Should a Christian go to war?

(all Bible verses from the NIV)
(this article was previously published online by Sight magazine)

Christ’s War?

In our day of raucous opinion sharing, debate and propaganda, being pro-war or anti-war or somewhere in between involves emotionally charged language that touches on some of our deepest-held feelings and beliefs about ourselves, our nation, our religion and our ideals.  Political and religious leaders of all faiths use arguments of divine right, justice, justness and retribution to uphold their views.  However, for Christians, that is, Christ’s followers, the issue can be simplified to one question:  Is this Christ’s war?

Some might say that Christ really has nothing to do with world politics, but they would be overlooking the Bible, which clearly states that as Christians, we have been bought with a price and are no longer our own (1Cor 6:19-20).  Our citizenship is in heaven (Php 3:20).  Therefore, on a personal level, we must look to Christ for our beliefs about war, and most importantly, for our actions involving war.  This might be easier if it were not for the many other sources clamouring to influence us, from a pastor in the pulpit to the daily news.  Still, despite the difficulty, we must wrestle with this issue.  It literally involves decisions of life-or-death importance.

On the face of it, this seems like it should be an easily answered question.  After all, Christ did not wage war in his lifetime on earth, resisted those who would make him king, rebuked his followers for engaging in violence, even to save his life, and finally died without a single protest.  In the first few hundred years or so after his death and resurrection, none of his followers thought that going to war was a Christ-like thing to do; it wasn’t until “Christianity” became nationalized through Constantine’s conversion that you even begin to see the pursuit of warring and of following Christ shaking hands, let alone being championed by religious leaders of the faith.  (An excellent history by John Cecil Cadoux is available as an ebook, entitled “The Early Christian Attitude to War (1919).”  I highly recommend reading it, if only for the introduction and conclusion; Part I “The Teaching of Jesus” is a much more in-depth treatment of all of Jesus’ teachings that pertain to the subject and is worthwhile reading for anyone, Christian or not).  But before we go on, it must be recognized that Christian ideology and the state’s ideology are not the same; patriotism is the state’s ideology, not Christ’s.

In our day, of course, things have changed.  It is left to minority splinter groups to champion peace, and it is not uncommon to hear major “Christian” figures give reasons for war from the pulpit.  Has Christ changed?  No.  So to find an answer to the question, “Can Christians go to war?” we can rely on Christ and the Bible to show us the way.  Not teachers, preachers, pundits or leaders; as the Bible states, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4).  To be wise in how we live, we must look only to Christ and his Word.  In preparing this article, I read through the New Testament to see what it says; if you disagree I ask you to do the same and allow the Holy Spirit to bring you an answer.

Before I continue with the New Testament, I would like to address the Old Testament.  It is where many find evidence for permission to engage in warfare today and certainly contains a lot of warfare in itself.  Many point to David, a “man after God’s own heart,” who was also a mighty warrior.  Others use God’s commands to go to war, and his enabling of such warfare, as proof.  Still others quote the “eye for eye” verses to justify retribution (for example, in response to 9/11).  In answer, I would like to point out a few things.  David, a man commended by God, was also forbidden by God to build his temple.  Why?  Because his hands were bloody.  Nevermind that they got bloodied going to war for God; they were bloody (1 Chr 22:7-8).  Recalling Genesis 9:5-6, we see “…And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”  Clearly God held David accountable for the blood he shed.  Not only that, but the temple of God, which David the bloody-handed couldn’t build, is now according to the New Testament built of the body of believers – us (1 Cor 3:16, 6:19).  If David couldn’t build the temple then, can we now, as the new temple, allow blood on our hands?  It doesn’t follow logically.  I think we can excuse David from further proof-texting.

Next, all of Gods’ commands to Israel.  Reading through the history of Israel, we see a nation set up by God and set apart for God who was its rightful Head.  No other nation has such distinction, and I include the current nation of Israel (another argument for another day).  God commanded Israel to take the land he specified, and raised up judges and kings to conquer and defend those boundaries.  Did God command Israel to take over Egypt?  Babylon?  Any other nation or land outside of the boundaries he set?  No.  In essence, all of Israel’s warfare was defensive after the original offense led by Joshua.  Barring the total lack of evidence from the New Testament that Jesus ever implied Christians should make nations for themselves and go to war in defense or offense of them, we see God only commanding warfare to a specific nation for a specific time and in a specific way:  defensively.  Using those commands to justify warfare now, especially offensive warfare, is stretching the Bible to suit one’s own desires.  This is not to say that nations do not have a mandate to protect their citizens from external threat.  However, there is no “Christian nation”, Christ never commanded one to be made and using the Bible to argue a nation-state’s rights for self-defense (or even for occupation of other nations) is not answering the question, Can a Christian, personally, go to war?

Lastly, the infamous “eye for eye” verses.  I found two, perhaps there are more.  Exodus 21:24 says “eye for eye” in reference to harm done to a pregnant mother or her unborn child caused by two men fighting, and shows what the penalty for such harm should be.  Deuteronomy 19:21 again uses the “eye for an eye” principal in punishing a false witness; the punishment should fit the crime, hurting the liar in whatever way he intended to harm his neighbor by providing false testimony.  In both cases, the punishment fits the crime, inflicting upon the aggressor the same harm done to the victim.  This is not an excuse for revenge; it is in fact limiting retribution so that it only does as much harm as was intended or done initially.  Given current and past world events, it does seem that there is good reason for God to spell this principle out.  As part of the judicial law given to the nation of Israel, it is a good principle for nations to emulate in their own laws, but it is not a law of any current nation since there are no nations headed by God.  And using this verse to justify punitive measures towards other people-groups is clearly taking it out of context.  Now, I believe there are no more major arguments that can be made for warfare from the Old Testament, so I shall move on to the New.

The New Testament is not an abrogation (a “cancelling out”) of the Old Testament or of the covenants given by God in the OT.  Jesus himself declares that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matt 5:17).  In Hebrews 12:22-24 we have a description of the new church: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  Jesus’s arrival signals a new covenant with man.  What word did the blood of Abel speak?  One could say “murder,” “punishment,” “justice” or “retribution.”  What does Jesus’s blood say of this new covenant?  “Grace,” “peace” and “love” are a few words that come to mind.  Instead of standing judged guilty before God, we now through Jesus have the forgiveness of sins.  Romans 1:16 says “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”  And what is the command given by Jesus to those who believe?  Romans 13:9-10: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

What does this new covenant mean for us?  First of all, it changes our position with God.  Throughout the gospel, we discover facets of this positional change.  We have been adopted by God, are co-heirs with Jesus who calls us “friend” [John 15:14-15], are no longer slaves to sin but to righteousness [Rom 6:18], citizens of heaven [Php 3:20], soldiers of Christ [2 Tim 2:3-4].  This new life also has its responsibilities.  We are to live as slaves to righteousness, not sin; we are to do good; we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus; we are to proclaim the gospel.  This is not optional.  John gives us a warning in 1 John 2:4,6:  “The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him….Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”  And Jesus himself warns in Matt 7:21-23 that only he who does the will of God will enter heaven.  One other implication of the new covenant should be spelled out as well.  Jesus has been given authority over everything, he is the ultimate head [Mat 28:18].  This, along with our position as his friends/brothers/soldiers means that in all things we look only to him for guidance on what is right and wrong; what we should do and shouldn’t do.

Let us look now to see what we are to do.  Suffering is a major theme in gospel writings.  1 Peter 2:21-23 says “To this (suffering for doing good) you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps.  ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  Throughout the NT we see verses commending suffering for producing eternal fruit.  Suffering is called God’s discipline and shows that we are his sons [Heb 12:4-7]; it refines our faith and above all, results in praise, glory and honor given to God [1 Pet 1:6-7].  Jesus said in John 17:4 “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.”  This work of obedience has two facets of interest to us here:   doing good and suffering for it.  Pages could be written on the subject of doing good and what it means.  It is assumed throughout the gospel letters that the faithful of the church are already suffering because they are living Christ’s commands out and doing good, and there are many admonitions to the faithful explaining how to live good lives, and why.  The why is important: so that we may bring glory to God and make the gospel of Jesus attractive to the unsaved.  In the “Great Commission” verse [Mat 28:19] we are told to go and make disciples of all nations, and Jesus tells us in Matt 9:37-38 to “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest fields.”  Our purpose is to glorify God and evangelize – make disciples.  This is not just evangelism in the narrow sense of proclaiming the gospel but evangelism in how we live every day.

What, you may be asking, does any of that have to do with the question “Can Christians go to war?”  Everything!  If our primary purpose in life – the entire reason for our very existence – is to glorify God by how we live our lives, then it has everything to do with whether we participate in warfare!  We will look next at what kind of life the Bible calls us to and compare it to what is required in warfare and answer our question.


Our current verse of reference is 1 Peter 2:21-23, which says “To this (suffering for doing good) you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps.  ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  “Doing good” is a large subject, so we will only skim it here.  It is a lifelong pursuit, after all, so we may spend the rest of our lives trying to attain to Christ’s example.  However, certain aspects can be pointed out.  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12) is a good ruler for our behaviour, but we shall be more specific.  Our lives should be holy and lived in peace [Heb 12:14], compassionate [Mat 25:31-46], full of good works [Eph 2:10], kind and lacking in all malice (rage, brawling, etc) [Eph 4:30-32], wise [Eph 5:15], fruitful [Php 1:21-24], sincere and hardworking [Col 3:23-24], quiet and not nosy or meddling [1 Ths 4:11-12], paying back wrong and persecution with blessing [Rom 12:12-18, 1 Ths 5:15], looking after orphans and widows [Jam 1:27], considerate, free of partiality and merciful [Jam 3:17], loving [1 Jn 4:19-21], and lived as strangers here in reverent fear [1 Pet 1:17].  1 Peter 2:11 sums it up: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  The picture of a Christ-like life is pretty clear.

Now to warfare.  I think it can be said confidently that there has been no war fought “Christianly.”  It was thought, approximately 100 years ago, that Christians could wage war as long as they didn’t allow “sinful emotions” to rule their behaviour.  Perhaps such naivete could only exist pre-WWI.  Some seem to think nowadays that as long as “innocents” or “non-combatants” are not injured, warfare is all right.  Anyone in any military can tell you that there will be “collateral damage” in any conflict, some clearly more than others.  There is no one with “clean hands” who has engaged in warfare in the past or present.  The Allies firebombed entire cities.  The Atom bomb.  Even the Old Testament verses concerning warfare show pregnant women being ripped open, children slaughtered, total genocide.  Hundreds, thousands of stories could be recounted from all sides of every conflict showing the utter depravity of warfare.  Where is the love for one’s brother, let alone the love for enemies commanded by Christ, in warfare?  Nowhere.  (Some might point to serving militarily as loving one’s nation, one’s neighbors, one’s fellow soldiers, but this is all incidental to the main point of warfare:  defeating the enemy physically, economically and/or politically so that they capitulate – somehow breaking their will to fight).  Is going to war going to bring glory to God?  I think it can be said confidently that unless God himself calls for the war, it is not glorifying to God to participate in warfare.  The Bible says when God will act:  2 Thessalonians 1:4-8 “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.  All this is evidence that God’s judgement is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.  God is just:  He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.  This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.  He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And again we read in Romans 12:17-21 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ says the Lord.  On the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  From these verses, does it sounds like we should be avenging ourselves, our neighbors or our nation?  I think  it’s clear what Christians should be doing while waiting for God’s justice – showing love and mercy to the “enemy” whoever it may be.  And we should also note that the body of Christ is made up of people all over the world, so one’s national “enemy” could be one’s spiritual brother or sister.

Now some have made the argument that we have certain duties to the state, that include going to war in defense of that state.  This argument is based on verses that call for Christians to obey the laws of the land; what some have called “being good citizens.”  However, unless compelled by a military draft that allows no conscientous objection or position of non-combatancy, joining a military unit is a choice, made by the person.  We will assume that a voluntary choice has been made to participate, because even in the previously mentioned military, one could still refuse to bear arms…even if it resulted in one’s death (as it has for hundreds of Conscientous Objectors all over the world).  No one can make you pull a trigger.  There was a movie scene from “The Bourne Ultimatum” that presented this choice graphically.  A soldier has undergone voluntary training and brainwashing and at the end of this, is given a gun and told to shoot a hooded prisoner.  He (Bourne) asks what crime has this man committed?  It’s not important for him to know, he must obey the command to kill, he is told.  Bourne has some difficulty with this, and is brainwashed/sleep deprived some more.  Again he is given the gun, and at this point he chooses to shoot the prisoner, who is then unmasked.  This scene points out not only Bourne’s personal choice to kill but also his position within the military:  he is a slave.  His conscience is of no importance, when told to kill he must kill or be punished/killed himself.  While this is an extreme example, it is true of most militaries that a soldier is expected to kill whoever his/her commanding officer commands him to kill, without argument.  What is a slave?  In general, someone who is told where to live, what to do, given food to eat, usually paid little or no money and whose obedience is required by the master.  While “slave” can also have more or less unsavory implications, military soldiers do generally fit the list above.  Back to the Christian’s duty to the state:  if a voluntary choice is made to join the military to defend the state, then the Christian has made himself a slave of that state and can no longer live according to his own conscience and the commands of Christ (unless he is willing to defy orders that do not agree with his conscience; while this may not lead to death as in the past, in many cases it will certainly lead to court-marshalling or some form of punishment).  This action is specifically commanded against in 1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.”  Another verse in 2 Corinthians 6:14 can be applied as well: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.  For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?  Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”  Our position in Christ was achieved at great cost, and we are now his; we must not sell ourselves into slavery or even unequal “yoking” with men.  What about someone who is saved while serving in the military?  1 Corinthians 7:21 gives the answer: “Were you a slave when you were called?  Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”  These verses can be applied to the objection that Christ talked to Roman centurions and didn’t command them to leave the army, and John only commanded soldiers to be content with their pay and not extort money from the occupied peoples.  Roman soldiers served a dual purpose of policing the empire and engaging in military actions, and none mentioned in the gospels are called followers of Christ.  In our day, police work (doing the work of the head of state who “bears the sword” to punish wrongdoing as described in Romans 12-13) has been separated from military service;  it can be argued that a policeman or woman is not a slave in the same way as a soldier is and their duties generally do not include killing, torturing, etc (but if they did, other verses prohibiting such actions would apply).  Also, Christ’s commands are only for his followers, although it would be nice if everyone including his followers kept them!  To expand our understanding of the contemporary situation of soldiers shortly after Christ died, we can look at the early church’s position.  In the 3rd century Church Orders were issued forbidding entering the military after conversion, recommended soldiers leave if possible after conversion and even recommended that anyone who had served militarily wait 3 years after shedding blood before taking Communion [see link for Cadoux’s book].  So it is too thin an argument to say that because Christ or John the Baptist didn’t command Roman centurions to quit that anyone who is a soldier should stay one after conversion; “gain your freedom if you can” is the early Church’s answer and the only one that fits Scripture.

But as citizens of a state, don’t we owe it to the state to defend it?  Isn’t that just being a good citizen? No.  As stated above, Christ is the head over every authority and it is to him that we owe ultimate allegiance and citizenship.  We are to live our lives here as strangers, wanderers in a foreign land, not citizens of where we currently reside.  Now, that is not to say that we should disobey the authorities of the land.  There are plenty of verses that command obedience to the laws where we live (pay taxes, etc), so that we may bring glory to God by our good lives.  This obedience never supercedes our duty to Christ, which is peace, or our citizenship in heaven.  If the two duties, to the state and to God, conflict, we must obey Christ.  Two verses will close this argument:

Tit 3:1-2 “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.”

1 Tim 2:1- “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Have you noticed that in movies, television, books, etc, there is a strong tendency to make the “enemy” villainous?  Whether they be orcs, aliens, robots, secret government agents, sociopaths or historical figures, the enemy is usually portrayed as deserving of death.  Perhaps it is propaganda, perhaps simply human nature to want to destroy and not feel guilt, but it is there.  The only problem we encounter is that in reality death is often not willing to allow that convenience – those who die are human, created in God’s image just like us.  Remember in Genesis, God says that he will call to account any who spill man’s blood, be they animal or human.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us that we are NOT to defend ourselves against evil people, but rather to “go the extra mile” – be a blessing to our persecutors.  And the New Testament has plenty of verses that speak of loving our neighbors (and enemies)…across cultural and social boundaries.  Yet, there are verses in the NT that speak of warfare – against real enemies, who we are allowed to fight with all the weapons at our disposal.  These are the powers and principalities of the spiritual realm.  Read through the “armor of God” verses in Ephesians 6:10-18 and you will find the true Christian call to warfare.  In case there has not been sufficient evidence that we are to abstain from earthly warfare and fight only spiritually, please consider these verses:

Matthew 26:51-54 (after Peter had cut off the servant’s ear):  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than 12 legions of angels?…” Luke 22:49-51 “…But Jesus answered, “No more of this!”  And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.” John 18:10-11 “Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?””

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

These verses make it clear that our fight is spiritual.  Note the Corinthians verse that says “we do not wage war as the world does.”  And Jesus commands Peter not to fight.  Rather, we are to live our lives in such a way as to make the teachings of Christ attractive to others and to pray unceasingly, for these are our acts of worship and our spiritual warfare.  As we can see from early church history, those who knew Jesus and strove to follow these teachings in every way were more effective at changing the world than any war since!


Let us conclude the matter.  As Christians, we are given rights and responsibilites to live like Christ.  The way we live is to bring glory and honor to God, who will judge justly at the end of times.  Our lives are to make the teachings of Christ attractive to the unsaved so that we may not say the gospel with our mouths and negate it with our actions.  If our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, not here, then we must submit to God first and not the state when it commands actions contrary to our conscience, and all warfare is contrary to the New Testaments’ commands on how to live a good life and how to love our neighbors, even our enemies.  If we have the choice, we must choose personal suffering over serving in the military, and if we are already in the military, we should free ourselves as soon as possible.  This is not to say that we cannot serve our country of residence; if we truly live as Jesus did, we would be such a blessing to others that God would be mightily glorified!  Let us be true soldiers of God in the short time we have here.  Let us finish with Ephesians 5:15:

“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”