What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this: that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…
War is one of the most dreadful evils that can be inflicted on a people. It involves the destruction of property and life. It demoralizes both the victors and losers. It kills and injures not only the soldier, but upon millions of civilians it inflicts the miseries of poverty, making widows and orphans of the whole lot. War is quick to dispossess society of everything that is good.
Not only is the act of war evil, its causes are evil. Every war undertaken to gratify personal ambition, greed, or bitterness of the politicians who start them is overtly unchristian and exceedingly sinful. Most would agree that the vast majority of the wars which have ruined the world have been unjust in the sight of God. Nevertheless this does not mean war in all cases is to be condemned. The question that splits the Christian conscience is not whether war is good or bad, but whether it is in all cases avoidable. In the face of outlandish evil, how should a Christian act?
WAR AS AN ACT OF SELF-DEFENSE
Because self-defense is a right of nations as well as to individuals, nations are bound to protect the lives and property of its citizens. If the peace and security of a nation is threatened, then the employment of arms may be rightfully used (Exodus 22:2-3). Societies have the right to defend their own existence. If they are endangered by menacing forces, they may respond with all their energy and might to protect their lives and property. This is known as a defensive war.
THE PREVENTIVE WAR
While it is easy to lay down the principle that war is justifiable only as a means of self-defense, such a policy is weighed down with difficulties. A war may be defensive and yet in one sense aggressive. In other words, self-defense may dictate launching the initial assault. In this case we mean a war that is begun not in response to an act of aggression, but in anticipation of it.
A homeowner is not required to wait until an intruder actually fires the first shot. Likewise, when a nation sees undeniable manifestations of aggression, it is not constrained to wait until its territories are physically invaded and its citizens murdered before it takes action. Should there be clear evidence that an enemy demonstrates hostile goals, a preemptive strike must be considered.
USE EXTREME CAUTION WHEN CHOOSING WAR
The difficulty, of course, lies in accurately judging the extent and imminence of the threat. Extreme caution should be used. There is always a danger of reacting too soon, as well as waiting too long. The least aggression on national property, or the slightest infringement of national rights, may be mistakenly regarded as the first step toward national extinction, and therefore some might justify extreme measures, such as a preemptive strike. A nation may also wrongly believe that an enlargement of territory is necessary to its security; therefore, it supposes the right of war to secure it. In such thinking, a man may say that his neighbor’s farm is necessary to the full enjoyment of his own property, and therefore he has the right to take it by force. It must be remembered that nations are as much obligated by the moral (natural) law as much as individual men; therefore what a man may not do in the protection of his wealth and prosperity, a nation may not do. A nation should exercise great restraint and adopt every other available means of setting right any wrongs or pursuing its economic ambitions without plunging itself and others into the fearsome sufferings of military conflict. Furthermore, A nation should go to war only after all other attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have failed (Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
Next, the lawfulness of self-defense does not rest exclusively on the common principles of justice (natural law as recognized by all people). Warfare is also recognized in Holy Scripture. In numerous cases, wars were commanded in the Old Testament. God endowed men with special qualifications as warriors. The Lord advised the Israelites in regard to their military enterprises (Judges 20:27; 1 Samuel 14:37; 1 Samuel 23: 2-4; 1 Kings 22:6), and He often interfered miraculously on behalf of His people when they were engaged in battle. Many of the Psalms of David are either prayers for divine assistance in war or thanksgivings for victory. It is very plain, therefore, that the God whom the patriarchs and prophets worshipped did not condemn war, when the choice was between war and annihilation. It is a very clear case that if the Israelites had not been allowed to defend themselves against their heathen neighbors, they would have soon been overrun. Their religion would have perished with them.
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND WAR
The essential principles of morals do not change. What was permitted or commanded under one dispensation, cannot be unlawful under another, unless it is prohibited by a new revelation. The New Testament contains no such change. The very silence of the New Testament leaves the Old Testament ruling on this subject still in force. There is no express declaration on the subject of war because none was needed. We find the lawfulness of war is assumed.
Soldiers were recognized as some of the heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). The epistles use military terms and metaphors to describe the Christian life, and the believer is a called a soldier who must struggle against evil with spiritual weapons that are analogous to those used by the Roman army (2 Timothy 2:3; 1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 6:10-20). When the soldiers inquired of John the Baptist what they should do to prepare for the kingdom of God, he did not tell them that they must forsake the military. The centurion, whose faith our Lord so highly commended (Matthew 8:5-13), was not censured for being a soldier. Yet, another centurion, a devout man, received a vision from God that he should send for Peter, and according to the record in the tenth chapter of Acts, he was allowed to remain in the army of a heathen emperor. The civil magistrates, as we learn from the thirteenth chapter of Romans, are ordained by God with a right or power of life and death over their own citizens should they commit crimes. The same magistrates certainly have the right to use arms to protect their citizens too.
THE EARLY CHURCH AND WAR
In the early ages of the Church there was great unwillingness to engage in military service. The church leaders at times justified this reluctance by calling the lawfulness of all wars into question. But the real sources of this opposition of Christians entering the army were that they gave themselves up to the service of a military power which persecuted their own faith. But soon after many members of the military forces were converted, and others joined the army because they felt that a person should support the empire. When the Roman empire became Christian, and the cross was substituted for the eagle on the standards of the army, this opposition died away.
JESUS AND WAR
What do we say about Jesus and war? He is known by liberals, historical revisionists, and pacifists as the friendly carpenter who, as they see Him, went about His business merely healing the sick and preaching peace. A Jesus who threatens a city with “you will be brought down to Hades!” does not fit their popular charismatic picture of Him. In their minds He is the friend of humanity and head of a critical social movement, who proclaimed a God who overlooks sin and forgives without measure. They are quick to point out that Jesus wanted us to turn the other cheek whenever one is struck. Perhaps a modern application of this can be found in Islamic lands – particularly the Sudan, where Christians have been turning the other cheek to the point of extinction.
But there is more to be said about Jesus of Nazareth: He is the conquering King, leader of an enormous army. Great victory will be His (and for His people) when Christ defeats evil in a series of battles described in the book of Revelation. Here Jesus is seen as the Great Commander. He sits on a white horse. He is righteous and successful in His military undertakings. His clothes are dripped in blood – either His own or that of His enemies which He has slaughtered. The army which He commands is a very large one; in fact it is made up of many armies, including angels and saints. They resemble the Great Commander in equipment, conduct, and glory. His weapon is a sharp sword proceeding from His mouth, symbolic for the written Word of God. Now He is going to execute His enemies with it. He will crushed them under His feet and dash them to pieces. He even has a coat of arms on which it is written “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Christ’s enemies are utterly defeated, taken prisoner, and thrown into the lake of fire. Some were intentionally left behind where they became food for scavenger birds.
The Christian churches have never pronounced all war to be unlawful. Thus believers can join the army and defend their country against assault. And Presbyterians especially have contended that it is honorable and biblical to fight to the death for their rights and liberties.
We cannot defend our participation in an unjust war simply by saying, “I was only doing my duty to serve the country.” We are never permitted to justify our participation in armed conflicts by pleading, “My country, right or wrong, my country.” Yet when the grounds are right and honorable, we must support our country’s wars.