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Should Christians Endorse War? (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; and other texts)

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October 14, 2001

Special Message

Marla and I will never forget standing in line at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on the first day of our trip to Europe when we learned about the terrible terrorist attack on the United States. Since our nation is now at war in Afghanistan, I thought that before I resume our study of Acts, it would be helpful to explore biblically the question, “Should Christians endorse war?”

In almost 25 years of pastoral ministry, I have never addressed this question. Since it is such an important and practical matter, you might be surprised to learn that the New Testament never directly addresses the issue. It is necessary to extrapolate certain biblical principles that apply to the moral and ethical questions involved. Because there are seemingly opposing principles to consider, such as loving our enemies versus maintaining justice, you will find Christians who are committed to God’s Word on both sides of the issue. We who hold to biblical truth may think that only theological liberals would argue for pacifism. But there are those who hold to the inspiration and authority of Scripture who oppose war for any reason. While I respect and do not question their commitment to Christ and His Word, I will let you know up front that I do not agree with their reasoning. Succinctly stated, my position is:

While Christians should seek peace, there are times in this fallen world where the only means to peace is to defeat an aggressive enemy.

I want to develop four thoughts to explore the subject:

1. We must keep in mind the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness.

Whenever you are attacked, whether on the national or personal level, there is the tendency to assume that you are totally righteous and the aggressor is totally evil. But this is never the case. The Bible plainly indicts us all: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). We may be right on a particular issue or occasion, but we need to check ourselves from the thought that easily comes when we are attacked, “I am without fault.” That thought leads us to pride, but the Bible enjoins us to humility by first taking the log out of our own eye in any conflict (Matt. 7:5).

I am not suggesting that the recent terrorist attack on the United States was anything but evil. Nor am I suggesting that we somehow deserved it. But any tragedy, whether it is the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people, or an evil tyrant shedding blood, should cause those of us who were spared to examine our own hearts before God (Luke 13:1-5). Do we need to repent?

Have we gotten so caught up in loving this world and the things of the world that we have failed to give and labor for the cause of evangelizing the Muslim world? Are we burdened for the millions of lost Muslims and others around the world who have not heard the gospel? If so, we will be praying and giving from our abundance to take the gospel to them. If we honestly would admit that we don’t care about the eternal destiny of these people, the shocking events of September 11th should cause us to repent of our wrong priorities and to make sure that we are committed to the cause of world evangelization. I am not saying that we could have prevented the attack or that in any way we are responsible for it. Rather, I am saying that the attack should cause us first to look to ourselves and make sure that our priorities are right before God.

Also, keeping in mind our own propensity toward sin will restrain us from using or endorsing excessive force to achieve our military aims. I admit that when I see Muslim people cheering at what happened in New York and Washington, and shouting “Death to the United States!” it makes me angry. I feel like saying, “Blow their country off the globe!” But that would be a sinful, not a godly, response. While it is morally right to bring the terrorists to justice and to insure the rule of law around the world, it is not right to use more force than is necessary to bring about these goals.

Also, it seems to me that the pacifist view that war is never permissible underestimates the fallenness of the human race. Some leaders and some governments are so bent on pursuing evil aims that it is at best naïve and at worst to contribute to more evil not to stop them with force. One of the aims of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is the elimination of the nation Israel. Short of their being converted, no amount of diplomacy or peace talks will remove their evil intent. Only adequate military force will insure the preservation of Israel. To assume differently is to disregard the depth of human depravity.

So the first principle that we must keep in mind when we think about going to war is the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness.

2. We must recognize and submit to God’s purpose for human government.

God ordained human government to promote justice and peace by upholding law and order. By extension, in order to maintain law and order within its borders, governments must maintain reasonable national defense, so that aggressors from the outside do not invade and disrupt the peace.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul makes it clear that “there is no authority except from God, and that those which exist are established by God.” Also, he goes so far as to call the government “a minister of God,” and says that God gives governments the authority to bear the sword in order to enforce punishment on those who practice evil (13:4). Peter reinforces this purpose of government to punish evildoers and praise those who do right (1 Pet. 2:14). The Old Testament often talks about the role of the king in promoting justice and righteousness in society (see Psalms 45 & 101, for example).

The Christian pacifist argues that there is a separation between church and state, and that what the state can do, namely, use force to restrain evil doers, Christians should never do (see Herman Hoyt and Myron Augsburger, in War: Four Christian Views [IVP], ed. by Robert Clouse). If Christians serve in government, they must only do so at “levels where they can honestly carry out the functions of their office without compromising their fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord” (Augsburger, p. 89). But it seems to me that this would preclude a Christian from serving as President or in Congress, or in the police force or military, since all of those positions involve approving or using force to uphold the peace of our land.

Since God ordained human government, which necessarily involves the use of force to maintain law and order, it is not wrong for Christians to be involved in law enforcement, whether on the local or national level. When some soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do in order to demonstrate their repentance, he did not tell them to get out of the military and avoid using force. Rather, he told them not to take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely, and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). As Harold O. J. Brown argues (ibid., p. 112),

If we accept the existence of human government in a fallen world, we must accept some use of force. If we acknowledge the rightness of punishing evildoers by force—they will seldom voluntarily submit to it—then it seems possible to justify some acts of national defense in war. If we can justify the police, we can justify the army.

As I understand their position, to be consistent pacifists would need to forego all police protection. If a man breaks into your house and threatens to rape or kill your wife or daughters, a pacifist would have to allow him to do as he pleases. To call the police or to fight the intruder personally would be to fight violence with violence, which the pacifist condemns.

But I would argue that to be passive in the face of such evil is to be evil ourselves. Not to attempt to restrain evil when we can do so is to condone the evil. God has ordained authority, whether in human government or the authority of husbands and fathers in the family, to protect those under authority. If we can justify using personal force to defend our families from violent people or if, as Brown argues, we can justify calling the police to protect us or to protect others, then we can justify our nation using military force to protect its citizens and to promote peace and justice. Paul’s use of the word “sword” shows that the government’s authority extends to the taking of human life if necessary.

During one of the press conferences this past week, a reporter asked either Defense Secretary Rumsfeld or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Myers (I don’t recall which), “You say that the United States wants justice, not revenge. What is the difference?” It struck me as a dumb question, but since the reporter seemed not to know, perhaps it deserves an answer.

Vengeance carries with it the idea of evening the score, or of paying back an enemy what he did to us. Vengeance would mean going to some Muslim country and blowing up some key building or buildings, such as a mosque during a worship service. Since they killed our innocent civilians, we will retaliate by doing the same. That would be wrong, from a biblical perspective.

Justice means bringing those who violated the law to trial before a court of law and imposing the appropriate sentences; or killing them by police or military action, if it is not possible to capture them alive. Maintaining such law and justice is one of the prime tasks of God-ordained governments.

Thus we must keep in mind the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness. We must recognize and submit to God’s purpose for human government, to maintain peace and justice through the use of appropriate force.

3. We must seek peace through non-violent means whenever possible.

This principle applies both to individuals and to governments. The use of force should always be the last resort, when all else has failed. On an individual level, unless immediate self-defense or the defense of another person requires it, we should not use force ourselves, but should call law enforcement officers to restrain the aggressor. On a national level, seeking a peaceful resolution of conflict should always be the first approach. I believe that our President attempted that by asking the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden. But I also believe that he is correct in going after them militarily when they refused. To aid and abet a criminal is to be responsible on some level for his crime.

Furthermore, a government should never appease an aggressor by compromise. As Winston Churchill said, “The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.” He also observed, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last” (Churchill: Speaker of the Century, by James Humes [Stein and Day], p. 270). The pursuit of peace should never involve compromising what is just.

But we must make sure, both as individual Christians and as a nation, that we always seek peace through non-violent means and resort to the use of force only as a last resort. Even though Josiah was a godly king who instituted many reforms, he wrongly insisted on engaging the Egyptian king in battle. The Egyptian king tried to dissuade him from combat, but Josiah wrongly pursued war, not peace. As a result he was tragically killed in battle at age 39 (2 Chron. 34:2; 35:20-24). As even the warrior king, David, wrote, those who fear the Lord and desire life should seek peace, and pursue it (Ps. 34:11, 12, 14). But, having said that,

4. There are times when the only means to peace and protection is to fight against an aggressive enemy.

This comes back to our first point, that the human race is fallen in sin, and that some leaders and nations are so intent on evil that the only way to restrain them is through war. Augustine was the first Christian thinker to advocate the just war theory, in which he argued that a war that is fought to restore peace and obtain justice is not incompatible with Christian love (see Clouse, War, pp. 14-15). Arthur Holmes (ibid., pp. 120-121) outlines some conditions for a just war: (1) It must be for a just cause. The evils that are fought must be serious enough to justify killing. (2) It must have a just intention, namely to secure peace. It is never right to go to war for revenge, conquest, economic gain, or ideological supremacy. (3) It must be a last resort, when all peaceful means have failed. (4) It should be formally declared by a legitimate government. (5) It should have limited objectives. The purpose is not to destroy a nation’s economic or political institutions. (6) It should use proportionate means, limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks. And, (7) it should seek, as much as possible, to avoid directly attacking civilian non-participants in the war. (See also, J. Budziszewski, World Magazine [9/29/01], p. 28).

Conclusion

Probably, most of you agree with the position that I have outlined in this message. My aim is to help you clarify your thinking from a biblical perspective. Judging from the proliferation of bumper stickers in town and from some of  the responses of local residents reported in the paper, there are many who would argue against any war, even in the current situation. I want to equip you to interact thoughtfully with such folks, using the conversation to stimulate them to think about God and His righteous judgment. I want to close by giving four action points for us as a church:

(1) The terrorist attack and our nation’s response should move us to more prayer. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul urges the church to pray, especially for political leaders, so that Christians can lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. In our homes and in our church gatherings, we should be praying for our leaders and for other world leaders, that peaceful conditions would prevail around the globe.

(2) The current situation should make us alert for opportunities for evangelism. After exhorting the church to prayer, Paul goes on to say that God our Savior desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4). A military victory against the terrorists will not solve the problem of sin in this world. Only the gospel of Christ can do that. Here on the home front, people are fearful and worried about more terrorist attacks. It is a great time to tell them of the only legitimate way not to fear death, namely, by knowing that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

(3) We should act with visible love toward Arab and Islamic people that we may have contact with. Sadly, there have been outbreaks of violence against Arabic people in America, simply because of their race or religion. Most Muslims are not in favor of terrorism, and we would be wrong to treat them as our enemies. A friend of mine was in Turkey when the attack took place, and he said that many Turks came up to him on the street and expressed their sympathy over what happened. But even if a Muslim expresses sympathy for the terrorists, we are still required to love  our enemies for Jesus’ sake. We should pray for their salvation and we should reach out to them in love as we should to any lost people, even if they mistreat us. They need Jesus as their Savior.

(4) Finally, as I already mentioned, we should examine our own hearts and confess our sins, both personal and national, to the Lord. If we have been apathetic about reaching the lost, we need to repent. If we have harbored hatred for certain racial groups, we need to repent. If we have squandered our wealth on personal pleasure and selfish living, without regard for taking the gospel to those who are lost, we should repent. If we have fallen into loving the world and living as if this life is all there is, we should repent. Genuine repentance is more than feeling sorry for our wrongs. It also involves turning from our sins and taking steps to rectify our wrongs.

The Bible promises that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He can protect and restore peace to our land. But He wants us to seek first His kingdom and righteousness. Then He will add all the other things that we need (Matt. 6:33).

Rather than concluding with a song, I’d like us to conclude with prayer. According to 1 Corinthians 11, women are permitted to pray in church if they do so submissively, but according to 1 Timothy 2:8, it is the men who should take the lead in public prayer. I’d like for us to break up into groups of 4-6 people. If you don’t know someone in the group, introduce yourselves. Then several, especially the men, should lead in prayer for our nation, our leaders, our service men and women, and our church. Pray for God to use this conflict to establish peace and to open the door for the gospel both at home and in Muslim lands.

Discussion Questions

  1. Someone asks, “How can you reconcile turning the other cheek with going to war?” Your response?
  2. What should a Christian from a nation like Afghanistan do, where it is a capital crime to be a Christian? Is revolution ever justified?
  3. Can we pray for justice and yet love our enemy at the same time? How?
  4. Pacifists argue that if a Christian goes to war, he may be forced to kill a fellow believer on the other side. Does this preclude a Christian from combat duty?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Terrorism