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Christians and War (Part One)

By Dr. Darrell Cole

Dr. Darrell Cole is a professor of Religious Ethics and Theology at Drew University and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church. He has written and lectured frequently on the topic of “Just War.” We are pleased to have him share some thoughts on this relevant topic.

War is always in the news. We seem to be in a perpetual state of killing and being killed. Christians know their Old Testament is filled with tales of war. Indeed, Augustine once famously reminded his readers that, since the time Cain slew his brother Abel, history is written in blood. As Christians we can expect nothing else; we know that the human race is tainted by sin and, therefore, selfish and unjust by nature. Even Christians, justified by God’s free grace, struggle daily with sins of selfishness and injustice. Truths such as these hit home most when our country seems to be on the brink of war, as it may now be as tensions increase between the U.S. and Iran. However, as the U.S. mulls its options in the Middle East where Iran sponsors terrorist groups and seeks to become a nuclear power capable of even greater evil than it now possesses, Christians may mull whether or not they should support their own government’s use force against others. Thankfully, the Bible gives thoughtful Christians clear guidelines to follow.

The Bible clearly teaches that Christians should support the civil authorities who use force for the peace and protection of all. Paul directs Christians in Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,” that authorities are a “terror” to evildoers, and that they do not “bear the sword in vain” as servants of God who “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:1-7). The message is clear: Civil government is ordained by God to use force in order to make an orderly life possible. Imagine a society in which the government provided no one with protection from harm. Our lives would be chaotic and brutal. The threat of force deters much (if obviously not all) wrongdoing. We meet in peaceful fellowship this morning in part because the state threatens to use force for our peace and protection. In short, our lives would be miserable without the government’s willingness to protect us.

There is a reason why Paul, Peter, John the Baptist and, yes, Jesus, never speak a word against the office of soldiering. In fact, not a few soldiers are praised for their good qualities. Think of Jesus commending the faith of the centurion (Luke 7:1-10) and Luke the piety of Cornelius, who is chosen by God as the first Gentile to have the Holy Spirit poured out upon him (Acts 10). Neither man is told to give up his job. When John baptizes soldiers he does not tell them to drop out of the military but to be just soldiers (Acts 3:14). If anyone thinks that the use of force is somehow incompatible with the Christian life, simply do a quick thought experiment about what John would have said to prostitutes who came to him for baptism. Can you imagine John giving prostitutes advice about how to prostitute more justly? Of course not. And this says something important about the military profession, as opposed to an inherently unjust profession such as prostitution: it is good and acceptable in God’s sight. This does not mean that any use of force by the military is good. No profession is pure. It only means that the proper function of any earthly government includes protecting citizens from harm.

This is why the Westminster Confession charges civil governments to maintain “piety, justice, and peace” and “for that end they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions” (WCF 33). This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism charges Christians committed to obeying the sixth commandment to use all ‘lawful endeavors to prevent the unjust taking away of the life of any, by just defense thereof by violent uses” and this includes “protecting and defending the innocent” (WLC 135). In other words, the Westminster Divines followed Luther and Calvin in pointing out the positive duty attached to the commandment not to murder; namely, the duty to save life even when we must use force to do so.

Those who are given the job to protect us from harm—all police, security, and military forces—have a God ordained job. As part of the civil governing authorities, such professions exist by God’s merciful desire to restrain evil. They are a part of what Calvin called God’s common grace that benefits Christians and non-Christians alike. Thus, the jobs of policing, securing, and soldering are, when done well, compatible with living a holy life before God. They are worthy vocations for God’s people and worthy of support by all God’s people. This is the subject of Luther’s famous treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved (the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”) and was maintained by Zwingli and Calvin. The people who serve the common good in this way are, whether they realize it or not, fulfilling God’s intentions of common grace and Christians in particular are fulfilling the demands of the sixth commandment.

God desires that we protect our neighbors. But this apparently leaves us a lot of leeway in when and how we accomplish the task. Be here again we are not without good guidance. Early Church Fathers and Reformation leaders are largely agreed upon what has come to be known as the Just War Tradition which serves as a helpful guide to questions about when and how to take up arms. We will look more closely at this next week.

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