Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 435-455
Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR:
A MATTER OF
DAVID R. PLASTER
The issue of whether a Christian should participate in war and, if
so, to what extent is very complex. The Christian must balance
biblical revelation concerning the authority of the state with his
individual responsibility to love his enemies and to do good to all
men. A survey of three attempts to achieve this balance (the activist,
the pacifist, and the selectivist) reveals inadequacies in each. A position
that mediates between these positions appears to be a proper Christian
response to the biblical norms. This position may be termed non-
* * *
THE issue of whether the individual Christian should participate in
war has been discussed from the early days of the Church.
Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John
Calvin are but a few of those who addressed the problem. The central
issue has been and remains the ethical conflict between a Christian's
responsibility to serve his government and the command of Christ to
love his enemies. Godly men seeking to apply biblical principles have
arrived at different answers to that conflict. George Weigel points out
the lesson to be learned from the diverse answers to this chronic
The very complexity of the Christian tradition's teaching reminds us
that there are no easy or simple answers to the dilemma of security and
peace. In a public climate where the glib slogan or the bumper-sticker
phrase often defines the policy debate, the richly textured tradition of
the Church quietly tells us that there is no simple solution to the moral
problem of war, and that an indignant self-righteousness is a warning
sign of errors. Moreover, the fact that the Christian Churches have
sustained a pluralistic dialogue on the ethics of war and peace reminds
436 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
us to acknowledge the validity of another's moral concerns-especially
the concerns of those with whom we disagree. We should search in
others' perspectives for possible hints and traces of truth that might be
brought into our own.1
The Brethren response to this concern has not always been
unanimous. However, the doctrine of non-resistance has long been
held in Brethren circles and is now held by many in the Fellowship of
Grace Brethren Churches. The purpose of this study is to survey the
Issue and analyze non-resIstance m the face of the potential of con-
flicting demands placed upon the believer.
The Authority of the State
The subject of civil government pervades both the OT and the
NT. It is an aspect of God's providence, a fact of biblical history, and
is integral to biblical prophecy. One basic theme of the Bible is that
civil government is ordained by God.
While the government of
OT also mentions other civil governments. Joseph and Daniel were
Jews who served as leading officials in non-theocratic governments.
2:1-3 points out that God held the government of
accountable for the use of its sword.
lesson (Isa 10:5-19). Daniel records that God, after previous reminders
on the subject (Dan , 37-38), called King Nebuchadnezzar to
account for not recognizing "that the Most High is ruler over the
realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes" (Dan ,
25, 32; 5:21).
Thus, the OT consistently indicates that God has ordained govern-
ment wherever it is found. The nations with their variety of social
organizations and magistrates operate as divinely established institu-
tions. These governments are accountable to God. Since government
is given by God, it follows that to disobey government is to disobey
This theme of the OT is continued in the NT. Government is
presented as a human institution reflecting various forms but deserving
the believer's submission for the Lord's sake (1 Pet ). It is account-
able to God for its ministry of punishing evildoers and supporting
those who do good (1 Pet ). Thus, it is the will of God for the
1 George Weigel, Peace & Freedom: Christian Faith. Democracy and the Problem
of War (n.p.: The Institute bn Religion and Democracy, 1983) 5. For a helpful
annotated bibliography of writings on this complex issue see David M. Scholer, "Early
Christian Attitudes to War and Military Service: A Selective Bibliography," TSF
Bulletin 8: I (1984) 23-24.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 437
believer to have a clear testimony before the world by obeying civil
authority (I Pet ). In their practice and teaching both Jesus and
Paul consistently maintain this position.
Jesus lived in a conquered province in an empire whose imperial-
istic ruler stood for everything that was antagonistic to the revealed
faith of the Jews. Jesus was not a revolutionary but instead conformed
to the laws of civil government.2 Nowhere did he denounce the legiti-
mate power of the state. Jesus paid his taxes (Matt -27). He
recognized the authority of Pontius Pilate, even when Pilate unjustly
delivered him over to his enemies (John ). Jesus reminded him,
however, that his authority was not autonomous (John -11) but
that it was delegated from the One who was above.3 Thus, in practice
and precept Jesus recognized that the government under which he
lived was ordained of God.
The most extensive teaching in the NT on the subject of the
Christian and civil government is found in Paul's letter to the church
located in the capital of the
some basic principles which are at the very heart of the question
concerning the believer's participation in war.
First, this passage clearly establishes that the Christian must obey
the de facto government of the region in which he lives (13:1). The
fact that a civil government is organized and in operation gives
evidence that it has been ordained by God. Paul makes no distinc-
tion between good rulers and bad ones or between pleasant laws
and unpleasant ones. The command is not unconditional in light
of the fact that there are times that "we must obey God rather than
men" (Acts ). However, the normal expectation of God is that
Christians will obey authorities and their laws.4
Second, there are several reasons given for this requirement.
These reasons give insight into the proper God-given function of
government. The "powers that be," no matter how pagan and impious,
are functioning under the authority of God (13:1). It follows then that
to resist such authority is to resist that which God has established and
2 Robert D. Culver,
Toward a Biblical View of Civil Government (
3 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (NICNT;
1971) 797; William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (2 vols.
4 C. E. B. Cranfield (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the
Romans [ICC; 2 vols.;
verb used here "can denote the recognition that the other person, as Christ's representa-
to one (cf. Mt. 25.40, 45), has an infinitely greater claim upon one than one has
upon oneself and the conduct which flows naturally from such a recognition." This
passage is not teaching uncritical and blind obedience to authority's every command
since the final arbiter in a particular situation is not civil authority but God.
438 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to face his condemnation (13:2).5 Furthermore, on its part the govern-
ment is expected to inflict punishment upon evildoers and approve
those who do good (13:3-4).6
Third, the obedience expected of every person (13: 1) is specifically
applied as a moral issue to the believer (13:5). The believer should not
submit simply for utilitarian reasons. He must obey because he knows
that it is right. This includes paying taxes to rulers, who are function-
ing as servants of God (13:6).
Fourth, it is especially significant .that this passage reiterates the
power of government to take a human life (13:4). The sword represents
the God -given authority of civil government to inflict God's temporal
punishment upon evildoers, including the death penalty.7 While this
passage deals specifically which matters of criminal justice and civil
order, It has also been applied to the military power possessed by
government. The power of the sword is extrapolated to deal with evil
on an international level.8
Therefore, the practice and teaching of both the OT and NT
establishes that God .has ordained the human institution of civil govern-
ment. He expects his people to, submit to its authority m every way
not inconsistent with his revelation.
The Christian's Relation to All Men
The Christian also has specific biblical direction regarding the
personal use of violence. This is the other side of the issue. In both
OT and NT there is taught a personal ethic of nonretaliation and
nonviolence to neighbors.9 The positive and active responsibility of
the samt has always been to demonstrate kindness.
An OT passage which seems, to capture the essence of what many
feel is the NT teaching on this subject (Rom ) is found in
Prov 25:21-22. Jesus' teaching that the whole law hung upon two
commandments, one of which was to love your neighbor as yourself
(Matt ), was based upon Lev .
Thus, OT believers lived under an ethical system which proscribed
any act of personal revenge. Self-defense was permitted, but with
5 There is a twofold aspect of this judgment: civil and divine. See Cranfield,
Romans, 2. 664; and John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT;
Eerdmans, 1968) 2. 149.
6 This praise of good works may be conscious or unconscious, willing or unwilling,
as the idea of reward is not implicit in the terms used. Even unjust acts of persecution
by civil government may ultimately bring praise and glory to God. See Cranfield,
Romans, 2. 664-65; and Murray, Romans, 2. 151.
7 Culver, Civil Government, 254.
8 Cranfield, Romans, 2. 667.
9 Robert D. Culver, "Justice is Something Worth Fighting For," Christianity Today
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 439
severe limitations.10 Thus, the believer is not faced with the alternative
of a NT or an OT ethic. The OT lays the foundation for the NT ethic
which renounces the use of violence against others.
The position of nonresistance derives its name from NT teaching
in Matt , "Do not resist him who is evil." A simple reading of
Matt 5:38-48 shows that there is at least some form of personal
nonresistance expected of the believer. Even those who reject the
application of this passage to participation in war agree that the
passage is dealing with personal offenses and that "the believer must
have the spirit of nonresistance so much a part of his life that he only
retaliates as a last resort, and then only in a continued spirit of
The believer is commanded in the NT to act positively toward
his fellow man. It is not a matter of merely having a spirit of
nonresistance. He is commanded to love his enemies (Matt ;
Luke 6:27; Rom 13:8-1011. This love for enemies is expressed in doing
good for them (Rom ) and in praying for them (Matt ).
Those who persecute the believer should receive back a blessing
(Rom ). Persecution must not be answered by taking revenge
(Rom ). As far as it is possible, the believer must be at peace
with all men (Rom ) as he pursues the things that make for
peace (Rom ). Paul summarized this lifestyle when he instructed
And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if
we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do
good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of "
the faith [Gal 6:9-10, NASB].
In the teachings of both Jesus and Paul the active lifestyle of
doing good to all men and responding positively to persecutors is
clearly commanded. The personal ethic of the believer is based on an
attitude of nonresistance and nonviolence towards others.
THE MAIN ALTERNATIVES
The Christian world falls into two broad camps in response to
the question of the believer's participation in war. One side responds
affirmatively but some limit the kind of war in which a Christian
10 Ibid., 16-17.
11 Charles G. Stoner, "The Teaching of Jesus in Relation to the Doctrine of
Nonresistance" (Master of Theology thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1970) 31.
12 This passage cannot be restricted to love within the fellowship of believers
(cf. Murray, Romans, 2. 160; Hendriksen, Romans, 2.439; and Alva J. McClain,
Romans: The Gospel of
440 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
should participate. The other side responds negatively but is divided on
the question of noncombatant participation. Each position attempts
to practice biblical principles.
In the post-Vietnam War era the position of the activist became
less prominent. However, new movements closely associating the
political New Right with some in the Fundamentalist camp could
possibly lead to a grass roots acceptance of activism. The activist
position is based on the principle that the believer is bound to submit
himself to the divinely ordained government. Thus he must participate
in any war his government enters.
Operating on the assumption that the government
ris based on Christian principles as well as self-evident truths which
make it the enemy of tyranny and injustice, these advocates of patrio-
tism are convinced that their loyalty to the state in time of war is
essential both politically and spiritually.13
A modern advocate of this position, Harold O. J. Brown, at-
tempts to justify both the preventative war and the crusade. A pre-
ventative war is begun in anticipation of an act of aggression rather
than in response to it. "A preventative war intends to forestall an evil
that has not yet occurred."14 The crusade, however, is "a war waged
to remedy a past atrocity, especially one recognized as such for
spiritual or religious reasons.15
[homeland as the prime example of a justified crusade. Wars of
national liberation and revolutions motivated by a concern for ethical
principle would also fit in the category of crusade.16
Brown argues that the individual is not in the position to make
any decision regarding the relative merits of the opposing nations in a Ii!.
It is impossible to require each citizen to know the facts that will
enable him to judge the justness of a particular war. In the period when
he might possibly influence the decision whether to go to war, he has
too little information. Later, when the war has broken out, the informa-
tion may not do him any good-"military necessity" will override all
13 William E. Nix, "The Evangelical and War," JETS 13 (1970) 138.
14 Harold O. J. Brown, "The Crusade or Preventative War" in War: Four Christian
Views, Robert G. Clouse, ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1981) 155.
15 Ibid., 156.
16 Ibid., 158.
17 Ibid., 165.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 441
Brown puts full responsibility upon the leaders of the nation. Because
the individual is unable to make an informed decision he is not
expected to attempt it. Since the leadership bears full responsibility,
the individual is delivered from any moral responsibility.
An individual is morally obliged to refuse to participate in individual
acts that he knows to be wrong, but he cannot be held responsible for
knowing that the war itself is wrong. If he does know it and acts upon
that knowledge by refusing to fight, he deserves praise. But if he obeys
his orders and fights, it is very hard to condemn him. Individual respon-
sibility means not making the decision to launch a wrong war, when
the citizen has the right to participate in decision making, and not
performing wrong acts in war. However, if a wrong decision has been
made by the government, it is hard to hold the individual responsible
to resist it.18
This is the essential argument of the activist position. However, this
approach is disputable.
First, to argue that a believer must always submit to his govern-
ment implies that his nation is a "chosen people." This is not the
case, since only
Moreover, the Bible makes it clear that there are higher spiritual
obligations which may require the believer to disobey the government
in order to obey God. In the OT Daniel, his three fellow exiles, and
the Hebrew midwives in
to higher spiritual obligations. In the NT the apostles chose to obey
God rather than men (Acts -20 and ).
It seems clear that the believer cannot escape his responsibility to
make a decision regarding his participation in war. To argue other-
wise could lead to moral bankruptcy. However, one question raised
by Brown still remains. In this day of propaganda controlled by sinful
men on all sides, how is the Christian to know that he is not killing
others in the name of a cause that is ultimately unjust?
The pacifist takes the position that the believer should avoid any
participation in any war. There are many forms of pacifism founded
upon philosophical, political, or social agendas. There is a new breed
of "peace" scholarship which converts the gospel of Jesus as seen in
traditional "peace" churches into a political program, including the
abolition of national defense and the complete elimination of war in
18 Ibid., 165-66.
19 Nix, "The Evangelical and War," 140.
442 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the world. It has as its goal the remodeling of society.20 However, the
present study is focusing on those who seek a biblical base for their ,.
position. Myron Augsburger, a Mennonite and a spokesman of the
rhistoric "peace church" movement, states, "I want this stance to be
clearly interpreted as evangelical and biblically based and different
from humanistic and moralistic pacifism.21
In contrast to the activist who has one basic argument for his
with attached corollaries which form the foundation of the pacifist
First, many pacifists cite the pacifism of the pre-Constantine
church. Christenson and Bainton make this one of their primary
rsupports.22 Augsburger himself is not adverse to including historical
data in his discussion,23 though it does not have a primary role.
It is indisputably clear that the pre-Constantine church did resist
rparticipation in war. Admitting that opposition to war was almost
unanimous in the second and third
Evangelicals today reject many views of the second and third centuries:
the developing legalism, dependence on rites called sacraments for sal-
vation (sacerdotalism), transfer of all liturgical acts and church govern-
ment to a priestly class (prelacy). So we are surely free to re-examine
early views on war.24
Accordingly, in this study the use of church history to support pacifism
will be set aside. The focus will be biblical arguments.
Second, Augsburger points out that the Church as a voluntary
association of believers is "a minority in society always separate from
the state (any state, recognizing that God has ordained government
for the good of the people). The church is not coterminous with the
state.25 Hoyt points to John 18:36 where Christ declared to Pilate,
"My kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this
world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be
delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this
realm" (NASH). Believers are thus part of a kingdom separate from
20 Robert Culver, "Between War and Peace: Old Debate in a New Age," Christianity
Today 24 (
21 Myron S. Augsburger, "Beating Swords Into Plowshares," Christianity Today 20
22 Reo M. Christenson, "Christians and Nuclear Aggression," The Christian Century
Peace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960) 66-84.
23 Myron S. Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism" in War: Four Christian Views, 92.
24 Culver, "Justice Is Something Worth Fighting For," 14.
25 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 83.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 443
the state and have a responsibility to live as pilgrims and strangers
upon the earth. Their conduct is to be conditioned by their heavenly
William Nix in response argues that this view "assumes that
believers must be a minority group within society and be without
political responsibility for the actions of the state.27 Actually, when
Christianity became the dominant religion, its role in society caused
The pacifist position often leads to a "dropoutism" mentality,
including the refusal to pay taxes or to serve in any political office.
There is a disengagement from the whole body politic.28 However,
this mentality is not intrinsic to the pacifist position. Augsburger, for
example, does not rule out all political participation by Christians.
He believes that Christians may serve in political positions so long as
they do not attempt to create a state church. However, "they should
not consider holding positions where they could not both fulfill the
obligations of the office and remain consistent with their membership
unfortunately all too often fallen into isolationism or has led to a
refusal to pay taxes.
Separation of Church and State is an important truth that needs
to be underscored. Obviously, the use of force or political power to
further the ministry of the Church is forbidden.30 Though the Church
is separate from the state, the Christian functions in both realms.
Since government is ordained by God, serving the government is not
in itself immoral.
Neither Hoyt nor Augsburger would disagree with what has just
been stated. What they are saying, however, is that "since the church
and state belong to separate kingdoms or spheres of operation, the
methods for defense and offense should also be different.31 There is
a dual obligation recognized by most Christians. Christians recognize
that some things which are expected from them by God are not
properly matters for legislative action on the part of the civil govern-
We operate under the myth that we are a Christian nation, and we seek
to interpret for society an ethic we can bless as Christians. We need a
26 Herman A. Hoyt, "Nonresistance" in War: Four Christian Views, 32.
27 Nix, "The Evangelical and War," 136.
28 Norman L. Geisler,
Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (
29 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 89.
30 Stoner, "The Teaching of Jesus Christ in Relation to the Doctrine of Non-
31 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 32.
444 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
new awareness of the pluralism of the New Testament. The crucial
issue is the difference between the Church and the world; the Church
operates "within the perfection of Christ," while the world operates
outside the perfection or will of Christ. Only an understanding of this
can save us from a cultural religion and from a civil religion.32
Simply appealing to separation of Church and State does not
prove the pacifists' case. However, it does open the possibility that
there may be things which individual Christians should not do which
nevertheless are not forbidden for the entire nation.
A third pacifist argument, related to what has just been discussed
above, emphasizes the priority of the believer's obligation to his
heavenly citizenship. "The church is an interracial, supranational
transcultural body composed of all who put their faith in Jesus Christ
as Savior and follow him as Lord.33 All those who name the name"
[of Christ are translated into his kingdom (John 3:3,5; Coll:13) and
are no longer of this world, even as Christ is not of this world
(John ).34 Augsburger describes the consequences of this affilia-
tion in relation to nationalism and allegience to any particular nation:
To affirm that one is a member of the
that loyalty to Christ and his kingdom transcends every other loyalty.
This stance goes beyond nationalism and calls us to identify first of all
with our fellow disciples, of whatever nation, as we serve Christ to-
gether. This is not a position which can be expected of the world nor
asked of the government as such. ...The Christian can only encourage
the government to be the government and to let the church be the
Augsburger believes that this outlook on the primary loyalty of the
Christian is even more basic to the NT than the principle of love.36
This difference between the Church and the State points to a
distinction that must be recognized. What
what was commanded in the OT theocracy is not necessarily binding
upon the NT believer.37
Up to this point in the argument, there may not be much with
which most Christians would disagree. The priority obligation to obey
32 Augsburger, "Beating Swords Into Plowshares," 8. ,
33 John Drescher, "Why Christians Shouldn't Carry Swords," Christianity Today
34 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 32.
35 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 87.
36 Ibid., 94.
37 Tom Fitts, "A Dispensational Approach to War" (Master of Theology thesis,
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 445
God rather than men is widely recognized. This alone does not estab-
lish a basis upon which the pacifist can refuse all participation in war.
However, this priority does come into conflict with a believer's active
participation in war. Augsburger takes the reasoning forward another
step when he states, "Since our highest loyalty is to the kingdom of
Christ, and since that kingdom is global, a Christian in one nation
cannot honorably participate in war, which would mean taking the
life of a Christian brother or sister in another nation.38 Those allow-
mg participation m war to the point of taking human life have not
provided an answer to this problem. Should obedience to the govern-
ment include a Christian taking up arms and harming a fellow
Christian simply because he is wearing the uniform of another nation?
Fourth, pacifists point to the Church's commission (Matt 28:19-
20) and argue that the work of evangelism has priority over military
Biblical pacifism's objective is to lead others to know Christ and follow
him, thus experiencing reconciliation with God and others and becoming
ministers of the gospel of reconciliation to everyone. To do this it is
impossible to participate in any program of ill will, retaliation, or war
that conflicts with Christ.39
The argument is developed along two different lines. Augsburger
and Drescher40 ask whether a Christian, whose basic mission is evan-
gelism, should participate in war to the point of taking the life of a
person for whom Christ died. Hoyt reasons that if witnessing is the
supreme business of believers, then military service would exhaust
their time and effort. He adds that noncombatant service would
provide believers with opportunity to obey.41
Arthur Holmes, in response to Hoyt and Augsburger, effectively
counters these arguments. He points out that Christians in the military
will have time and opportunity to reach people who otherwise might
never hear the gospel. Moreover, there are many occupations which
could become so engrossing as to interfere with the Christian's respon-
sibility to witness.42 He adds,
As for the argument that killing prevents the victim's accepting God's
mercy, the same plea could be leveled against giving the sword to
governments, against the Old Testament uses of divinely commissioned
38 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 60.
39 Drescher, "Why Christians Shouldn't Carry Swords," 16.
40 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 90; and Drescher, "Why Christians Shouldn't
Carry Swords," 21.
41 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 41.
42 Arthur F. Holmes, "The Just War" in War: Four Christian Views, 67.
446 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
force, and against God himself for allowing human mortality at all.
Even more tragic is the fact that in any case not all will be saved.43
The pacifist might reply that the Christian is separate from the
government, and is in a dispensation different from the OT saints. He
is not sovereign like God is. But the pacifist has to face the issue of
taking a life in self-defense. To be consistent he would have to argue
that killing a person in self-defense is also wrong since it would result
in sending that person to judgment while the believer would go to
heaven. To be consistent, the evangelism argument must apply on the
level of self-defense as well as participation in war.44
The final argument presented by the pacifists involves the basic
principle of love for one's enemies taught by Jesus both in his sermons
and by his example. Probably no other area of the discussion seems
to evoke as much emotion on all sides as this does. Every position
wants to view itself as consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus.
Pacifists especially make this an important tenet in their position. The
argument is developed in three steps.
First, pacifism is consistent with the lifestyle of Jesus. He came
to save and not to destroy (Luke -56). He went about doing
good and healing (Acts ). When he was reviled and suffered
persecution, he did not revile or threaten in return but instead offered
himself on the cross (1 Pet -24) while forgiving those who cru-
cified him. Believers are thus exhorted to follow in his footsteps
(1 Pet 2:21) and to walk as he walked (1 John 2:6).45
Second, Jesus made explicit that which was implicit in the OT
He gave OT revelation a qualitatively new dimension in the Sermon
on the Mount.46 According to that teaching, the believer should now
respond to evil by imparting good, not evil. He is to love his enemies.
The believer is also warned that "those who take up the sword shall
perish by the sword" (Matt 26:52).
Third, the teaching of the apostles continues this emphasis. Paul
emphasizes doing good and loving enemies (Romans 12-13; Gal ).
Peter challenges his readers not to return evil for evil (1 Pet 3:9).
In response to such arguments one must examine what is really
meant by the biblical statements. Jesus was using an extreme example
in order to show that his disciples were to bend over backwards in
matters of personal affronts. They were not to misuse the right of
lawful retaliation. Jesus was merely stressing that in the matter of
43 Arthur F. Holmes, "A Just War Response" in War: Four Christian Views, 108.
44 Geisler, Ethics, 166.
45 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 40.
46 Fitts, "A Dispensational Approach to War," 55-57.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 447
He was not teaching unlimited nonresistance, but rather that the
believer must have the spirit of nonresistance so that he retaliates
only as a last resort, and then in the continued spirit of love.47 The
command does not mean that Christians may never defend themselves.
The point is that they should refrain from revengeful retaliation.48
Further, it appears that both Jesus and Paul did not take the
command to turn the other cheek with wooden literalness. Jesus chal-
lenged those who struck him (John ). Thus, the statements from
the Sermon on the Mount must be taken as emphasizing the heart
and the emotions and an intelligent, kind response to the true needs
Those who view both the activist and the pacifist positions as
extreme and problematic must modify one or the other. Modifying
the activist position, the selectivist50 "maintains that the believer is
obligated to submit himself to authority until and unless that authority
compels him to place that authority before God.51 While accepting
the individual's moral responsibility, this view also believes that there
are times when morality demands a call to arms.
The selectivist position has developed, since the time of Augustine,
a set of criteria which enable the believer to judge the justness of a
war. If a war is seen to be just, the believer may fully participate. Any
unjust war is to be resisted. The believer must accept the consequences
of his decision.
James Childress provides an extended discussion of the criteria
involved in determination of a just war.52 The basic criteria presented
there can be summarized as:
1. The proper authority has determined that a war is just and justified.
2. The requirement of a just cause demands that the reasons for
undertaking a destructive war must be weighty and significant.
War should be the last resort after all possible measures having
reasonable expectation of success have been undertaken.
47 Stoner, "The Teaching of Jesus Christ in Relation to the Doctrine of Non-
48 Ibid., 33.
49 Culver, "Justice Is Something Worth Fighting For," 20; and George W. Knight
"Can a Christian Go to War?" Christianity Today 20 (
50 This category is used by Geisler. Nix used the term "mediativist" while others
refer to the "just war" position. These are synonymous.
51 Nix, "The Evangelical War," 141.
52 James F. Childress, "Just-War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities,
and Functions of Their Criteria," TS 39 (1978) 427-45.
448 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
3. A formal declaration of war announcing the intention of and the
(reasons for waging war is necessary. The use of military force is ),
the prerogative of governments and not individuals.
4. A reasonable hope of success which is defined as being broader
than simple victory is also necessary. Success thus defined would
limit the objectives of any war and rule out total destruction Of
another nation's economic and political institutions.
5. The principle of proportionality requires that the means employed ~,
take into account the limited objectives with total, unlimited war
6. The principle of just intention stresses that the war is initiated with
the goal to secure a genuine peace for all the parties involved.53
In response, pacifists point out that the development of nuclear
weapons rules out the possibility of a just war. "The arguments for a
'just war' in history appear to be quite irrelevant in an age of mech-
anized and nuclear warfare.54 Even a selectivist such as Geisler admits
that "tactical nuclear weapons are a conceivable part of a limited war
but megaton nuclear power is so devastating as to make such a war
automatically unjust.55 However, Culver, in defending the selectivist
position, points out,
It is equally difficult, however, to maintain that even modern atomic
warfare introduces a difference in principle from the destruction of
that the Christian ought no longer to be willing to fight for the right
because human suffering will be greater than in the past.56
Culver consistently maintains the basic presuppositions and interpre-
tations of the selectivist position. However, the selectivist cannot easily
escape the problem of nuclear war and justifiable Christian participa-
tion in it.
After establishing a criteria for determining the justness of any
war, the selectivist develops several lines of reasoning. There are five
basic arguments held by most selectivists.
First, in response to some pacifists who appeal to the sixth com-
mandment as forbidding any killing, the selectivist agrees that murder
is forbidden but argues that not all life-taking is murder.51 Hoyt even
admits that this is the case. The sixth commandment concerns per-
rsonal hatred with intent to murder and is hardly comparable with
54 Augsburger,. "Beating Swords Into Plowshares," 7.
55 Geisler, Ethics, 176.
56 Culver, "Between War and Peace," 51. ..
57 Knight, "Can a Christian Go to War?" 4; and Geisler, Ethics, 170.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 449
personal responsibility in warfare which does not involve personal
hatred.58 Clearly God delegated the authority to take human life when
he instituted capital punishment (Gen 9:6) and later incorporated it
into the Mosaic Law. Every government, not just the theocratic govern-
The discussion goes further, however, to point to the OT prece-
dents for just warfare. The story of Abraham's battle against the
kings in Genesis 14 is cited as an example of unjust aggressors being
resisted by the sword.60 The destruction of the Canaanites along with
the commands regarding the conduct of war in Deut 20:10-17 are
used to support the view that God not only sanctioned the extermina-
tion of the Canaanites but also other peoples who would not accept a
just peace. While no nation can claim special revelation from God
commanding war or a theocratic right to wage war, it is clear that
war is not always contrary to God's will.61 Culver points out that the
OT commands both a nonretaliatory personal ethic and participation
in war. Thus, such would be consistent for the Christian as well.62
Hoyt agrees that force was entrusted to governments, not to
individuals in the OT. However, he points out that,
There are some who insist that the issues in
Testament differ profoundly from the principles of the church in the
New Testament. And because this is true, some Christians will insist
that there should be no involvement of the individual Christian in
warfare, and where it is permitted, it must be severely limited.63
Both Augsburger and Hoyt point back to the basic presuppositions
that there is a separation of Church and State and that the obligation
to the Church takes precedence. At this point an important fact
becomes clear; interpretation of individual passages is not the crucial
issue. Rather, the basic presuppositions and theological stance of the
interpreter will determine the conclusions reached.
Second, Jesus gave his highest words of praise to a soldier,
the centurion of great faith (Matt ). John the Baptist did not
demand that soldiers leave the army, but that they not misuse their
power for sinful goals in exacting by force what was not rightfully
theirs (Luke ). Peter was sent to Cornelius, a soldier who was
described as being a righteous and God-fearing man (Acts ). In
58 Hoyt,"A Nonresistant Response"in War: Four Christian Views, 137.
59 Geisler, Ethics, 170-71.
60 Ibid., 171.
61 Ibid., 173; and Knight, "Can a Christian Go to War?" 4-5.
62 Culver, "Justice Is Something Worth Fighting For," 17.
63 Hoyt, "A Nonresistant Response," 138.
450 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
none of these encounters are these soldiers told that being a soldier
[was incompatible with their faith.64
Augsburger responds that this is an argument from silence. By
the same logic one could argue for slavery, a stance once taken by
some American theologians, since the NT did not tell masters to free
their slaves.65 Further, no one knows how these soldiers responded to
participation in pagan sacrifices and emperor worship as part of the
Roman army. It is just as easy to argue that these soldiers would have
had to leave military service in order to obey Christ.
Third, at one point Jesus commanded his disciples to buy a
sword in contrast with previous instructions (Luke -36). The
disciples already had two swords in their possession and the Lord
declared them to be enough (). In contrast, Jesus later rebuked
Peter for using his sword on the high priest's servant (John ,
Luke 22:51, Matt 26:52). He admonished Peter that those who took
the sword would perish by the sword.
The selectivist points to these passages and concludes "that al-
though there may be some symbolic meaning to the instruction of
Christ to buy a sword, He is primarily preparing His disciples to
assume the normal means of self-defense and provision in a world in
which kingdom ideals are not yet realized.66 While swords are not
valid weapons to fight spiritual battles, they are legitimate tools for
self-defense. Thus, Jesus is sanctioning the use of an instrument of
death in defense against an unjust aggressor.67
Some pacifists respond that the purpose of the disciples' swords
could not have been for self-defense since this would contradict Jesus'
!teaching of submission to persecution. The limitation to only two
swords is cited to show that the purpose of the swords was not self-
defense. Luke 22:37, beginning with "for," gives the real purpose-to
fulfill prophecy. By carrying swords and meeting in a large group
they would be open to the charge of being transgressors.68 However,
this interpretation of the passage seems forced. The two swords were
real swords. There is no evidence that Jesus considered the disciples
to be the transgressors referred to in .
Hoyt admits that this is a difficult passage to interpret. However,
he has a problem extrapolating the two swords into a just war
conducted by civil government:
64 Knight, "Can a Christian Go to War?" 5. ,
65 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 84.
66 Stoner, "The Teaching of Jesus Christ in Relation to the Doctrine of Non-
resistance," 43. "
67 Geisler, Ethics, 171; cf. also Lloyd A. Doerbaum, "A Biblical Critique of War,
Peace and Nonresistance" (Master of Theology thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary,
68 Fitts, "A Dispensational Approach to War," 29-30. "
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 451
Whatever our Lord meant by his statement about buying a sword, it
certainly cannot be construed to mean that he is sanctioning war in any
sense. If he meant self-defense in some limited sense, then it is to be
explained in the light of other Scriptures instructing Christians on the
use of physical force.69
This appears to be a more reasonable approach to the data. It is also
the only place that Hoyt comes close to admitting that self-defense is
a legitimate option for the believer. However, based on his presup-
positions, he does not view self-defense as including the Christian
bearing arms in a war initiated by the civil government.
Third, pacifism is labeled as "ethical non-involvism." The citizen
who will not defend his country against an evil aggressor is morally
remiss. The nation with adequate power which will not defend the
rights of smaller weaker nations is also morally remiss. By failing to
defend a good cause, the pacifist aids an evil one. "Thus, complete
pacifism is at best morally naive and at worst morally delinquent.70
This charge is offered as further evidence that the believer must
participate in a just war.
However, the pacifist does not believe that "non-involvism"
adequately describes his position. Augsburger believes that it is impor-
tant to see that the doctrine of nonresistance has a positive, active
dimension. It is not a case of total non-involvement as much as it
is a decision for selective involvement within parameters defined by
Scripture. "This is a working philosophy of life. This is not an escape
from responsible action, but is an alternative to the patterns of the
world.71 The Christian carries an ethical responsibility to his nation.
He is to give himself to others in doing good. This is not something
which is suddenly activated during a war as if it is the way to avoid
It is clear that the believer has a responsibility to be a good
citizen. The question is not an unwillingness to defend oneself. The
pacifist simply desires an active role of doing good for his fellow
citizens. Yet he is unable to compromise his personal conviction not
to kill an enemy soldier. The sincere biblical pacifist is not morally
naive or morally delinquent. He is not abdicating his involvement in
government policies or opting for a totally passive role.
The heart of the selectivist position is based on an extension of
the sword of Rom 13:4 to international conflict.
69 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 54-55.
70 Geisler, Ethics, 174.
71 Augsburger, "A Christian Pacifist Response" in War: Four Christian Views, 59.
72 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 94; and Herman A. Hoyt, Then Would My
Servants Fight (Winona Lake: Brethren Missionary Herald, 1956) 16-17.
452 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
If it is right for rulers to use coercive force, then most men of good will
and good conscience will say that it is right for the Christian to be a
part of the force. Reality, most will agree, provides no "division of
labor" whereby one section of humanity, as a matter of necessity and
duty, does something for my benefit in which it is too sinful for me to
If the Christian should support and participate in the functions of
fgovernment, then why should a Christian not participate in legitimate
governmental use of force?
[This brings the whole question back to the central issue. Hoyt
It is true that force was entrusted to governments, not to individuals.
But it is not true that believers were necessarily involved in the exercise
of force, even as agents of the government, in the same way in the New
Testament as in the Old.74
Augsburger argues similarly that the State operates on a different
level than does the Church. While Christians might well have the
responsibility to call the State to participate only in a just war, the
individual Christian is called by Christ to a higher ethical function.
Augsburger goes on to deal with this ethical duality by explaining
that "while there is one ethic for all people. . . by which we shall all
be judged and to which we are held accountable, the patterns and
levels of life commitment do not conform to this one ethic.75
Both Hoyt and Augsburger are arguing from their presupposi-
tions regarding the separation of Church and State and the priority
commitment to the Body of Christ. Thus, the Christian has responsi-
bility to the State (Rom 13:3, 6, 7) but that cannot include acts which
contradict the Christian's higher responsibility to Christ.76
CONCLUSION: NONCOMBATANT PARTICIPATION IN WAR
The noun "nonresistance" may be misleading. It sounds a note of
non-involvement, an uncaring isolationism when the nation is in the
throes of a desperate military struggle. It could be interpreted as a
passive and lifeless response to a very emotional issue. Perhaps non-
combatant participation" is a term which reflects a proper Christian
response to the biblical norms.
73 Culver, "Justice Is Something Worth Fighting For," 21.
74 Hoyt, A Nonresistant Response, 138.
75 Augsburger,"A Christian Pacifist Response," 143.
76 Drescher, "Why Christians Shouldn't Carry Swords," 23.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 453
Before drawing conclusions, two observations need to be made.
At the outset, there was a reminder that this issue is complex. It has
given rise to a dialogue among men who desire to conform their
personal ethics to the norms of Scripture. There are two reasons why
this diversity exists.
First, the Christian is faced with the fact that the NT is silent on
the specific question, does Christian responsibility to obey the God-
ordained government include taking the life of others, possibly even
fellow believers, simply because those individuals are soldiers of
another nation? There is no "proof text" which settles that question.
There is a necessary step that everyone must make beyond direct NT
Those who support participation in war lean quite heavily on the
fact that God has given the sword to civil government (Rom 13:4).
However, Holmes, a 'just war" advocate, admits,
The passage pertains directly to matters of criminal justice and the civil
order and only by extrapolation to international conflict. But it does
make clear that for some purposes, the precise scope of which is not
defined, government has the right to use lethal force.77
Another passage that deals with this subject of swords is found
in Jesus' statements to his disciples in Luke -36. Jesus com-
manded his disciples to buy literal swords. He did not rebuke them
for the two swords which they had brought with them. Geisler moves
from viewing these swords as legitimate tools for self-defense to the
conclusion that "herein seems to be the sanction of Jesus to the
justifiable use of an instrument of death in defense against an unjust
aggressor.78 The step to international warfare may. be a logical one,
but it is only an inference.
Second, it is recognized by all sides that the determining factor is
not the interpretation of particular passages of Scripture. Presupposi-
tions, the theological premises built out of biblical study which are
accepted at the beginning, determine the conclusions that are reached.
In their discussions both Holmes and Augsburger79 make that quite
In light of the silence of the Scriptures and the recognition of
theological presuppositions, the following conclusions are offered with
77 Holmes, "A Just War Response," 122.
78 Geisler, Ethics, 171.
79 Holmes, "The Just War," 65; and Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 65.
454 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the recognition that godly men of different persuasions have the liberty
in Christ to disagree agreeably.
Does the requirement of obedience to the government relieve the
believer of individual ethical responsibility? The activist view is most
likely erroneous. The apostles recognized that they had to heed God
first (Acts -20; ). There is no question that the believer is
expected to obey the government. However, Romans 13 is also clear
that the government's authority is derived from God (13:1, 2, 4, 6).
Thus, the believer should pay taxes (13:6). However his subjection is
not required when the government expects something that is not
legitimately due (13:7). The higher authority is God,
This does not mean that the Christian prevents the state from
engaging in war or from defensive preparations which might deter
aggressors. The separation of Church and State allows the government
that privilege. However, Christians are still bound personally by a
higher priority established by a higher authority. God has made each
Christian a member of the Body of Christ. The responsibility to
fellow believers is abundantly clear in the NT. Numerous commands
about love, forbearance, unity, and kindness fill the pages of the NT,
How can the Christian violate such commands in the name of patrio-
tism? In addition, even with qualifications added, the spirit of the
Sermon on the Mount and direct statements such as those found in
Romans 12 and 13 regarding the treatment of enemies are binding
upon Christians. Individual ethical responsibility must enter in if a
believer is personally on one side of the gun aiming at another person
who is there only because a war has been declared. Thus, In my view,
this higher priority bars that kind of participation in war.
Commonly the issue of self-defense is raised against this position,
"What would you do if a man was threatening to kill your family?"
To move to this personal and emotional plane obscures the issue.
"Nonresitance in war and nonresistance in this situation are not
necessarily parallel cases."80 There is a difference between defending
ones family in this type of situation and planning to take lives in war.
It is wholly illogical to pose this problem as the test for the non-
resistance position, In war the situation is known and the movements
are all premeditated and planned with precision. Surely the Christian
who feels that the Word of God warns him against the show of
violence cannot deliberately plan to do the very thing he knows is
80 Hoyt, Then Would My Servants Fight, 85.
81 Ibid 86.
PLASTER: THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR 455
To permit self-defense when one is personally threatened with
violence does not necessarily permit one to join in war and take the
lives of "enemies" because they are from another nation. The separa-
tion of Church and State and commitment to fellow Christians forbid
the latter practice but not the former.
Each Christian must ask, "What is my responsibility? What
decision should I make in regard to participation in war?" I can
summarize my own view of such responsibility in three statements.
First, it is my responsibility to trust God as my ultimate defense.
Some may feel that the noncombatant believer leaves to others the
defense of the nation. While I would not deny the responsibility to
participate in such defense as far as conscience allows, my ultimate
trust differs from that of many of my fellow citizens. My faith is in
the sovereign God as the ultimate Defender of me and my family.
Even those believers who in clear conscience fully participate in war
need to examine their priorities. Perhaps Christians should be as
concerned to pray for the security of their nation as they are to
guarantee its military defense.
Second, it is my responsibility to serve my government as far as
conscience and my commitment to Scripture allows. The separation
of Church and State and my citizenship in the heavenly kingdom
does not mean that I am to be isolated from the society in which I
live. Christians are not to go out of the world (1 Cor 5:9-10) though
they are "not of the world" (John -18). Rather they have been
sent into the world (as Jesus' prayer in John 17 indicates). Non-
resistance then should not be passive but rather active as Christ's
commandments are carried out.
Third, it is my responsibility to serve my fellow man. Serving my
fellow citizens and my government may well involve going into life-
threatening situations knowing that I will not be bearing arms. How-
ever, my service may involve binding wounds or serving as a chaplain.
Thus, my refusal to take lives in the name of the government is a
biblically limited participation not a refusal to participate. I prefer to
call this "noncombatant participation" in war.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org