Pacifism in the Westminster Larger Catechism

The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms were written in the 1640's. B.B. Warfield, professor at Princeton in the late 1800's, wrote of the Westminster Standards,


[T]hey are the final crystallization of the elements of evangelical religion, after the conflicts of sixteen hundred years. . . . [T]hey are the richest and most precise and best guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion. . . .[1]
Below is the Catechism's exposition of the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Over the years, I have attempted to follow these commands, although I have come to reject the lines justifying war, lethal self-defense, and capital punishment. The footnoted Scripture references are in the original text of the Catechism.


Q. 134. Which is the sixth commandment?

A. The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.[2]

Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?

A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves,[3] and others[4] by resisting all thoughts and purposes,[5] subduing all passions,[6] and avoiding all occasions,[7] temptations,[8] and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence,[9] patient bearing of the hand of God,[10] quietness of mind,[11] cheerfulness of spirit;[12] a sober use of meat,[13] drink,[14] physick,[15] sleep,[16] labour,[17] and recreations;[18] by charitable thoughts,[19] love,[20] compassion,[21] meekness, gentleness, kindness;[22] peaceable,[23] mild and courteous speeches and behavior;[24] forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil;[25] comforting and succouring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.[26]

Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves,[27] or of others,[28] except in case of publick justice,[29] lawful war,[30] or necessary defence;[31] the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life;[32] sinful anger,[33] hatred,[34] envy,[35] desire of revenge;[36] all excessive passions,[37] distracting cares;[38] immoderate use of meat, drink,[39] labour,[40] and recreations;[41] provoking words,[42] oppression,[43] quarrelling,[44] striking, wounding,[45] and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.[46]

With the exception of the three highlighted items, this is a fairly clear and Biblically buttressed statement of pacifism. If you take these commandments seriously -- really seriously -- you will become a pacifist.

The three exceptions to the mandate of pacifism are:

 "Publick justice"
This refers to "Capital Punishment." The jump takes you to our page on the Death Penalty. It is not Biblically justifiable.

Once those verses which have been used to justify "Capital Punishment" are properly understood, then those verses in the Old Testament which speak of "Holy War" are also more understandable. But the Bible cannot be used to justify war in our day.

 "Necessary defence"
There is really only one verse which is used to justify "self-defense." That verse is examined here.

Granted, while the principles summarized by the Sixth Commandment should make you a pacifist, you may need to click on those jumps and study further before you will become one! I believe that if you study the whole matter, you will find two things: First, those three exceptions are not Biblically justified. Second, those three exceptions have, throughout history, completely swallowed up the rule. Christians for the last two thousand years have generally concluded that it is not wise to become spontaneously, habitually peaceful and non-violent because they must be "responsible," "practical," and "prepared." This means that instead of imagining and practicing non-violent responses to evil-doers, they anticipate responses of violence and "self-defense." They imagine in a moment of danger that their protection will not come from God, but from a Smith & Wesson (or, more likely, a cheaper, less reliable weapon).

In addition, because the State is allowed (if not mandated) to ignore completely all these commands, and to prepare and wage war, not peace, and because we are such a statist people, a climate exists in which it is considered "irresponsible" and "impractical" to train for peacemaking. This trend has culminated in the 20th century, the most statist, and therefore the most violent and lethal century in recorded history. Between 200 and 300 million people have been deliberately killed in this century. The overwhelming majority of these deaths have been inflicted by those who were "defending" themselves, or who have claimed a public duty (i.e., the State). And the overwhelming majority of these deaths have not been aggressors, but have been innocent victims.

We need a serious reconstruction of our view of peace and violence.

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(1) From an address "delivered, on its appointment, before the Presbytery of New York, Nov. 8, 1897" (from the Princeton Press, Nov. 13, 1897); published in book form under the title, The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed, 1898, reprinted in 2 Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield 660 (1973). [Back to text]

(2) Exodus 20:13. [Back to text]

(3) Ephesians 5:28-29. ("So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. {29} For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:") [Back to text]

(4) 1 Kings 18:4. ("For it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.") [Back to text]

(5) Jeremiah 26:15-16; ("But know ye for certain, that if ye put me to death, ye shall surely bring innocent blood upon yourselves, and upon this city, and upon the inhabitants thereof: for of a truth the LORD hath sent me unto you to speak all these words in your ears. {16} Then said the princes and all the people unto the priests and to the prophets; This man is not worthy to die: for he hath spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.") Acts 23:12,16-17,21,27. [Back to text]

(6) Ephesians 4:26-27. ("Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: {27} Neither give place to the devil.") [Back to text]

(7) 2 Samuel 2:22; ("And Abner said again to Asahel, Turn thee aside from following me: wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?") Deuteronomy 22:8. ("When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.") [Back to text]

(8) Matthew 4:6-7; ("And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. {7} Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Proverbs 1:10-11,15-16. ("My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. {11} If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: {15} My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: {16} For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood.") [Back to text]

(9) Psalm 82:4; ("Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.") Proverbs 24:11; ("If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain;") 1 Samuel 14:45. ("And the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.") [I cited the first two passages in my Petition before the California Supreme Court, Appendix B, "The Call to Justice."] [Back to text]

(10) James 5:7-11; ("Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. {8} Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. {9} Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door. {10} Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. {11} Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.") Hebrews 12:9. ("Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?") [Back to text]

(11) 1 Thessalonians 4:11; ("And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;") 1 Peter 3:3-4; ("Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; {4} But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.") Psalm 37:8-11. ("Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. {9} For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth. {10} For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. {11} But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.") [Back to text]

(12) Proverbs 17:22. ("A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.") [Back to text]

(13) Proverbs 25:16,27. ("Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it. {27} It is not good to eat much honey: so for men to search their own glory is not glory.") [Back to text]

(14) 1 Timothy 5:23. ("Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.") [Back to text]

(15) Isaiah 38:21. ("For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaster upon the boil, and he shall recover.") [Back to text]

(16) Psalm 127:2. ("It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.") [Back to text]

(17) Ecclesiastes 5:12; ("The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.") 2 Thessalonians 3:10,12; ("For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. {12} Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.") Proverbs 16:26. ("He that laboureth laboureth for himself; for his mouth craveth it of him.") [Back to text]

(18) Ecclesiastes 3:4,11, etc. ("A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; {11} He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.") [Back to text]

(19) 1 Samuel 19:4-5; ("And Jonathan spake good of David unto Saul his father, and said unto him, Let not the king sin against his servant, against David; because he hath not sinned against thee, and because his works have been to thee-ward very good: {5} For he did put his life in his hand, and slew the Philistine, and the LORD wrought a great salvation for all Israel: thou sawest it, and didst rejoice: wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause?") 22:13-14. ("And Saul said unto him, Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse, in that thou hast given him bread, and a sword, and hast inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day? {14} Then Ahimelech answered the king, and said, And who is so faithful among all thy servants as David, which is the king's son in law, and goeth at thy bidding, and is honourable in thine house?") [Back to text]

(20) Romans 13:10. ("Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.") [Back to text]

(21) Luke 10:33-34. ("But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, {34} And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.") [Back to text]

(22) Colossians 3:12-13. ("Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; {13} Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.") [Back to text]

(23) James 3:17. ("But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.") [Back to text]

(24) 1 Peter 3:8-11; ("Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: {9} Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing. {10} For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: {11} Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.") Proverbs 15:1; ("A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.") Judges 8:1-3. [Back to text]

(25) Matthew 5:24; ("Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.") Ephesians 4:2,32; ("With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; {32} And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.") Romans 12:17,20-21 ("Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. {20} Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. {21} Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.") [Back to text]

(26) 1 Thessalonians 5:14; ("Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.") Job 31:19-20; ("If I have seen any perish for want of clothing, or any poor without covering; {20} If his loins have not blessed me, and if he were not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;") Matthew 25:35; "(For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:") Proverbs 31:8-9. ("Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. {9} Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.") [Back to text]

(27) Acts 16:28. ("But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.") [Back to text]

(28) Genesis 9:6. ("Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.") [Back to text]

(29) Numbers 35:31,33. ("Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. {33} So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.") [Back to text]

(30) Jeremiah 48:10; ("Cursed be he that doeth the work of the LORD deceitfully, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.") Deuteronomy chapter 20 throughout. ("When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. {2} And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, {3} And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; {4} For the LORD your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you." etc.) [Back to text]

(31) Exodus 22:2-3. ("If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. {3} If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.") [Back to text]

(32) Matthew 25:42-43; ("For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: {43} I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. James 2:15-16; ("If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, {16} And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?") Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. ("There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: {2} A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.") [Back to text]

(33) Matthew 5:22. ("But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.") [Back to text]

(34) 1 John 3:15; ("Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.") Leviticus 19:17. ("Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.") [Back to text]

(35) Proverbs 14:30. ("A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.") [Back to text]

(36) Romans 12:19. ("Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.") [Back to text]

(37) Ephesians 4:31. ("Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:") [Back to text]

(38) Matthew 6:31,34. ("Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? {34} Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.") [Back to text]

(39) Luke 21:34; ("And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.) Romans 13:13. ("Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.") [Back to text]

(40) Ecclesiastes 12:12; ("And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.") 2:22-23 ("For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? {23} For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.") [Back to text]

(41) Isaiah 5:12. ("And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.") [Back to text]

(42) Proverbs 15:1; ("A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.") 12:18 ("There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.") [Back to text]

(43) Ezekiel 18:18; ("As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity.") Exodus 1:14. ("And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.") [Back to text]

(44) Galatians 5:15; ("But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.") Proverbs 23:29. ("Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes?") [Back to text]

(45) Numbers 35:16-18,21. ("And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. {17} And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. {18} Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. {21} Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him.") [Back to text]

(46) Exodus 21 from Ver. 18 to the end. [Containing laws for smiters, for an hurt by chance, for an ox that goreth, and for him that is an occasion of harm.] [note in original] [Back to text]

(47) I was again profoundly affected when I studied the conflict between the Protestant Reformers and the pacifistic Anabaptists of the 16th century. The Anabaptists rejected the moral legitimacy of church-state coercion, and attempted to live out commands such as these. Their radical pacifism was perceived to be a threat to the Establishment, and they were imprisoned and executed, often by the Reformers themselves, who at this point rejected Biblical Law in favor of Roman Law. John Calvin, trained as a lawyer, dedicated his Institutes of the Christian Religion to the King of France in an attempt to curry favor with the king and divert French persecution of the Protestants onto the Anabaptists. Nice guy. See generally, L. Verduin, Reformers and their Stepchildren (1980) and B. Nelson, The Idea of Usury (1969). Prior to my joining the Catholic Worker, members of an Anabaptist Bruderhof stayed at my home as they sold their crafts in the So. Cal. area. [Back to text]


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