Main Bible Readings:
- Romans 12:14, 17-21
- Romans 13:1-7
If by ‘event’ we mean either a war or a tyranny, then in the 20th century:
- 78 events killed between 6 and 60 thousand;
- 61 events claimed between 60 & 600 thousand;
- 21 events claimed between 600,000 and 6 million lives;
- 5 events claimed more than 6 million lives.
In total, somewhere around 180 million people were killed in one 20th century atrocity or another – a far larger number than is known for preceding centuries. It raises the question: is there a Christian attitude to war?
Historically, Christians have not agreed on their attitude to war and whether it could ever be morally acceptable to participate. Broadly, there are two views.
There are those who would not rule out involvement in war where it could be viewed as the lesser of two evils, a painful necessity in a fallen world. In such a view it is necessary to decide when a war is justified. This condition is considered met if a war is thought to have a just cause, and to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. It should also have a reasonable expectation of achieving the desired result. Romans 13:1-7 is interpreted as saying that the Christian, when acting as an agent of the state, can legitimately use violent means to resist evil. This principle is then extended to international affairs. Old Testament examples of wars are quoted in support of this “Just War” point of view. Since war was right, at times, for God’s people in the past, so, it is argued, it cannot always be unacceptable for a believer to get involved today.
The other main view is “Pacifism”. Here it is recognised that God’s people were rightly involved in warfare in the past, and that in the future the Lord Himself will wage war. War is, therefore, not regarded as always intrinsically evil but, in this context, the pacifist believes he is bound without exception by the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, precluding any armed resisting of evil. It is not, however, the Christian’s business to condemn the government should it decide to embark on war. This is the type of thinking that led many believers to stand as “conscientious objectors” during, for example, 2 World Wars.
The basic question is: “Can it ever be right for a Christian to ‘…bear the sword'” (Rom.13:4)? This seems to go against the tenor of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as Romans 12:14, 17-21. Some settle for making a difference between acting personally, or on behalf of the State (the latter being viewed as “…God’s servant” – Rom. 13:4). But can we really make such a division? Is it always going to be possible to do this? In extreme cases, someone acting for the State cannot ignore his own personal moral responsibility. Early in 1992, a former East German border guard was convicted of the manslaughter of a man shot while attempting to flee to the West. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison – specifically, the trial judge said, for following the laws of his country rather than asserting his conscience. The court evidently could not distinguish between “person” and “office”. Now, bearing in mind the teaching of the Bible, could a believer on the Lord Jesus ever be justified in taking life, even if this was sanctioned by the State? The answer is surely no.
In trying to resolve the tension we’ve been considering, are we not on safer ground simply to say that the State has been given a role by God which has been expressly forbidden for the Christian to participate in personally? If the State declares war, the Christian is to submit (Rom. 13:1), and so not to protest against such a course of action, but that subjection cannot be to the point of personal involvement (Compare the case of Acts 5:29). At the same time, the Christian does well to show due sensitivity to the issue of his benefiting from the sacrifice, even of life itself, made by others who serve in the armed forces.
Someone, however, may object to this use of the command: “Do not resist an evil person”(Mat.5:39). We must certainly guard against taking it too literally, and outside of its context, as defined in the four illustrations the Lord went on to give in His famous Sermon. Whereas the Law, in saying an eye for an eye, limited retaliation to an equivalent measure; Jesus’ teaching seems to be demanding that His disciples forego the right to revenge so completely as to be prepared to accept double the insult or injury instead. But does this need to mean absolutely no self-defence is allowed, for example if we’re mugged? Surely, in such cases the spirit of non-retaliation wouldn’t be breached by warding off an attacker. However, defending a country against another aggressor nation is totally different. It would inevitably involve inflicting casualties. We’re not comparing like with like, the tension remains, and so the point made above stands. Furthermore, is it thinkable that members of the Body of Christ should ever put themselves in the position of taking the life of a fellow-member?
There are, of course, other verses that help us. In John 18:36, the Lord spoke of His disciples as not fighting because “My kingdom is not of this world.” We are also described as being “…in the world” but “…not of the world” in John 17:11 and 16. It follows that we should not seek to impede God’s sovereign purposes being worked out in a fallen world.
The Lord expects us to be peacemakers (Mat. 5:9), following after peace with all men (Heb. 12:14) in this world, which will increasingly be characterised by war until Jesus returns (Mat. 24:6). Then He will bring about peace. There is “…a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccles. 3:8).
In line with 1 Timothy 2:1,2, of course, our main duty is to voice our concern to God in prayer. Prayer is a more effective deterrent that any threat of force could ever be.