We have now completed our journey through the Bible’s treatment of war and peace. We began with the Edenic ideal. When God created humans, he placed them into a peaceful, nonviolent world. Genesis describes that world as so peaceful that not even the animals shed blood. All were vegetarians.
Humans rejected God when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God then expelled humans from paradise and clothed them with animal skins. Innocence was lost. Blood had begun to flow. As time progressed, violence and murder increased, until finally God gave humans the authority to take human life — to execute murderers.
Capital punishment and war became facts of life. None of the Old Testament people of God were pacifists. Many of their exemplary feats of faith came in battle, though some also came as they faithfully refused to bow to Baal, choosing death instead.
The old covenant’s law regulated vengeance, war and capital punishment. Loving neighbor did not exclude the possibility that one might also have to slay one’s neighbor if he or she murdered or bowed to idols.
God himself was a warrior. Though God denied David the right to build the temple because David was a bloody man, it was God who had trained him in war. To use the sword and to raise an army was not cowardly, hateful or evidence of a lack of faith. Often they were expressions of faith.
This reality forced us to conclude that if Christian pacifism had a basis, then in this area Christian ethics must have departed radically from Old Testament ethics. The obsolescence of the Mosaic covenant and the confirmation of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus suggested that just such a radical departure had occurred.
Study of the New Testament reveals Jesus, not Moses, to be the lawgiver of the church. All is to be measured against him and the Holy Spirit whom he sent. Old Testament laws provide illustrations for New Testament ethics, but are not its foundation. Jesus is. Further, Jesus has given his disciples a new commandment, “Love each other just as I have loved you.”
Yet when we examined Jesus’ Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain, we did not find the radical total departure from Old Testament views of bloodletting that we might have expected. True, the orientation shifted from Sinai to Jesus, but the total pacifist ethic often claimed for New Testament ethics is missing.
The critical and central issues that pacifism seeks to address — how to defend the helpless, the administration of social justice and order, the protection of the state, capital punishment, the defense of the nation — Jesus left undiscussed. Jesus’ sermons were generally about personal ethics in one-to-one situations. He dealt with issues that arise within a local community.
When Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, he was not speaking of the enemies found on a battlefield, but the enemies one might meet in the marketplace. How one treats those enemies is Jesus’ concern. And his teaching on turning the cheek? It had nothing to do with warfare or protecting one’s family, but dealt with single public blows that challenged one’s honor.
We found that if we were to search the Sermon on the Mount for answers about how we should handle the multidirectional demands that love sometimes places on us, we would be disappointed. We must love neighbor, brother and enemy. Yet if my brother tries to murder my neighbor, what does love demand of me? May I kill my brother to save my neighbor? Jesus did not say.
Jesus’ teaching requires his disciples to place a high emphasis on peace and peacemaking. He called on his disciples to make sacrifices far beyond what we would normally expect of a person. He exemplified that attitude on the cross.
Yet Jesus did not think that peace was the highest value. His life and teaching often produced conflict. Jesus could be a peacemaker, as when he calmed the angry crowd with the words: “He that is without sin let him cast the first stone.” Yet his harsh condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes heightened tensions. Peace was not his highest value.
Nor did Jesus explain all the ways and under what circumstances one might be a peacemaker. David’s slaying of Goliath brought Israel a level of peace. Did Jesus allow for that kind of peacemaking? He did not say, but based on his positive views of the Law and the Prophets it seems likely that his ethic did allow for that kind of peacemaking.
Many Christian pacifists assume that to fully live as peacemakers, one can never resort to violent force under any circumstance. Yet Jesus never said that. The God of the Bible does not behave that way. He is both a mighty warrior and love. His law embraced both love and violent deadly force. His Messiah died unjustly and without protest, and will return with a mighty army.
Through his death Jesus has become peacemaker and reconciler. Yet viewed from the entirety of his existence, he has not abandoned the sword. Nor did he ask his disciples to totally abandon the sword. Pacifists must read such total rejection into his words.
When we turned to the epistles, we made similar discoveries. While they clearly required a sacrificial and peace-oriented life for believers, they never excluded the possible use of violent deadly force. They never excluded capital punishment or military service.
Paul’s claim that “we” do not war as the world wages war turned out to be speaking only about Paul and his traveling companions. The war God called them to fight was a war against heresy and church division. Paul said nothing about whether a Christian might fight under certain circumstances.
While James addressed the origins of war in human lust, he never denied the right to defend against those who would start wars. Peter also called the church to submission and a willingness to suffer for doing good. Yet he never addressed whether a Christian could serve in government and use the sword to protect others. His concerns were for those Christians who had no social power and generally could do nothing about their situation.
Paul’s treatise on love proved both inspiring and frustrating. Traditional pacifist concerns were left undiscussed. His epistle addressed more parochial concerns — how the Corinthian church should handle its affairs — than the broader issues of war and peace, self-defense and the defense of others and capital punishment.
We saw how some translators believe Paul wrote, “Love always protects.” We saw how much a dilemma that statement can be when dealing with real-life issues. How does love protect? What does love protect? Who does love protect? We saw that protecting one party can lead to the harm of another party. Even doing nothing can harm.
This leads us to the ethical question, In failing to protect the innocent can pacifism become immoral? Can a pacifist response be contrary to love?
Paul, in Romans 12, admonished Christians not to seek vengeance. We must overcome evil with good. But in this passage Paul did not spell out what he meant by good or evil. Wrath, he told us, is God’s business. He will repay. Yet, just a few verses later Paul said that government officials carry out God’s wrath with God’s blessing. That is why they carry the sword. They are God’s ministers to bring wrath on wrongdoers.
It seems, therefore, that Paul was not against vengeance per se. Instead, he opposed Christians seeking private vengeance. Which leaves us with the question, May Christians hold government office and in the fulfillment of their God-ordained duties take human life? Paul did not comment.
May Christians hold government office? The New Testament does not specifically say, yet it gives us two positive Christian examples — Cornelius and Erastus — one an army officer, the other a city treasurer. In the Old Testament period, the righteous held many government positions. Christians in government was not a significant enough issue in the first century for the New Testament books to discuss. Yet if God had wanted Christians to forever remain apart from human government, would he not have explained that the Old Testament examples no longer applied? Circumstances kept most of the early church out of government, but does Christian ethics always require this?
After examining all of the biblical testimony, I am left with one conclusion. Christians in government may take human life when fulfilling the God-ordained functions of government to protect and defend its citizens and to punish wrongdoers. It would also seem within biblical ethics that Christians who are private citizens may use deadly force to protect innocent victims.
The radical paradigm shift of the new covenant does not alter this long-established biblical ethic. The requirement that Christian pacifists must establish, that the New Testament teaches total pacifism, cannot be proved. The New Testament is not that simplistic. Christian love has a responsibility to protect and defend.
However, that does not mean that Christians can accept all that goes on in the name of law enforcement, justice and national defense. Just as in all other areas of human activity, we humans taint these too with our sinfulness. There has been no 100 percent just war. There has been no pure expression of Christian faith. If purity is what we demand, then all human activity must cease.
May Christians kill Christians in war? Justin Martyr argued that government should not punish Christians for being Christians, but if they commit crimes, government should punish them as criminals. I believe the same principle applies in war. Christians who aid and support a criminal state should expect that someone will punish them. Sadly, sometimes it is Christians who must punish them.
Will innocent people die? Yes, they will. God knew that when he handed the sword to government. Falsely accused people would be executed. Innocent civilians would die. Yet God gave to government the sword nonetheless. Government is responsible for doing all that it can to protect the innocent while not shirking its responsibility to wield the sword.
What Christians need to remember, and have often forgotten, is the New Testament’s emphasis that our reactions on a personal level should primarily be peaceful, conciliatory, self-sacrificing, submissive and reconciling. To fail to do these things is to be contrary to the law of Christ. As much as it is up to us we are to live peaceably with all people.
We need to recognize that generally God has ordained the government, not the individual, to execute his wrath. As a natural extension of that responsibility, government recognizes the individual’s right to defend one’s self and others when the government cannot.
Where our enemies live freely within our communities, we must initiate steps that move us toward peace. We must greet them when our paths cross. We must feed them when they are hungry and give them drink when they are thirsty. If we have wronged them and they take us to court, we must reconcile with them quickly. If they insult or publicly dishonor us, we must take it graciously and offer blessings for curses. In none of this do we surrender our love responsibility to protect those whom God has placed within our care.
We are our brother’s keeper. We are to look out for our neighbor. When we are in government, it sometimes requires that we use the sword that God has placed in our hands. In times of emergency we may even need to call others to join us in that task.
Christianity teaches peacemaking. Christians are to be peaceful. Yet the reality is that New Testament Christianity does not teach total pacifism. In our Christian responsibility toward others, Christians may war.
Yet is this the end of the matter? Is there nothing more to say?
Of course not. Though we have established some reasons why Christian theologians have generally believed that Christians may war, we have not discussed the limits that Christian ethics places on warfare. Discussion of just war theories goes beyond the intent of this series.
Further, to say that Christians may sometimes be forceful, even kill, does not say that it is always wise or moral for them to do so. Paul wrote that some things, though permissible, are not always expedient.
God, having given governments the sword, not only gave them the authority to slay but also the responsibility to know when not to slay. We can often accomplish more through wise restraint, calm words, clear generous thinking and diplomacy than by taking up arms.
Yet once someone determines to behave criminally, these other options may no longer exist for those concerned with fulfilling their God-ordained responsibility to protect and avenge the innocent, prosecute the guilty and maintain civil order. As God has not permanently laid down the sword, neither has he demanded that his disciples never pick it up.
3 At first, Paul’s claim — that giving food and drink to our enemies will result in burning coals heaped on their heads — appears to suggest that we do good to gain vengeance. However, that contradicts a purpose for feeding our enemies — to relieve their physical needs. Thus, many commentators feel “burning coals on their heads” metaphorically refers to a burning conscience. By treating our enemies with kindness we move them to repentance.
Resources used in the preparation of this series
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Military Service and War. Pasadena, California: Worldwide Church of God, 1994.
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Teichman, Jenny. Pacifism and the Just War: A Study in Applied Philosophy. New York: B. Blackwell, 1986.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
—— What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question. A Christian Peace Shelf Selection. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1982.
Author: Ralph Orr