Puritan Gems

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Christian view of war

Many times we hear that war is wrong from a "Christian" perspective, because it breaks the commandment that says "Thou shalt not murder". Such an absolute statement creates obvious problems. For example, what does a Christian do in the case of being attacked by another nation or, as is currently the case, by a group of people bent on destroying your country?

The Biblical view of war may surprise many. Let's start with the language. The verb used in Exodus 20 for "murder" is never applied to Israel at war, and applies only in cases of premeditated killing of other individuals.

We all agree that judgment is God's alone, and that we should treat our enemies with respect and love. However, I hope we also agree that according to the Bible, we know the difference between right and wrong, and what justice constitutes according to God.

We learn this from Scripture:
"Romans 13:1-5 (NIV)
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. [2] Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. [3] For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. [4] For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [5] Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. "

Here it is written that God has delegated some of His authority to the government, and as such, the government has the right to pursue wars against evil and to administer justice. The passage above gives the government the right to bear the sword against these people.

God wills that human justice hold sway among governments, and between citizens and civil authority. He does not prescribe that governments always turn the other cheek. The government "does not bear the sword for nothing." Police have the God-given right to use force to restrain evil and bring law-breakers to justice. And legitimate states have the God-given right to restrain life-threatening aggression and bring criminals to justice. If these truths are known, this God-ordained exercise of divine prerogative would glorify the justice of God who mercifully ordains that the flood of sin and misery be restrained in the earth.

Is it not our Christian duty to protect the innocent? Do we just let evil steamroller over us? We are citizens of 2 kingdoms, the heavenly and the earthly, and we should follow what God tells us to do in both cases.

"1 Peter 2:13-14 (NIV)
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, [14] or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. "

This verse confirms the earlier verse from Romans, while adding that these authorities appointed by God are the ones that punishes those who do evil. And the instruction is clear, we must submit to them for the Lord's sake. So if you are required by your government to go to war, you should submit to that, provided that it is a just war.

It is very important, however, to remember here the distinction between church and state. The Christian fights in a war not as an ambassador of the church or on behalf of the church, but as an ambassador of his country. The church is not to use violence (John 18:36), but the government at times may (John 18:36; Romans 13:3-4; etc.). So the Christian fights not as an agent of the church, but as an agent of the government of his country. Both are ultimately under the authority of God, but each has a distinct role.

What, now, are we to make of Jesus' radical commands in Matthew 5:39-41? "Do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two." How does this fit with what we have seen above?

First, we need to clarify what the problem is not. The problem is not that Jesus appears to be telling us to lie down and let evil overtake us. That is clearly not what he is saying. Instead, he is telling us what it looks like "not [to] be overcome by evil, but [to] overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21)

So the problem is not that it looks as though Jesus is telling us to let evil steam-roll over us. The problem is that it looks like Jesus is telling us that the only way we should ever seek to overcome evil is by letting it go and responding with kindness. It looks as though he leaves no place for using force in resisting evil.

Part of the answer to this difficulty lies in understanding the hyperbolic nature of much of the Sermon on the Mount. I don't think that Jesus is telling us never to respond to evil with force (such as in self-defense) or always to literally turn the other cheek when we are slapped any more than his command later in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:6 means that we should only pray when we are completely alone or his command in 5:29 means that some should literally gouge out their eyes. Jesus himself drove the thieves away from the temple with a whip (John 2:15) and Paul at times insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11; cf. also the interesting instance of 16:35-40). Jesus is using hyperbole to illustrate what our primary disposition and attitude should be, not to say that we should literally give in to every attempt to do evil against us. That is part of the answer.

The main part of the answer, however, lies in remembering that Jesus is speaking primarily to individuals. He is not mainly addressing governments here, but is primarily speaking at the personal level. This text, then, shows that an individual's primary response to evil should be to "turn the other cheek," while the other texts we have seen (e.g., Romans 13:3-4) show that government's God-given responsibility is to punish those who commit civil crimes (murder, terrorism, acts of war, etc.). While it is sometimes appropriate even for individuals to use self-defense, it is never appropriate for individuals to seek to punish others. But it is right, however, for governments both to take measures of self-defense and to execute retribution.

There are, in other words, various "spheres" of life. God has willed that some spheres include responsibilities that are not necessarily included in other spheres. Personally, it would be wrong for us to execute retribution on people who harm us. But passages like Romans 13:3-4 and John 18:36 show that Jesus is not denying governments the right to execute retribution on evildoers. Therefore, when a Christian is under the authority of the government and authorized to fight in a just war on the nation's behalf, it is appropriate for him to fight. For he is not fighting as a private individual, but as a representative of the government to which God has given the power of the sword.

I want to add a piece here about the just war criteria, since this is what defines the cases under which war can be justified. It was written by Augustine (no relation )

1) Proper Authority - Augustine meant by this that war is not to be waged by private citizens but rather by properly constituted governments.
2) Proper cause – We are not to go to war for revenge nor as Augustine put it ‘the lust for dominating’. The primary reason for going to war is self defence.
3) A reasonable chance of success
4) Proportionality - This has come to mean that non-combatants should be kept from harm, as far as possible.

Therefore, we will magnify the mercy of God by praying for our enemies to be saved and reconciled to God. At the personal level we will be willing to suffer for their everlasting good, and we will give them food and drink. We will put away malicious hatred and private vengeance. But at the public level we will also magnify the justice of God by praying and working for justice to be done on the earth, if necessary through wise and measured force from God-ordained authority.


Puritan Lad said...

Excellent work August.

"Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle;". (Psalm 144:1)

On a broader perspective, I would also add that self-defense (Luke 22:36), defense of property (Exodus 22:2), and defense of one's family and nation (Nehemiah 4:7-23) are allowed (and even commanded) in Scripture.

Anonymous said...

There you go, carefully picking through contradictory documents to back your case. The ten commandments state that murder is not OK. Low estimates state that we killed 2777 civilians in Afghanistan last year. You all run around trying to work our judicial system to protect the unborn yet you willingly participate in spending our national money killing children and other innocents in foreign lands. Make some sense.

Puritan Lad said...


Can you justify your assumption that killing during a time of war is tantamount to murder, and thus addressed in the 6th commandment?

Anonymous said...

Verses in the bible speak of defending oneself when attacked. Al-Qaeda attacked us - a stateless, multinational criminal gang of religious extremists. They have a presence in as many as 40 countries. Therefore, our targeting of Iraq and Afghanistan is completely unfounded. We should be using cooperative law enforcement to hunt down the parties involved to prosecute them in accordance with the law.

The Taliban wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that left in its wake many orphans who the islamic extremists (including al-Qaeda) took under their wing to educate in religious schools called madrassas. Contined warring in this region is only going to produce more enemies for us in the future. Why don't American Christians think there is something wrong with this? Did you know that we killed 9 boys collecting firewood a couple of weeks ago? Wouldn't you develop hate for someone who killed your child? IS THIS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST? I am very concerned about our complacency in this conflict. Especially the willingness of American Christians to stand by while our government carries on with this messy occupation.

Puritan Lad said...


I didn't see anything about Iraq and Afghanistan (and you convenient left out Lybia) in the above post or the comments. You are the first to mention these. Whether or not these wars meet the criteria for a just war is certainly open for debate. You cited the "Ten Commandments" in an attempt to equate war with murder, and state that it is not OK. Can you justify your position? You added "Verses in the bible speak of defending oneself when attacked." Did you even read the article, or are you just writing out some talking points that you picked up somewhere?

2) Proper cause – We are not to go to war for revenge nor as Augustine put it ‘the lust for dominating’. The primary reason for going to war is self defence.

What exactly is your disagreement with the content of this article?

Anonymous said...

I am simply asking why Christians support what is going on in the middle east when it certainly not related to self-defense and the end result is not going to be a safer America.

Anonymous said...

And it is morally unjust. Shouldn't Christians scrutinize all of our involvements overseas to determine if Jesus would agree with what our government is doing? You say that Jesus doesn't agree with Roe v Wade. So why would he agree with preemptive strikes on a very poor country that is already in tatters where we accidentally kill civilians on a daily basis?

Puritan Lad said...


You are all over the place.

First, to the matter at hand. You wrote, "I am simply asking why Christians support what is going on in the middle east when it certainly not related to self-defense and the end result is not going to be a safer America." With all due respect, this is not what you did. What you did was accuse August (and myself) of "carefully picking through contradictory documents to back your case." You then cited the ten commandments to back your case. I have twice asked you to defend this usage of the 10 commandments, and you have yet to do so. Are you going to do this, or are you going to retract your original argument? What is your bone of contention in the article that was written. Let's see if you can actually discuss this without putting words in our mouths or assuming that you know something about our political views.

Second, You have assumed that we have taken a position on our current conflicts. Maybe we have, but neither of us has has defended the wars you mentioned (nor argued against them) in this article. August simply stated the case for a just war, and so far you have agreed with points #2 AND #4 while lambasting us in your original comment. Whether or not these wars are just is open for debate among Christians. While I commend you for your stand concerning these issues, the debate really centers upon whether or not such nations have any role to play in the terrorism that has opposed us for centuries (long before Bush invaded Iraq). I don't know if there is enough evidence in this matter to warrant a just war (and neither do you), so I'll leave that to the powers that God has ordained concerning the matter, and they will have to answer for it. If there is, then point #2 is met, and the wars are justified.

Third, in your second comment, you have bought into the "blame America for terrorism" nonsense. Such a position is totally without warrant, and shows an ignorance of "orthodox" Islam. Islamic terrorism existed long before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, (Thomas Jefferson had to deal with Islamic terrorists). It is a religion that has historically spread via terror.

Fourthly, if the wars that we are participating in turn out to be justified (and I'm not arguing that they are or aren't), that the fact that these are "very poor countries" where "we accidentally kill civilians" is irrelevant. The economic status of a country has no bearing on whether or not a war is just, and while we should avoid killing civilians whenever possible (See point #4 in the article), in many cases it isn't avoidable. This is a logical fallacy known as an Argumentum ad Misericordiam, an appeal to emotion. You would do well to stick with arguments that deal with the case presented above for a just war.

Finally, I have little use for any argument that attempts to assume what political policy Jesus was support. That usually depends upon who is speaking and what axe they are grinding. Jesus commands rulers to honor him and rule according to His commandments. Any assumptions outside of Scripture are unwarranted.

Anonymous said...

I am simply putting my comments on this page, where perhaps Christians come because they are confused about the Bible's stance on war. What about a real life scenario? Why don't you explain why it is OK to be doing what America is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or in Israel for that matter.

Anonymous said...

The reason we are at war with these un godly people (any reason not to agree with me from a Christian view) is because we as Americans are a freedomly diverse country of many religious views that over time has forced people to be alert of those of evil. The wars in the bible litterally could not be as affecting as one of the 21st century. It would take one click from china to nuke us or anyone. I think the biggest problem every human has in the world is, the fear of death. I do not care who you are, this thought is in the back of your head and would 100% affect your decision to kill someone if they were trying to kill you or your family, despite wrong from right. I am 100% conservative and American. God is first, but who would be here to preach the world of god if "gods country were wiped out"? So I'm for smokin them out of there holes and bombing the countries in which evil has no chance to become good in which god truly understands.

Sorry for the grammar issue. I am on my phone.

Anonymous said...

Does the fear of dealth compel you to blindly agree with the conservatives and their "gung ho" war mongering Christian arrogance?What makes you think that you or your religion are better than the rest of the world and the other 2799 religions? The middle east and the terrorist cells are no more threatening than our home grown Unibombers and Timothy McVeighs (and Sarah Palins).

Anonymous said...

Before you go spouting your so called knowledge of the hugely misguided left media about Timothy Mc Veigh, do your own research and don't buy into all the lies you seem to believe by the media. If you do your research, you will find that it was not, has not and will not be reported that that guy had middle east terrorist connections. I am so over people saying killing and murder are the same thing. They are not....yet another ploy by the left to change definiations of words and get everyone confused to further their agenda. It has worked so well for them. Bottom line is that we are taught in the bible (and I am assuming the bible doesn't mean anything to you....I hope I am wrong) to obey our government or king so they are the ones who will be held accountable if they make us go to war. If innocent people get killed in the war, that is unfortunate. It is not permitted to go take out as many innocent people as you can but it is understood that some innocent people will perish in any war. This is in NO way related to a so called women's right to choose to MURDER her baby. Hippies did not get us very far in this country that my 4x GG fought so hard in in the American Revolution....they set us back BIG time and they are still taking this country down. If you truly want to know what is biblical, I would suggest you get on your knees and repent of your sin and pray to the Lord and ask him to show you then you read your bible.