For the Evangelical Christian, war is an issue where numerous ethical and religious considerations intersect. Is war antithetical to the peace-making and cross-bearing nature of Jesus Christ’s teaching and example? Does war conflict intrinsically with the foundational Christian precepts of God- and neighbor-love? Is war-killing justified? How far does the God-imbued authority of government extend? Has the Messiah’s advent replaced the violent eye-for-an-eye standard with a turn-the-other-cheek pacifism? Amidst such questions, one thing is certain. War, as a ubiquitous experience of humans throughout history, is something all Christians will confront in some form. Because humans are fallen creatures, war comes, as John Jefferson Davis says, “from within man himself.” And so Evangelicals must formulate a proper perspective, founded upon the authoritative revelation of God in Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. This essay will examine the moral issues involved in the war question and two prevalent Christian positions, these being the Pacifist and Just War traditions.
War brings into view many moral issues which any respective position must answer. The sanctity of human life, the nature of Christian discipleship, and the responsibility of human government head the list of questions raised by the issue of war.
First, Scripture unequivocally affirms human life as sacred, being God’s gift to those made in his image (Gen 1:26–27). As such, Scripture generally prohibits taking life, as seen in the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17). War intrinsically counters this notion of maintaining life, being a killing enterprise by definition. The question arises then, “Is killing ever justified?” Does Scripture unilaterally condemn the termination of human life?
Second, did Christ institute a principle of undisputed peace-making and suffering for those who would be his disciples? Such would seem to be the indication of passages such as Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” and John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” How do these verses relate to other verses and teachings in the New Testament?
Thirdly, does governmental authority to bear the sword “as a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:4) include the right (or obligation) to engage in warfare for the protection of the innocent against evil powers? Part of Christian discipleship is the command to subject ourselves to the human institution of earthly governance (1 Peter 2:13–14). Divine authority no doubt supercedes human authority, but do we break a supernatural directive when fighting in war under a national banner?
Pacifism or Just War?
Questions such as those above are what a Christian articulation regarding war must answer, while yet remaining faithful to Scripture and maintaining preeminent allegiance to Christ and his foundational “Love God, Love People” ethic (Matt 22:36–40). Seeking to maintain this allegiance, godly and faithful men have disagreed on the issue, and this essay will consider, respectively, two dominant views held by Christians throughout history: the Pacifist and Just War traditions.
The Pacifist tradition grew out of both a New Testament worldview and the specific teachings of Christ (such as quoted above: Matt 5:9; John 18:36, et al) which declare the advent of the peaceful kingdom of God. Several early church Fathers, such as Origen, Tertullian, and Lactantius, maintained a Pacifist position. Tertullian, for example, in denouncing Christian participation in war appealed to both Christ and Paul, saying, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword [Matt 26:52]? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law [1 Cor 6:1–8]?”
While Tertullian did not condemn war itself, but, rather, Christian participation in it, groups such as the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Quakers have contended for a total renunciation of war. John Howard Yoder, a contemporary Mennonite, argued cogently for Pacifism while heavily influencing the Pacifist ethic of Stanley Hauerwas. Both would place the locus of moral priority on the notion of the Kingdom of God, which is fundamentally a kingdom of peace. Hauerwas explains that “we are a people who have become part of a peaceable kingdom that has been made possible by the life and death of Jesus Christ.”
A Christian’s chief allegiance, therefore, must be to God’s kingdom in which Christ is king and others believers are fellow subjects. Engaging in war under an earthly banner will then impinge upon a Christian’s loyalty to the kingdom and other believers, against whom one might be fighting.
The Pacifist tradition holds that violent retaliation and killing are evil because the fundamental command of Christian faith is to love God and neighbor, including one’s enemies. Myron Augsburger explains, “The Christian must take seriously Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that personality is more valuable than material goods and that we do not sacrifice life for the sake of goods.” Love of people must transcend other loyalties — “we cannot kill people for whom Christ died….Our task is instead to bring the meaning of Christian grace and brotherhood into all of life.”
Similarly, in a critique of the common conservative stance on the Iraq war, Charles Marsh, Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia says that we as Evangelicals “have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global church,” which has “undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world.”
The Just War tradition has been the majority opinion throughout much of church history. Just War proponents stand in the line of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, C.S. Lewis and the majority of Christendom.
A passage from Augustine, quoted by Aquinas, Calvin, and Lewis in their respective Just War articulations, lays the issue out clearly: “For if the Christian religion condemned wars of every kind, the command given in the gospel to soldiers asking counsel as to salvation would rather be to cast away their arms, and withdraw themselves wholly from military service [Luke 3:14].”
Aquinas outlined principles that must govern a just war: a competent sovereign, a just cause, and right intention. Calvin likewise supported the Just War tradition, arguing that the government’s right to bear the sword to protect the innocent (Rom 13:4) includes the right to wage a just war. Furthermore, a Just War position does not necessarily imply an Ideal Absolutist (or “lesser of two evils”) approach, but rather that war is sometimes necessary and the morally right option. David Clyde Jones explains, “An act may have painful consequences but still be morally right, such as forcible restraint of evil by lawful authority.”
Consider again Romans 13:4: “For it [government] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” While the Pacifist position rightly declares that our allegiance is to be to God primarily, it seems to minimize the teaching of the New Testament that government has God-given authority to bear the sword against evil, or, to conduct violence against the wicked in a just cause.
John Jefferson Davis explains that “the pacifist tradition…overlooks the implications of the penal, substitutionary dimensions of the New Testament teachings.” God is a God of both love and peace, and justice and wrath. The New Testament wonderfully testifies that Christ taught and exemplified peace-making and suffering. But the same New Testament depicts the same Christ overturning tables in the temple (John 2:15) and just a few pages after “Blessed are the peacemakers,” also saying, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).
The Just War position rightly considers the full weight of the New Testament evidence, realizing that the infinitely wise God has installed secular, earthly powers to maintain justice in a fallen world. That wars are sometimes waged unjustly does not necessitate a Pacifist position any more than overeating (the abuse of food) makes eating itself immoral. Just War maintains that innocent life must be protected from wicked powers, and that retribution against such wicked powers is good and right.
The Just War tradition maintains a more strong fidelity to the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:7), realizing that Christ taught and lived suffering and peace and justice and retribution. God has given earthly governments authority to bear the sword against injustice, and the New Testament instructs Christians to be subject to these government insofar as such subjection does not compromise loyalty to Christ (1 Pet 2:13f; Rom 13:1f). Ultimately, the Just War view conforms itself more to Christ’s ultimate standard of God- and neighbor-love.