12 Bible Propositions about the Ethics of War
During the week the Government announced that they would be stepping up their bombing offensive against ISIS in Syria. Subsequently, the debate over the ethics of war has once again resurfaced.
The question I am seeking to address here is somewhat narrower, should Christians to ever support war? Could participating in war be consistent with Christian faith?
Answering these questions is no easy task, partly due to the fact that the Scriptures do not give us a definitive position, and partly because the rationale and particulars of one armed conflict will differ to the next. And in every conflict there are multifarious motives, aims, and experiences which combined deny us the possibility of simple and obtuse theorems about war.
Historically, Christians have come to different conclusions regarding the practice of war. We cannot ignore the fact that there have times when ‘in the name of Christ’ many anti-Christ acts have been committed. Sins of commission have stained history blood red, and perhaps so have sins of omission. Christians must not build their theology of war from either Gandhi or Napoleon, but rather it stems from the belief that God is the Lord of history and that he has given a book that speaks truth and wisdom, even in the 21st Century.
In attempting to construct a theology of war there are a series of theological propositions that must not be ignored or relegated:
1. The God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. Christians are not Marcionites. God is not honoured by the fallacious suggestion that the God of the Old Testament is a different God to the New Testament, or that his character has changed, or that in the Old Testament God was wrong to make war. God’s character is eternal and unchanging.
2. God is holy and just. God’s acts of violence are described as God’s just judgements on sinners. He is a holy God who cannot tolerate sin. Should God tolerate rape? Should God tolerate people sacrificing babies to Molech? Should God tolerate the greedy stealing from the poor? God did not sanction all the violence and war that was exercised in the Old Testament, however, he did oversee and lead some war.
3. God has an understanding of justice that no person or group of people possess. He also has the ability to always do right which not even Christians can achieve.
Christians cannot read the Old Testament without through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfilment of all the Scriptures – “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).
4. The Old Testament has a geo-political centre that is removed by Jesus in the New Testament. Whereas God’s people in the Old Testament were a nation, God’s people are now from and in every nation. God’s Kingdom is of a different nature, As Jesus said to Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’.
5. God’s anger is demonstrated supremely in the cross of Jesus where Christ died to satisfy God’s righteous wrath. History has a cross dividing it, such that there is no longer any moral or theological support for Holy War this side of the cross. God’s righteousness is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his propitious death brings peace to all who believe. This once for all death has an efficacy for disarming hate, anger and greed:
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
6. The Kingdom of God grows through the proclamation of the word of God, and not through political or military means. Christians believe in war, but it is a spiritual war, one that is engaged by putting on the armour of God (faith, righteousness, truth, etc) and by using the sword of the Spirit (the Bible) and undergirding it all with prayer. If the power of God for salvation is in the Gospel of Jesus, then it is erroneous to believe that Christianity will extend through war. Not only that, it suggests that coercion is an effective means to grow the Church, whereas the Bible speaks nothing of coercion but it does speak of persuasion through speaking truth and living out God’s love to all.
7. The Bible nowhere teaches that a Church can engage in war, and it gives us no room for supposing that armed conflict can aid Christian progress, however it does leave room for the possibility for the State to engage in war.
The State is not the Church. In Romans ch.13 the Apostle teaches,
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
i. Governments are not beyond the rule of God, even though they may reject his dominion.
ii. Governments have a value in and for this world, for the good of society, which includes collecting taxes to pay for civic needs, and to judge and punish those who do wrong.
iii. At the very least verse 4 refers to law enforcers and the judicial system that exists within a nation, but it is likely that Paul also has in mind the exercise of military action. Even if Romans 13:4 is not speaking of war and only of civic responsibilities, the point is nonetheless unavoidable, Paul affirms that there is a place for Governments to use the sword in punishing wrongdoing.
8. There is a difference between turning the cheek and loving our neighbour. If one saw their neighbour being attacked, it would be immoral to stand by and do nothing, and it would be right to come to their aid, to defend them and fend off the attacker. While Christians ought to pursue peace, even at great personal cost, loving our neighbour may necessitate military intervention.
9. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 13:18).
10. The Bible discounts many of the reasons that have been used in history and in contemporary global and sociopolitical scenarios for waging war: for conquest, for profit, for revenge, and for religious advantage.
11. When Christians engage in war it should not be under the banner of Church or Gospel, but as as expression of submitting to the Government and loving our neighbour.
12. People should not go against the conscience, except when their conscience violates Scripture.
Can war ever be just? Ultimately the answer to that question is no, because even on a good day people are prone to sinful desires. War is never just but it may be justifiable. Occasions of crisis may arise where more action is required than simply prayer and good wishes. It is a loving act to lay down ones life for a friend, and even more so for a stranger who is being oppressed by a militaristic regime.
Should Christians fight in war? Often the answer will be no. We ought to be reluctant. But there may be circumstances where the Government decides to go to war, and should the reasons be congruent with a Christian’s understanding of the Bible, participating in that war is permissible.
War, however, is not the ultimate solution to evil in the world; only the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful enough and pure enough and sufficient enough to do such a penetrating work in the human heart. The world lives in the epoch of peace, where God is manifesting his patience and grace, calling men and women to repentance and reconciliation. While millions of people are coming to realise and experience God’s shalom, there remains much that is wrong in the world, such that even the most laudable acts of human kindness and justice can not overcome. Christians, though, believe that God remains holy and he promises a day when he will judge the living and the dead. Many injustices may escape our attention, but they will not allude God:
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
King of kings and lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16)