Tag Archives: christian pacifism

Erasmus on the “Problem of the Turk”

I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:

“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .

“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”

-Desiderius Eramus, Against War

World Vision, Same Sex Marriages, and Christian Hypocrisy

Recently, the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision changed their policy of not hiring individuals in same sex marriages (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/world-vision-why-hiring-gay-christians-same-sex-marriage.html). The change in policy does not necessarily reflect agreement with same sex marriage by the organization, but “World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently ‘tearing churches apart’ over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor” (Christianity Today). In other words, they are a broadly Christian organization but not a denomination or a local church. As a result, they have decided to keep employment open to anyone who fits into the camp of broadly Christian, or what others might call “mere Christianity,” as opposed to having strict requirements similar to what a denomination might require for membership.

The issue of whether or not there can be “gay Christians” has been of major discussion in Christian circles. Some churches have written statements of faith essentially denying this possibility while others have affirmed it. While World Vision is not a local church or a denomination, they are a symbol of the disagreement among churches and denominations on this issue. Because they don’t want to get involved in denominational disagreements, and this issue now represents an area of denominational disagreements, they have decided to seek to be neutral.

The response from conservative Christians to this news has been predictably negative. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (and I’m not trying to pick on Mohler especially. His response is more moderate than many others have been), wrote:
“World Vision claims not to have compromised the authority of Scripture, even as its U.S. president basically throws the Bible into a pit of confusion by suggesting that the Bible is not sufficiently clear on the question of the morality of same-sex sexuality. Stearns insists that he is not compromising biblical authority even as he undermines confidence that the church can understand and trust what the Bible reveals about same-sex sexuality” (http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/25/pointing-to-disaster-the-flawed-moral-vision-of-world-vision/).

When I consider what the response of Christians who view same sex sexual activity as a sin, even when monogamous and committed between professing Christians, should be, I am reminded of an ethical issue that once carried this same weight in the early church but no longer does. I’m referring to the question of Christians in the military.

While some scholars of the early church and patristics have sought to simplify this issue, claiming that the only point of contention was whether Christians could join a pagan army that required religious service to the Roman emperor, the early texts tell us a different story.

The story these texts tell us is of a church which once seems to have universally commanded that Christians, following Jesus’ example (Matthew 5:38-48, Matthew 26:52, John 18:36, 1 Peter 2:19-25, etc.), not take up military service if it entailed taking life.

The early church father Irenaeus in 180 A.D. wrote of those who converted to Christianity:
“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).

Lactantius (250-325 A.D.) likewise wrote:
“It is not therefore befitting that those who strive to keep to the path of justice should be companions and sharers in this public homicide. For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge [often interpreted to mean an official ordering a criminal be put to death], because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal” (Divine Institutes, Book VI, Chapter 20).

A church order dating to the 3rd-4th century and believed by some scholars to be attributed to Hippolytus of Rome makes its position about Christians being soldiers clear:
“A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected [from the church]. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God” (Apostolic Tradition 16:9-11, http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html).

Kreider in “Military Service in the Church Orders” (p. 429) also noted a variant of the Apostolic Constitution known as the Alexandrine Sinodos wherein a soldier was prohibited from becoming a Christian unless he “leaves his robbery and violence… otherwise, he shall be rejected” (read in Sprinkle, Fight).

Examples could be multiplied, but the message is clear — Christians cannot kill.

If you were talking to an early Christian, or even to one of the many Christian pacifists today who hold their position, what would you say to them about how they should treat soldiers who claim to be Christians? Would you ask that they seek to be understanding and assume the best of them, or would you say that they shouldn’t budge in condemning them as pagan compromisers loudly and often?

While I find the biblical evidence to be decisive and clear in favor of Christian pacifism, and believe that the popular position of “just war” theory is an act of compromise that came about when Christians were finally allowed to hold political power, I wouldn’t assume that someone who is a soldier is a false Christian– only a mistaken one. I wouldn’t abuse him with my words, call him a sinner or murderer, etc., even if technically this is what his occupation would make him. The reason for this is that I have seen areas in my life where I have been weak, incorrect, or inconsistent, and I trust that I was still in Christ. I might seek to persuade a Christian soldier to leave his occupation, but I would not politicize his sin and shut out compassion for him. I wouldn’t claim that he can’t possibly be a Christian, anymore than I would claim that the over-eater or overly material-minded person (and compared to many others in the world this description fits the vast majority of the West) couldn’t possibly be a Christian.

Has Christianity in the West “compromised the authority of Scripture,” throwing the Bible into a “ball of confusion” to use Mohler’s words, when it comes to the issue of militarism and Christians in the military? Because I believe that Scripture and early tradition are both clear on this point, I could say yes. However, I am a bit more charitable on this point. Instead of calling the contemporary church post-modernists who have compromised the authority of Scripture, I will simply assume that it doesn’t know better. But if I can accept a Christian who chooses to kill for a living while justifying it as godly, why would I throw so many Christians under the bus for seeking to live out a sexuality they didn’t choose for themselves in the context of a committed romantic relationship in which they are trying their best to reflect Christ? And if the church remained the church through its endorsement of war, racism, and Jim Crow, why is its identity now in jeopardy, as some conservative Christians claim (I am not seeking to make a comment on the propriety or impropriety of homosexual relationships, but merely asking why we use such double standards)?

It is good to dialogue with others and seek to change their minds for the better. Seeking to change minds isn’t the problem. We as Christians ought to be doing this. The problem is how we characterize and treat those whom we disagree with, as well as those outside of our group.

What Should Christians Do About the Hitlers of the World?

I have a bad tendency to pick up a book, read aways into it, and then get distracted and not finish it. Today, I picked up my forgotten copy of “What About Hitler?” by Robert W. Brimlow, determined to finish it.

After laying out the case that Jesus calls us to non-violence, and that a Christian cannot logically get around this difficulty, Brimlow finally (near the end of the book, in a very short chapter) tells the reader what Christians should do about the kind of evil which Hitler represents:
“We must live faithfully; we must be humble in our faith and truthful in what we say and do; we must repay evil with good; and we must be peacemakers. This may also mean as a result that the evildoers will kill us. Then, we shall also die. That’s it” (p. 151).
While I would have enjoyed more elaboration on how we can be Christian peacemakers and still be capable of defeating evil via a Christian peace policy, I thoroughly enjoyed this answer. He’s right. As difficult as it might be, we can’t turn our backs on Christ and what He has called us to. If we would dare to implement Christian peace practice into foreign policy (since war has had a dubious effect on fixing the world’s problems), I wonder what kind of change we might evoke. On the other hand, if this fails (from a secular perspective) just as war has failed, we must prepare to die and let God handle the consequences.
If I can say one thing about being a Christian pacifist, it has forced me to examine my faith and trust in God. I have become a better Christian in all areas of my life because of this. God is in control.

What Would bin Laden Do?

Note: Updated on May 31, 2013 for style and clarity.

It just hit me that I’m posting this blog on Memorial Day. This isn’t on purpose. I respect the sacrifices of soldiers and appreciate their desire to protect their countrymen and their cherished values. My disagreeing with going to war does not indicate that I do not love or respect the troops who go to war. Even so, I believe I am sharing both the truth of reason and revelation when I write on this topic. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your feedback!

For those out there who have been following my blog, you probably understand by now that I am sympathetic to Christian pacifism. I do not feel that the traditional Christian “just war” position is morally or biblically justifiable, let alone can be rationally and consistently held. What I would like to do in this essay is demonstrate three things:
1. Osama bin Laden and the Arab world have good reasons to be angry toward the United States and our foreign policy.
2. We also have good reasons to be angry toward those who have attacked us. Interestingly, many of them are quite similar to the reasons Osama bin Laden has cited. However, our “good reasons” justify going to war in our eyes, even though we dismiss these same “good reasons” when al Qaeda uses them. This is illogical and shows a fatal flaw in the justifications we use for going to war.
3. No “good reason” we may offer is worth cutting off our enemies from the love of Christ, or making war and justifying hatred against them.

What is a “Just War?”

There are several criteria for a “just war,” both in why a war should be declared, and how it should be fought. Here are a few of the main criteria (quoted and adapted from Thomas Aquinas’ section on “The Just War” in his Summa Theologica) for why a war may be undertaken (called “jus ad bellum” criteria) according to just war principles:

1. Legitimate authority. According to Thomas, a war may be just, “In the first place, the authority of the prince, by whose order the war is undertaken; for it does not belong to a private individual to make war, because, in order to obtain justice, he can have recourse to the judgment of his superior…” In other words, only duly constituted public authorities may wage war– a nation can wage war, not just a gang of kids off the street or a terrorist organization, according to this principle.

2. Just cause. According to Thomas, “in the second place, there must be a just cause; that is to say, those attacked must have, by a fault, deserved to be attacked.” Innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. Apart from protecting innocent life, this principle has been expanded to also deal with violations of human rights. Many theorists have also included as part of this rule that any authority which uses its power to stop a people from controlling its own political destiny can justly be made war against. Thus, Hitler’s invasion of nations to bring them under the flag of Nazi Germany was a cause for war based on this definition, as was (arguably), the United States’ recent invasion of Iraq.

3. Right intention. Says Thomas, “in the third place, it is necessary that the intention of those who fight should be right; that is to say, that they propose to themselves a good to be effected or an evil to be avoided. This is what made St. Augustine say in the book De Verbis Domini: ‘With the true servants of God wars themselves are pacific, not being undertaken through cupidity or cruelty, but through the love of peace, with the object of repressing the wicked and encouraging the good.'” Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not. Based on this principle, America invading Iraq to free its citizens from a tyrannical leader, or to stop a madman from launching WMDs, would be the right intention. However, if it could be shown that economic benefit was the true reason, this would not be the right intention, but would be a violation of just war principles.

4. Last resort. Just war theorists succeeding Thomas also added the criteria of last resort. Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. This was a controversy with the recent Iraq invasion, because many claimed that we rushed to war, whereas the administration defended its position by pointing out Hussein’s lack of interest in working with U.N. weapons inspectors up to that point. This was also a controversy in America’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Similarly, there have been traditionally defined basic principles that ought to govern a war once it has been declared (jus in bello). Two of the most prominent just in bello criteria are:

1. Distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants. Thus, bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target or acts of terrorism against ordinary civilians are forbidden in a “just war.” In the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those cities were of military advantage (Hiroshima being an army depot and Nagasaki being a large seaport and also an area of production of military equipment), however, an appalling number of civilians were killed by these bombings. This brings us to the second criteria.

2. Proportionality. Even if an attack is upon a military objective, if the incidental civilian casualties would be in excess of the anticipated military advantage, this would not be an act undertaken as part of a “just war.” Even though the atomic bombings of Japan were clearly targeted against civilians (and the bombing of Hiroshima was not preceded by warning Japanese civilians as previous bombings had been), it was hoped that the extreme casualties accrued in the bombings would be justifiable because they would force Japan into surrender– the greatest “military advantage.” So we see that even though targeting civilians in war is considered highly unethical, we have made allowances for this practice when we felt it was to our benefit, or when we felt that we were forced to do something drastic based on the unjust attacks of others.

Bin Laden’s “Just War”

After 9/11, a common explanation from American leaders as to why al Qaeda did what they did was because “they hate our freedom.” To clear up their justifications, Osama bin Laden wrote a “Letter to America” (full text here) in November of 2002. He directly responded to the question, “why are we fighting and opposing you?” This (edited down for length) was his response:

“Because you attacked us and continue to attack us. You attacked us in Palestine. You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon… As for the war criminals which you censure and form criminal courts for – you shamelessly ask that your own are granted immunity!! However, history will not forget the war crimes that you committed against the Muslims and the rest of the world; those you have killed in Japan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq will remain a shame that you will never be able to escape. It will suffice to remind you of your latest war crimes in Afghanistan, in which densely populated innocent civilian villages were destroyed, bombs were dropped on mosques causing the roof of the mosque to come crashing down on the heads of the Muslims praying inside…

Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis… The freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves and for white race only; as for the rest of the world, you impose upon them your monstrous, destructive policies and Governments, which you call the ‘American friends’. Yet you prevent them from establishing democracies. When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks and guns, to imprison them and torture them…

You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of your international influence and military threats. Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctities, to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures. You have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day. It is a wonder that more than 1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions, and you did not show concern. Yet when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down.

These tragedies and calamities are only a few examples of your oppression and aggression against us. It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!”

While many may disagree with bin Laden’s assessment of the difficult and complicated Israeli/Palestinian situation (as well as other political situations he refers to), the position bin Laden advocates is very much in line with the “just war” approach, and even more like the version of it America has advocated. Bin Laden gave reasons for war against America, such as innocent life our military has taken and our government’s political oppression of Arabs, which fall very much in line with the “just cause” principle. As for the principle of right intention, he sought to correct what he perceived as American evils against the Arab world. He was also doing so as a last resort. He felt that America would not listen, but had turned a blind eye to the plight of the Arab people. Thus, he sought a violent means to get our attention.

It is true that al Qaeda is not an officially recognized government, which would exclude it from being considered under just war criteria. However, his very argument was that the United States had oppressed the opportunity for Arab political sovereignty, so that a just war could not be declared. Secondly, even Arab states that might desire to correct these perceived wrongs would not, because the military might of the United States is so that no matter what evils we engaged in, there would hardly be a nation brave enough to fight back. Most importantly, the United States was founded by men who resisted the rightly established political authority, seeking to secede from the power structure and create their own political destiny, even using violence. So the United States must even make an allowance for this, or else we cannot rightly make war according to this criterion.

It is true that bin Laden targeted civilians, but so have we. We did so in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we felt that Japan would not make for peace with us if we did not act strongly against its people, getting its attention and forcing them to hear our demands for change. And based on the concept of proportionality (that the cost of civilian deaths must be worth the military advantage they bring), it would not be difficult for bin Laden to justify his attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon if he were to appeal to this principle as we have (50,000-60,000 non-combatants killed in Hiroshima compared to 3,000 non-combatants on 9/11). Even so, bin Laden offered an interesting justification for not using the principle of “distinction” when it came to targeting non-military individuals. His rationale was that America is a representative democracy where we claim that the government is instituted for and by the people. Thus, America as a whole must approve of its government’s foreign policy as it relates to the Arab people. According to this concept, American civilians are in fact guilty of our nation’s alleged crimes.

If this modified “just war” view which the Western world (along with the United States) has created, is truly just, then we may not refer to bin Laden’s actions as evil. He is in fact in the same camp with many of our own leaders.

It is also a fact that this letter calls America to Islam and Shariah law as well calling us to change in our foreign policy. Bin Laden demands that these conditions be met for peace, which truly makes him a theocrat who cannot easily be negotiated with, as America cannot rightly enforce Islamic Shariah law. However, his initial reasons for making war with the United States are political and not religious, and many of them are very understandable, though his actually making war cannot be justified from a Christian standpoint.


The reasons bin Laden gave for his attack are very much like the justifications we have used in the past. We went to war against Britain in the 1700s because we felt their political power over us was oppressive. Many lives were lost on both sides due to this battle over the political and economic power that many American people desired and felt was worth going to war for.

In August of 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over 200,000 people (mostly civilians) were killed directly or indirectly (via radiation) by the end of 1945 due to these bombings. In contrast, nearly 3,000 people were killed on September 11th of 2001 due to the actions of al Qaeda. Both the actions of Harry Truman and of Osama bin Laden are absolutely, and inarguably, evil.

Jesus has called Christians to a standard that is different from the standards which the world creates. He has asked us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He has asked us to be merciful (Matthew 5:7) and make peace (Matthew 5:9). He has asked us not to fight (Matthew 5:38-39), but to forgive, and that any man who does not forgive the one who sins against him, God will not offer Him forgiveness (Matthew 6:15). We are a part of a new and better Kingdom, and we do not go to war like the soldiers of this kingdom (John 18:36). Instead, we are to be like Christ.
However, instead of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” when it comes to war, Western Christians have been asking, for all intents and purposes, “What Would bin Laden Do?”

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
1 Peter 2:21-23

Augustine’s Case for “Just War”

That great church father and “just war” supporter, Augustine, had this to say (among other things) in justifying war:

“What is the evil in war?
Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is mere cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling. The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild rebelliousness, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars” (Contra Faustum 22).

There are three points I would like to deal with here that Augustine makes:
1. War is excusable because the person you kill will die soon anyway, and fighting wars will bring a peaceful society.
2. The real evil in war is not killing, but the hateful attitude.
3. Going to war is done in obedience to God or a lawful authority instituted by God.

On points 1 and 2, I would encourage my Christian friends to consider abortion. Is abortion not taking the life of a human being who will die some day anyway? As to point two, most women don’t destroy their babies out of anger, but to achieve a “higher and better end,” don’t they? Killing a child who can’t be fully supported, or who will get in the way of the mother having a fulfilled and peaceful life, couldn’t be wrong, could it? I submit that if you take Augustine’s reasoning seriously, you would have to apply it to abortion, something that most Christians rightfully would denounce and feel disgusted by.

“And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it…”
(Athenagoras, 177 A.D. A Plea for the Christians, chapter 35.)

That being said, abortion and war are both evils, but God will judge the heart of those who engage in it, so the attitude behind the action is important from a judgment standpoint. However, it does not change the evil of the action.

On point three, isn’t Augustine using circular reasoning? Whether or not war is obeying God or “lawful authority” is PRECISELY what is under debate. If God tells us that as disciples of Christ we must not fight in wars, then Augustine’s third point is complete moot. And if God has ordered us to not kill, then any authority which asks us to kill our fellow man is doing so against God’s decree and is anything but lawful.

Should Christians Participate in War?

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?”
-Matthew 26:52-53

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