Christian Living: Pacifism and the Church of God

During the American Civil War, Sabbatarian Adventists in the state of Iowa petitioned their state legislature for official recognition as a pacifist church. They wanted the legislature to recognize their pacifist convictions to help protect the church’s young men from the draft. Their action provoked the Sabbatarian Adventist movement as a whole to quickly become pacifist, despite their obvious sentiments for a Union victory. In the wars that followed, members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Church of God (Seventh Day) continued their pacifist tradition.

In his early adulthood, Herbert Armstrong had no pacifist convictions despite his Quaker upbringing. When the United States entered the First World War, he tried several times to enlist and become an Army officer, but was unsuccessful. A decade later, the influence of the Church of God (Seventh Day) apparently caused him to reconsider the subject. By the outbreak of the Second World War, he had begun to advise the young men of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and of his own group (which would become the Worldwide Church of God) to maintain the pacifist tradition.

With Armstrong’s founding of Ambassador College and the continued growth of his church, the issue of military service and the draft became more pressing. By the time of the Vietnam War, the Worldwide Church of God had clearly established itself as a pacifist fellowship. Ambassador College men were exempt from the draft on the basis that they were divinity students.

The turmoil of the ’60s attracted many people to the church, including me. From seventh grade through college, the airwaves and newspapers were filled with the latest war news from Vietnam. During my senior year in high school I could no longer escape the question, Is it wrong to go to war? After reading the church’s booklet Military Service and War, I dropped all consideration of joining the military and registered with the draft board as a conscientious objector. I thought that my father would have been furious at my decision, so I never told him.

Though the Church was officially pacifist, I noticed what I considered glaring inconsistencies with that stance. When it came to the Vietnam War, for example, there was no question where our hearts were. We wanted the communists to lose and lose badly. Herbert Armstrong wrote a lead article in 1971 that justified the American presence in Vietnam based on the need to fight communism. We never published a single article condemning American actions in Southeast Asia. Condemning the killing of communists was not one of our high priorities, although we as a church officially considered warfare to be murder. The Friends, who gave humanitarian aid to North and South Vietnam, were more consistent pacifists than we were.

Later, in the Persian Gulf War, many of us cheered the liberation of Kuwait and the terribly bloody defeat inflicted on the Iraqi Army. We gloried in the armies that put the bullies to flight. Where were the tears for Iraqi widows and orphans? I saw none. I felt none. We cheered our conquering heroes and thought little of the suffering they inflicted.

It seems that we often sought noncombatant status for ourselves while we cheered our nation’s soldiers. “Don’t ask us to risk our bodies, our lives or the bodies and lives of our sons. Don’t ask us to kill. But boy are we glad that you do that. May God give you the victory.” This attitude is inconsistent with a truly pacifist position.

I noticed other inconsistencies. Some of our members and ministers, while counseling pacifism on a grand scale, had no qualms about violently defending their own person and possessions. They believed that if a potentially violent criminal broke into their home they had the right to shoot him. I remember being shocked when an elderly widow in New Orleans showed me the loaded pistol she kept by her bed.

To be honest, I had my own misgivings about our doctrine. If I had been alive in 1939, should I have preached peace as Germany overran Poland? If I had lived in London during the Second World War, would God have expected me not to shoot back as the Nazi bombers terrorized my city? Were Christians really expected to only passively resist the butchery of six million Jews? More recently, was pacifism the proper Christian response to the rape and torture of the inhabitants of Kuwait City?

It is one thing for Jesus to ask me to turn the cheek when I am struck. But does he expect me to do the same when someone rapes my wife or butchers my neighbor?

There are shades of pacifist teaching, some more demanding than others. There are those who teach strict pacifism for church, state and the individual. Others teach pacifism only for Christians or those called for special Christian service. These may believe that the state has every right to respond violently to some criminals and some criminal nations. It is only believers that are to be pacifists. Those who support their country in war while not fighting for their country often hold to this view.

The Church has dropped its strict pacifist stance. Members may join police or military forces, and in the performance of the state’s God-given duty, may use deadly force. Such action will not jeopardize their membership status. Pacifism is not a denominational requirement.

We will illustrate why most Christians, upon examining the biblical evidence, believe that under specified conditions Christians may participate in war. This paper will provide the backbone for much of what we hope to cover. The first part of this series is titled “War in the Old Testament.”

In openly discussing whether Christians may war, we hope to spread understanding within our fellowship about why most Christian theologians have not been pacifists. As a church we know most of the pacifist arguments, but we generally remain uninformed about how nonpacifist Christians understand the New Testament. I believe that when we thoroughly understand nonpacifist Christian ethics, we will understand why members may choose to be soldiers.

We do not expect our readers to consider this subject lightly. It is far too serious for that. Pastors especially should carefully consider all the issues involved. Young men and women will expect them to provide sound biblical counsel on this subject. May God be with all of you in your study.

Author: Ralph Orr


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