We see warfare on the news every day. Bombs. Terrorism. Afghanistan. Iraq. These words flood the headlines.
But what should Christians believe about war?
While there have been varying opinions regarding a Christian view of war given by theological and pastoral leaders throughout history, Christianity clearly rejects the notion that war can be declared for any and every reason. Yet, with that exception, there are differing theories regarding what Christians should believe about war.
Pacifism is the stance against violence in general and war specifically.
Some pacifists believe that Christians cannot partake in war but can defend themselves or their families. Other pacifists believe that even violence for the use of self-defense or defense is unwarranted.
Mennonite, Brethren and the earliest Baptists (Anabaptists) are Christian denominations that lean toward pacifism.
Pacifists base their theory on several biblical themes. They believe that Jesus forbids violence and revenge, even in war, and that Christians are to turn the other cheek and love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). They also believe that other biblical passages teach that our battle is against demonic forces and not other humans (Eph. 6:12).
While this position that Christians are to be concerned with converting enemies and not killing them is well attested historically, the majority of Christians throughout the centuries have differentiated between the individual retribution that Jesus condemned and the governmental right to wage warfare under certain conditions. This alternate view is called the “just war theory.”
Just War Theory
The just war theory affirms that there are times when war is not only justified but must be declared to promote righteousness and defend people against an evil or oppressive regime.
Just war theorists point to the fact that the Bible separates the role of individuals from the role of government. For example, the government can put people in prison, which is rather different than an individual locking someone up in their home. The just war theory holds that, according to Romans 13, the government has the right to judge wrongdoers with the “sword,” while individuals may not become vigilantes.
Those who hold to the just war theory believe that Jesus’ commands regarding nonviolence apply only to individuals seeking recompense but not to governments seeking justice.
If a Christian takes the just war position, they are still not allowed to declare war for any and every reason. There are certain requirements that a war must meet to be considered “just”:
Right to War (Jus ad bellum)
- Just cause – Is the reason for going to war a morally right cause?
- Competent authority – Has the war been declared not simply by a renegade band within a nation but by a recognized, competent authority within the nation?
- Comparative justice – Is it clear that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong and the motives and actions of your own nation are morally right?
- Right intention – Is the purpose of going to war to protect justice and righteousness rather than rob, pillage or destroy another nation?
- Last resort – Have all other reasonable means of resolving the conflict been exhausted?
- Probability of success – Is there a reasonable expectation that the war can be won?
- Proportionality of projected results – Will the good results of a victory be significantly greater than the harm and loss involved?
- Right spirit – Is the war undertaken with great reluctance and sorrow rather than with a “delight in war”?
In addition to these requirements for beginning a war, just war theorists believe there are additional requirements for acting justly in a war:
Just in War (Jus in bello)
- Proportionality in the use of force – Will no greater destruction be caused than is needed to win the war?
- Discrimination between combatants and noncombatants – Insofar as it is feasible in the successful pursuit of a war, is adequate care being taken to prevent harm to noncombatants?
- Avoidance of evil means – Will captured or defeated enemies be treated with justice and compassion? Are your own soldiers being treated justly in captivity?
- Good faith – Is there a genuine desire for restoration of peace and to eventually live in harmony with the attacking nation?
These requirements give us a good picture of what Christians should do in theory; however, they become more difficult in the real world. For example, if a war meets all the requirements except one, can a Christian still participate? Historically, which wars would be considered just and which would not? The waters become very muddy in some instances.
Given the impact that war has on all of our lives, especially those serving in the military and those who know someone serving in the military, we should think through these issues and particular views on war and seek godly, pastoral counsel before making any decisions regarding them.
For example, it does not seem that serving in the military is, in and of itself, sinful. However, there may be times when participating in certain military activities or even being involved in certain wars could be sinful because they do not meet the requirements of the just war theory. In these circumstances, a Christian serving in the military has a moral obligation to not participate in such activities. God’s commands in Scripture and personal conviction should always take precedence over military orders.
With that said, those who feel guilty for past military actions must know that there is always mercy at the feet of Jesus. His grace never fails. And by using this resource to consider these issues and by seeking pastoral advice, sinful actions in the future can also be avoided.
May the Lord lead us in times of peace and give us wisdom to discern when times of conflict arise.