Now that we’ve had a chance to discuss the case for pacifism (please read yesterday’s post), we are going to move on to understanding the Christian mindset on war from a non-pacifist’s point of view.
I believe most people will agree that the nature of war and our participation in it is not a cut and dry topic. We could probably discuss, ad-nauseum, the valid excuses to wage war and there would still be someone who could present a personal argument for why war is sometimes necessary or justifiable. All this is to say that the discussion of participating in war can be a difficult path to tread and one in which we should tread softly in light of what the Bible says. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular arguments for the validity of war and see what God’s word has to say on the topic.
One of the most popular arguments for war is the Old Testament precedent for war-making during biblical times. During the Old Testament dispensation, it seems that wars were occurring nonstop. Even though Christians today live under the New Testament dispensation, non-pacifists continue to declare that our right to engage in war has not been removed. They also argue that governments today have the God-given responsibility to use war and capital punishment to maintain order and promote justice.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes too many assumptions. The Israel of the Old Testament had divine approval to wage war against heathen nations who disregarded God (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). God commanded his people to act on his behalf when waging war against nations he wished to punish. We cannot, however, use that excuse today. We have no divine revelation or command from God requiring us to wage war against any evil nation today. In fact, our command is to love our enemies and to pray for those who wish to harm us (Matthew 5:43-48).
Another argument for the non-pacifist point of view is our need to defend ourselves against any danger that may threaten our rights or the common good of the people. This may be, in my opinion, the most common sense reason why war may be necessary at times. What’s important to remember is not whether something makes sense to us, but what God has commanded on the subject. There are several occasions where military service or analogies are mentioned in the New Testament, but interestingly, personal self-defense by a Christian was not. On the contrary, we are commanded not to resist an evil person (Matthew 5:38-42). While that is what the Bible teaches, not everyone in the early church agreed.
Augustine (354-430 AD) promoted Christian’s right to bear arms in war, but ironically denied the right of personal self-defense. “As to killing others in order to defend one’s own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happens to be a soldier or public functionary acting, not for himself, but in defense of others or of the city in which he resides” (Letters of St. Augustine). We must also remember that the church began to lose its way when acting on behalf of the State became more important that acting on behalf of God.
This naturally brings up our relationship to civil governments and how they function in a civilized society. With that in mind, let’s now look at what the Bible has to say concerning this matter:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
After careful study of this text, several things are apparent…
- God institutes our ruling authorities. This does not mean that God specifically condones the actions of our fallible human governments, but he does allow them to exist. We may not fully understand why certain governments are allowed to rise into power, but suffice it to say that God is always in control.
- God has good purposes for the government. The governments that God allows to exist are meant to rule in a way that honors Him and protects the good and justice of his people. Sadly, most governments and people in power use their station for personal or national gain and they forget who they are ultimately meant to serve. In a perfect world, governments would remember that they will one day answer to a higher power other than themselves.
- Governments have power to rule and punish. Verse 4 of the text above reminds us that the government has the right to bear the sword to punish wrongdoers. That God-given ability is to help protect a group of people and help promote some semblance of rule and order. The State has been given this right and, whether they know it or not, is acting on behalf of God because he has ordained them into this particular role. This may not necessarily apply to how we handle private situations though in light of our command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
- We have the obligation to submit. It is evident in this text that Christians are to submit to the governing authorities as if we were submitting to God. The underlying premise also evident is that our allegiance is always to God first before man or manmade governments. If a government acts in a manner that is displeasing to God or that is morally wrong, we are not under compulsion to obey. We must then ask if a government wishing to wage war is acting as a protector of freedom or in a manner that wishes to exert control over another nation. The dilemma created is one which all Christians must take seriously. Is the use of force against another a moral or immoral issue?
Finally, we’ll look at the non-pacifist doctrine of the lesser of two evils. This teaching places at odds the idea of going to war with the idea of apathy. We must choose the lesser of two evils, because to go to war is devastating, but to do nothing is equally destructive. According to Hans Morgenthau is his book The Nuclear Discussion: Continued, “man must minimize the evil he must do and maximize the good he can attain by putting his evil acts at the service of good ends.” The problem with this belief is that it allows room for particular evils as long as they lead to a greater good. I’m not so sure God would look at sin in a similar manner or condone any action by a Christian that would obviously lead to sin or the death of his fellow man.
At the end of this study, we’re left with the difficulty that war brings forth: Is it ok for a follower of Christ to condone and support the act of war is they do so in submission to their governing authorities? It is no easy question to answer. It requires gaining insight into the motivations of those governments. Even more important is to understand how God wishes for us to handle these situations in a way that honors him and his commandments. I’ll close with this quote from Allen C. Isbell:
“The peril of the non-pacifist is that they tend to equate Christianity with one particular nation or one specific system of government. The pacifist’s tendency to withdraw from all political affairs is perhaps, in some ways, a healthy corrective to this other extreme which identifies the cause of Christ with national interests. National feeling should not obscure the fact that the Christian’s first allegiance is to the kingdom of God which has members in every nation.”