Christian Perspective on War

by Pastor Paul Barnes

According to the Canadian Army Journal, a former president of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, aided by historians from England, Egypt, Germany, and India came up with some fascinating figures and discoveries about war:

Since 3600 B.C. the world has known only 292 years of peace. That means that over a period of 5,600 years there have been less than 300 of those years where there was no type of conflict going on in the world. During this span of history, there have been over 14,500 wars, large and small, in which a staggering 3,640,000,000 people have been killed. The economic value of the destruction of those wars would pay for a solid gold belt around the world 25,000 miles around, almost 100 miles wide and about 33 feet thick.

That's pretty staggering isn't it? Because of the frequency of armed conflict, the church from its very inception has been troubled by the question of war. Can a person be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and serve in a country's armed services?

How can a Christian, in good conscience, pick up a weapon and deliberately kill another human being? Since it's very obvious that human beings, by nature are warmongers, and peace is such a rare commodity, what should the Christian perspective be on this subject. And what does the Bible have to say about this subject?

I. A CHRISTIAN HISTORY ON WAR

Well, Christian thinking on this matter has developed and changed over time. I mean obviously, in the Old Testament there are some very difficult passages where God tells the Israelites to wipe out entire groups of people, to not leave a single one of them alive. That has created huge problems for some people as they think, how in the world could a God of love and compassion order the wanton destruction of so much human life?

Then you come to the New Testament you find Jesus preaching a message of peace—Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. And the whole message of Christ was one of reconciliation and living in peace with others and the fact is, the more you look at Scripture the more confusing and complicated it seems to get.

Then you move into church history and all sorts of ideas develop. There is some disagreement about the period of time right after the beginning of the church up to about the end of the second century. According to the writings of some early church fathers, pacifism was an important view that many Christians held in the early church. And that view did create some problems because there were Christians, apparently a large number of believers who served in the Roman army. And many of the church leaders began to condemn such service.

One of the guides on church discipline written in the third century states that a Christian soldier is not to be taught to kill, and if he is, he must refuse to do so if commanded. What may seem to be a contradiction, being a soldier and not killing, is resolved by the fact that one could be in the Roman legions for a lifetime and never kill anyone, as the army performed many public services. So what that means is that Christian could serve in the Roman army and serve in a non-combatant role.

Other early church fathers even went so far as to condemn any kind of military service. One of the reasons they did that was because to serve in the Roman army a solider had to take a loyalty oath to the emperor that involved an idolatrous rite acknowledging him as God. And so they felt that no true believer could ever serve in the military in any capacity.

Things began to change during the fourth century that made a Christians' service in the military acceptable. First, around the empire there was a growing and vocal group of unbelievers who began criticizing Christians for accepting the benefits of the Roman Empire without being willing to shoulder some of the responsibilities—for example, governmental and military service. And apparently there was a groundswell of public opposition that found this Christian pacifist approach very unacceptable.

Second, it was at that point in time that Constantine became emperor and became a Christian. And when he became a believer and declared Christianity the state religion, he no longer required the idolatrous oath of allegiance for soldiers so a major objection to military service was removed.

Third, it appeared that the Empire was about to be overrun by destructive groups of barbarians. Christians could no longer enjoy the benefits of Roman citizenship and not shoulder some of the responsibilities of trying to protect the empire.

And fourth, by the end of the century, Augustine one of the more significant church fathers and theologians wrote that a believer could serve in the army and still be a good Christian. He is responsible for what is called the "just war" theory.

Augustine developed this "just war" theory in response to a Roman general who asked if he should lead his troops into battle or retire to a monastery. Augustine responded by bringing together the views of a number of classical thinkers such as Plato and Cicero and giving them a Christian emphasis. He argued that wars should be fought to reestablish peace and secure justice.

War must be waged under a legitimate leader and be prompted by Christian love. Moreover, he taught that a just war must be conducted in an upstanding way. In other words, there should be no unnecessary violence; destruction must be kept to a minimum. He also distinguished between those in government service and those in Christian service. Those in public office or the army could engage in a just war, but priests and monks were not allowed to fight.

So by the time we come to the Middle Ages, the two dominate views within the Christian community were pacifism and the just war theory. But something happened at that point that made pacifism passé. The Crusades started. The attempt by the Europeans to take back the Middle East from the pagans. That aroused a strong military fervor that showed up in Christian theology.

It was during that time that the just war theory of Augustine was put in legal form in the 12th century and Thomas Aquinas another church theologian put some more theological ‘meat' to the theory. He laid down three criteria for a war to be just. First, it must be declared by a legitimate authority and not some individual. Second, those attacked must be attacked for some just reason. Third, those who attack must do so with the right intention, the attainment of some good, and the avoidance or elimination of some evil.

After you move out of the Middle Ages and go into the Renaissance and Reformation periods, certain factors made the relationship between Christianity and war an important topic. With the development of gunpowder and the cannon, the conduct of war changed. No longer were civilians safe behind walls of the castles, no longer were knights protected by armor.

Moreover, Europe was in the process of being divided into dynastic monarchies from which the present national states would emerge. Rivalries arose between these kings, and wars followed. Whereas previous conflicts had pitted heathens against Christians, these wars were fought among Christians. During this time the just war theory continued to dominate but some strong voices arose that taught pacifism and it had a rebirth of popularity.

This period of the 1600's saw the birth of a number of pacifist groups. The Swiss Brethren and Mennonites developed and they practiced pacifism. The Quakers were formed by George Fox in 1668 and brought to Pennsylvania by William Penn in 1682. And they were strong pacifists.

Defenders of the just war theory can be found as well. Martin Luther taught that without arms, peace could not be kept. He thought that sometimes wars had to be waged to repel injustice and establish a firm peace. Wars were necessary in some cases to preserve the life and health of a people in the same way that a doctor sometimes finds it necessary to amputate a leg or arm to preserve the entire body.

John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion also defended the idea of a just war. He said that leaders, by the nature of their office have the right to be armed both to restrain the misdeeds of private individuals by judicial punishment and to defend by war the realms entrusted to their safekeeping.

And then we into the modern period and there have been defenders of both pacifist and just war theories. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy who was a believer and the Indian reformer Gandhi advocated pacifism, though Gandhi obviously was not a Christian. Those who wrote on the just war side essentially refined the classical arguments for that position.

And in giving you this quick overview of Christian history as it regards this subject, what I wanted you to see is that from the get-go of the Christian church there has been a diversity of opinion regarding the subject of war.

II. THE CURRENT CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON WAR

And today, there seems to be basically four different perspectives that have developed on this subject. By the ways these are talked about at length, both pro's and cons for each view in a book by Robert Clouse called "WAR: Four Christian Views" for any of you who might be interested in studying this further. But these four views are the attempts of theologians and Bible Scholars to try and answer the question, "What is a Christian response to something as horrific and destructive as war?"

And these four views come from the primary two—pacificism and the just war theory. And please understand I am GREATLY oversimplifying these views as there are many shades of opinion and thought within each one of them.

A. PACIFICISM
Today, a pacifist is someone who is against killing and therefore against war of any kind. This view says that Christians are called to be peacemakers at all times which excludes any participation in war at any time for any reason in any capacity.

B. NON-RESISTANCE
This view says that Christians may participate in war but only in noncombatant roles. Serving as a Chaplin, a medic, driving a supply truck. Any role which does not directly involve picking up a gun and shooting someone or firing off a missile and blowing somebody up.

C. JUST WAR
As I've tried to explain, the just war view says that Christians may participate in what would be called a ‘defensive' war. To protect your country's freedoms and rights from outside aggression.

D. PREVENTATIVE WAR
And then finally, the preventative war. This view is a modification on the just war theory which says that says that Christians may go to war to stop an attack on someone else to or correct outrageous injustice.

III. DIGGING DEEPER - PACIFISM

Non-Biblical arguments for Pacifism

1. The Sacredness of life. From the beauty and wonder of living things people come to believe in the sacredness of life. (This also has biblical support)

2. The immorality of killing. All human beings have a right to life, and killing them denies them that right. (This has biblical support too.)

3. The Moral Exemplar argument. This comes from Immanuel Kant. Our conduct should serve as an example to all mankind. (So does this!)

4. The Condition of the soul. This comes from Gandhi. Man as an animal is violent, but his spirit is nonviolent. When we engage in violence, we pollute our soul.

Biblical arguments for Pacifism
1. The ethical teachings of Jesus. Divine revelation finds its culmination in Jesus Christ in the NT. This squares with the idea that there is progress in revelation (cf. Matthew 5:17; Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 1:2). Thus, a Christian attitude toward war should come from the New Testament, and particularly Jesus' teachings. But Jesus blessed the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and told the disciple who sought to defend him by force, "Put your sword back in its place … for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). In Luke 6:27–36, Jesus says we are to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. The teaching of Jesus is confirmed throughout the New Testament (cf. Romans 12:17, 21; 13:10; 1 Peter 2:21). A pacifist interpretation of these and other texts leads to the conclusion that a Christian is precluded from military combat and certain offices within the government.

2. The Sermon on the Mount being normative for Christian conduct. Matthew 5:38–48, is normative for Christian conduct today. This text does not simply express an attitude Christians should have in the face of opposition and persecution, but it literally prescribes appropriate conduct for Christians.

3. The Christian's citizenship in the kingdom of God. This means the Christian's first loyalty is to Christ and his kingdom. Christians should never be guilty of nationalism, for the kingdom of God is transnational or global. Christians should respect the state, for it is ordained by God to order society. But since God ordains the powers that be, he is above them. It is faulty logic to assume that because God ordains governments, we are always obeying God by obeying them. We must be subject to our government, but Scripture does not say we should obey government blindly (cf. Romans 13, esp. v. 4). Thus, when duties to God and the king conflict, Christians must obey God.

4. The Ethical implications of the cross. Christ must be our great example, and he died as an innocent victim in the face of the most outrageous injustice. We should be willing to do the same. Moreover, Christ came to redeem everyone and died on behalf of all people. How can we take the life of someone for whom Christ died, especially those who have not received him as savior? To kill people robs them of the opportunity to accept Christ and know the fullness of life he brings.

5. The church is a global community. Since God's kingdom or the church is global and transcends national, racial, and cultural differences, it is entirely possible that one's nation will be at war with a country some of whose citizens are believers. How can Christians who claim to follow and worship Christ be at war with other believers?

6. The idea that wars are fought by and large to protect property. A Christian who refuses to participate in a war declared by his or her government is simply maintaining a consistent attitude toward material things. Jesus warns against valuing possessions above people. Material possessions are to be used to help others, not to be defended at the expense of other human lives.

IV. JUST WAR THEORY

Presuppositions for the JUST WAR theory: All of the below information is a distillation of teaching from secular and biblical sources that seek to set out guidelines for a just war).

1. Some evil cannot be avoided. Evil has pervaded human existence ever since the fall. It's unrealistic to assume that we can ever rid the world of evil so that war will not be necessary.

2. The just war is normative for all—Christian and non-Christian. With evil in the world a just war describes how people should act during a time of war.

3. It attempts to bring war within the limits of justice. This doesn't justify war but tries to bring war within the limits of justice SO THAT if everyone were guided by these principles, many wars would be eliminated. It doesn't legitimize wars, but limits them because sometimes evil cannot be avoided.

4. Governments have the right to engage in armed conflict. Private citizens do not have the right to use force. Only governments have been given that right in order to keep peace and secure a just order.

Criteria for the right to go to war:
1. There must be a legitimate authority for judging whether the other criteria are met.

2. The war must be the last resort. Negotiations and compromise must have been tried and failed.

3. In so far as possible a formal declaration of war is required. Since war is a prerogative of a government, not individuals, the declaration must come from the highest governmental authority.

4. There must be some reasonable hope for success. If not, it is generally unreasonable to sacrifice lives in a vain hope. Some think an exception to this is allowable when the evil confronted is so outrageous that an attempt must be made, even if there is little or no hope of success.

5. There must be some proportionality between the objective hoped for and the price that will be paid to achieve it. How many lives lost, money spent and materials consumed are justified to achieve a desired objective?

6. There must be a just cause. A war of aggression is condemned; only defensive wars are just.

7. The war must be fought with the right intention. To secure a just and lasting peace. Revenge, conquest, economic gain, or ideological superiority must all be renounced. Just an interesting aside here: Chuck Colson said, "Just war doctrine is not grounded in revenge, punishment, or even justice. Thomas Aquinas discussed it not in his section on justice but in his section on charity—the love of God."

Criteria for the right conduct of a war:
1. There must be a limited objective in waging the war—restoration of peace
2. The immediate object is not to kill people but to incapacitate or restrain them.
3. Direct attacks on noncombatants is illegitimate
4. There is an obligation to not inflict unnecessary suffering.

Biblical arguments for the JUST WAR theory:
1. The biblical view of man. Man was created in God's image, and as such, has intrinsic worth and dignity (Genesis 1:26–28; Psalm 8:3–9; Matthew 10:29–31; Luke 12:6; James 3:9, 10). But man has sinned and is a rebel (Psslm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10–18, 23; James 4:1–3). Human depravity extends even to those who are part of the redeemed community. It touches every area of human life (Romans 7:14–25; James 4:1–3; 1 John 1:8–10).

2. The biblical view of the state. Human government or the state is ordained by God (Daniel 5:21; Romans 13:1, 2; 1 Peter 2:13, 14). The New Testament says the state is created to maintain justice and equity, and is thus granted the right of force to maintain such. This includes the right to use force in self-defense (Romans 13:3, 4; 1 Peter 2:13, 14; cf. Exodus 22:2, 3).

3. The biblical view of the church. While the New Testament does not advocate establishing a theocracy, it teaches that the church in general (and believers in particular) has a positive responsibility to participate in building a more just and peaceful human society. Although the church has no specific political mission since its ministry is spiritual, it is to contribute to the protection of human rights, the promotion of human dignity, and the unity of the human family (Matthew 5:13–16; Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13, 14).

4. The biblical view of history and eschatology. God's ideal is subjection of the earth to peace, righteousness and justice (Genesis 1:28–30; Isaiah 2:1–4; 11:3–9; Revelation 21:1–22:5). Because of man's sin, human history includes evil and war (Matthew 24:6, 7; John 16:33; 2 Thessalonians 2:3–7; 2 Timothy 3:1–9). Human effort does not bring in God's kingdom. God's ideal will be realized through his intervention into human history at the second coming of Jesus Christ to this earth to set up his kingdom and establish peace, righteousness and justice (Isaiah 2:1–4; 9:7; 11:3–9; Revelation 21:1–22:5). I want to move quickly to some practical thoughts on this whole subject.

IV. WHY DOES GOD ALLOW WAR?

Martin Lloyd Jones pastor of Westminster Chapel in London 1938-1968 spent many nights during WWII in bomb shelters He preached to his war-ravaged countrymen, and attempted to comfort them in their losses. In 1939 he wrote a book titled, "Why Does God Allow War?" It has been recently republished by Crossway Books His argument is that whatever the causes and circumstances of international conflict, deeper truths remain. The church is called to console the grieving, instruct the perplexed, strengthen the weak-kneed, and bring us to our knees.

James 4:1 "What causes fights (wars) and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires (lusts) that battle within you?" So, the question of "Why does God allow war?" is not directly considered in scripture. But James 4:1 does raise the question of the origin of war. The ultimate cause is lust and selfish desire.

In the same way that it leads to personal quarrels and strife, it leads to war between nations. "The bible does not isolate war, as if it were something separate and unique as we tend to do in our thinking. It is but one of the manifestations of sin." And then he gives us the following thoughts:

1. God permits war that people may bear the consequence sin. The children of Israel time and time again disobeyed God. For a while all was well, but then God withdrew his protecting care from them, and they were at the mercy of their enemies.

But why do the innocent suffer? First, there is no such person as the innocent. We are all sinful. Furthermore, we reap consequences not only for our own personal sin, but also the sins of the entire race. Thus it comes to pass that the innocent may bear part of the punishment for sins for which they are not directly responsible.

2. God permits war in order that men may see more clearly what sin really is. In times of peace we tend to think lightly of sin, and be optimistic about human nature. War forces us to examine the very foundations of life and what it is in human nature that leads us to such acts of the destruction of human life and property.

This explanation goes deep down in the heart of men. It is selfishness, hatred, jealousy, envy, bitterness, and malice in the human heart. "What man refuses to recognize and to learn by the preaching of the gospel in a time of peace, God reveals to him by permitting war. What man refuses and rejects when offered by the hand of love, he often takes when delivered to him through the medium of affliction."

3. All this, in turn leads to the final purpose, which is to lead us back to God. No word is found more frequently in the Old Testament as a description of the Israelites than ‘in their trouble and distresses they cried out unto the Lord." And we are still the same today. "Indeed as I contemplate human nature and human life, what astonishes me is not that God allows and permits war, but the patience and long-suffering of God. Oh, the amazing patience of God with this sinful world! How wondrous is his love. He allows such things as war to chastise us, to teach us, and to convict us of our sins; and above all, to call us to repentance and acceptance of his gracious offer of salvation in His Son."

The vital question before us therefore is not: "Why does God allow war?" The question for us is—are we learning and repenting before God for the sin in our own hearts.

V. HOW DO WE PRAY DURING A TIME OF WAR?

This is where it gets very practical folks. Because regardless of your position on war in general, I think the scriptures give us a number of specific prayers that we as believers should be focusing on during a time of war, whether you believe it's right or not.

A. Lord, be glorified Ps. 108.5 "O God…let Your glory be over all the earth"

B. Lord use these anxious and uncertain times to bring many to Christ Ps. 67.1-2 "May God be gracious to us and bless us…that Your ways may be known on earth, Your salvation among the nations."

C. Lord, guide our leaders to submit to Your will I Timothy 2.1-2 "I urge that requests, prayers intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority"

D. Lord use human authority to bring punishment on evildoers. Romans 13.1,3 "The governing authorities are God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the evildoer."

E. Lord use world events to open many doors to the gospel Colossians 4.3 "Pray that God may open a door for the gospel"

F. Lord, bring peace (a quick resolution to this conflict)" I Timothy 2.2 "That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

CONCLUSION

In closing, I want to say that everything that I've said today is not grounds for despair, especially not for the Christian. History is still under God's sovereign control. Thus, nothing will happen without his permission or beyond his control.

Of course, this does not remove responsibility from nations or individuals to do what is possible to avoid armed conflict. War is one of many expressions of the sinfulness of the human heart. God has called his children to fight this sin by being peacemakers. Perhaps through our actions and prayers God will see fit to grant peace in our time to the furtherance of his glory and his kingdom's cause.

1. But we have to acknowledge that just within this century—two world wars and hundreds of regional conflicts have not improved human nature. Individuals and nations remain locked in the grip of sin with all of its cruelty….only the redeeming and transforming power of Christ will change hearts on both sides of the battle front.

2. We also must recognize that God is sovereign, his purposes ultimately will prevail. It is righteousness alone that exalts and preserves a nation, not military strength.

3. We must be careful about attaching undue eschatological significance to this crisis. However to live expecting our Lord's return—whether we are at peace or war—is our reassuring privilege and inescapable obligation.

4. We must exercise responsible citizenship. Profound moral and political judgments do not come easily. As we work toward settled convictions of our own about US involvement in the Persian Gulf, we should participate in public debate and the political process with humility and grace. Regardless of our views, our troops deserve respect and support. They serve because our leaders and our country have called them to this conflict.

5.Finally we must call the church to prayer. When tanks rumble and rockets fire, Christians everywhere ought to pray without ceasing for our leaders, for the safety of our troops, for the enemy, for the civilians caught in the middle.

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