James, in the 4th chapter of his letter, asks (literally), “where do wars and battles among you come from? Are they not from within, from your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (James 4:1). Though he seems to be using the language figuratively, the words he uses are usually used of literal warfare and military conflict. It would appear that while the question is aimed at interpersonal conflicts among believers, we could also ask it of nations, which literally wage war.
For the Christian the whole issue of war and warfare is, or should be an ethical issue that needs to be carefully considered.
The “ethics of war” may seem like an oxymoron to some. There are those who oppose war altogether and would say that war cannot ever be ethical (the “pacifist position”). There are those on the other hand who actually claim that (as someone recently told me) “war is not a moral issue,” period!, or that the Christian as a submissive citizen is duty-bound to submit to his government and thus to participate in, or at least to support that government in any and every war that government chooses to participate in. This is called by some, the “activist position.” The Bible appears to be ambiguous on the issue, and it would seem that proof texts can be found for both sides. But is either position really a biblical position?
I feel I’m taking a great risk in writing these thoughts. I have many friends who have chosen military service, some who have taken part in combat. I also know that even those who haven’t, hold views on this matter with great passion. So please bear with me. I am not here attempting to comment on any particular war, past or present.
The Old Testament. God is presented as a Warrior (Exodus 15:3). The Israelites are commanded not only to go to war, but to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan and other peoples. War fills the entire Old Testament, starting with Abraham’s defeat of the kings in Genesis 14.
The Psalms are full of songs of war, many of them written by the warrior king, David. Although we (New Testament Christians) often apply the language metaphorically it is clear that David was speaking of literal, physical enemies, as he called on God to both protect him and to smite his enemies (Psalm 3:3, 6, 7; 7:6; 10:26, etc.).
It would not be difficult to build an extreme pro-war theology if the Old Testament were our only source of material, but we must build our theology on the New Testament and interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New .
Jesus’ teachings. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount taught an ethic of peace, of forgiveness, of love for enemies, of non-violence and non-retaliation! Matthew 5:39: “But I say to you do not resist him who is evil, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Some have attempted to find justification for war in some of Jesus’ other sayings, as in Matthew 10:34, where He says “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The context, however, makes it clear that He is not advocating warfare but is warning His followers that following Christ often leads to conflicts, even with one’s own family.
It is also claimed that in Luke 22:35-38, Jesus is advocating taking the sword in self-defense. However, a few verses later when Peter actually uses the sword, he is reprimanded (verses 49-51; John 18:11). Especially note Matthew 26:51-53, where He says “ … all those who take up the sword will die by it.”
It is also claimed that His “violent” actions in casting the money changers from the temple, contradict a non-violence ethic. But His actions in these incidents seem to be mostly symbolic and it is not stated that He caused anyone physical harm (John 2:14-16; Matthew 21:12, 13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45, 46). His non-resistance at His trials demonstrates that He practiced what He preached (1 Peter 2:20-23).
It should be noted, however, first that Jesus was speaking to His hearers as individuals, not as nations, and second that Jesus never speaks for or against violence in protection of others. It appears that while He expects us not to retaliate or defend ourselves. He does not forbid us from protecting others, whether family, home, country, etc.
The New Testament on government. It would seem that the right to wage war is allowed to the nations of the earth and would even be included in their responsibility to use force to protect the innocent and avenge evil. “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:3, 4). The question for the Christian has to do with his own participation in war or a war, as well as his duty as a citizen to speak out in support of war or peace. And we should recognize also that as citizens of a representative democracy, we are part of the government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The argument about the Christian’s attitude toward participating in war is closely tied to our attitude toward human government. We are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Is military service something owed to Caesar or not? Paul, recognizing that human governments are appointed by God, commands that we “render to all what is due them” (Romans 13:1-7). He does not include military service in his list of things due (verse 7). Nor is it found anywhere in the New Testament as the Christian’s responsibility.
Military men in the New Testament. An ethic of war must consider how the New Testament regards military men. Soldiers are not always presented favorably in the New Testament (Mark 15:16-20; Luke 23:11; John 19:1-3), although John the Baptist when addressing soldiers, warns them, not that their occupation is wrong, but that they are not to abuse it by extortion, false witness or discontentment. The Roman centurions (literally, leaders of 100, probably equivalent to a master sergeant) are usually presented favorably in the Gospels and Acts (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Even the centurion who was in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion is seen as confessing Christ’s innocence and deity (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47). In Acts 10, Cornelius, a centurion. became the first Gentile (non-Jew) to come to faith in Christ. Cornelius was nowhere told that he must resign his position. Perhaps these examples would fall under Paul’s instructions to remain in the calling in which we were called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).
These examples would lead us to believe that a military occupation was not considered wrong in itself; and if this is correct, it would seem that war cannot be perceived as intrinsically wrong. So while participation in war may or may not be the Christian’s responsibility, neither is he or she forbidden to participate.
The just war theory. How do we reconcile the various biblical strands of thought? How can we balance Jesus’ teaching on non-violence with obedience to human government and government’s responsibility to maintain justice, by force if necessary? Since the time of Augustine, Christians, in attempting to deal with what appears to be an ethical dilemma, have accepted a set of criteria by which war may be considered just. This position is neither a totally pacifist, nor a totally activist position. It assumes that some wars are just and some are not, and that wars are to be conducted in a just manner. These criteria are listed in various ways, but usually include the following:
-- A just cause, such as self-defense or the conquest of evil.
-- A competent authority, a legitimate government. This would, of course, rule out individuals, private militia, etc., waging their own personal wars.
-- A right intention, an appropriate end goal, which of course must be peace and justice.
-- Last resort, war should only be engaged in when all other methods fail.
-- Proportionality, the good to be achieved must outweigh the damage done.
-- Waged discriminately, avoiding harm to non-combatants wherever and whenever possible.
These principles were, I believe, first designed for the state. They seem to assume a “Christian nation” determining whether to go to war, and if so, how to wage it. But as I have argued elsewhere, there is no such thing as a “Christian nation.”
However, we as individual Christians can use these same criteria to determine whether or not we should support or participate in a particular war. We can also, as citizens of a representative democracy, use them to evaluate and speak out on our government’s actions in entering into and engaging in war.
The consequences of non-participation for those who oppose war or a particular war. As in other situations, the biblical example is that of submission to authority, even when resisting that authority. The Christian who chooses not to participate in war , or a particular war would have to object on biblical or related grounds, such as the just war theory, and must be willing to accept the consequences of his or her decision.
Further thoughts on war in the Old Testament. Having arrived (hopefully) at a biblical position on war based on the New Testament we must reexamine the Old Testament in light of this position, as well as in its own context.
-- The Christian is under the New Covenant and the Law of Christ, not the Mosaic Covenant and Law. The rules given in the Mosaic Covenant are not to be taken out of context and applied directly to the Christian.
-- Under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel, the nation, was the manifestation of the Theocratic Kingdom. As such Israel’s responsibility was to promote and extend that Kingdom on the earth. War was one of the means used for this promotion. Other means were also used, such as prophetic preaching. Under the New Covenant, however, the method used is to be the preaching of the gospel (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8, etc.).
-- Wars often were (and perhaps still are) used by God as a means for bringing about His judgment on wicked peoples and nations. The extermination of the Canaanites falls into this area (Genesis 15:16). Even the later conquest of Israel by foreign powers is seen as a judgment on Israel’s sin (Habakkuk 1:2-11).
-- Often the wars of Israel are simply reported, without comments as to whether or not these wars are “just wars.” We should be careful not to make “prescription” out of “description.”
-- The fact that much material in the Old Testament is given to “rules of warfare” (such as Deuteronomy 20), does not in itself justify warfare any more than the rules for divorce justify divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). It may be that God is simply making concession “because of the hardness of (our) heart” (Matthew 19:8).
War is at best a means to an end (the lesser evil?). God’s ultimate design for His Kingdom is peace (Isaiah 2:4; Mark 4:3; Romans 14:17).