Bearing the sword and turning the cheek

Many biblical passages provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and co-operation with the sword-bearing state. Perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42. When Jesus prescribes turning the other cheek, giving up the garment, and going the second mile as an alternative to the lex talionis—the eye-for-eye principle of strict, proportionate justice—he addresses a key element of justice not only in the Mosaic law (Exod 21:22–25; Lev 24:18–21; Deut 19:21) but also in the Noahic covenant of Gen 9 and in countless human legal systems. Applied literally, Jesus’ words leave little room for Christian participation in the coercive enforcement of justice in civil society. Yet New Testament texts such as Rom 13:1–7 speak positively about civil government and about Christian submission to it. Interpreting Matt 5:38–42 in light of the broader biblical witness, therefore, has been arduous and controversial.

The church is unique

In Matt 5:38–42 Jesus defines the unique character of his church and does not redefine the state or his disciples’ basic responsibilities towards it. The state is to continue its work of coercively enforcing justice in civil society, with Christians’ support. But the church is a community that shuns the application of the lex talionis. The church is not only a non-violent community but also a community defined by an ethic of forgiveness and mercy.

Two-kingdoms doctrine

A two-kingdoms doctrine, as commonly expressed in historic Reformed theology, provides an effective theological framework for appreciating these exegetical conclusions. The early Reformed tradition did develop two-kingdoms categories similar to, though also distinct from, the Lutheran tradition. Read the full article.