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 Issues | Questions | Bible in Church

“Does Church Society embrace Jesus’ pacifism in its literalist interpretation of Scripture?”

This question was asked by someone who did not like the stance of the Society on sexual conduct. He evidently believed that accepting what the Bible teaches is to be a “literalist”.

1. Are we literalists? Yes, of course.

To interpret the Bible literally means to interpret it according to its literal form. This was the method followed by Chrysostom, Augustine and so on.   It means taking poetry as poetry, commandment as commandment, parable as parable, history as history etc.


2. Do we believe the Bible? Yes, of course.

For those who are faithful members of the Church of England our understanding of the Bible is that it is “God’s Word written” (Article 20). By this we understand that the Bible is “God-breathed”, “The Lord spoke”, “men were carried along by the Holy Spirit” etc. It is because we understand that Bible to be the Word of God that we believe that it is without error. This understanding of Scripture is authentic Anglicanism and is plainly expounded in our Book of Homilies.

This still leaves the question of how to interpret Scripture and here again as loyal Anglicans we believe the classical Christian understanding – that Scripture must be our chief guide to interpreting Scripture. This is set out in Article 20 of our Thirty-Nine Articles.

Although we affirm the supreme and final authority of Scripture yet we also value the testimony of Christians in the past. This is not because they have an authority alongside Scripture but because it is so easy to assume that our ideas are always right. We do well to test our understanding against that of Christians in the past and we should not lightly break from what the Christians through the ages have believed.

3. Are we pacifists?  No.

The view of the Church of England set out in its Articles, to which all clergy are expected to assent is that “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in wars.” (Article 37)

This position is clearly consistent with Scripture and this fact is supported by the simple fact that most Christians through the ages have not been pacifists.

It is sometimes claimed that the early Christians were pacifist because they were ambivalent about the Roman Army. However, the reluctance to join the Army had more to do with the cultic worship which was required of its members. Furthermore, it is evident in Scripture itself that when John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul encountered those who were soldiers there was no suggestion at all that their profession was inconsistent with their faith.

In the same way when Jesus was on trial he did not deny that Pilate had authority, rather he stated that the authority came from God.  Pilate was not wrong to try Jesus, but he was wrong to convict him unjustly.

The primary tool for interpreting Scripture is Scripture itself.  Jesus supported the rule of law and the rest of Scripture does not support a pacifist position.  Therefore, to read certain texts as requiring pacifism is to misread those text.

What people fail to recognise is that commands describing personal behaviour - turn the other cheek for example - are not intended for those who exercise a judicial role since they are not acting personally but on behalf of others.  We do not expect police officers to do this in the course of their duty and to do so would undermine the rule of law.

The other reason why people advocate a pacifist position is that they generally have an inadequate view of sin and the depravity of man.  Anyone looking at the world around should be able to see that when God hands us over to our desires we are capable of much evil.   Government and so on is given by God to curb evil (Rom 13.4) and to do this they have to use force on occasion.  Therefore, when Christians are in the Police, or Prison Service, or Armed Services, they will have to use force at times.


The Church of England teaches that it is right for Christian men to bear arms and serve in wars.  This is clearly teaching derived from and consistent with the Word of God.


Other articles relevant to this issue:

The Christian Gospel and the Profession of Arms - Part 1. Cross†Way article by Ian Dobbie.

The Christian Gospel and the Profession of Arms - Part 2. Cross†Way article by Ian Dobbie.

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