A Brief Examination of “Biblical” Justifications for War

A Brief Examination of “Biblical” Justifications for War

Attempts to provide biblical warrants for Christian participation in warfare have long been offered by those who reject Christ-centered nonviolence. Some of the arguments that have frequently been offered in defense of Christians on the battlefield go back to the fourth century to Ambrose and Augustine. Below in bold type are brief statements of some of the more common “biblical” justifications for the Christian’s participation in war. Following each of them is a short response that indicates why the argument fails to make the intended case.

Jesus said that there must be “war and rumors of war.” Antiwar advocates are working for something that Jesus said would never exist before the Second Coming.

Actually Jesus didn’t say there would always be wars. He said, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” (Mark 13:7, also Matt. 24:6, Lk. 21:9). He certainly doesn’t suggest that war either should exist or that it is sanctioned by him. He makes a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one.  Working for peace and refusing to fight in wars in no way contradicts what Jesus says in this passage. Rather, to do so is to follow in his nonviolent steps.

Jesus speaks of war and the use of violence in his parables and he does not make a point of condemning such behavior. For instance, he said, “Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk. 14:31). Jesus also said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe” (Lk. 11:21). Jesus seems to recognize that war and violence are sometimes justified.

By this sort of reasoning, when Jesus is recorded as saying, “I will come as a thief in the night,” (Rev. 3:3), he was expressing approval of thieves. Further, this kind of reasoning would lead us to conclude that Jesus approved of bosses who paid their workers inequitably because he spoke of one in a parable (Matt. 20:1-15).  Such an approach to scripture is dubious. To understand a parable we must ask what is the point of the parable, not what kind of characters populate the parable and whether those characters are expressly commended or condemned. The points that Jesus makes in the parables at issue have nothing to do with support for war or violence.  Neither does the fact that he does not take the occasion to condemn the behavior of the warring king, armed strong man or thief and inequitably paying boss suggest that Jesus supported such behavior. In the parable about the king Jesus is teaching about the importance of making sure one is prepared to meet the rigorous challenges of discipleship. In the parable of the strong man Jesus is responding to those who accused him casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus declared that Satan would not work against himself and though Satan is strong, he himself is stronger and can take from Satan. Nothing the parables teach offer any support for those who would defend Christians employing violence. To claim, as some have, that “Jesus would never have given such parables if he were a pacifist”, shows ignorance both of the meaning of the parables and the nature of biblical pacifism (see Robert A. Morey, When Is It Right to Fight? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985), 40).

How can it be claimed that Jesus opposed all violence? After all, he stated, “I did not come to bring peace to the earth; I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

It is evident from the context of this verse that Jesus is speaking of “sword” metaphorically, not literally. In this passage of scripture Jesus is teaching of the difficulties of being his disciple. Loyalty to him will produce serious tensions even in the family of the disciple, causing a “sword” of division to separate a man from his father and a daughter from her mother. A parallel passage is found in Lk. 12:51 in which the word “sword” is replaced with “division”. Jesus gave peace to his disciples (John 14:27, 16:33) but his peace is not one that frees disciples from rejection, persecution and conflict. The “sword” of which Jesus is speaking is not one Jesus seeks to place in the hands of his followers, but one that will be in the hands who oppose his disciples.

When John the Baptist was preaching and he demanded that his listeners repent, “Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages”” (Lk. 3:14). John did not tell them that they must cease being soldiers. Neither did he tell them that they could not fight in war. This would indicate that being a soldier is not spiritually problematic.

Several matters must be noted. First, John the Baptist does not teach the new way of Jesus. He prepares the way for the Lord but he still speaks as a prophet under the old covenant. While Jesus said that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”, he went on to say, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). The followers of Jesus are to live as citizens of the kingdom. Second, just as in our own time, in the first century most soldiers were not necessarily involved in violence and killing as they went about their work. Third, neither John nor Jesus insisted that anyone leave a profession –even prostitution- but called upon people to cease from sin. Hence, this passage does not lend support to the position that Christians have a legitimate place on the battlefield.

It was of a Roman soldier, a Centurion, that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith”(Matt. 8:10, also Lk. 7:9). Such strong praise from the mouth of Jesus would not likely be given to one in a profession forbidden to his own disciples. This would indicate that Jesus did not disapprove of soldiering.

In fact this passage is just one of several in the gospels that indicate that faith can be found in the most unlikely persons. The same point is made in the story of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28, also Mk. 7:24-30). She was regarded as an outsider to the community of true faith, yet Jesus said of her, “Woman, great is your faith!” (vs. 28) in response to her persistent request that Jesus heal her daughter. A similar point is made of the sinful “woman of the city” who anointed the feet of Jesus when he was invited to a meal in the home of a prominent Pharisee (Lk. 7:36-50). In contrast to the host, who was supposedly a man of devotion but demonstrated limited hospitality to his guest, the woman bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears, dried them with her hair and continued kissing while anointing them with the ointment. In this she showed “great love” and was assured that her faith saved her. And so, when Jesus commends the faith of the Roman soldier, in no way does he display approval of the man’s profession. Rather the passage demonstrates the astonishing fact that faith can be found even in such an unlikely person as the soldier.

When Cornelius the Roman centurion became the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity, the apostle Peter did not tell him that he needed to leave the army (Acts 10:1-48). Likewise, when the Philippian jailer –presumably, a soldier- was converted by the apostle Paul and his companion Silas, they did not insist that he abandon his profession (Acts 16:25-34).  This suggests that the apostles didn’t think that was any necessary contradiction between Christian life and military life, including participation in warfare.

This is essentially an argument from silence, a logical fallacy. No legitimate conclusions can be made about what Jesus or the apostles thought based on what they did not say. The biblical accounts are not exhaustive; more always took place than was recorded but we simply don’t have access to much of the information.  It is possible that Peter actually did tell Cornelius that he must leave the military but in view of the silence there is no way to know one way or the other. Any conclusions that are based on the silence of the text are little more than expressions of one’s own prior convictions. However, as it was noted above, in the stories we find in the New Testament no one is told to leave a profession, including prostitutes. For Christians the question is not, “Is this profession forbidden in the New Testament?” Rather, the more appropriate question is, “Are the behaviors and virtues that Christians are called to embody compatible with the expectations of this profession?”

Jesus wielded a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Lk. 19:45-46, John 2:13-17). Surely this proves that Jesus was not adverse to using violence to promote good.  Soldiers who fight for a good cause, therefore, have justification in the example of Jesus.

This is a farfetched misappropriation of this episode in the life and ministry of Jesus but it is all too commonly use to support the notion that Christians can justly employ violence or go to war. One minister with a misguided imagination said of Jesus weaving a homemade whip, “The Old West equivalent would be a town marshal stuffing shells into a shotgun. The modern-day equivalent would be a SWAT team member pulling on a bulletproof vest and checking the ammo in his pistol. In each scenario, you just know rear ends are about to get kicked” (Mark Atteberry, Free Refill: Coming Back for More of Jesus (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2007), 135). In fact, while the cleansing of the temple shows Jesus acting with a prophetic disruptiveness, the biblical accounts themselves do not report any violence toward people. There is no indication in scripture that Jesus beat or injured anyone in the temple. No one is left maimed or dead as a result of the action of Jesus. For those who seek to legitimate Christians engaging in warfare, there is no precedent in this incident. In describing how Jesus drove out the money changers, Matthew and Mark say that “he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matt 21:12, Mk 11:15b). While John wrote of Jesus “making a whip of cords”, he does not say it was used on people but on “both the sheep and the cattle” (John 2:15). The famous paintings of the temple cleansing by Rembrandt, Caravaggio and others depict Jesus engaging in violence against persons. These works of art have influenced how many people imagine the scene. However, the gospels simply do not indicate that Jesus harmed anyone in the temple or elsewhere.

Jesus taught that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt.22:21, also Mark 12:17, Lk. 20:25). This suggests that if the governing authorities declare war Christians are obligated to support the government, participating in the war if we are called upon to do so.

What rightfully is “Caesar’s”? Certainly not all that the government might claim for itself. Nothing in this encounter should lead us to conclude that “Caesar” declares war Christians are obligated to go off to kill on a battlefield if the government calls upon them to do so. The issue addressed in this text and parallel passages pertains to whether God’s people should pay the tax imposed by Rome. Those who questioned Jesus on this matter hoped to entrap him. Paying taxes to the empire that occupied ancient Palestine was very unpopular. If Jesus flatly said that the taxes should be paid, his questioners anticipated that he would alienate himself from many of his followers. On the other hand, if Jesus stated that the tax should not be paid, his enemies could accuse him before the Roman authorities of sedition. Jesus recognized the dubious motives of the interrogators. Rather than falling into their trap, he requested a coin and then asked them whose image and name was stamped on it. When they answered, “Caesar”, Jesus essentially said, “Give back to Caesar that which is his.”  Jesus’ primary focus is expressed in the words that followed: “And give to God the things that are God’s.”  A tiny disk of metal with Caesar’s image on it is a small thing in comparison to that which is God’s: people who bear the image of God. Jesus calls people to give to God that which is God’s, namely, themselves. Jesus doesn’t really answer the question about taxes per se. He points to something far more important.

We must go to war if the leaders of the nation call upon us to do so because scripture declares, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1-2).  Further, the scripture states that the governing authorities have been given the power of the sword by God “to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (vs.4). A very similar teaching is found in 1 Peter 2:13-15. Since we are to “be subject to” the government because it is an instrument of God, surely it is God’s will that Christians are to go to war and fight for just causes if told to do so by the government.

First of all, Christians in the first century were not subject to a military draft nor were they involved in the army. Participation in warfare was not a matter Paul or Peter had in mind when they penned their words. Second, in these passages Christians are addressed as subjects of the state, not as potential functionaries or agents of the state. Neither Paul nor Peter suggests that the “sword”-bearing purpose of the state can or should become the role of the Christian. To the contrary, Paul expressly says that Christians are not to be instruments of the “wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). Yet just a few verses later in the same epistle, he writes that the governing authority is “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4b). These roles are mutually exclusive. The governing authorities are a “terror” to evil and do “not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:3-4). This stands in sharp contrast to Paul’s admonition to Christians: “Repay no one evil for evil….but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17, 21).  The claim that in Romans 12 Paul is addressing Christians “as individuals” while in Romans 13 he speaks of their responsibility as citizens simply cannot credibly be derived from the text itself but is a viewpoint imposed on it. Regardless of their context, Christians are to act as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Whatever is wrong for Christians in personal relationships does not become good and right when done at the behest of the state in the name of national interests. The rightful authority of the state—so far as Christians are concerned—is always limited by the supreme authority of God. As the apostles asserted, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Immediately following Paul’s discussion about Christians being subject to governing authorities, he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (vs. 8a). Government has a God-given function. But it is a limited one. Love is the limit so far as Christian obedience to the state is concerned. Any action the state requires that is unloving is to be resisted by Christians. The contentions of Augustine to the contrary, killing and maiming others in war is not loving behavior for those who are called upon to “bless…do not curse” those who are antagonistic toward them (Rom. 12:14). One might kill in war without a sense of malice or hatred but one cannot love like Jesus loved while seeking to destroy others.

The scriptures recognize that there are times when we must fight back. The apostle Paul said “so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). If others start a conflict despite our attempts to be peaceable, we are permitted to respond with violence if necessary. This was the position of John Calvin. He conceded that Christians must patiently endure much that peace might be maintained, but, he insisted, if the conciliatory efforts of Christians could not pacify an aggressor, Christians must be prepared “to fight courageously”  (Commentary on Romans 12:18).

Such an interpretation turns Paul’s meaning on its head. Paul does not intend to draw a line beyond which the Christian can or should strike back against an aggressor. Rather he is calling upon Christians to do nothing that would lead to disharmony with others, though others might still create conflict with Christians. Paul is simply acknowledging that while Christian peaceableness is essential, it still does not guarantee a peaceful existence. Christians have no promise of peace in this world. The peaceableness of Jesus did not dissuade his enemies from abusing and killing him. Jesus said, “Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20a). Jesus practiced peace even to the point of death, going so far as to pray for his persecutors from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).

In Hebrews 11 there is a list of “men of old” who “received divine approval”. Gideon, Barak, David and others who “became mighty in war, won strength out of weakness, put foreign armies to flight” (Vss.2, 32, 34). Surely this proves that war is approved by God in certain circumstances and that those who fight on the battlefield are worthy of praise.

Obedient and courageous faith is always to be commended. Yet even if we concede that God lead certain people in the Hebrew scriptures to fight and kill, that does not suggest there is some “general principle” that would justify Christians going to the battlefield. Like those named in Hebrews 11, we are called to live in obedient faith. We are to emulate their fidelity, not their violence. Our faith is to be like theirs but the way that faith is to be manifested will be different from theirs. What they did to obey is not the same as what we must do to obey. We are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. What counts as obedience for us can be found only by looking to him and following his self-sacrificing, nonviolent example (1 Pet. 2:21-23).

Jesus insisted that his disciples arm themselves. He said to them, “But now the one who has a purse must take it and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Lk. 22:36). The disciples responded, “Look, Lord, here are two swords” (vs.38). If Jesus had been advocating nonviolence surely the disciples would not have those swords in their possession.

If Jesus intended his disciples to be armed and ready to defend themselves against enemies, why were their only two swords for a dozen disciples? Surely, only two swords would have left them ill prepared to face a band of opponents, though a couple of weapons would probably have been sufficient to ward off wild beasts.  Interpreters have long puzzled over the meaning of this passage. Most believe Jesus is speaking metaphorically. The Lord saw a time of crisis coming for the apostles. While they previously had been sent out in pairs with the expectation that they could generally expect a warm reception (Lk. 9:2-3, 10:4), now they must prepare themselves for hostility. It is highly unlike that Jesus is issuing a call to arms. In fact, many scholars believe that after Jesus said to his disciples that each of them should sell his cloak and buy a sword, and his disciples brought out two swords, when Jesus responded, “Enough”, he meant, “Enough of your foolishness!” His words are “an expression of his exasperation” (Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1997), 775). On the eve of his capture his disciples still fail to understand that Jesus expects them to be armed and equipped spiritually, not physically.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is filled with violence against the enemies of God. Jesus is depicted as a warrior who leads “the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure” (Rev.19:14). This seems to contradict any claim that Jesus wants his followers to remain nonviolent.

 To the contrary, nowhere in the book of Revelation does Christ call his people to fight or kill. Apocalyptic literature such as Revelation is highly symbolic. Attempts to read it literalistic manner are misbegotten. Still, it is noteworthy that at no point in the text does Jesus include his earthly followers in a battle. Christians are not called to fight but to endure (Rev. 1:9, 2:9, 3:10, 13:1, 14:12). The only place where the possibility of Christians acting violently is even mentioned, it is condemned: “If anyone as an ear let such a one hear: if anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone slays with the sword, with the sword he must be slain. Here is the call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10).

 The followers of Jesus conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Rev.12:11). Any violence that is done in this highly symbolic book is performed by Christ himself, along with angelic forces. The primary weapon of Jesus is the “sword from his mouth” (Rev. 1:16, 19:15, 21).  In the book of Revelation, as elsewhere in the New Testament, Christians are not to cause suffering but are called upon to endure it, trusting that the ultimate victory is in the hands of God. Nowhere in scripture are Christians called to emulate the glorified Christ in ways of judgment, power or punishment. Instead Christians are urged to follow the self-giving way of the incarnate One, “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…[H]e humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

The Rev. Craig M. Watts is a member of the Executive Committee of the Disciples Peace Fellowship.