War is to search and destroy, instead of to seek and save.

My college roommate, just after World War II, was a dedicated German of my own denomination who had served in Hitler’s army. In our late-night discussions he described how the Nazi cause had caught him and other German Christians in its fervor and fury. During those war years he had never doubted he was doing his God-given duty. He believed the German cause was just.

Along the frontier of Germany and France today one can see tombstones bearing the same inscription: “For God and the Fatherland.” Some are in French, marking the graves of those who died fighting for France; some are in German, over those who died for Germany. Troops from both countries believed God was on their side. And both believed their nation was just in waging war.

Such experiences caused me to study seriously what Scripture says on the Christian’s relation to war. In sharing my personal conviction as a conscientious objector, I recognize the subject is one that divides great scholars and leads many people to differ. Further, I know that no short statement can be final. We all face complex situations in our sinful society. But the following is my witness to what Scripture and the Spirit say to me; I believe it also corresponds closely with the viewpoint of persons and churches who have adhered to the evangelical peace position down through the centuries.

My Position

Biblical pacifism is rooted in divine revelation and the necessity of the new birth by the Holy Spirit. Its growth takes Scripture, Christ, and the church for sustenance; while other kinds of pacifism contain important truths, biblical pacifism is different in its orientation.

Humanistic pacifism places primary emphasis on what man can do, and applies a peace ethic to all society. Gandhian pacifism exerts pressure by peaceful means to accomplish deserved ends. Moralistic pacifism makes much of the immorality of war and the dignity and goodness of man. Political pacifism proposes political action, law, and pressure upon governments to avoid war. Anarchistic pacifism repudiates or rejects government. Apocalyptic pacifism perceives the possibility for peace and the practice of love only in some future age when there will be no enemies, and refuses to practice peace now.

Biblical pacifism results from Christian discipleship. Refusal to fight is based on my calling as Christ’s disciple. Jesus is Lord! To be his disciple also means he is my teacher. To accept Christ is to accept his person and teaching, and to follow in his steps regardless of consequences. My way of life and ethics must be in harmony with his. As the way of salvation is determined by him, not by me, so the way I am called to live is determined by his standard, not mine. Christ commands me, “Love your enemies.”

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Biblical pacifism’s objective is to lead others to know Christ and follow him, thus experiencing reconciliation with God and others and becoming ministers of the gospel of reconciliation to everyone. To do this it is impossible to participate in any program of ill will, retaliation, or war that conflicts with Christ.

Having thus stated my position, let me enlarge on several areas basic to my conviction as a conscientious objector against participation in warfare of any kind.


Fundamental to my peace position is my understanding of who Christ is, what he says, and what he did. Who Christ is lies at the beginning. He is the “Word become flesh.” He is the one through whom God has spoken in these last days. Christ is the full and final message to us of God’s will. All the records of Christ’s works indicate that he spent his life in matters related to the will of God and his redemptive work. If there is one thing upon which we all agree, it is that Jesus personified in his person and relationships—in his love for even his enemies—by dying on the cross, the way of love and nonviolence. No one has ever dared to picture Christ with a gun in his hand.

Jesus Christ is also called the Savior of the world. A clear concern of Scripture is to present him as the cosmic Christ; he died for all and he cares equally for each person. Here is a chief difficulty: we love to localize Christ. We regard him as a respecter of persons, and demand he become a national, denominational, or personal God only. Especially during wartime, in spite of our confession of faith, we limit his love. It seems difficult to believe that he came to save our enemies as well as us. We try to confine Christ in the small container of one country or one denomination.

But Christ cannot be thus confined. He has called disciples from every tribe, tongue, and nation: he is the Christ of all cultures. He is not necessarily on the side of the biggest bomb. He will never sanction belief in racial superiority, the sin of cultural pride, or the destruction of his other children. As the Savior of the world, he cannot.

My Christology must further take into account not only who Christ is but what he says. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” To believe this is to accept him not only as the way to God for salvation, but to accept his teachings as the way of daily discipleship. So I live under his lordship. He is the authority for both belief and behavior—even though the temptation remains to live a life and to use methods he never allowed and even spoke against.

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Christ demonstrated the way of peace in contrast to war and retaliation, and he commands his followers to do the same. We are to be as he is in this present world. We are to have his Spirit in relating to our enemies. The Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Jesus’ teaching and it is picked up phrase by phrase throughout the New Testament, calling for obedience here and now. As a peacemaker, Christ calls me to invade and penetrate all of life and society with not death, but life, and to preach the practical possibility of reconciliation among men. I witness, by what I say and do, that the war is over, that hostility is an outright denial of the message of Christ, and both are contrary to the Spirit of his teaching. He said, “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight … but my kingdom is not of this world.”

I cannot go to the Old Testament to prove it is right for the Christian to engage in warfare any more than I can go there to prove that polygamy or slavery or the doctrine of grace are right. Christ came to fulfill the law. Reports of Joshua’s battles do not become the basis of belief and behavior for the New Testament believer. Nor does the Christian derive his doctrine of war and peace from David’s destruction of Goliath and his killing of ten thousands. I take seriously the truth that Jesus is God’s final message. This means that I cannot add “except” to Christ’s commands. I cannot say, “Love your enemies [except in wartime]”; “Resist not him that is evil [except in wartime]”; “Put up the sword in its place, for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword [except when the government tells me to fight]”; “If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar [except when he fights in war]”; “Bless those who persecute you, bless and curse not [except when my country is at war].”

Jesus is my example, and my Christology must take into account what he did. He demonstrated throughout his earthly existence the way of suffering love in contrast to retaliation: all Christ’s words were brought to living expression in himself.

He says, “As my Father has sent me, so send I you.” According to the apostles, the way Christ dealt with evil and how he bore his cross instead of retaliating against his enemies are to be imitated. All the New Testament writers, with the possible exception of Jude, call us to do this. Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Peter points to it clearly, “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:21–23).

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Without doubt, the great betrayal of the church through the centuries is that it reaches out to claim the benefits of the Cross for salvation but refuses to take the way of the Cross as the means to live the Christ life. I would thus agree with Reo M. Christenson, who has written in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Jan. 5, 1973): “It still seems reasonable to me that the church should condemn such public evils as racial discrimination, cruelty, oppression, hypocrisy, deceit, corruption, and war—especially war, which I find wholly incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount and all Jesus stood for. And I think the church should encourage its members to oppose these things by every peaceful and ethical means. All of these are evils that Jesus opposed by word, example, implicitly and explicitly.” I agree also with Robert McAfee Brown in his book The Bible Speaks to You when he writes: “Nothing in Jesus’ life or teachings can be ‘twisted’ in support of killing or warfare.”


Fundamental to my peace position is my understanding of the gospel. The entire New Testament teaches that the gospel is global. One distinguished advocate of world missions wrote: “Nothing is more deeply embedded in Christianity than its universality.” The gospel is to be preached to every creature. The reconciling work of Christ cannot be restricted to one community, church, country, or continent. The gospel is the good news of one who, rather than following the world’s way of righting wrongs, gave himself for the wrongdoers.

J. B. Phillips paraphrases Paul’s statement in Ephesians: “For he reconciled both [Jew and Greek, insider and outsider] to God by the sacrifice of one body on the cross, and by his act killed the enmity between them. Then he came and brought the good news of peace to you who were far from God [the outsiders, the Gentiles] and to us who were near [the insiders, the Jews]” (Eph. 2:16–17). That is the gospel: war is not only sin, but war for the believer is over.

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That is the good news. It means that for me as a Christian all persons loved by God are my beloved also—even though they may consider me their enemy. Redeeming love is at the heart of the gospel; love and peace are God’s plan for people regardless of who they are. For me to participate in warfare means that I go contrary to all I understand the gospel to mean.

War gives death instead of life, hate instead of love, judgment instead of forgiveness, retaliation rather than reconciliation; it is to search and destroy instead of to seek and save—to use weapons against the very persons to whom I’m told to give the gospel. In fact, to me, engaging in warfare is the supreme denial of the Great Commission and all Christ said and did. I agree with Charles Clayton Morrison who said, “Nothing more antithetical to Christianity can be imagined than war. It is the denial in the boldest possible form of the very life principle of the religion of Jesus. It is anti-Christian in the rawest, nakedest form.”

Engaging in warfare strikes at the heart of discipleship and evangelism. Each person I face in combat is either a Christian or non-Christian. If I destroy a Christian, I kill the brother for whom Scripture says I should lay down my life. If my enemy is a non-Christian, I destroy him for whom Christ died and take away any further opportunity to be a reconciler or to let him find salvation. In the interest of the gospel and salvation, I cannot participate in war.

I sense kinship with Christopher Butler who wrote in The Catholic Worker: “Let us take the opportunity of saying clearly that the church, the people of God, does not seek protection from its enemies—whoever they may be—in war, and especially not in war of modern type. We are the mystical body, and Christ is our Head. He refused to defend himself and his mission by the swords of his disciples or even by legions of angels, the ministers of God’s justice and love. The weapons of the gospel are not nuclear but spiritual; it wins its victories not by war but by suffering.…”


Fundamental to my peace position is my understanding of the church. Scripture recognizes the existence of nations. Most of the time, however, when we read of “the nation” the text says that out of every tribe and tongue, people and nation, God gathers and redeems men and women as his people, his family, Christ’s body on earth, the church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). The nation to which the Christian belongs first is the nation over which Christ is king: it is the church of Jesus Christ. That nation exists under every form of government. Members belong first to each other regardless of race, country, or political system. This unity in Christ bridges all that separates and it breaks down all barriers.

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The entire New Testament teaches that the church is an interracial, supranational, transcultural body composed of all who put their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and follow him as Lord. When one group including Christians takes up arms against another group including Christians, both are saying that Caesar, not Jesus, is Lord. Christians of one land battle and kill Christians of another land because these are requirements of nations at war; Caesar commands it. Persons in one church family put to death persons of that same church family.

It is striking to me that in the great cry for church unity and oneness, not much is made of the great division and death that war brings to the body of Christ. Christians are yielding to the state’s demand for closer solidarity in the secular struggle rather than responding to the inward and genuine call to unity in Christ across cultures and curtains. The church thus becomes representative of some select form of Christianity (American, British, etc.), bearing more the marks of a culture or country than of the Cross of Christ and of a universal fellowship where there is neither black nor white, Easterner nor Westerner, American nor Russian. The church sings, “We are not divided, all one body we”—until wartime, when each church backs whatever territory it happens to be in.

On an existential level, this means the body of the nation dare not be rent, but the body of Christ may be. And nation, not church, is the “destiny” man cannot escape.

I would agree, therefore, with Frenchman Jean Lasserie in War and the Gospel: “It would seem impossible for a French believer, on the grounds that his government was in conflict with the German government, to resign himself to taking part in the slaughter of Germans, when there are believers among them who, like him, form part of Christ’s body.” E. A. Lawrence wrote: “The church is a gold coin of divine minting. One side shows the likeness of its Lord, the other the map of the world. Both sides are so indelibly stamped into the coin that to mar either means loss, to efface either destroys the coin.”

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Fundamental to my peace position is my understanding of what the Scripture says about government and human authority.

In the context of Romans 13—nonconformity, peace, love for the enemy, and leaving vengeance to God—we have the statement that the “powers” are “ordained” by God. God planned order, not anarchy. Further, God is over the powers Certainly Paul does not mean, as is sometimes suggested, that God is morally responsible for every ruler in power. He ordained all rulers in the same way, since this is written to Christians regardless of the government under which they live. He ordained all in the same way he ordained marriage; it cannot mean he puts his stamp of approval on each.

Paul goes on to say that government “officials” are ministers of God to the extent that they reward good and evil according to their merits. Therefore I should do good. Here in Romans, as elsewhere in Scripture, I am told to be in submission to the authorities. Notice, however, that obedience is reserved for God. And if obedience to God conflicts with human authority and results in punishment or persecution, then I, along with Christ, the apostles, and disciples through the centuries, must submit to the consequences of that obedience. It can never mean that I must do whatever any king, president, dictator, or magistrate orders. If so, why try war criminals who obeyed leaders without question? I render to Caesar what is his, but I give all of life and first loyalty and obedience to God. The problem of the church has always been that of rendering to Caesar more than his due, and giving God less than belongs to him. To “render them their due” can never mean to “render to the state all it asks.”

Romans 13 also tells us not to resist the powers. Does this mean that one should neither question nor seek to change existing programs or policies of government? Hardly! It is a call away from revolution and violence. It means the Christian is not to engage in the overthrow of governments.

Thus Romans 13 (and other passages usually used to sanction the Christian engaging in warfare) really calls Christians to refuse to be squeezed into the conformist and pagan values of the world’s systems so that we may be free to pledge full allegiance to God and to live under the lordship of Christ. According to New Testament teaching the loyalty and relation of the Christian to government is a limited one: to pray and honor always, to overthrow never, and to obey when not in conflict with God’s will.

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Finally, a biblical pacifist is a realist. He knows the power of sin. He knows the way of reconciliation many times means death. He does not ask, “What will happen to me if I am faithful to Christ?” He knows what it cost Christ. Like his Lord, he may be faced with the accusation that he is socially irresponsible and a traitor to his nation.

A true pacifist is not passive. He believes in the power of love and the power of God. He gives priority to resolving conflict at his own risk rather than at the risk of another. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not just the “peace keepers.”

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.


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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