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A path away from Passivism, better not taken

I was surprised, about a decade ago, to find someone who proclaimed himself a Christian and a Biblical Literalist (his capital letters) - but who didn't think the Sermon on the Mount applied to him.

He'd been talking on a political forum about how the best thing to do to pacifists was punch them in the face, wait for them to get up, ask them if they were still pacifists, and if they said yes, punch them in the face again, then repeat. Yes. That was his gentle version.

I asked him how it squared with his proclaimed faith and the Sermon on the Mount that's generally front and center in Christian conversation, and he said, no, no, the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom teaching". It's a nice idea now, but only tells you what the kingdom to come will look like. In the meantime, it doesn't apply to Christians.

I was puzzled, but over the next few years later I found more discussion of this approach, which seems to come from the dispensationalist interpretation of the Scofield Reference Bible. If you take the notes to the Sermon on the Mount in that Bible literally, you can reach that conclusion, exempting yourself from considering the Sermon on the Mount (and its parallels, and many other similar passages) obligatory.

The notes (which are now out of copyright) read:

Having announced the kingdom of heaven as "at hand," the King, in Mat 5.-7., declares the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application:

  1. literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution, which may be regarded as an explanation of the word "righteousness" as used by the prophets in describing the kingdom (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 Isaiah 11:5 ; 32:1 ; Daniel 9:24

    In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, and transfers the offence from the overt act to the motive. Matthew 5:21 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:27 Matthew 5:28 . Here lies the deeper reason why the Jews rejected the kingdom. They had reduced "righteousness" to mere ceremonialism, and the Old Testament idea of the kingdom to a mere affair of outward splendour and power. They were never rebuked for expecting a visible and powerful kingdom, but the words of the prophets should have prepared them to expect also that only the poor in spirit and the meek could share in it (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 . The seventy-second Psalm, which was universally received by them as a description of the kingdom, was full of this.

    For these reasons, the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven. Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 Matthew 6:15 . Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven. Ephesians 4:30-32 .

  2. But there is a beautiful moral application to the Christian. It always remains true that the poor in spirit, rather than the proud, are blessed, and those who mourn because of their sins, and who are meek in the consciousness of them, will hunger and thirst after righteousness, and hungering, will be filled. The merciful are "blessed," the pure in heart do "see God." These principles fundamentally reappear in the teaching of the Epistles.

(line breaks and emphasis added)

Though this certainly strikes many of the components of the earlier description of the Passivist conversation, it has many other consequences. (American premillenial dispensationalists did, for a long time, find other reasons to stay out of activism beyond what they considered strictly religious, but returned as a force in the political world over the past several decades.)

I've never found Scofield's reading of the Bible to be anything close to literal or even to resemble plausible. I can't propose this approach as an acceptable path away from Passivism.