By Jason Bembry
Growing up in the United States, I was steeped in the notion that Christians should participate in wars and that military might can solve problems, even as I was taught to read the Bible and take it seriously. I was thoroughly convinced of the rightness of Christian involvement in war to the point where I almost attended college at a military academy. Yet over time I had questions that kept nagging me about Christian participation in war. In this article I want to share some of those questions.
Christ’s Teaching, Church’s Practice
The basic question I had early on concerned Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies and to do good to those who persecuted you (Matthew 5:44). I was perplexed whenever I heard or read that these words were not to be taken literally. Yet this always made me a bit uncomfortable. Why was I encouraged to take the Bible seriously in so many other areas yet not these texts? How could I, as a believer, love my enemy and also kill him? I began to wonder if reading the text this way (i.e., that Jesus did not actually mean for us to turn the other cheek) was merely a way to water down a very radical and difficult message.
Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work on this subject has influenced many, concluded that these words from Jesus were to be applied only on a person-to-person level. Bigger entities like nation states were not called to this sort of ethic since, after all, they must protect the interests of their citizens. Yet this understanding did not sit well with me. If my primary loyalty is to God’s kingdom, what should I do when my loyalty and obedience was demanded by the kingdom of this world?
Another question concerned the practice of the early church, something that sat at the center of my upbringing. I had been taught that the first-century church was the model for our faith today. Yet the church of the first three centuries was virtually unanimous in refusing Christian participation in war. I was told that such was the case since the Roman soldiers engaged in idolatrous worship and sacrificed to pagan deities. Yet again, I wondered if this was the complete picture. Wasn’t the early church wrestling with the same words of Jesus I had heard? Is it possible they found it difficult to love one’s enemy by killing them?
Still another question haunted me as I was making application to enter the Citadel. I had always believed those who were not in Christ were doomed to Hell for eternity. So I began to wrestle with more perplexing questions, “If I kill my enemy who happens to be a believer, am I not killing my brother in Christ? Would such an act not confirm that my true allegiance was to the state rather than to God? And if I kill my enemy who is a nonbeliever, am I not sending him to Hell by killing him before he can be converted?” If I am convinced that this world is not the final end, would it not be more logical to permit my unbelieving enemy to kill me since my eternal destiny is secure?
More questions arose when I discovered that Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone (and many other early Restorationists like Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb) were against Christian participation in war. Campbell spoke out vociferously against war, calling the U.S. Civil War a “monstrosity.” One of his great regrets was that he did not speak more openly against the Mexican-American War. Craig Watts has done our movement a wonderful service by documenting Campbell’s stance against war in his book Disciple of Peace. Campbell and Stone knew the Scriptures and they knew the early church practice, and it is clear they were adamantly opposed to the church participating in armed conflict. I wondered why our movement had seemingly forgotten that facet of our Restoration heritage?
Yet another question arose when I would hear Christians invoke Romans 13 in support of Christians fighting for their country. In that important chapter Paul says:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (vv. 1, 2, Revised Standard Version).
I wondered what this text could mean since many friends would say, “Romans 13 demands that we obey the government.”
Yet a careful reading of Romans 13 suggests something else. Is it possible that one could still be in submission to the state without obeying it? There are biblical examples of deliberate disobedience of governing authorities with the understanding that punishment would ensue, an issue to which I will return in a moment. I wondered what German Christians were supposed to do in Hitler’s day. Should they have obeyed the Third Reich since it was “instituted by God”?
Did Paul intend to give directions concerning Christian participation in war in Romans 13? Since there was no military draft for the Roman army in Paul’s day, I wondered about the applicability of this text for Christian involvement in war. When I read other parts of Scripture that discussed the Christian view of the Roman government, I noticed what appeared to be a glaring incongruity between Romans 13 and the book of Revelation. For example, Revelation 17:5 paints a very different picture of the existing government, referring to it as “the mother of harlots.” Likewise, Revelation 13:5 speaks of the beast who is allowed to rule for a time. I wondered how Christians were to reconcile these seemingly disparate portrayals of the secular government? On what basis can Christians pit Paul’s words against Jesus’ words?
Some have suggested that Paul in Romans 13 is speaking to the first-century situation for Roman Christians, not to the nature of all political reality. He is, after all, writing to the Christians in Rome and not the government there. In this case Paul’s words are a moral statement to a specific situation, not a metaphysical one for all time. Christians are not to resist the government perhaps in the same way Jesus calls his disciples not to resist one who is evil in Matthew 5:39 (the Greek words for resist are different in these two passages but synonymous nonetheless).
The call, it seems to me, is to submit to the government’s demands and if doing so entails going against Christian principles, then we must break the law and submit to the government’s penalty as Shedrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in Daniel 3:16-18 and Peter and John did in Acts 4:19. True civil disobedience is submissive to the government since those who engage in such are willing to go to jail for their acts. Isn’t this precisely the model we see in these biblical texts?
In League with the Emperor
I noted earlier that the early church witness was a refusal to take up arms against an enemy. It is interesting that this witness changed in the wake of Constantine’s conversion in the early fourth century. Though the voices of an earlier time never completely vanished, the majority of Christians in the post-Constantine churches were convinced that Christians could kill in the name of the state.
I wondered about such a transformation in those churches. I wondered if that change in doctrine had to do with the new arrangement with Caesar who was now “one of us.” I pondered further if this cooperation with the secular power of Rome in the fourth century had anything to say about our cooperation with our government in the 21st century. Should Christians have killed for the emperor? Is this a cautionary tale for Christians today?
An Important Conversation
Since I am convinced that any position on the Christian response to armed conflict must ultimately be rooted in the doctrine of the church, a final question I pondered as I thought over this important issue is why it is not discussed in our churches with greater frequency. Even proponents of the just war position (the belief that Christians can participate in wars that are just) believe that Christian soldiers must discern between what is a just war and what is not. If the war they are asked to fight is not just, then they must refuse to fight.
If this is the position of most American Christians, I wonder if we should not be doing more to train our young men and women who join our armed forces to have such discernment. My hope is that this edition of Christian Standard may serve as a catalyst for just such a conversation.
Jason Bembry is assistant professor of Old Testament, Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.