Should the State turn the other cheek?

James M. Arlandson

I have often heard confusing and confused uses of "turn the other cheek." The saying seems so imbalanced and out of touch with reality, as it circulates around the world, out of context and isolated. Someone gets punched, and he is told to turn the other cheek. I also hear pacifists say this to the government when it is about to respond to an attack. "Jesus said to ‘turn the other cheek.’ So how can we commit an act of violence in response?"

It’s that last application I’m concerned about. At first glance, the clause seems to teach universal pacifism. But where exactly does the high standard come from in the Gospels? What happens if we examine the verse in context? To whom should it apply? To the kingdom of Caesar (the State) or to the followers of Christ in the kingdom of God?

Let’s find out what the famous saying means through three possible interpretations and see if the saying itself and any of the interpretations are relevant to the State.

Rhetorical interpretation

One interpretation says that the clause is rhetorical. It is a hyperbole or an obvious and intentional exaggeration, not to be taken literally. For example, Matt. 7:3-5 shows Jesus’ use of this time-honored and effective rhetorical device, in which he says to pull a "plank" out of our eye before we judge. Obviously, we cannot literally have a plank in our eye. So the rhetorical interpretation of "turn the other cheek" is plausible. It protects the clause from being distorted and misapplied beyond recognition when it is interpreted too literally and too far.

Thus, it is a little known and little appreciated fact that Jesus replied to his critics as they insulted him. He was not literally slapped until his arrest and trial, and at that time he was submitting to God’s plan to die for the sins of the world. However, before then, during his three-year ministry, he did not stand there meek and mild and silent, looking down at the ground wishing for the verbal assaults to finish. Rather, he confronted the insults and the insulters (see almost the entire chapters of Matt. 12, Luke 20, and John 8 for examples), or he walked away. So we should not drive "turn the other cheek" into absurd directions of absolute passivity.

However, let’s take the clause as if it should be put into practice, not only as a rhetorical device. Many scholars believe that taking it as written explains it more clearly, as it was originally intended. Thus, at least two other main interpretations of the verse are possible: the historical (legal) and the eschatological (the end times), which can overlap. Our focus is on them for the rest of the article.

Historical interpretation

Here is the verse quoted in the famous Sermon on the Mount. Matt. 5:38-39 says:

38 You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." 39 But I tell you, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also." (Matt. 5:38-39)

So it appears in the context of the law of retaliation between neighbors or in a small dispute, not a national crisis. There are four parts to the historical (legal) interpretation.

First, Jesus ministered in Israel four decades before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. And at that time the law of retaliation appears in a legal context, in a courtroom, not in a dispute that was settled by private vendettas. The Mishnah, an early source of commentary on the Torah, was finalized in its written form at the end of the second century or beginning of the third century AD, but the traditions were transmitted orally long before that. Though caution should be observed in using the Mishnah for New Testament studies due to the chronological gap (first to third centuries), the Rabbinic rulings may hint at the ethos or general character of the first century, especially when relative unanimity among the Rabbis prevailed. Jesus could not fail to know this ethos.

The following passage from the Mishnah, seen in the context of bodily injuries, says that all disputes of this kind must be heard in a court:

Assessment [of injury] in money or money’s worth must be made before a court of law . . . . (Baba Kamma 1.3)

At this time in Judaism, bodily injuries could be compensated for with money. Also, Matt. 5:40 confirms a legal context: "if someone wants to sue you." Finally, Matt. 5:25 exhorts Jesus’ disciples to be reconciled with an adversary who is taking them to court, again a legal context.

Second, the word "strike" can mean to hit with the palm of the hand, the assailant doing this deliberately, not in a brawl (A. B. Bruce, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 112). Also, if a hand strikes the right cheek, and the assailant is right-handed, then this means that it is the back of the hand that makes contact, further indicating formality and deepening the insult (D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, vol. 8, p. 156; Mishnah Baba Kamma 8:6). In addition, the Greek word for "strike" is found in Matt. 26:67, Mark 14:65, John 18:22 and 19:3, all of which speak of a legal context, after the trial of Jesus. This indicates formality and a ritual. So the offended party who follows Jesus should not retaliate when formally opposed or insulted.

Third, the command not to resist "evil" or an "evil or bad one" (person) should be clarified. Evil is an abstraction until it is embodied in people. So in my opinion it is best to see the meaning of the word as an "evil person" in its historical context. The Judaism of Jesus’ time is first concerned with social guidelines, not abstract theology. Matt. 5:25-26 says to settle a dispute peacefully on the way to court, when an opponent has something against the follower of Jesus. But in Matt. 5:38-39, the follower has a grievance against a neighbor. Either way, Jesus is merely saying that it is better either to pursue peace (vv. 25-26) or to let the offense go (vv. 38-39), rather than drag the offender into court and rather than let the opponent drag the Christian into court. Instead of the disciples of Christ taking an adversarial position, he counsels them to see the "evil person" as a future friend and brother outside of a court of law, while they love their enemy and pray for him (vv. 43-48). This is sound advice to his followers who are called to lead in a new and higher way, rather than demand their rights in a court of law.

Fourth, the verse must be interpreted in its literary context, or the verses surrounding the target verse. One commentator paraphrases Christ’s central idea according to the entire context of the key verse in this way: "Though the judge must give redress when demanded, you are not bound to ask it, and if you take My advice you will not" (Bruce, p. 112). In other words, Christ does not deny that anyone has the legal freedom to sue for an offense, because he understood and respected the Torah, which allows for it. For example, 1 Cor. 6:1-8 discusses setting up Christian courts of arbitration. So the Scriptures do not forbid entirely settling disputes in a court of law. Jesus’ main point is the following in a legal context: his disciples should not retaliate, but obey Lev. 19:18 and Matt. 5:42-45, which exhort them not to bear a grudge or seek revenge, but to love their neighbor. He shows us a higher way: forgiveness and reconciliation.

It should be pointed out before leaving this section that some interpreters see Matt. 5:38-39 as legal and also eschatological (Carson, p. 156). Both interpretations may be true at the same time. But it is to this last one that we now turn.

Eschatological interpretation

"Eschatology" means "the study of the last or end times." In the context of Jesus’ ministry, this means that he is ushering in a new way of living for his followers. He is about to send the Spirit so his followers can walk in his new call of the kingdom of God.

This is the context of Luke 6:29, the parallel passage of Matt. 5:39. Luke 6:29 (bold font) reads:

27 "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)

Now the clause appears in a context other than a legal one. (Anyone who has taught for any length of time knows that familiar and favorite ideas are given in different forums and to different audiences.) And this context talks about kingdom believers as individuals or as a community (e.g. a church) loving enemies, blessing and praying for them, and doing good to them. These high commands can be done only after the coming of the Spirit in a New Age and within the kingdom of God.

A commentator on this passage writes that "turn the other cheek" means the "ritual slap on the cheek given a Christian ‘heretic’ in the synagogue" (E. E. Ellis, quoted in Walter W. Wessel, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 893). This analysis fits perfectly with Jesus’ prediction that some of his early followers, in sharing their faith in their own Jewish setting, may be flogged, which is worse than a slap on the face (Matt. 10:17). Christians will also suffer persecution in the larger gentile world (v. 18). So Jesus’ counsel to them is that wherever and whenever they are persecuted, they must not take revenge, such as sending out an assassination hit squad to kill the accuser or the judge in revenge for unjust persecution (assassinations were not uncommon in the ancient world). Instead, the disciples are to walk out of the village, town, or city, shaking the dust off their feet and going elsewhere (v. 23; Luke 10:10).

I have a friend (call him Joe) who in his early twenties worked at a summer job with a bully. He did not literally slap Joe (which may have been done formally in the ancient world, but not today, in the same way). Rather, the bully mocked Joe’s faith and made his employment unpleasant. However, Joe would only look the bully in the eye, say his name, and then tell him, "Jesus loves you!" (or words like that). Joe did not take him to court on harassment charges. At the end of the summer the bully converted to Christ. He was overpowered by the kingdom message of the love of God. Years later, the ex-bully was a guest speaker at a Christian retreat that Joe led and I attended. It seems Joe followed the example of Jesus in replying to a critic (see Rhetorical interpretation, above). I have heard of similar stories.

I would not apply Joe’s solution to every situation that the reader may know about. For example, a reader’s life may be threatened, which is different from a formal "slap" on the cheek, so he should report the danger to the appropriate authorities. Also, domestic violence should not be tolerated because a divine covenant is being broken between the couple who had become one flesh, so the battered does not have to turn the other cheek. The domestic violence may escalate and threaten the life of the battered who should seek help. Neither example has anything to do with a rhetorical device, a legal context in settling a dispute between neighbors, or an outside enemy insulting the kingdom believer. The original contexts of "turn the other cheek" must be maintained, instead of applying carelessly the clause everywhere and anywhere.

However, Joe’s kingdom action in his own context is what an eschatological interpretation embodies. He turned the other cheek or did not retaliate and then turned an enemy into a friend. The commands of the kingdom of God may be difficult, but the new community can do them only through Christ. It is the kindness of God expressed by his followers during insults that may win people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Jesus Christ is the ultimate example during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The king’s sacrifice and kingdom action have been calling enemies for two thousand years, all over the globe, turning them into friends of God before the great judgment (the heavenly legal context) is called into session on the last day.


The key to understanding this series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament is found in the first article. There Jesus separated the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar. The early church followed his wisdom. The results of this study support that two-kingdom theology.

Thus, in addition to the rhetorical interpretation, we have two other main ones, the historical (legal) and the eschatological. But whichever one an individual Christian or believing community chooses (or a combination of the three), none of the interpretations directly apply to the State. "Turn the other cheek," appearing in the context of the Sermon on the Mount and then the Sermon on the Plain, is addressed to the new kingdom community who heeds the call to a new way of life. The kingdom of Caesar has to deal with life-and-death danger, not a rhetorical device, a formal slap on the face between neighbors in a legal context, or a personal, eschatological context of insults. To be accurate and faithful to the verse, it says nothing about a national attack or criminal activity, which the kingdom of Caesar has to deal with.

Therefore, certain extra-pious church leaders must be careful not to wrench out of context a verse meant for kingdom Christians and apply it to the State as if the State is part of that kingdom. The two kingdoms of God and of Caesar must not be fused together.

Further, the two passages in Matthew and Luke should not be misinterpreted to ignore the helpless. It is one thing to let go of an offense if it happens personally to you as an individual Christian. But it is quite another to walk away if the insult happens to someone else. In that case, no one who can offer help should ignore the plight of the weak and persecuted. Therefore, it is unwise to force "turn the other cheek" on to the military and police officers that have to protect the weak and persecuted. As organizations, they do not live under the same demands as eschatological believers do, though there may be some who work in the two honorable, God-ordained institutions (Rom. 13:1-7).

As noted in Part Four, the New Testament permits the State to respond to crime or an attack, even with a sword. True, a government may negotiate when attacked, for it does not have to go to war or respond in kind every time. But no government official should feel bound by "turning the other cheek."

In contrast to the State, the Church as an institution is "pacifist" only in its own actions and internal policies, because it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God, his active rule and dynamic reign. And Jesus the resurrected king waged only spiritual warfare, and the Apostles followed this path in early church history. Therefore, the Church—as the Church—should never convene a council or general assembly to raise a militia to fight battles or coerce dissidents and heretics to conform. But the Church violates its own Scriptures if it transfers this kingdom policy (only pacifism within itself) to the State.

Therefore, if the State does not respond, even with the sword, to a national attack or criminal activity, then such passivity and inaction becomes immoral and negligent—even vile. This violates the full teaching of the New Testament. The general population must be protected immediately, even if the State has to swing the sword (Rom. 13:1-7).

The complete series of articles:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:    
Part Eight:
Jesus, Pacifism, and the Sword
Pacifism and the Sword in the Gospels
Soldiers, Officers, and God
Church and State—and the Sword
Should the State turn the other Cheek?
Questions and Answers on Pacifism and the Sword
Addendum—Fight or Flight?

The New International Version has been used throughout this article, but other translations may be read here.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
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