Christians are divided on Jesus’ message regarding participation in war; joining the army, even self defense.

Many Christian denominations believe in the concept of a just war including the right of countries to maintain armies.  The Roman Catholic Church has maintained this position for ages.  They have specified conditions that are required for a war to be just:[i]

“The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”[ii]

Other Christian groups have issued statements against war without requiring all their member to abstain from participating.  Here is a Methodist statement:

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.[iii]

The Methodists claim to speak only for the UMC, and in fact say in their website that within the UMC are groups that believe in a just war and those that reject it, with a variety of positions in between.

Mennonites and Amish are two Christian groups that totally reject war.  Here is an excerpt from the Mennonite website:

“Rejection of the Sword

One of the foundational teachings of the Mennonites from the very beginning was rejection of war and use of the sword. Conservative Mennonites do not join peace marches or try to dictate to governments what they should with regards to war. Mennonites recognize that God has given human governments the right to use the sword in punishment and in defensive wars. But they believe there is a distinction between citizens of God’s kingdom and citizens of this world.

Jesus commanded His disciples: “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . .Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:39,44). From the very beginning, Christians understood Jesus’ commandment to rule out Christians going to war. The entire Church held to that position until the time of Constantine in the fourth century.”[iv]

As these groups must serve in  some capacity rather than serve in armed services there are organizations that do Christian “peace” work.    Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is an organization that provides peace mission opportunities for pacifist Christians.

Biblical Discussion

Verses that seem to reject the use of force and war

Pacifist groups like the Mennonites and the Amish focus only on verses that promote peace and there are many.  Here are some of them:

Matt. 5:39,44 are included in the Mennonite discussion above.  These verses specifically say to turn the other cheek and to not resist the evil person.

Jesus praised peacemakers:

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.   (Matthew 5:9)

Jesus’ mission was to lead people in the way of peace:

Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.  (Luke 1:76-79)

The golden rule says that we should do as we would want others to treat us.  Does anyone really want to have war declared on them?

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.   (Matthew 7:12)

Jesus admonished that you reap what you sow, ergo, if you sow war you will reap war:

Then saith Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.   (Matthew 26:52)

The OT admonishes against trusting in the army’s might:

Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek Jehovah!   (Isaiah 31:1)

For the Christian, the warfare is spiritual, not physical:

(for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds),   (2 Corinthians 10:4)

We are warned not to seek revenge:

Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded: not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing.  (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Verses that allow for the use of force and war

The problem for the pacifist is that there are also many verses that allow for the use of the sword and war.  Here are some of them:

The Old Testament

First of all, the Old Testament is scripture also.   When it says that all is scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof , and correction, that not only includes the OT, at that time of the writing of the New Testament books only the OT was considered scripture. In the old Testament:

  • God established the death penalty.  The commandment translated “Thou shalt not kill.” actually should read “Thou shalt do no murder.” The commandment bans murder, not killing.  God provided that those that murdered were to be killed:

And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it: and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.   (Genesis 9:5-6)

  • The prophet Abraham led a retaliatory attack to free Lot.  After the raid he was blessed by the legendary Melchizadek, King of Salem and priest of God:

And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people. And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale of Shaveh (the same is the King’s Vale). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be God Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him a tenth of all.   (Genesis 14:14-20)

  • The capture of the promised land was a war campaign
  • Some of the greatest Old Testeament leaders and examples of believing were warriors; David, Gideon, Samson, etc.
  • Ecclesiastes frankly says that there is a time to kill:

a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;   (Ecclesiastes 3:3)

  • Peace was always the goal in both political and civil matters in Israel, but the use of force was regularly required to achieve it

The New Testament

Despite Jesus’ admonitions about turning the other cheek and pursuing peace, he said a number of things that are contrary to the idea that He always meant for us NOT to use force.

He proclaimed that he came to send the sword, the symbol for war and conflict:

Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.   (Matthew 10:34)

He allowed for a standing army because he didn’t advise soldiers to leave the service, rather he advised the men to be content with their wages and act righteously:

And there came also publicans to be baptized, and they said unto him, Teacher, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort no more than that which is appointed you. And soldiers also asked him, saying, And we, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages.  (Luke 3:12-14)

Jesus (and Peter for that matter) ministered to soldiers.  Jesus praised the soldier’s faith:

And Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself; for I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. And when Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned and said unto the multitude that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole.  (Luke 7:6-10)

The first Gentile to be accepted into the faith was a soldier, Cornelius, in Acts chapter 8.

While Jesus at least one time told the disciples  to get rid of their swords, at another place he tells them to get swords.  In fact the verses speak to Jesus’ instruction that there was a time to not have a sword and there was a time to have one.   There doesn’t seem to be any way that someone with a sword wouldn’t use it if necessary:

And he said unto them, When I sent you forth without purse, and wallet, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing. And he said unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword.  (Luke 22:35-36)

In conclusion

This is a powerful and emotional issue. No church regards war as a desirable choice, but most churches leave the choice up to the conscience of the individual while a few make nonviolence a core belief.

The bible appears to allow for the use of force when necessary, but this is remains a divisive issue as there are groups on both sides of the issue and in places between.

[i] www.catholic.com/, the U.S. largest “lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization”, this page located at http://www.catholic.com/library/Just_War_Doctrine_1.asp
[ii] ibid
[iii] The United Methodist Church, the Book of Discipline, seen at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.1696621/k.8834/War_Overview.htm
[iv]The Mennonites website, http://themennonites.org/, this page at http://themennonites.org/mennonite-beliefs/

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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