War in Indochina, war between Arabs and Jews, strife and warfare in Northern Ireland: these shake the world, as well as the countries directly involved. Before these recent conflicts we had the world wars, and one could keep tracing war back in history to the epochs represented by the New and Old Testaments.

Where were Christians in these wars and conflicts? More important, where should they have been? Should they have refused to participate in any and all wars as pacifists? Or should they have been willing to participate in some, though perhaps not all, as a duty owed to God? In view of the abiding relevance of this question and especially in view of the ambiguity of some recent conflicts, Christians should reflect again on the principles concerning war found in the Word of God.

A central point of departure is an appeal to the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.” There are those who say that this settles the issue once and for all: since God here prohibits killing human beings, this command prohibits war, It means, according to this view, that no one, individual or nation, has a right at any time to take another’s life.

But the Old Testament also gives the express command of God to men to put a murderer to death: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man” (Gen. 9:6). This in itself goes to show that every death inflicted is not a violation of the sixth commandment, which prohibits murder. Genesis 9:6 gives to men acting collectively, designated today as the state, the right—indeed, the responsibility—to inflict death on those who unjustly kill others.

This awesome responsibility of men extends not only to capital punishment for the murderer but also to the waging of war and the slaying of enemies. The Old Testament on a number of occasions speaks of God’s instructing his people about war, both war waged to capture the land and war in defense (cf. Exod. 17:8ff.). Deuteronomy 20 is an entire chapter devoted to instructions from God for conducting the battle:

When you go forth to battle against your enemies … you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you.… The LORD your God is he that goes with you.… When you draw near unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.… And if it will make no peace with you, but will make war against you, then you shall besiege it [vv. 1, 4, 10, 12],

The God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, instructed his people of old to wage war when necessary and to slay the enemy. Such a forthright statement as that of Deuteronomy 20 makes it impossible to assert that the command “You shall not kill” was intended to prohibit war. Further, these explicit instructions by God make it impossible to maintain that God prohibits the believer from engaging in war under any circumstances.

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Before leaving this passage we should note that the nation addressed is a theocracy, the people of God as the nation Israel. This point is important as we consider the bearing of this passage upon the situation of today, in which the people of God are a trans-national and supranational entity, the Church, and no nation may be considered the people of God. Although this passage, and others like it in the Old Testament, gives evidence that war is not prohibited, it does not thereby give warrant to a Christian group or to a nation to apply this passage directly to itself to warrant its initiating war, for neither is the special theocratic people of God.

Perhaps this distinction is highlighted by God’s insistence that the Israelites utterly destroy their enemies in the land. This is explained as the just recompense of God upon those enemies because their iniquity is full (cf., e.g., Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24 ff.). This is an intrusion or breaking into human history of God’s justice upon men’s sins. And this intrusion is done by God’s special command through special revelation. Although God may and does accomplish such justice by other nations throughout human history (cf. Habakkuk and Cyrus in Isaiah), no nation or group of people may apply what was a special command in a particular situation to themselves to warrant initiating warfare.

Does not this consideration make an appeal to the Old Testament invalid and useless? No, because it still recognizes the basic principle under consideration, that war itself is not always ruled out as contrary to God’s will. Even though nations today, or groups of Christians, may not claim the right to act for God in initiating a war of conquest and punishment, a nation or an individual may, like Israel, defend itself or others, as Israel did and as the Old Testament shows others doing on many occasions (cf., e.g., Israel, David, Samson).

But what of Jesus Christ, the authority for the Christian? Anti-war appeal is more often made to him, who urges us to turn the other cheek. Soldiers don’t seem to turn the other cheek and don’t seem to love their neighbors, and so therefore, by implication, we have Jesus’ authority against war and being a soldier.

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But the appeal to Jesus as the authority against serving as a soldier seems to ignore the fact that his highest words of praise are found for a soldier, the centurion who asked that Jesus should heal his servant by speaking a word at a distance. Jesus marveled at this faith and said, “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matt. 8:10). It is noteworthy that Jesus does not demand that the centurion cease being a soldier and in Matthew 8:11 speaks of him as being a member of the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist, when asked by soldiers in service what they must do, does not demand that they leave the army, but only that they not misuse their power for their own sinful goals in exacting by force from civilians what was not theirs by right (Luke 3:14). Peter is sent to Cornelius, the centurion soldier. The narrative speaks of that soldier as Godfearing, as one that works righteousness, and as acceptable to God (Acts 10).

In none of these encounters are these soldiers told that they must give up what they are doing because being a soldier is incompatible with their Christian faith.

But how can Jesus speak about turning the other cheek and yet recognize Christians as soldiers? Are these not mutually exclusive? Perhaps we begin to find the solution when we realize that the soldier, or any Christian, must on the one hand accept abuse and even death rather than deny Christ, on the other hand defend himself, others, and a nation against attack as a responsibility laid on him by faith in Christ. Perhaps the distinction Paul makes between the individual Christian and the state in Romans 12 and 13 will point us in the direction that will help clarify this solution.

The individual Christian is not to avenge himself, he is to live peaceably, he is to feed his enemy (Rom. 12:17–21), and he is to love his neighbor and therefore not kill (Rom. 13:8–10). But significantly, right in the middle of those words, the power or authority of the state is delineated in other terms (Rom. 13:1–7). The state is to avenge. It is a terror to evil. It is a minister of God and is given no less than the sword (v. 4), and it bears the sword not in vain but as an avenger who brings wrath upon the one that does evil. We pay taxes to support this very activity upon which the state is to attend continually (v. 6). Paul says pointedly that “it [the state] does not bear the sword for nothing” (v. 4). We could say in our day that he is not armed needlessly. In using the sword, or gun, the state is expressly called a minister of God, not an opponent of God, or one that disobeys or fails to recognize His commands.

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Yes, the state must serve as a police force, and therefore it must also fight, do battle, make war when needed against evil. When a mob is destroying a city with Molotov cocktails, burning, and shooting, we recognize the right of policemen to shoot to kill, if necessary, in order to save lives. And when the state or policemen or soldiers are doing so, we as Christians are called on to support them in every way, with money and with service as a policeman or soldier ourselves, if called to do so, just as the aforementioned Christian soldiers did (Rom. 13:6, 7).

Paul says to us Christians that since the state is a minister (servant) of God, “it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (verse 5). Further, we are not to resist the God-ordained powers because to do so is to withstand the ordinance of God (vv. 1 and 2). These verses, which call for subjection, are much needed in our day. The forces of rebellion and revolution are opposing not only men but God. Finally, we need to remember that Paul writes these words not about a nice so-called Christian nation but about heathen and militant Rome.

So we see that God gives to the state the power of the sword, the right to wage war against evil, and calls on Christians to honor and support this authority and activity. This much is clear. Christians should not miss this clear teaching nor be misled by the misuse of other passages.

Within these two chapters we see an important distinction made. It is highlighted by the fact that the individual Christian is not to avenge himself (Rom. 12:19) and the state as a minister of God is called on to be an avenger for wrath to him that does evil (Rom. 13:4). Here we see that the Lord’s teaching on turning the other cheek is not to be applied to the state in its relation with evildoers. And any attempt to do so is to fly in the face of Christ’s apostle and the teaching Christ has given him.

But where does this leave the individual Christian? Here also the account of Romans 12 and 13 is helpful in the realistic qualification it gives to individual Christian conduct. The command is indeed “be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18). But the qualification is also there: “If it be possible, as much as in you lies …” or, as the NIV translates it, “If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Peace is the keynote, even as it was in the capturing of the promised land (cf. Deut. 20:10, 11). But it is the keynote with a recognition that it is not always possible.

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This qualification of Paul puts Jesus’ hyperbolic and principal statement in its larger context: “Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smites you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with you, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also” (Matt. 5:39, 40). May a Christian be stripped of his clothing just because someone has learned that by a literal application of this verse he can get anything he wants from a Christian? Certainly all would agree that this is not a correct application of that part of the passage. Likewise, we should recognize by analogy that ruling out any self-defense is not an appropriate application of the other part of the passage. And Jesus did not intend it to be. He wants to drive home a principle, realizing that it is best communicated in starkness and absoluteness. Both he and the Apostle Paul do not seem to have felt constrained always to apply this teaching literally. Jesus did not offer the other cheek when struck but rather challenged his being struck—“Why do you smite me?” (John 18:23). Paul responded similarly in Acts 23:3: “God shall smite you, you whited wall: and you sit to judge me according to the law, and command me to be smitten contrary to the law?” His challenge is based on the law itself. The apology that seems to follow later is to deny not the challenge but the sharpness with which he addressed the one in authority.

Our Lord’s teaching does indicate that Christians should bear verbal abuse and even physical abuse at times as Christians. But its correlation with the foregoing passages, especially Romans 12:18, indicates that they need not refuse to defend themselves or others. To be very practical: the Christian boy or girl should take a hit or two on the school playground in Christian grace, meekness, gentleness, love, and forgiveness, without feeling the necessity of avenging himself. But when that does not bring peace and cessation of the blows, then it becomes no longer possible to live at peace with that attacker, and the Christian may defend himself or herself if aid from an authority figure to stop the fight is not available. The same applies to the adult Christian when his physical life or that of others is endangered. And no less than David, a man after God’s own heart, the Christian may even kill to defend himself or others.

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What the Christian may do as an individual, he may do also as part of a nation, which God describes as bearing a sword and using it (Romans 13).

This is not the end of the matter. Would that it were so simple! There is another aspect of the question. Paul presents the “normal” situation. But sometimes the state misuses its power and authority. Sometimes it uses the sword against the good. The book of Revelation pictures civil government corrupt and against the true Church. Peter and the apostles had to face the authorities in Jerusalem who imprisoned them, beat them, and demanded that they stop preaching Jesus. They refused, claiming that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19 ff.; 5:29, 40–42). They did not protest about this or that personal right, but they did disobey when the choice was to obey God or the state. This did not become a misused fetish for the disciples, but something that they stood for when this supreme issue was at stake. The example reminds us that our obedience to the state is relative, our obedience to God, absolute. We must not absolutize patriotism or the motto “My country—right or wrong.” To do so is to demand that Christians in Russia must fight for the U.S.S.R., according to Romans 13, and against Czechoslovakia, or for North Viet Nam, no matter what the situation may be.

In the light of all the foregoing considerations, the Christian Church has recognized that the Christian must fight for his country in a just war and must refuse to fight in an unjust war, with the burden of proof being on the Christian more than on the state. If he dissents, as he may, he must be willing to take the consequence of his dissent.

We may not limit the just war to that of self-defense, as some have said. True, the European countries and Great Britain had a right to defend themselves against the Nazis as did the United States against Japan in World War II. But the United States did not need to be attacked by Japan to justify its warring against the Nazis to help Great Britain and Europe.

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What of the war in Viet Nam? Were the aggressors Communist North Vietnamese who sought to spread godless Communism to the sea in the Orient? Was it wrong for America or other countires to help South Viet Nam defend itself and also to hold back at that point the conquest by Communism? Can it be conclusively proved to have been unjust? There may be reasons to say that continued involvement by America was unwise or unnecessary, but this is something other than saying that this war, or the American position in it, was contrary to biblical teaching. Finally, for the Christian, the defense of one’s own country or the aid given to another depends not upon the form of government or upon the morality of those in authority but simply on the justice of that defense or self-defense.

These considerations do not mean that the Christian delights in war or is a militarist. The Christian has a deep antipathy to war, even though he recognizes its inevitability in a world of sin. Like James, he recognizes that, as a general principle, all conflict is rooted in man’s sin and lust (James 4). But he also remembers the words of Jesus that there will be wars and rumors of wars until He returns, so that he will not fall into the idealistic folly of speaking of the war to end all wars. Even though the Christian may be caricatured by the non-Christian as the hopeless idealist, he is truly realistic in that he takes sin, which James speaks of, seriously and therefore realizes that he may be involved in a war of defense.

But taking sin seriously does not make him a pessimist. He knows that God rules over all and that He can bring peace even in this world still to be torn by wars. He hears the call from God to pray for peace and prays in a foxhole or at home. He hears the Word of God through Paul and heeds it: “First of all, then, I hope that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). He recognizes that in such times of peace it is God who has granted that peace, and he praises Him.

When a peace comes to a country, is that the end? No, not at all, only the beginning. For we Christians pray for peace not just that men may be spared a physical death, but that they may be saved from eternal death. Paul goes on to say that we pray for peace so that godliness and the Gospel may prevail:

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This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time (1 Tim. 2:3–6).

Let us not satisfy ourselves with material or even medical aid as Christians but thrust out messengers with the message of the Prince of Peace for the war-torn lands.

Where will these troops, these ambassadors for Christ, come from? God grant that men will more readily volunteer to serve in the task force of the Gospel than in the necessity of war. God grant that the young people and old who really want peace will now be willing to bring it in Jesus Christ. God grant that those who want to conquer Communism will go with the cross to conquer. Perhaps some of the soldiers who have learned much of these countries and their ways may return. Perhaps some POWs can be among the vanguard of Christian missionaries.

Christians realize that wars are a result of men’s sins. Therefore they realize that the nations will not finally and irrevocably beat their swords into plowshares until Jesus Christ brings in fully his kingdom, judges among the nations, and accomplishes what men cannot accomplish—the full removal of sin and rebellion.

George W. Knight III is associate professor of New Testament at Covenant Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He has the Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary and the Th.D. from Free Reformed University in Amsterdam.

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