the easy answer – too easy, in fact – is to teach that Christians should withdraw from any "messy" involvement in the state. However, it is a form of ingratitude when the church asks the state to do the "dirty work" of protecting Christians, but they do not pull their fair share. If Christians have an extra-sensitive conscience about harming anyone in any circumstance, but they still want to serve in law enforcement and the military, then it is sound advice for them to work behind the scenes. However, when an enemy mortally threatens citizens, and the Christian police officers or soldiers have no other choice than to use lethal force, then they should not feel an ounce of guilt about it, provided they follow the law. There is nothing wrong if Bible-educated Christians – who therefore do not have to suffer from an extra-sensitive conscience in these matters – fight on the frontlines with all the risks that entails. No one has to be poisoned with hatred in his heart as he pulls the trigger.

Second, in Scriptural context, the command to love our enemies requires doing good to them (Luke 6:27-31). It is not merely a feeling. There are true stories about soldiers who have done good to an enemy immediately after he threatened them with mortal danger. As soon as he dropped his weapon, the soldiers treated his wounds so he would not die. That is goodness in action; that is "love your enemy" in practice. True stories like that abound, but they rarely make the news in the mainstream media.

Third, Jesus and the apostles Peter and Paul endorsed weapon-carrying soldiers and officers who did not have to leave their careers, after they encountered the kingdom of God, two of them converting. There is no Scriptural evidence that they stayed only and always behind the frontlines. This may be, strictly speaking, an argument from silence, but the logic of history requires us to assume that Roman soldiers may have to kill an enemy. It is completely certain that Jesus and the New Testament authors assumed this about the Roman military. They lived in the empire, and Jesus predicted his own death by those authorities. And God chose to help and call military men and a law enforcement officer, and as new-born Christians they may have had to kill an enemy. So we must balance parts of Scripture with all of Scripture.

Fourth, other themes besides love are found in the four Gospels, such as justice (Matt. 12:18, 20; 23:23; Luke 18:7-8). In fact, Jesus explicitly juxtaposes the justice and the love of God. Pronouncing woes on certain self-righteous Pharisees, he says: "But you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone" (Luke 12:42). He says love and justice complement, not oppose each other. And sometimes justice is hard; in extreme circumstances it includes using physical force on lawbreakers and perpetrators of violence, domestic or foreign. Such protection expresses the justice of God and the love of God to peaceful citizens. Jesus helped a military officer. And the first gentile convert to Christianity was a military officer, not a civilian. Jesus assumed that the military was part of life in this world (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). And Christians may join that part, if they feel called.

Therefore, it is misguided to impose one verse or theme ("love your enemy") on everyone who protects us, even by force, as if that one verse or theme represents the only one in the Bible. Utopian and unbalanced idealism can lead to absurd conclusions, in at least a few difficult circumstances. Paradoxically, these idealists appeal to Jesus, but they go way beyond all of his teachings. These verses discuss the judgment of God on his enemies: Luke 11:50-51; 12:20, 51-53, 57-59; 13:1-9, 22-30; 16:19-31; 17:26-37.

Fifth and finally, if a Christian becomes a soldier or a police officer, then he officially and publicly serves the State. But his private faith and religion will make him a better servant because he strives to act with integrity. Ultimately, the Christian soldier or officer serves a just and loving God, so he follows and obeys justice and love (not one without the other). All of this depends on fluctuating circumstances. The soldier or officer must exercise wisdom as to when and how to apply love and justice. This is why he must stay in Christian fellowship, so he can ask for counsel from the body of believers. He must also know the law, which provides a lot of guidance in difficult situations.

A soldier or police officer who is also a Christian works for the government, not the church. He must follow orders from the government’s lawful agents, not his pastor or priest or his own interpretation of the Bible. He is not fighting a holy war, but works for the government.

29. How can Christian soldiers or policemen maintain their witness about God (Matt. 28:18-20), when they may have to kill?

The answer here is similar to the previous one. Ideally, Christians should witness about God to everyone. In America, the message of the gospel is everywhere: on television, radio, and the street corner. Even church buildings bring an awareness of the gospel. Nothing stops a criminal from repenting of his sins in one of them. In fact, through advanced media technology the gospel is penetrating into the remotest corners of the globe. Witnessing takes many forms. So who is to say that a criminal or enemy soldier against whom deadly force is used never had his chance to hear the gospel? He may have heard and rejected it. Further, even in times of peace, average Christian citizens who do not carry weapons may never reach some people. Not everyone will convert, as the Scripture affirms everywhere.

Therefore, if not everyone will convert in times of peace, then how much more will no conversions be a possibility in times of conflict? Conversely, maybe in hard times people are more open to hear the gospel. In that case, doors may open to share one’s faith. Whatever the circumstance, Christians do not know (or rarely know) in advance who is open to conversion. Often the potential converts are model citizens, but sometimes they are violent criminals and enemies.

When they threaten citizens and agents of the state with immediate and mortal danger, the Christian soldier or policeman may have to use deadly force, for he does not have time to ask whether such violent suspects and enemies have heard the gospel. So, it is shortsighted to impose only one theme (love) in the Bible on Christian soldiers and officers who are God-ordained to exercise justice that requires lethal force. The Scriptures teach the love of God and the justice of God.

Once again it is important to distinguish between the state or public sphere and religion or the private sphere. In public or in the government, Christian soldiers and police officers have a higher responsibility, due to their receiving more legal power than their fellow Christians who work at ordinary jobs. That is, they do not leave their faith (private or religious sphere) outside the military base or the police station (public sphere), but they carry and use their firearm in the name of the state (public sphere), not in the name of the Lord (private sphere). They must not yell, “I arrest you or shoot my firearm in the name of Christ!” Rather, they do these actions in the name of the law (the state).

Of course Christians serving in the military or law enforcement may share their faith while on the job in public, but this must be done in a wise and timely and private way. They must first earn the right to be heard by consistent and right work habits. And they must follow the law on this matter, realizing that mixing – however discreetly and gently – their faith (private) with their job (public) may place their careers at risk in today’s political climate.

This is why the soldier or police officer who is a Christian must go to church regularly, so he or she can receive prayer and wise counsel, and no confusion clouds the picture. If pacifists believe that Christians using lethal force according to the law is a bad witness to the gospel, then the pacifists do not understand the full teaching of the New Testament.

30. Articles in this series say that individual Christians may own a firearm. But the main point of this series is that the church as an institution is pacifist. Yet it is made up of individual Christians who may own a firearm. How are these points reconciled?

That concern is easy to answer. Church leaders in the name of the church or of God should never convene a council or general assembly in order to raise an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and sinners to conform. It is best to distinguish between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God, which creates the church. Christians have a dual citizenship, one foot in the world system that is doomed to perish, and one foot in the kingdom of God (1 Peter 1:17; 2:9).

To apply this essential two-kingdom theology specifically, Christians should not email each other in order to form a militia of firearm-carrying friends for the church. None of them should proclaim, "I own my firearm in the name of my church!" Neither should they say: "As a parachurch organization, we own our firearms in the name of the Lord!" That misguided notion is too strange for words, for it blurs the distinction between the two kingdoms.

An individual Christian may own a firearm as a citizen of society, not as an official or even unofficial representative of the church. It is imperative to maintain the two-kingdom theology, and then there will be no confusion. Thus, the church as an institution is pacifist within itself, for it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus. And he waged only spiritual and moral warfare, not a military one. Individual Christians may own a firearm as citizens of society.

To illustrate further the difference between the secular-social and the ecclesiastical, if Christians enter a society that forbids any kind of private ownership of a firearm, then they should not break society’s laws. The very idea is repugnant, for not only are they citizens of the kingdom of God, but also of the kingdom of Caesar.

If we keep the two kingdoms separate, especially in the debate over the sword, then we will enjoy clarity. Individuals should not believe they are fighting a holy war in the name of vigilantism or any other reason. Privately owned weapons are for self-defense against unlawful intruders and for hunting.

31. Was Jesus himself a pacifist or not?

Jesus never carried a sword and bloodied or killed people with it. However, the Gospels do not teach only pacifism. He praised a centurion, not condemn him (Matt. 8:5-13). As noted, he assumes that the military was part of this life and this world system, again separating the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). He handed the sword to the kingdom of Caesar. The church as an institution was not permitted to carry one. Therefore within the kingdom of God, the institutional church as a whole is pacifist in its practical policies and practices.

But – to repeat – kingdom teaching is not pacifist when it says that Caesar (and only Caesar) has the right to bear the sword. So the church would be unscriptural if it were to impose its own internal pacifism on the state.

32. Wasn’t Jesus too weak militarily to overthrow the Roman empire? So didn’t he have to be a pacifist?

The idea behind these questions is that Jesus could not have raised a military to conquer Rome, for it was too strong. Perhaps. However, Jesus was a miracle-worker, and who knows what he could have done.

But more to the earth-bound and historical point, he would not have had to conquer Rome itself or even Jerusalem. He could have set up bases in the desert and told his followers to form secret societies and assassinate opponents and members of the Jerusalem religious establishment, while others of his followers preached a gospel of sorts.

In fact, in the temptation passages, in which Satan appeared to him and promised all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8), Jesus rejected this path, which, in his days in the Roman empire, included warfare and taxes.

Mixing religion with conquests is never a good idea – too messy. Over the long duration of history, the results are counter-productive, and sometimes the religion can become oppressive. There emerge too many worldly and bloody struggles to hold on to power and to control people with a combination of harsh religious and state laws, in a failure to distinguish between the two realms – religion and the state.

33. But doesn’t Luke 19:27 command the followers of Christ to kill all non-Christians?

No, it does not. That verse comes at the end of a parable and refers to the last days, after the King returns, when God will judge people by his will. Followers of Christ are not commanded to get involved with the Final Judgment in that capacity.

Also, interpreting parables as legally binding commands for society or the church as a whole is problematic. In fact, it should not be done, if we understand Biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) properly

34. Will there ever be lasting peace on earth?

Not by human efforts, according to the Bible (and the Quran is pessimistic about it too).

Peace will come only when the Messiah Jesus returns. And incidentally Islam also teaches that Jesus is a messiah of sorts and will return, but this title means no more than a prophet.

However, though ultimate and lasting peace will never be established, we can still work toward truces and temporary peace between nations and groups, in fits and starts and stops. Some peace is better than none at all.


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 24 July 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] These Western scholars say it means “submission” or “surrender”: Hughes, Dictionary, 220; Gibb and Kramers, Encyclopedia, 176. But one Muslim scholar says “Islam” means both “surrender” and “reconciliation” coming “from the word salam, [s-l-m] ‘peace’ or ‘salvation’” (Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, rev. ed. of Concise Encyclopedia of Islam [Rowan and Littlefield, 1991] 332). However, when the root s-l-m is used in its active participle form (“muslim”), it means “one who submits or surrenders” (cf. 2:128, 132, 133, 136; 3:52, 64, 67, 80, 84, 102; 5:111; 12:101; 16:89 , 102; 22:78; 33:35; 46:15). And when s-l-m is used as a verbal noun (“islam”), it means “submission” or “surrender” (cf. 3:19, 85; 5:3; 6:125; 9:74; 39:22; 49:17; 61:7) (Kassis, Concordance, 1077-81). But as the answer says, above, word roots have no necessary connection to the development of the word over time. It all depends on other things to determine a word’s meaning, especially one that sells itself as both “peace” and “submission.” Behavior is more important than word roots.

[2] See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics; incidentally, I do not endorse everything he says, but his wisdom far outweighs his blind spots.

[3] A conflict occurred in 1987 in Mecca: “The 1987 Incident,”, accessed Aug. 4, 2011. But this incident may have more to do with Iranian-Saudi disagreements than religion alone.

[4] The city and site that generate conflict nowadays, such that nations have and will fight over it, is Jerusalem and its temple. This is why it is important for Christians to understand that the church – the Body of Christ – is now the holy and living temple, so to speak. They do not have to fight over stones, though defending allies – people – is important.

[5] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2010). If readers would like to see various translation of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[6] Founders or leaders of a new religious movement can command obedience (John 14:15), but Muhammad combined this call with power politics, the sword, and the state.

[7] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, 1993) 109.

[8] Ibid. 109-17.

[9] D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 267.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 267-68.

[12] The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to