Evil lies behind the need for such things as hell, jails, and war.

Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel …

Wars real and threatened plague our world and test each Christian who prays, “Thy will be done.” In the Bible, does God require us to participate in certain wars, or to reject all calls to military action?

In the previous issue, CHRISTIANITY TODAY traced the history of “nonresistance” through its crucial turning points since the Apostolic Age. In this issue, two men of opposing views state their cases. Both started as conscientious objectors and have rethought their positions. One now supports “justified” wars, while the other has become confirmed in his earlier beliefs.

To extend this forum, we invite letters not exceeding 200 words.

Christians of the second and third centuries living in the Roman Empire were almost unanimous in their opposition to war. Obedience to the gospel, so early church leaders argued, was consistent only with a position of nonresistance. Were their reasons adequate? Does their stand have doctrinal force for all ages?

Or may this rather be only a useful strategy for the believer under oppressive pagan government? Evangelicals today reject many views of the second and third centuries: the developing legalism, dependence on rites called sacraments for salvation (sacerdotalism), transfer of all liturgical acts and church government to a priestly class (prelacy). So we are surely free to reexamine early views on war.

Almost immediately after the Christians of the Empire received legal status the leading churchmen began to give the magistrates advice on how to conduct themselves in office. Of course, they included ideas on resorting to military force to govern their Empire, though the wars were, for so large an empire, largely internal. War had become mainly a policing action, to “keep the peace” of the Empire.

Against such a background, Ambrose of Milan, followed more adequately by Augustine of Hippo, formulated a doctrine for the use of coercive force by magistrates. Augustine, however, did not sit down and work out this view at one sitting. To discover it we must survey not only Book XIX of City of God, but 20 or more letters and tracts plus innumerable comments on biblical texts. Further, his statements were more practical than theoretical, lacking precise definition of governmental institutions, and so on. He was a man of a transitional period.

Many sincere young people have since personally passed through the same transition. Born in a milieu of what is called “nonresistance” (social and political separation), history has simply forced them to think through and act out a transition from it. Many of my generation—the one born during World War I and who fought World War II or supported it on the home front—did just that.

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I was entering seminary when the newspaper headline “War Is On,” shocked us September 1, 1939; I had also read the headline, “Wall Street Crash,” in October 1929. I have, therefore, vivid recollections of ten years of worldwide economic depression and six years of worldwide war. Survival was the issue.

By 1941 when the draft began, I was forming my own opinions about the peace doctrine; by about 1946 it took the approximate form it still retains. Then, as now, I differed from several inherited opinions, which I nevertheless respect. When what we believe affects how other men perceive us to be (bold, brave, cowardly, foolish, wise, consistent, inconsistent, orthodox, heterodox) caution and soft speaking become the order of the day; I wish to follow that order. I am frequently among the sturdy, sincere people of the “peace” churches and I find rising in my heart a respect for their history of courage that often led to martyrdom. Somehow I then have small inclination to try to persuade them out of their beliefs. Their characteristic social isolation could never be universal for Christians. Many of them are now persuading themselves out of it. Yet seen from the inside it seems admirable.

With some reluctance, therefore, I come to details of my belief about war, and the question of whether it is ever justifiable.

Old Testament

By any reasonable assessment, many divinely authorized (approved) wars, prosecuted wholly by God’s people, are reported in the Old Testament. But what God prescribed in one dispensation he could forbid in another (for example, the eating of swine’s flesh). What is more relevant is that contrary to common opinion, Old Testament believers lived under an ethical system in which any act of personal revenge was proscribed. Self-defense was permitted only with severe limitations. Brotherly kindness extended swiftly to one’s neighbors—both compatriots and foreigners—was encouraged by Mosaic religion. What the priest and Levite did in Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable was contrary to Mosaism.

Passages like Romans 12:19–21 exude the very atmosphere of peace, but in this they are similar to Mosaic religion. Strack and Billerbeck, in their unique Commentary on the New Testament out of Talmud and Midrash, provide seven pages of parallels from Old Testament and rabbinical sources. A large part of the passage is quoted directly from the Old Testament. For example, “But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head” is quoted from Proverbs 25:21–22.

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King David was rebuked for even contemplating revenge on Nabal. Joab was executed by Solomon for an act of revenge: he shed the blood of war in time of peace. After Moses, the Jewish “citizen” had access to public law for justice, and if that failed he still did not have the right to take matters violently into his own hands, though self-defense against attack was not denied him. But use of physical force was limited even in defense of property—a proprietor could not slay a daylight burglar obviously bent on theft only. A nighttime burglar, whose intentions were not obvious, might be slain.

Thus, the Old Testament taught a personal ethic of nonretaliation and of nonviolence to neighbors, along with duties of kindness to all in need. It did not see this as contrary to its social ethic, which allowed limited personal self-defense, vigorous action against insurrection (Absalom), and just wars of defense and of execution of national policy. If these two strains of thought were consistent with one another in the Old Testament dispensation, might they not be consistent in the New Testament dispensation too? The answer seems to be yes.

Sayings of Jesus

The principles of nonviolence to one’s neighbor and nonresistence to evil, along with other ways of saying, “as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men,” are certainly present in Jesus’ words, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet though none should deny that Jesus put moral ideals in a more purely spiritual perspective than Moses did, the break is not absolute, since after all, “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” is Mosaic.

Moses made many statements about nonviolence in personal disputes, but he also set up a coercive civil structure for handling those disputes, though without encouraging excessive litigation. Jesus quoted Moses’ law of exact public justice (“an eye for an eye”) and then put “resist not him that is evil” (Matt. 5:39, ASV) beside it with an introductory, “but I say unto you.” But he should not be understood as refusing all recourse to law when acts of persuasion fail. Nor should we think of him as merely forbidding physical retaliation: he is inculcating a deep spirit of love for God and man. Paul prayed every day for Israel and could wish himself accursed from God if that would save them. More than once when the Jews tried to kill him, Paul ran.

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But when they caught him he tried legal defense in Palestine, and when that failed he appealed to Caesar. I think Paul knew what Jesus had said about self-defense and recourse to law, and understood what Jesus meant. It is surely a mistake to interpret Jesus’ sayings as if they must have unconditional application—that is, apart from other biblical revelation and apart from all interpretation.

Especially, attention must be given to hyperbole as a technique to capture attention and enforce a point. Jesus used it often. How else can we understand such a saying as; “If any … hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus did not intend us to apply his sayings about lending, accompanying guests, presenting a cheek for smiting, and so on, without respect to common sense and a care for family and others who are neither borrowers nor guests nor having temper tantrums.

The Old Testament is not wanting in instructions very similar to Jesus’ famous sermon. Strack and Billerbeck provide sufficient evidence of parallels to one verse (Matt. 5:25, “agree with thine adversary quickly”) to cover most of three pages—and so on through the Sermon on the Mount Jewish scholars rightly protest that Jesus’ ethical sayings were not unique to him among ancient rabbis. Pacifist writers sometimes find what they think are their own pacifist teachings in the Old Testament, but when they do so the divinely commanded (not merely permitted) wars do not fit the scheme.

Jesus did not intend the literal, uninterpreted application of every one of these sayings. He did not even apply them to himself in this way. Though our perfect example of patience, when he was smitten on the face he answered, “If I have spoken evil bear witness of the evil, but if not, why smitest thou me?” If we look only to the words, he did not obey his own precept for he did not turn the other cheek. Yet he had come to Jerusalem prepared not only to be smitten but crucified by men for whose forgiveness he would pray to God (I am paraphrasing Augustine here). He also gave some verbal defense (see John 18:22–23). And though he once said, “Swear not at all,” he accepted abjuration, being put under oath at his own trial.

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Likewise Paul seems to fail to obey his Lord, for when smitten on the face he cried out to the chief priest, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall, for sittest thou to judge me after the law and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?” (Acts 23:3).

I am convinced those interpreters are correct who relate such precepts to the heart and the feelings. With mercy, love, and grace we must act in intelligent kindness with regard to the true needs of people rather than simply giving them what they say they need. My father never turned away a hungry Indian in his life (we rented a farm on the Yakima reservation), but he never granted demands for the very sources (horses, cattle, seed, tools) of his ability to pay his rent to the Indian. I think he met the true needs of these poor people and honored the intent of the Lord’s words quite exactly. In return, the Indians respected him.

Two conclusions are suggested. First, the rigorous nonresistance to evil required by Anabaptist and modern pacifist interpretation is not required by Jesus. (Neither is the rigorous nonparticipation in civic life—or social separation—so characteristic of Anabaptist sects.) Second, the similarity of Jesus’ ethic to the Mosaic ethic, enlarged upon by Old Testament poets and prophets, suggests that if Moses’ disciples did not think they were required to embrace pacifism, probably Jesus’ disciples need not embrace it either.

War: A Moral Evil?

Is it true that war, as such, is sin? War is a social evil; this cannot be denied. A disposition, national or personal, to glory in mortal combat is of the devil (James 4:1–2). War, however, is not an unmixed evil, or God would not have commanded wars to be initiated by his people. Furthermore, a sober view of history will find some good from settlement of international quarrels by war. It must be acknowledged, however, that most wars are both unnecessary and wrongfully motivated. Yet Scripture never calls war, as such, a moral evil. Hell is an evil also, but it is a moral necessity. Evil lies behind the necessity for such things as hell, jails, criminal courts, and war. Let us not be coerced from debate by unsupportable, question-begging denunciations. If war were morally evil, per se, we would not read of Michael and his holy angels at war with the devil and his angels: the military figures and symbols of Scripture would be inappropriate. Certainly no text of the Bible would declare, “The Lord is a man of war, Jehovah is his name” (Exod. 15:3). After all, Miriam was a prophetess.

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Most biblically motivated pacifists agree that the sword has been given to rulers of civil commonwealths. Scripture certainly says so—whether the civil unit be small or large. It is not correct to say, as one contemporary pacifist writer does, that Romans 13 is only descriptive of what happens wrongly in this world. Good men must regard obedience to the magistrate and approving respect for his sword as a matter of conscience (v. 5).

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. How can I be excused from that task by making contribution to society in some other way? It is of great significance that military duty in the Mosaic system was not restricted to a military class, and that executions by stoning were carried out by the whole congregation of Israel.

Social Isolation

There really appears to be no way in this world to escape complicity (or, as some would have it, cooperation) in the ongoing of necessary social processes and institutions: “For this cause pay ye tribute also.” Membership in family, clan, nation, tribe, or whatever is a “given.” We simply cannot escape it. This is a demonstrably scriptural teaching. Long chapters in good books by eminent Christian authors treat this with learning and reverent piety. It is simply impossible for earth-and-time-bound man to step out of the world (family, tribe, clan, nation) to make his “contribution.” Social separation is not a goal to be striven for. We are supposed to do our service for God in society, not out of it or beside it. True, sometimes within that family, tribe, clan, or nation my Christian witness may lead to suffering. If it is to be thought “not strange,” neither is it to be contrived (see 1 Peter 3:12–19). Sometimes, of course, social ostracism makes social separation necessary.

It has been pointed out by Werner Elert in The Christian Ethos that there is no consistency in the refusal to be a part of civil government, refusal even to endorse its task of restraining evil men, unless one goes beyond the Mennonite position to Tolstoi’s: To fight evil is sin; because the state fights against evil, the state itself is evil. Recent avant garde pacifists like to accomplish the same end by a bit of verbal magic. Drop the neutral word “force” and employ instead the pejorative word “violence.” In this way the murderer employs violence to kill men and the policeman uses violence to apprehend and to restrain the murderer. The murderer and the policeman are equally evil. Such a view is perverse and certainly merits the biblical denunciation of those who call evil good, good evil, and who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isa. 5:20).

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Just War: A Biblical Base

What then is the Christian witness to “the state” in regard to war? Certainly no professor or prelate has professional competence to give omniscient guidance. Everywhere, for us as it was for Paul, government is a universal fact in a world under the condition of sin. Paul and other New Testament Christians did not tell the pagan governments much of anything. But once the ancient Roman Empire officially professed Christianity, Christian teachers had considerable to say.

When people in civil authority will listen, Christianity speaks. Yet we search in vain for any adequate, timeless statement of the “doctrine of the just[ified] war.” There have been many doctrines of the just war. In my judgment, God-fearing Christians and their counselors in every age, in dealing with this problem, have applied rather constant conceptions of basic biblical truth coupled with their best spiritual insights and common sense. An ancient Christian knew he could not be part of Caesar’s army if Caesar were to compel him to worship an image of the emperor. A Soviet Christian is in the same position if compelled to sign an atheistic oath upon induction into the army. Yet each might be quite willing to serve in a national army if overt denial of his faith were not required. Each might subscribe to some sort of just war theory if given a chance. There is a praiseworthy sameness through the centuries in spite of apparent differences.

The sameness has roots in a common biblical world view. This is essentially one through all ages. The biblical God is Creator, Sustainer, and providential Ruler over and in a world where sin and the Devil also “reign.” Christians of every epoch know that humans are sinners and incorrigibly rebellious. They must be coerced to good behavior by other men who are likewise sinners and rebellious. Yet it is right that these rulers employ police, backed up by courts, prisons, guillotine, and gallows and, if national policy requires it, by army, navy, draft law, and much (if not all) of the rest. This puts Christians on the side of their magistrates and civil order except in the very most unusual of situations. They recognize that short of the consummation there is no alternative. The system works imperfectly, but civilization goes on. These Christians have also read 1 Timothy 2:1–4 and so pray for their rulers. Ordinarily Christians support and obey them in both war and peace. Christians as well as other subjects have expected their rulers to be foresighted in protecting their realms, having information about dangerous attacks and making preparation for them before they occur. They have not usually tried to tell their rulers when or how they ought or ought not to do these things. It is a reasonable assumption most of the time that our full-time rulers are rational and in possession of facts they cannot disclose to the public. Assumptions to the contrary—now seemingly universal in democratic countries—are hardly verifiable, much as we wish our leaders would individually consult us about every next move. It is also commonly assumed in Christendom that no army should wantonly attack nonmilitary targets or harm noncombatants, especially women, children, and the aged.

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These are some of the notions associated with Christian sentiment and dignified by the term, “just war theory.” They have been given much more than lip service, with the result that for centuries Europe’s wars were restrained in their devastations. Since the American Civil War and especially the bombings of Dresden, Germany, and England’s cities in World War II, and the fearful climax of that war in the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the outlook has changed. Even so, “saturation bombing” has not won the moral approval of military people everywhere, and talk of “total” war is, I think, still just that—talk. It has more affinity with journalistic and theoretical superspeak than with any leading nation’s serious policy. I do not think it can be demonstrated that wars involve all of a nation’s people and resources now any more than in ancient times. Consider some of the tribal wars in the Book of Judges.

Augustine’s View

It is strange that Augustine should be credited with first giving currency to the “just war” idea. In his view none of the works of man is just (righteous).

Augustine’s judgment on human beings (based largely on Paul’s epistles) was that they are without exception sinful, lost, unable even to seek a way to God. Men and women individually and collectively are corrupt.

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So first, this teaching cannot be a formula for initiating, supporting, or conducting a simon-pure righteous war with no moral ambiguity. Sin manages to pervade all things human. Even theological faculties exist under the condition of sin. In this sense there is no just Christian missionary society or evangelistic campaign. Pride and selfishness vitiate every man and all his works.

By comparing passages from several of his writings, scholars have determined that Augustine’s idea of a justified war would be a war to defend justice; it would be motivated by love even for the enemy (I do not know how a government loves anything), and would be conducted without unnecessary violence. Most important, war must be waged only by the authority of rulers, not of private persons. These rules, with some added notions, prevailed through medieval times. As we have seen earlier, the sixteenth-century Reformers acknowledged the same, yet all leaned away from war as a way of protecting their rights. All seem to have acknowledged the right—even duty—of rulers to wage war on necessary occasions. They did not, however, any more than Augustine, expect from them very much righteousness, either in war or peace.

It is impossible to trace here the changing definitions of “just war” as they have evolved in the present century. Even what goes now for “nuclear pacifism”—that the results of any unlimited warfare in destruction of the race make all wars immoral—is, according to Paul Ramsey, a rather extreme form of just war theory.

Without trying to recite the post-World War II, 35-year-old debate, many Catholics and Protestants seem to be saying something like this: Modern scientific methods and weapons have given nations the power to obliterate one another as nations. This frightful prospect, however, is not entirely new. The Assyrians, for instance, practiced a kind of obliteration warfare in a large part of their area of the ancient Orient.

Today we hear the term “limited war” as well as “just war.” The concepts are closely related. There is biblical support for a limited war doctrine. The special case of annihilation of the Canaanites, Midianites, and others in the initial conquest of the Promised Land may cause us to forget that ordinarily the Old Testament put limits on allowable destructive force in any war. Consider the prophet Amos. In his first two chapters, five neighbors of Israel and Judah are cited for divine judgment. The causes in each case involve flagrant breaches of what today might be called a civilized code of war. For instance, Damascus had been unnecessarily brutal against Gileadite civilians in a war raid (Amos 1:3); Gaza had unnecessarily dispossessed a whole people of their territory (1:6); and Moab had committed sacrilege by wantonly desecrating the national cemetery of the kingdom of Edom. No previous word of Scripture addressed these heathen nations on the subject of civilized conduct of war. These standards must be assigned to natural light, or natural law. These passages in Amos tacitly assume a doctrine of limited (just) war.

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Since atomic power and other more potent powers are here, it is to be expected that nations will use them. The nuclear and atomic “club” gains new members frequently. Yet we now know that to rely solely on these superweapons renders a nation unable successfully to wage wars on lesser levels, and turns loose all sorts of insurgencies, coups, and adventurism among the violence-prone of the world.

If the present civilized order is to continue, rulers “of good will” must control the effective weapons their moral standards permit them to use. A missile possessed and aimed at Leningrad’s residential district will likely never be used; one aimed at a munitions depot in Russia could be and might be used by men of conscience. The principle of limited war is the same as traditional just war theory. The problems of the nuclear age are no different in principle from any previous age. In a world that never can eliminate war, limited—that is, justly waged—war is more important than ever before. To propose that instead we insist on political pacifism, abandonment of war as an instrument of national policy, is utterly unrealistic. If we deny any nation the right of justified war we condemn it to destruction by those with no moral scruples at all.

In conclusion, we must remember that Jesus pronounced the peacemakers blessed. Some think the peacemakers are all employed at work like producing crops, running factories and schools, perhaps bandaging wounds, preaching sermons, and soothing irritated tempers. People in these endeavors do employ some of the arts of peacemaking. But they are not the whole of the peacemaking enterprise. Some of the peacemakers win military campaigns decisively enough and with sufficient justice that no one cares to challenge the civil order for a long time. I prefer to think that Jesus meant to include all peacemakers.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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