Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” These words of Jesus apply to us today. The Old Testament prophecy that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks should be fulfilled where people take the way of Christ and his Spirit seriously.
The problem of the Christian and war cannot be viewed simply from the perspective of one’s responsibility to his nation. We are now a global community in which we face the question of what violence does to a total humanity. With the increase of population, the problem of getting enough food and other basic necessities of life has increased violence as a way of life.
Furthermore, in viewing war from the standpoint of one’s responsibility to his country, it appears impossible that there could be such a thing as a “just war” in a nuclear age with a world community. The arguments for a “just war” in history appear to be quite irrelevant in an age of mechanized and nuclear warfare. The Christian must also face the meaning of the biblical affirmation, “as he is, so are you in the world,” or again the words of Jesus, “as the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” Ours is a mission of announcing the good news of reconciliation to God, and through him to one another.
The problem of the Christian’s relation to the state has divided the thinking of Christians through the centuries. It now appears that the Holy Spirit has been teaching us something about history. Alan Walker, in his book Breakthrough, Rediscovery of the Holy Spirit, suggests that history may be dated pre-Viet Nam and post-Viet Nam on this issue, and that non-resistant, redemptive love is the way of the future. There is a growing consciousness in the Church that war does not answer basic problems, that the Christian Church exists in a hostile world, and that Christian discipleship is a movement of the minority who share the quality of the new life in Christ and are to live now as members of another kingdom. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered unto the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).
When we accept the fact that the Christian Church is a minority movement in a hostile world, then we can interpret the ethics of Christian discipleship for that minority. As Christians we are not here to provide an ethic for society or the state; our job is to define clearly an ethic for the Christian, the disciple of Jesus Christ.
In the American system of government, it is difficult for this stance to be understood. We operate under the myth that we are a Christian nation, and we seek to interpret for society an ethic we can bless as Christians. We need a new awareness of the pluralism of the New Testament. The crucial issue is the difference between the Church and the world; the Church operates “within the perfection of Christ,” while the world operates outside the perfection or will of Christ. Only an understanding of this can save us from a cultural religion and from a civil religion.
As one who believes in New Testament non-resistance, or New Testament pacifism, I want this stance to be clearly interpreted as evangelical and biblically based and different from humanistic or moralistic pacifism. Theologically this position begins with the reality and priority of membership in the kingdom of Christ. From here it moves on to reverence for life, to a spirit of brotherhood, and to the way of love. While these latter points are important, the priority of kingdom membership comes first in the understanding of New Testament non-resistance.
To affirm that one is a member of the kingdom of Christ means that loyalty to Christ and his kingdom transcends every other loyalty. This stance transcends nationalism, and calls us to identify first of all with our fellow disciples, of whatever nation, as we serve Christ together. This is not a position that can be expected of the world nor asked of the government as such. The Christian respects the government as God ordained it to “protect the innocent and punish the evil-doer.” The Christian can only encourage the government to be government and to let the Church be the Church. We ask the government to be secular, and expect the secular government to let the Church be free to be the Church in society. The Church enriches society by the many things it brings to it, but the New Testament Church in its respect for government does not subordinate itself to any particular government. Its allegiance is to its own Lord.
Properly read, Romans 13 is telling us that God ordains government, not a particular government but government itself, for the ordering of society; and since God ordains the powers he remains above the powers. In that light our response on many occasions will be to say, “we ought to obey God rather than man,” rather than to assume, as many do, that since God ordains government, in obeying the government we are always obeying God. We are not law-breakers, for Paul says that “the authorities do not bear the sword in vain,” and that if we do that which is good we have no fear of the law. But we cannot disobey a divine law to obey a lesser law by a government. The passage in Romans 13 calls us to be “subject to” the powers, but it doesn’t use the term “obey.” Our ultimate allegiance is to the God who ordains government to function for order in society. The question of the Christian’s participating in war hinges on this issue.
Closely associated with the preceding is the fact that war is quite often for the protection of property. The Christian Church, as a minority movement in society, does not tell the government that it must operate by Christian standards. It respects the government’s right to declare war to protect its own shores. But when this happens, the Christian who objects to participation in war must be consistent in his attitude toward material things and must not ask someone else to give his life to protect his, the objector’s, own personal property. The Christian takes seriously Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, both in the Gospel of Luke and in the Gospel of Matthew, that personality is more valuable than material goods and that we do not sacrifice life for the sake of goods. This means that as a Christian I should not use my government to enable me to become a multimillionaire and then ask the government to sacrifice people’s lives in protecting my goods. The Christian attitude toward material possessions is not that of legal right but that of a moral obligation to help his fellow man.
What about a Christian’s participating in government? According to the premise just stated, it would appear that Christians may serve in government so long as they do not try to Christianize government and create a state church. It is our responsibility as Christians to call the government to be secular and to respect the freedom of Christians to serve in loyalty to their own King. Christians will help interpret to others in government why the Christian must constantly say, “Caesar is not Lord; Jesus Christ is Lord.”
From this premise it appears that a Christian serving in government could serve honestly only at levels where he could carry out the functions of his office without compromising his own fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord. He should not consider a level where he cannot fulfill the obligation of the office and still be consistent with his membership in the Kingdom of Christ. To do so and violate his commitment of allegiance to Christ would be wrong. On the other hand, to live by his convictions and not fulfill the function of the office in respect to the society that creates this office would also be wrong.
The Christian in a government position serves with a recognition that he can be there only as a witness to the higher values to which he has been called in Jesus Christ; he can never serve in government as in a position of ultimate power by which he seeks to achieve goals for humanity. For the Christian, the desire to “rule” is wrong; our stance is one of serving. This awareness will keep us from the struggle for power, a struggle that Malcolm Muggeridge has called “a pornography of the will.”
One who accepts this position, that New Testament non-resistance is the claim of Christ upon his disciple as an expression of the reality of Christ’s kingdom in the world now, will then follow with other evangelical premises for his faithfulness to Christ. One would be that one cannot participate in war and take the life of a person for whom Christ died when our basic mission as Christians is to persuade that person to become our brother in Christ. A further premise is that since the kingdom of Christ is global and transcends every national, racial, and cultural distinction, when one’s country is at war with another country the Christian cannot participate knowing that by doing so he may be at war with persons who worship and follow the same Lord.
Another basic principle is that of love for one’s enemies, which Jesus taught clearly both in his sermons and by his example, including the ultimate expression, his death on the cross. This premise makes sense only when one has a clear commitment to the reality of participation in the kingdom of Christ. A further general premise is the conviction that all men are created in the image of God with the right to life and its fulfillment, and that taking life is a basic sin against the God-given grace of life.
From an evangelical perspective it may be said that wherever a Christian participates in war he has abdicated his responsibility to the greater calling of missions and evangelism. This is to say that the way for Christians to change the world is to share the love of Christ and the good news of the Gospel rather than to think we can stop anti-God movements by force. Jesus answered this ultimately in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary’s cross. As Christians, our answer to the violence in the world is simply that we don’t have to live; we can die. This is the ultimate testimony of our belief in the reality of the kingdom of Christ and the resurrection. This same conviction motivated many persons in the early days of the missionary movement to carry the Gospel into parts of the world from which many of those who went never returned. They died of diseases for which they had no medical treatment.
When military forces move to take a beachhead, they do so with the conscious plan that they will sacrifice thousands of men. What if the Christian Church moved into the world with the Gospel of Christ having a conscious plan that this will be done even if it costs the sacrifice of many lives? While there are conditioning factors to this comparison, it would appear that before the Christian Church justifies giving the lives of so many of its people in military involvement, we should look at our greater sin of being unwilling to sacrifice our life of affluent ease for the cause of building the Kingdom of Christ.
You may ask, “Do you not understand that God used war in the Old Testament and blessed it?” My answer is simply, “Yes, I understand this well, but I interpret it in relation to the ‘unfolding revelation’ in which God moved men to higher levels of understanding of his will.” I give this answer with a deep belief in the full inspiration of Scripture, and in the fact that there are no contradictions of meaning in the Bible. However, I can make this latter statement only because of my conviction that the Bible is not a “flat book” but is rather an unfolding revelation of God’s will in Jesus Christ. This is to say that God is no longer using a nation to achieve his purpose; rather he is using the fellowship of believers, the church of the reborn. Instead of using a nation, Jesus Christ has given the Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. This is our mission, to disciple people to become members of the kingdom of Christ, not to help justify participation in war. David Ben Gurion’s question still confronts the Christian Church: “When are you Christians going to begin working for peace?”
With the horror of Hitler’s gas chambers, the tragedies of Viet Nam, the assassination of national leaders, and the violence rampant in our society, it is imperative that the Christian church become more clear in its emphasis on peace. We will not agree on the issue of patriotism at the level of military involvement for Christians; but the intention of this article is broader than that: it is to call for a Christian conscience to counteract the violence by positive actions of love and thereby promote peace in our society and in the world. And this peace of which I speak is not a neutralizing of relationships but an active expression of the love of Christ, which treats every person as a person.
In Paul’s words in Romans 13, we will respect government as government and give it its dues; but in his further words, we will also seek to “owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” We will “pay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And, in the words of Jesus, we will render to Caesar only what is Caesar’s and we will render to God what is God’s.
Myron S. Augsburger is the president of Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He received the Th.D. degree from Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, and he has done post-graduate study at the University of Michigan and at the University of Basel, Switzerland.
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