The War Issue


     There are some subjects about which we expect to find diversity and even a plethora of views, the war issue is such a topic. Added to the variety of views, there is the relevancy of the war question. For the past 5, 500 years, the world has only known about 300 years of peace. Since 3, 600 B. C., there have been more than 14, 000 large and small wars in which 3. 5 billion people have been killed (War and Conscience by Allen Isbell, Preface). Many historians believe that the early church (first couple centuries) did not endorse the Christian actively participating in the taking of human lives in carnal warfare. However, with the event of Constantine and his baptism, there were many changes. Constantine's vision and victory over Maxentius on October 28, 312 A. D. led way to the "Imperial Church." The Imperial Church formulated an ethic of war, which became known as the "Just War Doctrine." As a result of this teaching, historians tell us that early Christians began to change their posture relative to their participation in physical warfare. Two important documents that provide us with insight as to the position and thinking of "early Christians" pertaining to the war question are "The Testament of Our Lord" (composed ca. 460 A. D.) and "The Egyptian Church Order" (written ca. 425 A. D.). In the former, it was stated that a man in the military could not even be baptized unless he left the service. In short, the document forbade the Christian from serving in the army. This was such a strong position by many professing "Christians" at the time of this document that the church was called upon to withdraw from any member who served in the military. The "Egyptian Church Order" contained similar instruction and statements.

     The history of God's people beginning almost in Acts 2 has been characterized by problems relative to the war issue. One of the most bloody and tragic wars ever found was the Civil War. The Civil War was especially horrible because it was fought on American soil and often involved father against son, brother against brother, and even professing Christians fighting on opposite sides. Lower estimates involve a total of about 600, 000 killed with many suffering dismemberment and life long disabilities. At this point, I shall insert quotations of two well known preachers of the Civil War era to show the emotional impact the Civil War had on Christians:

     "I know not what course other preachers are going to pursue, for they have not spoken; but my own duty is now clear, and my policy is fixed….In the meantime if the demon of war is let loose in the land, I shall proclaim to my brethren the peaceable commandments of my Savior, and train every nerve to prevent them from joining any sort of military company or making any warlike preparations with men of the world, and especially with political and military leaders; and there are some who might style it treason. But I would, ten thousand times, be killed for refusing to fight, than fall in battle, or come home victorious with the blood of my brethren on my hands" (April, 1861, a private letter written by J. W. McGarvey).

     "We cannot always tell what we will, or will not do. There is one thing, however things may turn, or whatever may come, that we will not do, and that is, we will not take up arms against, fight and kill the brethren we have labored for twenty years to bring into the kingdom of God…." (The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Franklin and J. A. Headington, published 1879, pg. 286, 287).

     World War Two is statistically outstanding in the matter of human causalities. We are told that there were a total of 30, 000, 000 deaths. If there is another World War, there is no telling what we shall see in terms of casualties. The increased casualties will be experienced because of man's increased capability for mass destruction.

     I shall now direct your attention to eight biblical particulars that are pertinent to the war issue and question.

     The war question and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught "…love your enemies…do good to them that hate you…and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you" (Matt. 5: 44). It was Jesus in this sermon who said, "…resist not evil…but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (vs. 39).

     Involved in the war issue are graduated positions. On one side is the position of absolute pacifism. This view is that the Christian is subject to any abuse and has no recourse, even to the preclusion of calling the police for protection for himself and his family. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the position, "One must do whatever it takes and if the government says go to war, no questions should be asked."

     At first glance, it would appear that Jesus' above teaching is setting forth the idea of absolute pacifism. One rule of Bible study, though, is that one passage may qualify, modify, or restrict another and all pertinent teaching on a given subject must be assembled before any deduction can be made. Would not Paul's teaching about providing for one's own also include protection? (I Tim. 5: 8.) My mother experienced a divorce when I was thirteen. There was a child molester who was determined to have my two-year-old sister. Each night he became bolder in his attempts until he managed to enter her bedroom and almost abduct her. What recourse did we have? According to absolute pacifism, the police could not have even been contacted. However, they were. "There isn't anything that we can do, this man is obsessed and will likely succeed in his intentions," said they. "Do you have a gun?" they asked me and my reply was, "yes, I do." I stood guard at my sister's bedroom window with my shotgun in my hand. The pedophile never returned. Does Jesus' teaching mean that the attitude should have been, "Here she is, take her and satisfy your sick desires"? Jesus is not addressing all matters and circumstances in his enunciation. I do not know that Jesus even had the war issue in mind, but rather the personal life of those to whom he addressed these Kingdom principles, prospective Christians and their position relative to religious persecution. If one were to without qualification, "Give to him that asketh thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away," one would not have to provide for one's own family (I Tim. 5: 8). To so use Matthew 5: 42 is to make it contradict other verses, such as 2 Thessalonians 3: 10. Therefore, there is an understood qualification involved in Jesus' teaching.

     The war question and greed. James wrote, "From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not…(Jas. 4: 1, 2). While James wrote this regarding spiritual warfare and conflict, much of what James said is too often true pertaining to physical warfare. I would venture to say that most of the 14, 000 plus wars in earth's history have had greed and sinful political interest as the impetus. How, then, can a Christian not be concerned about taking up arms for his country? There surely must be some investigation, to say the least, before a Christian forms a decided view about a specific war.

     Involved in the "Just War" tenet is the simple matter of "is the enemy attacking and invading home soil?" Many believe that in the event of an evasion, Christians are at liberty, even bound, to fight for their country. "They are really simply fighting for their own families and the families of others," it is explained. However, how about the military strategy of, "we must take the offensive in order to be defensive"? If an evil ruler, such as Adolph Hitler, is planning to take over the world, is not offensive warfare in order? As mentioned, the war question can be complex and involve many nuances. If family protection is allowed and even required based on I Timothy 5: 8, are we allowed to extend the principle to include one's own country? These are questions the Christian must address, even if it is believed the war is not political and prompted simply out of greed on the part of the leaders of one's own country.

     The war issue and John's teaching to the soldiers. We read in Luke chapter three that many came to John the Baptist for instruction. Among those who came were soldiers.

     "And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages" (Lk. 3: 14).

     Those in favor of the Christian actively serving in the military point out that here was a good chance for John to teach against any military involvement, but he did not. When examining this example to ascertain its place in the warfare question, we must be aware that these were men already in the military. Some believe that these soldiers were Jewish soldiers rather than Roman or Gentile, they say this in view of John speaking to them as Jews who were concerned in producing fruit (vs. 3ff.). Those of the limited pacifist view are fast to point out that John said to them to "do violence to no man." However, in view of the totality of what John told them, he probably had in mind the abuse of their position rather than the possible simple exercise of the same. It must be remembered, though, that John is preparing those to whom he spoke for the Kingdom and is primarily simply announcing Kingdom principles without any serious attendant detail and particularity.

     The war dilemma and Jesus' instruction to buy a sword. The total pacifist and even the qualified pacifist has great difficulty with the following passage:

     "And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, but now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one" (Lk. 22: 34, 35).

     While there may be some spiritual properties involved in the sword reference, the explanation that Jesus does not at all have reference to the physical sword is not tenable. Many wonder why Jesus here actually instructed his disciples to purchase a sword when within a subsequent short time, he condemned Peter for using the sword (cp. Matt. 26: 51). It is apparent that Jesus is not teaching his disciples to arm themselves for warfare to protect him against the Jews and the Roman because such weaponry would not have been adequate. This is also made clear when Jesus rebuked Peter for attempting to defend him against the Jews who came to apprehend him (Matt. 26: 51, 52). After admitting some spiritual signification, Albert Barnes draws the following lesson from Jesus' instruction for the disciples to purchase swords:

     "The country was infested with robbers and wild beasts…2nd. That self-defense is lawful. Men encompassed with danger may lawfully defend their lives" (Barnes on the New Testament, Vol. 2 pg. 150).

     In the example of Luke 22: 35, 36 and Matthew 26: 51, 52, I believe we see an important difference between fighting those who offered religious persecution and robbers who wanted to steal.

     The war quandary and Cornelius. Cornelius was an exceptional man in several respects. He was outstanding spiritually speaking even though he was a Gentile and he was in the military. Notwithstanding his devoutness, Cornelius was lost and had to be taught, "…words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11: 14, see also Acts 10: 1, 2, 22). Cornelius was not just a soldier, he was a high ranking military officer (Acts 10: 1). Cornelius accepted the gospel and became proof that the gospel was also designed for the Gentiles (Acts 10: 44ff.). Hence, he was a Christian in the military. Non-pacifists point out that Cornelius did not leave the military when he became a Christian.

     While it is true that we are not told that Cornelius left the military or that he was expressly told by Peter to do so, such is not proof that his military affiliation was not a problem (there are many things that we are not expressly told). It does appear that Cornelius was in, at the time, a non-combat situation and would have, based on his rank, many privileges and liberties that new enlisted men might not have. In fact, those who became Christians who were in vocational situations that could potentially involve bearing the sword for their government offer no substantial evidence for taking up arms because of the lack of information offered about these people (Acts 10; 16, the jailer at Philippi).

     The matter of going to war and I Peter 2: 13. Non-pacifists contend that since Peter commanded, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake…," "…if the government says take up arms, no unwillingness should characterize the Christian."  However, such logic begs the real issue. I say this in view of Acts 5: 29. Acts 5: 29 enunciates the principle that when God's direct laws and government conflict, the Christian must obey God's laws. Hence, to so use I Peter 2: 13 assumes the Christian may without consideration bear arms. It saddens me to see professing Christians who will unquestioningly do anything their government orders them to do.

     The war problem and "Old Testament" warfare. There is no doubt about God's people of old engaging in physical warfare in compliance with God's orders. "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass," God told Israel (I Sam. 15: 2, 3). If man is going to wage war, the examples of warfare found in the Hebrew scriptures are powerful. They were to utterly defeat, killing even women, children, and infants, and totally destroying their possessions. It should be pointed out, however, that these wars were God led, removing political greed and avarice. There is no question about them being just wars.

     The non-pacifist who argues in favor of carnal warfare today by using these "Old Testament" examples has a problem. In anticipation of the New Covenant (the present dispensation), we read, "…and they shall beat their swords into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isa. 2: 4, see 2, 3). God's Kingdom today is not a theocracy that involves physical warfare (cp. Jn. 18: 36). Can this, then, be used to totally argue against a civil government protecting itself against an invading military and a Christian being involved? I am not sure that it can be so used, not simply on its own merit and efficacy.

     The war issue and the nature of carnal warfare. To me, some of the greatest difficulties for the Christian reside in the nature of warfare. Let us start with the induction oath:

     "I…do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the uniform code of military justice. So help me God."

     The allegiance of the Christian is to one, Jesus Christ. Hear Paul, "No man that warreth entangelth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier" (2 Tim. 2:4). When Paul speaks of being a dedicated soldier having one commander, he is alluding to being a Christian and engaging in spiritual warfare (cp. 2 Cor. 10: 4, 5). Paul does, though, borrow the analogy from the civil military. The soldier had to be dedicated to his commander and allow nothing to interfere. It is contended that this civil oath is taken "under God." That is, it is understood that the one entering the service is pleading to obey their military commanders only as they do not require anything of them that would be in conflict with God's moral laws. However, there have been many instances when there is such a conflict that this implied exception is not understood on the part of some military authorities. (In legal matters, the soldier can be held responsible if he executes a "bad" order, but, on the other hand, he is to implicitly obey his superiors.)

     Another area of concern for the dedicated Christian is the command of Hebrews 10: 25. The inspired writer stated: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Heb. 10: 25). In every case with which I am familiar, the young soldier when in boot camp is not allowed to leave the base, not even to attend a local church (assuming there is one). Many times during their enlisted stay, they may be placed in a location where there is no scriptural church to attend. I have seen young men enter the service, only to become disillusioned and spiritually destroyed due to the lack of good spiritual association and influence. I had a member to argue, "Don, you do not know what you are talking about, there is a church on base for them." Sure, look what it is, a community church in which every imaginable doctrinal and often moral condition is sanctioned and tolerated (Eph. 5: 10, 11).

     Too often, the general environment is not conducive to the living and practicing of the life of a Christian. The drinking of alcohol, use of drugs, and sexual promiscuity have often been the result of a large number of men being placed together. However, in addition to this often seen climate, we now have injected the presence of female soldiers. Add to this situation the constant stimulus of physical warfare training and you certainly find a condition in which it would be extremely difficult, to say the least, for a Christian to live according to the scriptures (Rom. 12: 1, 2).

     Based on the foregoing considerations, I believe, in conclusion, that all would have to concur that there are many serious questions regarding the Christian serving in the military. The attitude, then, of: "I cannot imagine any Christian even hesitating to fight for his country" is neither learned nor justified. To the other extreme, the absolute pacifist position presents many problems. In some cases, even conscientious objector status while serving in a non-combat position may offer serious difficulties, especially during the relaxation of the compulsory draft. As I mentioned in the beginning, the war question is a difficult issue, one that each person must study and arrive at their stance. Some who do not endorse carnal warfare do maintain the right and obligation to protect their families. However, they believe that when this principle is graduated to the government making the decisions and placing the Christian in their milieu, then they cannot participate, but rather leave it to all the millions of young men and women who have no problem with simply taking up arms and partaking of the too common military lifestyle. It is true, after all, that all financially support warfare by their taxes (Rom. 13: 1-7, paying taxes is a command and the tax payer is obviously not held responsible for abuses such as abortion and any sinful warfare).