Joshua: Possessing The Land / Is War A Sin?

Joshua: Possessing The Land / Is War A Sin?

Joshua: Possessing The Land


The book of Joshua tells us how Israel possessed the promised land. The book is similar in many ways to the Acts of the Apostles. In both books, it was a new beginning and we read of tremendous manifestations of God's power. Joshua was a great leader and he brought the Israelites into the promised land. We also see in the book of Judges (immediately after the book of Joshua), how backsliding came in very quickly after Joshua's time. In the New Testament too, as soon as the apostles died, backsliding began very quickly in the churches. (Revelation 2,3) This teaches us that when God's people don't have good leaders backsliding begins very quickly.


Is War A Sin?


The book of Joshua pictures God as a God of war. That may be difficult to understand. But God is a God of war, because He is a God of love. He hates anything that harms mankind, just like a loving father would make war against the diseases that are in his children.


There is a point in history, a season in history, where God is the immediate king of a people, Israel, different than the way he is the king over the church, which is from all the peoples of Israel and does not have a political, ethnic dimension to it.

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

So I would vindicate Joshua by saying that in that setting, with that relationship between God and his people, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do concerning war and the killing of men women and children as well as the animals.

But that's much more complex morally than saying that God does it. He can cause a flood and kill everybody on the planet except 8 people and not do a single one of them any wrong. But he didn't ask anybody else to do that. It gets difficult when he uses others.

An example of this right now is that God has given the sword to the government (Romans 13:4). Therefore the government has a right to take a rapist and a murderer and to put him in jail. Or to kill him.

Capital punishment is consistent with Genesis 9 and consistent with God's character, because of the value of man: "Whosoever shall shed man's blood, his blood shall be shed " (Genesis 9:6) But that's very different than saying that anybody can go around killing people.

So God has his times and seasons for when he shares his authority to take and give life. And the Church today is not Israel, and we are not a political entity. Therefore the word we have from the Lord today is, "Love your enemy. Pray for those who abuse you. Lay your life down for the world. Don't kill in order to spread the gospel, but die to spread it."

Non Resistance

The historical expression of non resistance should not be confused with most modern expressions of pacifism. Pacifists are not only opposed to war and violence, but also reject the government’s right to bear arms. They believe the use of violence by anyone is inherently wrong and actively promote that the pacifist philosophy should be adopted by the world at large. Pacifism blurs the boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World and is forced to make excuses for the God sanctioned violence found in the Old Testament.

The word “nonresistance” is taken from Matthew 5:39, “But I say to you not to resist evil” It is strictly a New Testament (NT) doctrine, intended for the followers of Jesus, with a specific purpose during this NT church age. When we were baptized, we became citizens of the Kingdom of God, and as Catholics we accept the commands of the New Testament and the example of Christ as our rule for living, and we submit to the Authority of the Church. The new testament forbids the Christian from retaliation and revenge but instead charges us to pray, bless, and do good to those who would harm us. We suffer the spoiling of our possessions for Christ’s sake joyfully. We preach the Good News of the Gospel, which is a message of peace—reconciliation is possible between God and man. Jesus came not to resist and judge evil humanity, nor to set up an earthly government, but to willingly and peacefully lay down His life for His enemies. As followers of Christ, we are to follow His example so that our life becomes a living sermon, pointing to the life and works of Jesus. This is the purpose of non-resistance. Therefore, it is not a way of life to be foisted on those who are not the disciples of Jesus, because it is for the Church, a heavenly institution, established by God’s redeeming grace. Nor do we expect it of the state, which is a worldly institution, functioning under God’s conserving grace. The country is presently ordained by the sovereign God to carry the sword to keep order and execute the wrath of God, but nowhere in the New Testament are the Disciples of Jesus given a part in this service.

We are called to walk as Jesus walked and to go into the nations, making disciples, teaching them his commands, and trusting in God for our protection. The state and the Church are two separate institutions, differing in their purpose, character, and destiny.

The Starting Point:

Many of those who name the name of Jesus begin with the Old Testament (OT), using this to build a case for war and violence, then they move briefly to the NT at the end of their presentation. This is backwards. Scripture tells us that God has revealed His will for us at this time in Jesus, the incarnate Son (John 12:45-50; 14:7-10; Heb 1:1-2). It also tells us that the New Covenant takes precedence over the Old (Heb 8:1-13; 9:15-16). Saint Paul explains in Romans and Galatians that the intent of the Old Covenant was to point us toward Christ. Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31 and instituted by our Lord in Matthew 26:28. He set aside the Old Covenant and brought in the New Covenant. Jesus did not destroy the Law by fighting it; He destroyed it by fulfilling it! If I have an acorn, I can destroy it one of two ways. I can put it on a rock and smash it to bits with a hammer. Or, I can plant it in the ground and let it fulfill itself by becoming an oak tree.

There is a profound unity between the OT and the NT, but there are also profound differences. He has not only fulfilled the law (Matt 5:17), but He has changed it (Heb. 7:12). God does not change, but with the institution of the New Covenant, God is revealing Himself in a new way, and asking new things of His children. The NT saint will not look exactly like the OT saint. Therefore, we must look first to the direct and clear teaching of Jesus and His apostles. If we love Him, we will keep the commandments of Jesus. (John 14:15, 21, 23; I John 2:3-5)

To be a Christian is more than accepting a doctrine that Jesus has made atonement for our sin and that through faith we are reconciled to God. Jesus calls us to be his disciple, one who learns from him and accepts his teaching as authoritative; Jesus is our teacher, who interprets scripture for us. He has become our Lord and our example. We are to deny ourselves and walk as Jesus walked (Matt 10:38; Rom 6:4; I Jn 2:6;) and to have the same mind as Christ (Rom 15:5; Php 2:1-2). This transformation is only made possible by surrender to Him, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and it will result in a life radically different from the world.

As disciples of Jesus, we turn first to the Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim 3:15), who teaches us what Christ taught and proclaims the example of our Lord and His apostles. As participants in the new covenant, the Church starts with the NT and interpret the OT in the light of the NT. Then we conform our lives to this instruction, without trying to use the OT or inferences from less clear passages in the NT to evade the difficult teachings and lifestyle of the Christian way.

The teaching and example of Jesus

So, what is the teaching of Christ in relation to the concept of non-resistance? In Matthew 5:3-16, Jesus reveals what priorities and attitudes of the heart will bring us “blessedness” or divine joy. Here begins His revelation of a disciple who is called to trust God with all and to be an example of what Christ will suffer for our sake. Jesus then takes six crucial Old Testament Laws in Matt 5:21-48 and shows how the beatitudes are worked out in daily life. Jesus instructs us not to resist him who is evil, and when slapped, to turn the other cheek to be struck as well.

We are to give more than is required, even when we are treated unjustly (Matt 5:38-41). We are called to love our enemies, do good to them, bless them and pray for them. These are not suggestions but requisites for the child of God (Matt 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-29, 35).

Some have tried to reduce the demands of Jesus, asserting that the Sermon on the Mount is the “inner qualities of piety; ways to respond to our neighbors when they become sources of irritation.” This does not hold up under scrutiny--there is no hint that these principles are to be lived out with some people, some of the time. All through the NT, we see Jesus and the apostles demonstrating a sacrificial love for people of every nation, to those who were not merely irritations, but had murderous intent. They lived out these principles not only with their neighbor but also in the relationships of community, state, and the world.

We see the principles of the Sermon on the Mount lived out by the example and redemptive work of Jesus. He tells us in Matt 10:16-23, 38, 39 that we are to be harmless as lambs, innocent as doves in a wolf-like society. We are to expect persecution and suffering, and we are to continue His work without fighting back, walking the same road Jesus walked. All through the gospels, Jesus helped people, not by taking up the sword for them, but by meeting their spiritual and physical needs and defeating the works of Satan. We are called to the same service and must be willing to lay down our lives for others as he did, for both the defenseless and the powerful. This does not include taking up arms to defend others or ourselves.

The silence of Jesus is also instructive. Although he lived in politically tumultuous times, under a tyrannical government, Jesus largely ignored it and certainly did not agitate against it. In Luke 13:1-3, people bring to the attention of Jesus a civic atrocity by anyone’s standards. Apparently, Pilate killed some Galileans and mixed their blood with their sacrifices. But rather than denouncing this act of tyranny, Jesus continues to point people toward spiritual truths.

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus taught that there are only two kingdoms on earth, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. His message was “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, teaching us that we are not of this world, even as He was not. As Christians, our fight is spiritual, and we do not fight with physical weapons in this world, at this time (John 18:36).

As we approach the crucifixion, we continue to see the non-resistance of Jesus. He peacefully goes with His enemies, telling Peter to put away his sword (Matt 26:52). Peter’s instinct is to defend himself and Jesus against the aggressors, but Jesus rebuked him and healed the damage done. Jesus was fighting a spiritual battle, not a physical one, and his focus remained on the Kingdom of God and the will of the Father. While on the cross, Jesus modeled forgiveness and prayer for enemies. After His resurrection, He commissions the disciples to do the same works He has done, to live the same life He has modeled, stating, “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.” (John 20:21). He returned to His glory with the Father, and for the time, left us in a hostile world to carry on His work (John 17:14-18). Now we, his disciples, are called to point the way to Jesus by the preaching of repentance and reaching out to those in need--by loving and laying down our lives for our enemies. He preached, fed, healed, blessed, offered forgiveness and trusted God with all. It was a message of spiritual transformation, resulting in a sincere lifestyle change.

The teachings and example of the Apostles

The apostles understood and remained consistent to the teachings of Jesus, explaining that Christ is our example in love and suffering for our enemies (I Pe 2:21-25). Retaliation is forbidden (Rom 12:14-21; I Th 5:15; I Pe 3:9); we are to do good to those who persecute us and pray for those who use us despitefully. We see this modeled in the life of the apostles, as they endured stoning, imprisonment, and martyrdom for the sake of Christ. In both the teaching of Jesus and the apostles we see an emphasis on extending to all people the forgiveness and mercy we have received from God and to trust Him for the outcome.

We are to conduct ourselves as citizens of the Kingdom of God, with a different agenda from earthly kingdoms. We do not fight physical wars as the world does, but we fight a spiritual war using only spiritual weapons (II Co 10:3-5; Eph 6:12). Nowhere are we permitted to take up arms and destroy life. Not for our possessions, which are nothing to the believer (Heb 10:34), nor even in defense of others or at the direction of the state, because it is contrary to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. We can intervene in a peaceful way, even to the cost of our own life. Above all, we trust in a sovereign God who can protect us, but realizing He may allow injury or death according to His will and purpose. Regardless of how difficult or impractical the situation appears, the disciple of Jesus will remain faithful and obedient to the teaching and example of his King.

The non-resistance taught in the New Testament scripture is meant to expresses what Christ did on the cross and to communicate His offer of saving grace to the world. When God’s people live this way, it is a physical manifestation of the resurrected Christ in the world. The Christian is commanded to follow the example of Christ, laying down his life willingly, but never is he commanded to destroy life. Nowhere does scripture say, “As He died to make men Holy, let us kill to make men free”.

The Creation of the Church

Using the example of Israel in an attempt to justify the Christian's use of the sword is inadequate. As already noted, there are distinct differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, resulting in important differences between the nation of Israel and the Church. The Church is a new creation, parallel to, but not the same as Israel. Israel was God's chosen people, first a physical family, then a nation continued through genetic bloodlines. Each physical birth in one of the 12 tribes of Israel added a new citizen to the nation. Some of these citizens lived by faith, and some did not, but all were part of the nation of Israel.

Unlike Israel, the church is made up only of those spiritually born into the Kingdom of God and are living by faith. Our boundaries transcend earthly nations, and our first loyalty is to our Heavenly King. We are regenerated and given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, something Israel did not have. We are called to live by the Christian ethic described in the New Testament and given the power to do so. All the citizens of this new Kingdom are considered priests. One being of the faithful: The priestly people of God who has been given a share in his priesthood through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, And the second being the ministerial priesthood received in the sacrament of holy orders. In the case of both the Faithful and the Ministerial Priest, their must be a direct relationship to God, called to a holy life separated from the world. These New Covenant priests also have a calling the Old Covenant priests did not have. They are commissioned to go into all the world, to be ministers of God's love; to explain His offer of reconciliation to all the peoples of the earth, whether friend or foe, neighbor or stranger, tyrant or victim.

The function of the church is to demonstrate to the world the saving power and intention of God in Christ. Nowhere is the church given a part in the execution of God's wrath (until the second coming). Our weapons, as mentioned earlier, are strictly spiritual. Our only means of discipline is excommunication. God consistently tells us not to partake in vengeance but to leave it to Him. Presently, He reveals His wrath partially through the state, but He will do it completely at the second coming (Rev 19:11-15).

We are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom, saved by God's redeeming grace. The church is a heavenly institution, "in the world, but not of the world." It becomes apparent in scripture that God has chosen this new institute to be ministers of His love and sacrificial grace.

The role of the State

The God of the Old Testament is still the God of the New Testament—A God of mercy and love, but also a God of justice and righteousness. God has not changed, but how He reveals these attributes has. During this NT dispensation, the church is ordained by God to communicate His message of salvation and His attributes of love and mercy to the world. The state is ordained by God to manifest His justice and wrath, as it uses the sword to keep order and restrain evil (Rom 13; I Pe 2:14). God is sovereign over both these institutions, and He uses both for His purpose.

The governments receive their authority from God, and He continues to use it much as He did in the Old Testament—as an instrument of punishment for individuals within the state, and war between nations as a means to punish corporate wickedness and work out His purposes on earth.

Some will site Romans 13:1-7 as justification for the Christian to take up the sword when the state requires it. But to interpret it in this manner would cause the Christian to live in disobedience to the verses immediately preceding this, where he is instructed to live at peace with all men, return good for evil, be kind to his enemy, and leave vengeance to God (Rom 12:14-21). A more consistent way to understand Romans 13 is to acknowledge that while the state has the right to use the sword, the disciples of Christ have a different calling and therefore are forbidden to participate in this.

The NT does not portray the Kingdom of God uniting with earthly governments. The outlook of the NT is unconcerned with politics, despite that the political injustice that surrounded them. Nowhere does Jesus or the apostles imply that the NT Kingdom of God is connected to the geopolitical scene. The state is not meant to be redeemed, and theologically, there is no such thing as a “Christian” government or “Christian” nation. A Christian who tries to serve in the state will at some point be required to violate the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. T.S. Elliot writes, "The Christian and the unbeliever do not and cannot behave very differently in the exercise of office; for it is the general ethos of the people they govern, not their own piety, that determines the behavior of politicians." He goes on to say that a skeptical or spiritually indifferent statesman, governing a large body of devout Christians will be more effective than the Christian statesman who is expected to conform to a secular framework. I would also add that the Christian and the unbeliever do not and cannot act much differently in war.

Christians are not called to join and reform government, although we can influence them by our lifestyle, council, and spiritual warfare. Christians make their contribution to society as a people committed to God's redeeming Grace and living this out consistently on earth. We fight in the spiritual realm and become an instrument used by God to transform the lives of others. If Christians choose to be an instrument of God's conserving grace, to help restrain evil by the sword, they abdicate their responsibility and position as a child of God.

During this church age, God wants His children to walk as the incarnate Christ walked; sacrificially serving others to meet spiritual and physical needs. We are called to respect the authorities, be a productive working people, pay our taxes, pray and intercede for them. Sometimes we will reap the benefits of a peaceful government, and sometimes they will persecute us. We can follow Paul's example and appeal to our rights as citizens of the state, but ultimately, we must recognize that Jesus is our King and we cannot live in any way that contradicts what He has commanded us. Jesus and the apostles taught submission to all authorities, the just and the unjust, but only so far as it did not contradict the will of God for them (Acts 5:28-29). Even then, their disobedience to civic authorities was humble and non-violent. God is sovereign over the state and the church; He is the giver of life and possessions, and as citizens of His Kingdom we look to him for our direction, and we trust Him for our protection.

Words of the Church Fathers

For the first 300 years after the birth of the church, leaders were largely unified in the doctrine of non-resistance. Some proponents of Christian participation in warfare make the argument that it was not the killing these writers opposed, but the idolatry present in the Roman army. The words of these early church fathers however do not seem to support this.

Justin Martyr, 176 AD: “We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies.”

Tertullian: “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” When a man is in the service of the military and becomes a Christian, he said, “there must be either an immediate abandonment” of military service “which has been the case with many,” or the individual must suffer martyrdom.

Hippolytus (AD 170-236): Is thought to have written “The Apostolic Tradition,” one of the earliest of ancient church orders. It contains the three following articles: 17) A soldier who is of inferior rank shall not kill anyone. If ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed. 18) Anyone who has the power of the sword or the magistrate of a city who wears purple, let him give it up or be dismissed. 19) The catechumen or believers who wish to become soldiers shall be dismissed because they have despised God.

Irenaeus, 180 AD: These people (Christians) formed their swords and war-lances into plowshares…that is into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting. When they are struck, they also offer the other cheek.

Origen, 250 AD: “We have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘ anymore to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

Clement of Alexandria, c190 AD: “Christ with his blood gathers the army that sheds no blood…We Christians are a peaceful people bred not for war but for peace.”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage: Christians “are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves,” and “it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.” (The implication is that the Christian could not be the state’s executioner).

Lactantius of Bithynia: “When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence…but he warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus, it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare…”

Maximilian, AD 295: Is one example of many who refused military service to Rome. He is recorded as saying, “I cannot serve as a soldier; I cannot do evil; I am a Christian. You may cut off my head. I will not serve this world, but only my God”. He was put to death for his refusal to become part of the Roman military.

Note there is no mention of idolatry in these quotes--rather Christian participation in war and police action is condemned on the grounds that God forbids it for those who name Jesus Christ as Lord. While Christians are citizens of earthly nations, our first citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. When we are forced to choose between obedience to an earthly king, or King Jesus, we must choose the one who has purchased our souls with His own precious blood. Ultimately the NT alone is our authority and guide for living, but from these quotes, we learn that non-resistance is not some new, aberrant teaching that has sprung up in recent history, but was a consistent doctrine present in the early church.

What If?

Admittedly, the real-life implications of this doctrine can be very difficult; and as I mentioned in my introduction, completely contradict human nature, or at least my nature. It means the Christian cannot be a politician, policeman or soldier. When challenging non-resistance, people will often ask “What if” questions.

“What if,” they ask, “a crazed gunman breaks into your home and threatens to kill you or your family and the only way to stop him is to kill him with your hunting rifle? Do you defend yourself or your family? Surely God does not want you to stand by and do nothing!” No, God instructs us to do good to those who despitefully use us. We can place ourselves between the attacker and the family, we can speak words of truth and kindness to him, and we pray to the One who holds the situation in His hand. There are examples of when an act of kindness has prevented death; but there are also examples that have ended in bloodshed. While it is impossible to say how one would react in a difficult hypothetical situation, I pray I would have the grace to resist the natural response of fighting violence with violence and the courage to lay down my life, not only for my family but for the perpetrator. More than anything, I want to be obedient to the One who laid down His life for me and trust in a Sovereign God Who can spare my family if He wishes or call my family into eternity if He wishes.

Christians who are willing to take the life of another in defense of self or others must also answer some “what if” questions. What if your attempt to intervene violently results in more bloodshed then a non-resistant response? What if Jesus does want you to lay your life as a witness to His non-resistance and atoning work on the cross? What if Jesus really does want you to love your enemy, even at the expense of your own life?


Putting all this together, we have a coherent Catholic/Christian worldview that rightly understands God’s love as expressed in His justice and redemption. Non-resistance is an essential in the Christian life that takes seriously the example of Jesus, the commands of the New Testament, and the sovereignty of God. When it is consistently observed in the lives of Christians, they become a light to the world; testifying of a living faith; pointing to the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and the reality of the resurrection. This is a way God has chosen to communicate His gospel to the world.

Many theologians have recognized the tension between this doctrine and state service. Some reconcile this with a dualism that says Christians are expected to act one way under God’s redeeming grace (the Church), and another way under God’s conserving grace (the state). Others have tried to reconcile this by asking the State to conform to principles of non-resistance. As a people who have been saved out of the world into the Kingdom of God (Col. 1:13-14), it is a more consistent witness for Catholics to remember our primary citizenship and responsibility is to the Kingdom and our Lord Jesus. His claim on our life is absolute. Our calling is to be a separate, holy people, who strive to walk as Jesus walked and who are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

We live in a land filled with violence and fear. As people look for security, a culture war is waged between proponents of gun rights and proponents of gun restrictions. Let’s avoid getting drawn into this debate, as neither view is particularly relevant to the Christian. Rather take the opportunity to use the doctrine of non-resistance to point them to the cross and the true source of security, Jesus.