We are living in a world consumed by war. Despite how long this violence continues, we never seem to reach a solution. Many are personally scarred by war but most still continue to support the effort. This is the world we live in today— and we have continued on like this for thousands of years, never seeming to be nearing a conclusion. As Christians, we are told not to imitate the world and it’s conduct; but is war supported by God or does it rage on in rebellion to Him?
War in the Old Covenant
It is reasonable to assume that the majority of principles which are related to the Old Covenant animal sacrifices can only operate so long as there is a High Priest and a Temple (or tabernacle) to perform the sacrifice. But even though we as Christians no longer practice these rites, we can examine the Old Testament practice of sacrifice and understand that there is an underlying principle here which points to Christ.
It is also reasonable to assume that functions prescribed to the Old Testament government (Biblical Israel) can only be carried out so long as that government (as well as the covenant which established it) exists. Even so, everything in God’s Word has a message for us that we can pull a principle from and apply it to our lives. We understand that if we don’t follow every Old Testament law related to caring for the poor (such as the year of Jubilee, etc.), we aren’t sinning. We do understand, however, that the principle behind these laws leads us to want to look after the poor. In other words, we do not follow every command in the Old Testament because some are meant for national Israel. However, we can learn lessons from each command and make them relevant for our lives.
But what about war? After all, God gave the okay and sometimes called for wars against wicked nations in the Old Testament, using Israel as His right arm of judgment in the same way that He used fire and brimstone to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. War was sanctioned by God for judgment of other nations as well as for self-defense. One side was good (Israel) and the other was evil. So we can’t view war as intrinsically evil. It can be good.
However, war is only acceptable when it is supported by God because God owns every human being. Since God owns every person, He has the right to sustain or destroy each person– whether through fire and brimstone, war, or hellfire. Because only God can say when killing is acceptable, we do not have the privilege to decide when war is justified on our own. We must decide how God wants us as New Covenant believers to apply lessons in the Old Testament to our lives. The question is: Does the New Testament teach us that war is acceptable for Christians to participate in?
What Does the New Testament Say About Christians in Combat?
One of the clearest passages that is used to support Christians not fighting is Matthew 5:38-99, 44-46, where Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also… But I say to you, 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, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
In very strong language, Jesus tells Christians to not fight back, but to do good to those who hate us– our enemies. Some argue that this verse only applies to personal enemies and not national ones. However, their argument is from silence and ignores the fact that the personal is political (it is people, after all, who fight wars) and a Christian’s highest duty is not to their earthly country but to God’s Kingdom. This is supported by John 18:36, where Jesus says:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”
Jesus states here that Christians (His servants) do not fight, because His Kingdom is not earthly. Christians are not to establish a theocracy on earth, but are part of a nation scattered among nations– and this nation does not engage in warfare which is carnal. We are living in the age of the church, and it is the goal of the church to save people, not kill them. We must trust God in His sovereignty, even if that means we put down our weapons and trust Him with the consequences:
“But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?”
Christian pacifism is frightening to people who don’t think they can trust God with the consequences of obeying Him. However, even though we may die, we have victory in God:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-18, 21).
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21).
War Justified in the New Testament
In 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, we find one of the few justifications for Christians to participate in warfare:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds.”
We find here that the only warfare Christians are encouraged to get involved in is the spiritual kind—putting on the armor of God to defend ourselves against spiritual wickedness.
There is only one other promotion of combat in the New Testament, but Christians are not explicitly called to fight. In Revelation 19-20, we read about two great battles which take place in which Jesus destroys the wicked who are raging against His people, Israel. The first battle inaugurates the Millennial kingdom (though whether this is a literal millennium is certainly up for debate), where we will once again live under a theocratic government, this time headed by the King of all kings—the Son of God. The second battle is directly after the Millennium when Satan is once again let loose and allowed to tempt the nations into battling against God’s people. Jesus destroys the wicked along with Satan in the lake of fire.
The Early Church View
If this were the view which Jesus and the Apostles taught, then we would expect to see it turn up in the early church. Amy Orr-Ewing, commenting in her book “Is the Bible Intolerant?” on the subject of Christians and war, notes that, “the early church’s response to war was initially pacifism that allowed for the possibility of Christian converts staying on in the army… Church leaders such as Tertullian took the rebuke of Peter as an absolutist position that totally spiritualized the battles in the Old Testament and did not allow for any Christian approval of war. Origen was very concerned to show that Christians were not bad citizens by virtue of refusing to fight or kill. He developed an argument that Christian prayers would be of more use to the emperor than any amount of killing by soldiers” (Orr-Ewing, p. 107).
This is backed up by early church thinkers, including Justin Martyr, who wrote his First Apology to the Roman Senate around 150 A.D.:
“‘For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ (Isaiah 2:3-4) And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”
Irenaeus in 180 A.D. wrote likewise:
“But if the law of liberty, that is, the word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek, then the prophets have not spoken these things of any other person, but of Him who effected them” (Irenaeus, Book IV, Chapter 34).
Hippolytus in 215 A.D. tells us the early church’s policy on Christians in the military:
“A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out… The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God” (Hippolytus, 16:9-11).
Origen in 248 A.D., responding to the objection that if every citizen became a Christian and thus a pacifist, says:
“Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so… The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies” (Origen, 3, 8).
Some Christian scholars who support war argue that the early church position was not pacifistic because of its view on killing, but because soldiers were ordered to make an offering of incense to Caesar as God– something a Christian could never participate in. However, this reasoning is given very few times in the early church literature, whereas arguments from Christians not being able to do violence abound.
Considering how strong this view seemed to resonate with the early Christians, what could have happened to change the Christian view on this subject? Orr-Ewing explains, “it is the great theologian Augustine who introduces the fledgling ‘just war’ theory into Christian thinking… He frames… a deontological or ethical argument: If God allows and orders war in the Old Testament, then the nature of God as ‘just’ determines that there must be such a thing as a just war.” This brings up an interesting point. However, we must ask ourselves what kind of wars God sanctioned in the Old Testament. Often, they were wars used to destroy entire civilizations, and these wars would not be called “just” by today’s standards, because any human being who decides to commit genocide is over-stepping a boundary that he is not allowed to cross. God, however, can cross this boundary. So the Old Testament mode of war cannot be applied to Christians in the world today without invoking holy crusade and the complete obliteration of nations, both of which have no place in a non-theocratic system of government.
Despite the fact that many Christians today support war for any circumstances, this has not been the consistent Christian view. The most the Bible could possibly allow for is the Augustinian view of the “just war,” but this seems to be less consistent with the principles Christ laid out. It would seem that after examining God’s Word and how it influenced the early church, the view of pacifism is the most consistent with Scripture. That is not to say, of course, that Christians are forbidden from military service—far from it. However, soldiers should hold themselves up to a godly standard of peace, so far as their conscience pushes them.
While I feel confident in my view, I understand that there is still reasonable room for debate on this issue. I hope that Christians brothers and sisters will be open to what Christians who disagree with me have to say, without compromising the impression that the Spirit has left on our consciences. Regardless of what the Scripture says to us who are living before the Second Coming on this subject, all Christians ought to look forward to and try to emulate what Isaiah the prophet had hoped for:
“[The Word of the Lord] shall judge between nations and rebuke many people. They shall break their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
– Isaiah 2:4
New King James Version of the Holy Bible.
Justin Martyr. First Apology.
Irenaeus (180). Against Heresies.
Hippolytus (215). The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.
Origen (248). Contra Celsum.
Orr-Ewing, Amy. Is the Bible Intolerant? Downer’s Grove, Illinois, 2005