Is “Military Christian” an Oxymoron?
Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. –Psalm 144:1
Before even considering the phrase “Christian fighter pilot,” many argue that “Christian” and “military” are mutually exclusive themselves. Particularly for new Christians who have recently been introduced to Christ’s teachings, or Christians who grew up in peaceful times and areas, the concepts of a “warring Christian” who is a child of the loving God can seem contradictory. There are many books and pamphlets written on the topic, and most categorize their analysis in two categories. The anti-war division centers on the uncontextual pacifist teachings of Jesus. The pro-war division centers on the Just War doctrine supported with Biblical citations. Well-researched books quote Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (generally credited with the formulation and articulation of the Just War theory) and cite lists of well-known theologians who opposed and supported Christian military service. Whole volumes analyze this subject from a much more learned position than I can. The objective of this section is to briefly address the question, “Is ‘Military Christian’ an Oxymoron?”
The controversy of Christian military service is not a modern notion. Throughout the ages, church leaders, theologians, and men of faith have dissented over the divine intent of the Christian and his relation to armed conflict. Many early church leaders actually prohibited Christians from participating in military service. There are, in truth, many arguments against Christians being in the armed forces. While there are non-combat roles in military service, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the assertion that serving in the military requires the deliberate killing of another human being. Since God gives life, all human beings have a sacred right to life, and the pacifist view asserts that killing them denies them that divinely-given right. Due to the warring nature of Israelite history, there are few pacifist phrases in the Old Testament, with two notable exceptions. The first and most obvious is the Sixth Commandment, in the King James: “Thou shalt not kill” (Deuteronomy 5:17). The second was Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be the “Prince of Peace” (9:6). Since the tone of the Old Testament is often brutal, many pacifist teachings focus on the New Testament as the culmination of the process of divine revelation. By arguing progressive revelation they minimize the Old Testament and assert that a Christian’s conclusions about war should be based primarily on New Testament theology. As Jesus is the crux of the New Testament, His teachings are used as the basis for pacifist doctrine.
Pacifist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount implies that it should be a prescriptive instruction for Christian conduct, not just a descriptive attitude a Christian should have when faced with conflict. As a prescriptive doctrine, “blessed are the peacemakers” is a command for Christians to act in no ways but peaceful ones (Matthew 5:9). “Do not resist an evil person” and “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” are active directives that a Christian must not oppose evil or violence, even upon themselves (Matthew 5:39). Christians should not fight but are “to love [their] enemies [and] do good to those who hate [them]” (Luke 6:27-36). Probably the strongest pacifist Christian doctrine centers on the example of Christ himself. First, in one of the few interactions Jesus had with a weapon, he told Peter to “put [his] sword back in its place … for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This directive of peace, even though it was Jesus himself that Peter was defending, is an exemplar of the attitude pacifists believe Christians should have. Finally, and most dramatically, since Jesus died as an innocent victim, then Christians, seeking to be like him, should be willing to suffer and die even in the face of injustice.
Pacifism Answered, Briefly
History does show that early church fathers prohibited Christians from military service; the social context, though, was that Roman soldiers had to swear allegiance to the emperor as a god (Driver p31). Two things occurred that changed the culture of those times: one, Constantine came to power and ended the persecutions of Christians; two, Christians were derided for enjoying the benefits of Roman society without bearing any of the responsibility for it (Driver p38). The result was that church leaders began to allow and even encourage Christian military service. Examination of God’s word in its entirety—including the Old Testament—allows great insight into God’s perspective on war. There is no arguing that life is sacred: God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). However, man is fallen, and war is a direct result of his sinful nature (Psalms 51:5; James 4:1-3). Pacifists have made much of the Sixth Commandment; but those who adamantly proclaim “thou shalt not kill” are unable to reconcile God’s own directives in the very next chapter that death be the punishment for criminal offenses. First, the source text for kill in the commandment is more accurately translated murder, which is how the majority of modern translations scribe the verse (Eckman). Murder is never permitted in the Bible, while killing is not only occasionally allowed but often divinely commanded. Second, God’s command that death be a judicial punishment indicates that there are just reasons for taking a life; therefore, killing is not inconsistent with the character of God. Finally, while it is true that the Messiah was predicted to be named the Prince of Peace, He was also called a Jealous God, a Judge, and Warrior (Exodus 15:3, 34:14, Genesis 18:25). The God of peace was also the God of war.
Does the Bible require the Christian peacemaker to obtain peace at any cost? Do the commands to not resist evil and to turn the other cheek mean Christians should surrender, even if evil prevails? Are Christians commanded to accept peace, even if it is the peace of a “slave camp or cemetery?” (Boettner) Does “loving our enemies” mean Christians should love the evil they represent? As has been said, peace is not merely the absence of war, but the securing of justice, law, and order. In an active sense, a “peacemaker” does not simply avoid conflict but restores and maintains the peace. Romans 12:18 says that Christians are to live in peace “if it is possible,” indicating that there may be times when it is not feasible to do so. Christians should work for peace, and, by humbly turning the other cheek, should give an offender every opportunity to accept that peace. When the antagonist refuses peace, a Christian is not commanded to surrender. He is to love his enemies, but just as a parent has conflict with a child they love, the love he has for his enemies does not mean he will not fight them. The love he has for his enemies will inevitably conflict with the love he has for those whom his enemies would threaten. A Christian is not commanded to sit idly by and watch as his wife, children, or parents are ravaged in the name of his Christ-like peace—to do so would actually violate a Biblical command to provide for one’s family (1 Timothy 5:8).
Allowing an act of aggression, rather than defending against it, does not equal peace, love, or righteousness. On the contrary, tolerance toward such conduct often encourages it, whether it is the case of a “school-yard bully or Adolf Hitler.” As Augustine and Aquinas argued when they formulated what would become the Just War doctrine, there are righteous reasons for war: generally, the attainment of good or the elimination of evil. Augustine himself maintained that “war is waged to serve the peace” (Driver p81). While some deride war for wanton loss of life, in some cases war is necessary to preserve life; just as a medical professional may amputate to protect the body, a military professional may engage in combat to preserve the nation or even greater humanity (Grace).
As for Peter’s violent protection of Jesus at His betrayal, Jesus’ response is immensely enlightening when He says that if it was the will of God, He could call down angels to rescue Him (Matthew 26:53). His reprimand to Peter was not that violence was wrong (after all, He told Peter to put his sword away, not get rid of it), but that Jesus’ betrayal and sacrifice had to continue to fulfill God’s will. Jesus did not die because He refused violent opposition; He died because He chose to. Also, Jesus did have powers that man does not; when the crowds of Nazareth wanted to throw Him off a cliff, He calmly walked through the crowd and away (Luke 4:29-30). He did not fight back, but because it was not yet His time, He was able to supernaturally “resist” and simply walk away. There is also more to the argument of those that say Christians are to follow Jesus’ sacrificial example: Jesus was innocent. Human beings are sinners and far from innocent. Jesus’ death had an objective: the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of man. Even though He struggled with His divine calling, He had to die for the salvation of the world (Luke 22:42). Moreover, as Jesus prepared to leave His disciples on the earth, He told them to sell their clothes to buy a sword (Luke 22:35-38). Finally, the same Jesus that some would describe as “peaceful unto death” fashioned a whip of cords and drove the money changers out of the temple court, overturning their tables and running their animals out of His Father’s house (John 2:15). While Jesus’ indignation had a level of righteousness that a Christian could never attain, His example shows that His love for the Father exceeded His love for the actions of those that would profane Him, and that peace does not mean submission at any cost.
Many men of old and renown have been soldiers and still been faithful men of God, and nowhere was their military service questioned. Abraham, whom God selected to bless as the father of His chosen nation, was one of the earliest “generals” (Genesis 14:14-15). Moses and Joshua both led the Israelites in countless battles. God Himself ordered the Israelites to battle, and commanded His own army, for that matter (2 Kings 6:17). To claim that all war is evil is to say not only that God enjoined Israel to sin but that He did so himself, which is inconsistent with the very character of God (James 1:13) (Harrison). David, a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), said that God “trained his hands for battle” (Psalm 18:34). David not only fought in war but also participated in some of the most brutal acts of slaughter recorded in the Bible (for example, when he arbitrarily killed every two lengths of the defeated Moabites (2 Samuel 8 )). In the military tradition of “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” Nehemiah “prayed to…God and posted a guard,” and told the leaders of Jerusalem to “remember the Lord…, and fight” (4:9, 14). There are countless other military references in the Bible. Some speak of military service neutrally, neither condemning it nor advocating it; others are full of praise for military conquest. Proverbs, hailed as the book of wisdom, contains advice for military preparation—”for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers” (24:6). In Judges, a town was cursed for not participating in war in support of Israel (5:23). In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews didn’t have enough time to fully list the heroes of faith who “conquered kingdoms” and “became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (11:32-34). While trying to teach the crowds about counting the cost of following Him, Jesus used a warfare example without passing judgment on the subjects of His story:
Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace (Luke 14:31, 32).
Three individual soldiers are specifically mentioned in the New Testament, all members of the Roman army; nowhere is their profession criticized, nor are they directed to leave the service. First, at the foot of the cross one soldier acknowledged the crucified Christ as God (Matthew 27:54). The second one asked Jesus to heal his servant, and even told Jesus to simply “say the word,” because he was unworthy to have Jesus come to his house (8:5-13). Jesus was “astonished,” and said He had not seen so great a faith in all of Israel—but He didn’t direct the soldier to abandon the military (v10). The third and most famous New Testament soldier was Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman centurion. Not only did an angel of God appear to him and acknowledge his faithfulness, but he was also used as an object lesson for Peter that resulted in the expansion of Christ’s message to the Gentiles. Neither the angel nor Peter commanded Cornelius to leave the military, nor was it a part of the important lesson taught.
Paul was not judgmental when he used an example of military service (2 Timothy 2:4), and he also described his friends as “good soldiers” (Philemon 2:25). When John the Baptist told those who approached him to “bear fruit” or be thrown into the fire, soldiers asked what they should do; he told them not to extort money or falsely accuse people, but to be content with their pay—he didn’t take the perfect opportunity to tell them to quit (Luke 3:14). Paul spent years with soldiers in his travels to and imprisonment in Rome. In none of these cases were the soldiers encouraged to leave their profession. On the contrary, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that “each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him” (7:20). (It is interesting to note that while no one in the Bible directed soldiers to forsake their profession, Jesus did tell one man to abandon all his worldly possessions (Matthew 19:21); many people advocate following the former, which is not in the Bible, while few follow the latter that is!)
The New Testament says the state is created to maintain justice and is thus granted the right of force (Romans 13:4, 1 Peter 2:13, 14). John Calvin, one of the most prolific contributors to the modern Protestant church, agreed that governments have been given the authority to use force to protect their national interests just as they can rightfully protect their citizens from criminals (Boettner 46). Both a military and a police force are necessary to ensure the security of the nation. American police and the American military differ only in geography and lethality; to say that the military violates Christian ethics is to say the same for the police. Even those trained to fight wars do not desire them; crusade is no more correct than capitulation. The military exists because of war; war does not exist because of the military. To assert the latter is equivalent to saying that crime exists because of the police (Harrison). There are some that accept the need for a military but not the need for aggressive actions: instead they believe that the military should only be used for defense. While that desire is admirable, it displays naivety about military strategy. There is no progress in defense; just as a football team needs its offensive line to march down the field and score, the military will need to execute offensively to end a conflict. “Defensive” military action may be best executed in offense. Once the conflict begins often only the decisive defeat of the enemy will bring a secure and lasting conclusion; offense will be required to achieve a peaceful end. This also means that war must be fought in the place that it presents itself; whether it is defending US borders, protecting citizens abroad, or asserting justice to protect the innocent, the conflict must be joined where it occurs.
The military profession has actually helped spread the cause of Christ. Throughout history, members of faith within the military have been responsible for the transmission of Christianity around the globe. Paul’s interaction with the Roman centurions undoubtedly led to the spread of faith throughout the Roman Empire, which at that time was the greater part of the known world. The US military itself has probably been one of the greatest missionary causes in history, from the earliest parts of the 1700s to the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
For those trying to understand the relationship between God, the military, and war, there is one important fact to remember. God does not change—the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). Nowhere does God claim that He desires war, death, and destruction, but there are many places where He acknowledges the necessity of it. The same God who directed human armies and commanded a superhuman one spoke of loving mankind and desiring peace. Nowhere does God command that a Christian avoid or leave the military, nor does He demand that he allow himself to be walked upon. A Christian is to act in love and peace as much as possible, but when the opposition will not accept it, God does not say that a Christian must let evil, injustice, or brutality prevail. Because this is a fallen world, wars will never cease. So long as wars are sure to come, there will be a need for a military. One day Jesus will return in glory and Christians will participate in the “war to end all wars” that will establish His kingdom and complete the victory He has already won. Until that day, Christians must live as best they can in this present world.
Driver, John. How Christians Made Peace with War. Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 1988.
Boettner, Loraine. The Christian Attitude Toward War. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, New Jersey 1985. Though in some parts a treatise against communism, this book contains interesting research on the Christian and war from Biblical, historical, and philosophical perspectives.
Harrison, William K. Jr. Lt Gen, US Army, ret. May a Christian Serve in the Military? OCF of the USA. The pamphlet is undated. LtGen Harrison passed away in 1987.
A Christian Perspective on War. Grace Chapel, as published on the OCF website, 13 April 2003.