Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 435-455

          Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

               THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR:

                            A MATTER OF

                  PERSONAL CONSCIENCE

 

                                         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-

combatant participation.

 

                                                            *     *     *

 

                                                     INTRODUCTION

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

problem:

            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.

 

                                    PRELIMINARY MATTERS

 

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 Israel receives special attention, the

OT also mentions other civil governments. Joseph and Daniel were

Jews who served as leading officials in non-theocratic governments.

Amos 2:1-3 points out that God held the government of Moab

accountable for the use of its sword. Assyria was to learn the same

lesson (Isa 10:5-19). Daniel records that God, after previous reminders

on the subject (Dan 2:21, 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 4:17,

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

God.

            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 2:13). It is account-

able to God for its ministry of punishing evildoers and supporting

those who do good (1 Pet 2: 14). 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 2: 15). 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 17:24-27). He

recognized the authority of Pontius Pilate, even when Pilate unjustly

delivered him over to his enemies (John 19:11). Jesus reminded him,

however, that his authority was not autonomous (John 19:10-11) 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 Roman Empire. Rom 13:1-7 establishes

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 5:29). 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 (Chicago: Moody,

1974) 183-84.

3 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1971) 797; William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (2 vols.

Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954) 2.418; and R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation ~f

St. John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943) 1263-65.

4 C. E. B. Cranfield (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the

Romans [ICC; 2 vols.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979] 2. 662) demonstrates that the

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 12:20) 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 23:39), was based upon Lev 19:18.

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; Grand Rapids:

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

24 (November 7, 1980) 16.



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 5:39, "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

love."11

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 5:44;

Luke 6:27; Rom 13:8-1011. This love for enemies is expressed in doing

good for them (Rom 12:20) and in praying for them (Matt 5:44).

Those who persecute the believer should receive back a blessing

(Rom 12:14). Persecution must not be answered by taking revenge

(Rom 12:19). As far as it is possible, the believer must be at peace

with all men (Rom 12:18) as he pursues the things that make for

peace (Rom 14:19). Paul summarized this lifestyle when he instructed

the Galatians:

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 God's Grace [Chicago: Moody, 1973] 224-25).



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.

 

The Activist

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 of the United States

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 Brown views Israel fighting for its

[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!.

war.

 

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

other considerations.17

 

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 Israel, now set aside, had any claim to being a

theocracy.19

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 Egypt stood against government edicts due

to higher spiritual obligations. In the NT the apostles chose to obey

God rather than men (Acts 4:19-20 and 5:29).

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

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

position.

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 century Church, Culver points

out,

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

state25 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 (October 24, 1980) 51.

21 Myron S. Augsburger, "Beating Swords Into Plowshares," Christianity Today 20

(November 21, 1975) 8. "

22 Reo M. Christenson, "Christians and Nuclear Aggression," The Christian Century

100 (May 25, 1983) 522; and Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and

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

citizenship.26

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

many changes.

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

in the kingdom of Christ29 Nevertheless, the pacifist movement has

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-

ment.

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 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1971) 175.

29 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 89.

30 Stoner, "The Teaching of Jesus Christ in Relation to the Doctrine of Non-

resistance," 36-37.

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 17: 16).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 kingdom of Christ now means

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

church.35

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 Israel did as a nation or

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

24 (November 7, 1980) 21-22.

34 Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 32.

35 Augsburger, "Christian Pacifism," 87.

36 Ibid., 94.

37 Tom Fitts, "A Dispensational Approach to War" (Master of Theology thesis,

Dallas Theological Seminary, 1973) 52-55; and Hoyt, "Nonresistance," 39-42.



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

service.

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 9:54-56). He went about doing

good and healing (Acts 10:38). When he was reviled and suffered

persecution, he did not revile or threaten in return but instead offered

himself on the cross (1 Pet 2:23-24) 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 6:10).

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 18:23). 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

of people.49

 

The Selectivist

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-

resistance," 31.

48 Ibid., 33.

49 Culver, "Justice Is Something Worth Fighting For," 20; and George W. Knight

III, "Can a Christian Go to War?" Christianity Today 20 (November 21, 1975) 6.

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

    rexcluded.

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

Jericho recorded in the Bible. Or for that matter, it is difficult to argue

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

 

53 Ibid.,435-39.

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-

ment of Israel, has divine authority to take life.59

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 Israel described in the Old

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 8:10). 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 3:14). Peter was sent to Cornelius, a soldier who was

described as being a righteous and God-fearing man (Acts 10:22). 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 22:35-36). The

disciples already had two swords in their possession and the Lord

declared them to be enough (22:38). In contrast, Jesus later rebuked

Peter for using his sword on the high priest's servant (John 18: 11,

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 22:37.

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,

1969) 39-41.

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

world71 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

military service.72

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

help out.73

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

responds,

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

 

Observations

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

statements.

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 22:35-36. 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

aggressor78 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

clear.

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.

 

Conclusions

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 4:19-20; 5:29). 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

one’s 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

un-Scriptural.81

 

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 17:15-18). 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

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

www.grace.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu