Can dispensationalism ever accommodate pacifism?

Had a matrix download this morning, while dressing for work and playing with the kids. I gather my subconscious has now had sufficient time to process the Bonhoeffer 4 conversation last week over at NeoBaptist, and now insights are bubbling to the surface. Phase change.

Here are some of the threads:

Suggestions that pacifists don’t take the Old Testament seriously enough drew out the fact that my theology of war and peace is deeply eschatological, that I do not see pacifist ethics as timeless, but rather, that I see them far more climactically and post-resurrectional.

It also drew out that I see the state as Babylon, not Jerusalem, and draw a much stronger distinction between the church and state than Christendom-defending Christians are comfortable with.

And of course it highlighted that I see read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, that my understanding of Christian interpretation is deeply Christo-centric.

This got we wondering about rival eschatologies, like dispensationalism. I recently read a suggestion that dispensationalists read the New Testament through the lens of the Old Testament, that they are much more Israel-centric, in complete reversal to me.

I recalled that dispensationalists draw a strong distinction between Israel and the church, that they saw a eschatological role for the state of Israel that rivalled that of the church, and this fed back into how they interpreted state-church issues.

I realised that their much publicised literalism was not monolithic but deeply Israel-centric. They are as figurative as amillenialists in their own way, but in rival ways. They’re figurative about New Testament ethics but literal about Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel.

And it hit me: Christian pacifism, at least the sort of Christian pacifism that takes the Old Testament seriously, may rest on an eschatological understanding of the church as the new Israel that is deeply antimical to dispensationalists. It may be that dispensationalists have no way to embrace pacifism and stay dispensationalists. Could it be that Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists are right in a way? That the brand of Christianity they know, dispensationalism, IS intrinsically violent? If true this could have deep implications for future conversations.

5 thoughts on “Can dispensationalism ever accommodate pacifism?

  1. Matt, I think you have laid out the possible extremes without mentioning the middle ground (which in this case I believe to be wiser). There isn’t ONLY dispensationalism and pacifism; it is possible to be a Christian, and to be a peacemaker where it is possible and depends upon you, and still accept as a necessity for your country to maintain and deploy armed forces. I should know, that’s me.


  2. Well see, I am starting to wonder if dispensationalism can even accomodate the just war tradition, I am starting to wonder if its in fact irrevocably committed to the holy war tradition. The difference being, the just war tradition sees war as a necessary evil, the holy war tradition sees war as a positive good. It seems to me that Dispensationalist expectations invested in Israel tend to push them towards siding with Israel no matter what, which of course is a stance that is in total conflict with the just war tradition. If the holiness of supporting Israel militarily and diplomatically is unquestionable, even when Israel is committing attrocities, we’re talking holy war, not just war as historically understood. If there is any grain of truth to it, how close do you to stand alongside dispensationalists, even in conflicts you both support? If there is any grain of truth to this they are no going to sue for peace when a war turns unjust, if it fits their eschatological program. What do you do then?
    As for your own position, I am interested to know, how do you respond to Atheists and others who claim religion is inherrantly violent and unpeaceful? Have you even been asked by a non-Christian about the inquisition and crusades? What have you said or would have liked to have said? I am interested in how the “middle ground” (I might challemge that suggestion another day but not now) would answer.


  3. I understand that the government will use force, but I do not think that a Christian should be complicit in using force. Peacemaking is not something that we can just bolt on when it is possible, but it is a way of life. Loving your enemies is the way God loves because God is Love and through His grace He has invited us to love like He loves.
    it is becoming increasinly difficult to say that we are part of God’s kingdom and not live like it because of what it means to cling onto Jesus in contrast to popular belief where Jesus is our mascot that helps us have a good day instead of being lead by Him.
    “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this domination system (kosmos world) then My servants would be fighting so that I would nt be handed over…; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm (kosmos).” Jesus Christ before Pilate (John 18:36 paraphrase).


  4. Now, this is very interesting. I think you nailed it in those first two sentances, that they encapsulate the pacifist position very well, as I understand it. But I am suspecting aggressivists (for want of a better word) wont understand so well because a paradigm shift is almost a precondition.
    You might be interested in this. Brian McLaren asks: To what degree are emerging churches “getting” the gospel as a counter-imperial vision? To what degree are they creating a slicker and hipper version of the same old imperial versions of Christianity?


  5. I read this a couple of days ago and forgive its europe-centricity (I live in the UK), but it outlines how very subtle the Christendom mindset is (There is a lot more from where this came from):
    “Given its long history in Europe Christendom’s demise is unlikely to be sudden or total. Even when the official relationship between church and state is dissolved, the Constantinian mindset within churches and (within society) will persist and many will seek a return to a supposedly more Christian society. It is this mindset, not a political arrangement that is the heart of Christendom.” Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradtion by Stuart Murray.
    I think that the absence of Church discipline in emergent as well as some emerging churches is a concern. Look at the way Jesus engaged sinners, He did not judge them, but included them. I do not think that the whole sweeping conflicts under the proverbial carpet is working either. There is a lot of evidence that if conflict is handled correctly it can bring a congregation together stronger. I think that more experimentation in incarnational mission, creative peacemaking, discipline and a loving community where freedom to fail is celebrated are some concerns that need to be addressed.


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