30: Authority, Submission, Ethics, Morality

IN THIS CHAPTER

The military is a great place for uniformed leaders to learn how to submit to God and to those He places over us. Officers usually serve in positions of influence that give them an opportunity to do good to all those around them, whether to Americans, to allies, or to the people of a nation at war with the United States. Sound ethical and moral actions flow from the practice of studying, thinking, and repeatedly doing what is right, especially when under stress. The bottom line is that Christians ought to have a good (positive) influence on a military unit’s culture and climate, in times of peace and in times of conflict.

ALL AUTHORITY IS FROM GOD

God declares through the apostle Paul that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Military leaders not only submit to governing authorities, but they also are a governing authority. God raises up every ruling authority according to His purposes and plans, from local leaders to national leaders.

Consider how God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, by humbling him until he acknowledged “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will” (Daniel 4:32).

According to God’s will, Joseph was appointed to great authority by the Pharaoh of Egypt in order to save many lives (Genesis 45:5, 50:20).

Likewise, Esther was made queen of Persia for the purpose of saving her people (Esther 4:14).

Even the rulers of the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Romans were raised up by God at exactly the right moment in history to do all that God had planned regarding Christ Jesus’ crucifixion (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). Jesus lived and served under authority, and so do we.

SERVE UNDER AUTHORITY WHILE IN AUTHORITY

Studying Scripture reveals the one true and holy God—His nature, His purposes and plans, His will, and His commands. Christian leaders serve under the authority of the state and nation, but they principally and ultimately bow the knee first to the absolute authority of God our Father, who creates and sustains all things. Laws and structures on earth flow from God’s command for His image bearers to fill the earth, exercise dominion, and rule.

Having been made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), His law is written on people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10, 10:16), and cultures conform to His laws in various ways (Romans 2:14-15). Even relativists who deny absolute right and wrong will not wish to be stolen from, slandered, or killed. And since people know that wrong and evil exist, they must appeal to a standard against which others can recognize what is true, right, and acceptable.

Christian military leaders exercise command authority while living in right fear of God. Knowing that God has raised us up for good works at our own moment of history, we go to Him seeking wisdom for today’s decisions, as well as for future decisions we are being prepared to make. Scripture, as interpreted by godly men and women throughout history, will generally answer our toughest questions about life and our place in it, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to answer culture-driven or combat-related conundrums. Lead with a view to pleasing God in your decision-making, asking for counsel from trusted sources, and seeking to align your decisions with the commands made clear in Scripture. Jesus said to “fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

A God-fearing and moral leader who makes decisions according to revealed truth is a blessing to unit and nation. Good leadership causes people to rejoice (Proverbs 11:10). Godly leadership begins with submission to the governing authorities, so strive to know the rules and regulations governing your professional space. Learn the specific words found in the regulations, and think about the intent of those who wrote the rules. Rules usually protect life, keep military equipment in good condition, or guard the reputation of the service. Submitting to higher authorities encourages subordinates to follow regulations, and at the same time creates trust among our peers and superiors (1 Peter 2:13-17). Service members work best among ethically consistent professionals (you!), because they know they can trust one another when under fire.

ETHICS AND THE LAW OF ARMED CONFLICT

Ethical living can be described as living out “love God” and “love your neighbor.” Jesus told His disciples that all people would know they were His disciples if they had love for one another (John 13:35). However, can a military combatant love those who oppose them? Combatants must think about taking the life of an enemy long before that day comes, guarding their hearts so that justified national warfare is not replaced by personal, vindictive warfare. We execute combat missions with the greatest skill and lethality possible, but we also rejoice in the day our government reaches a cease-fire. We can love our enemy as a fellow image bearer while at the same time participating in lethal engagements. Learning to pray for your enemy, wherever or whoever they may be, will help guard your heart. 

Our nation trains us regularly in the Laws of Armed Conflict, but laws alone are unable to guide us through every tough call. A biblically informed ethic can help make decisions where laws have gray areas. God the Holy Spirit trains our hearts in right thinking as we meditate on the words of Scripture, as we pray, and as we sit under biblical teaching. Seek out counselors or mentors who help you think ethically. You might have a chaplain or JAG who is specially trained or gifted in ethics. Asking for help protects us from blindness, stubbornness, pride, and self-justification. Read the works of authors who wrestle with Christ-like thinking. Good thinking moves us beyond simply asking about what is legal. We do more than fulfill a job—we represent a nation, a people, a church, a family, and our God. Be sober minded. Further thoughts on serving can be found in places such as OCF’s publication, “May A Christian Serve in the Military?”

When you are faced with a challenging decision, such as when you disagree with a directive from your leadership, try writing out your question. Be as specific as possible about what you must decide. The starting principle is to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free” (Ephesians 6:5-8). If you know of a chaplain or JAG who specializes in military religious liberty or in the field you are wrestling with, then seek their advice. Once you reach a decision, be sure to obey with a heart attitude that allows you to, “do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent … ” (Philippians 2:14-15).

In addition to writing out your question, think about whether there is Scripture that might address your root concern. Consider what the Old Testament histories, Proverbs, Psalms, Gospels, or apostolic instructions have to say. Ask who will be affected by your decision. Will the impact be singular, or will an entire unit be affected? Are you setting a precedent that is likely to be repeated? Pray about decisions, even if you are standing at the front of a room and others are watching (Nehemiah 2:1-5). Your decisions will be made more quickly and with greater confidence as this type of thinking becomes habitual. Proverbs 3:33-35 indicates that where the righteous live, there is blessing, honor, and favor. When explaining your decision, it is best to use culturally relevant language (plain English) rather than spiritual terms or references.

ONE COURAGEOUS PERSON

Finally, remember that group thinking, or a mob mentality, can rapidly develop within the military community. From basic training onward there is an expectation to conform to institutional norms, and that pressure can turn into a type of unit loyalty that trumps common ethical sense or rational thinking. Be alert to stop wrong words and actions when they first appear so they don’t grow into bigger problems.

The courage of one leader to call the team into alignment can save lives and protect an entire unit from moral injury resulting from sloppy thinking. For example, do not allow an enemy to be dehumanized by ugly labels or slang. Make sure the rules of engagement are explained with their intent in view. God places leaders in places where they can bring influence to bear, so be ready to apply a consistent ethic to military life. If we fear man, then we will try to fit in, seek acceptance, or be quiet. We must fear God alone, the One who has all authority and power, who delegates authority to whom He will, and before whom we always live (Luke 12:4-7; Daniel 4:17).