Nevertheless, both the Old and New Testament give a consistent picture when it comes to this question, so rather than try to look at all the possible scriptures on the subject we can focus on one or two clear examples.
In the Old Testament
One of the clearest examples of the Bible's approach to this question can be found in the story of the patriarch Abram/Abraham – the “father of the faithful” as he is called (Romans 4:11) – and his nephew Lot. In Genesis 13 we read:
“… quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s…. So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Genesis 13:7-9).
We need to notice that this was not a simple parting of the ways of the two men. The “quarreling” that erupted between Abram’s servants and Lot’s was apparently intense (the Hebrew is translated “strife” and “adversary” in other passages). Although Abraham was the senior family member, he calmed things down even to the extent of allowing Lot to choose the best area and taking what appeared to be “second best” himself. This is a classic example of peacemaking at its best – where someone in a position to act otherwise nevertheless shows humility and great flexibility in order to avoid strife.
But only a chapter later in Genesis we read that Lot and all his family and servants were subsequently taken captive by raiding kings of four nearby cities, and Abram’s response was quite different:
“The four kings …carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions … When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people” (Genesis 14:11-16).
So, despite Abram’s obvious desire to avoid conflict when this was possible, in circumstances where peacemaking simply would not have worked and people’s lives were at stake, Abram was willing and ready to use force. The fact that Abram had trained men ready to fight* but only used them in such circumstances shows Abram was a man of peace, not pacifism.
In the New Testament
When we turn to the New Testament, we find this same attitude of avoiding conflict whenever possible – yet with the understanding that this is not always an option. We find Jesus teaching: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), but also showing that while there are circumstances where the “sword” is not appropriate, there are perhaps others where it is (Luke 22:36). But it is in the writings of the apostle Paul that the New Testament teaching on peace is most clearly laid out.
First, we should note Paul stresses that God is a God of peace (2 Thessalonians 3:16) and as a result he tells us “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace” (Romans 14:19). But in the same letter to the Romans Paul also writes: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Here Paul clearly indicates that there are circumstances where it is not always possible to live at peace – as when we or others are attacked and need to defend ourselves. In such circumstances, as Paul’s words must mean, the responsibility of peace depends not on us, but on others. If others will not walk peacefully, then the use of defensive force may become unavoidable.
Pacifism claims that there are no circumstances where it is morally acceptable to resort to force, but the Bible nowhere clearly teaches this view and gives many examples of the defense of self and others. Certainly we should avoid strife as much as possible in every circumstance. The author of the book of Hebrews makes this clear in saying that we should “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). But making every effort to avoid strife – loving peace and seeking peace wherever possible – is peacemaking, not pacifism.
* For more information on the story of Abram's rescue mission, see our blog post "Allies, Preparation and Persistance".