Can a Christian Serve in the US Military?
Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. –Psalm 144:1
Can a Christian serve in combat? Is war inconsistent with the commands of Jesus Christ?
Recent events have given new life to the age old discussion about whether “Christian” and “military” are mutually exclusive (never mind being a “Christian Fighter Pilot”). Particularly for new Christians, 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 also many non-Christians who try to find an apparent contradiction in military Christian service. The intent here is to address those with a Christian worldview.)
There are many books and pamphlets written on this topic, and most categorize their analysis in two categories. The “anti-war” division centers on the “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 academic position than is intended here. The objective 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 the focus will be narrowed to 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. Using this construct they 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 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 criticized for enjoying the benefits of Roman society without bearing any of the responsibility for it (Driver p38). Though not necessarily dramatic and immediate, the culture gradually changed to the point 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 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. For example, a Christian is not commanded in the name of Christ-like peace to sit idly by and watch as his wife, children, or parents are ravaged. In fact, 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 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 Christ had powers 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 who say Christians are to follow Jesus’ sacrificial example: Jesus was innocent. Human beings are sinners and far from innocent. Jesus’ death had a divine 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 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 a Christian could never attain, His example shows 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.
Next time: Biblical militarism: Does the Bible actually support Christian service in the military?
This is a portion of the book Christian Fighter Pilot is not an Oxymoron.
Originally from Is “Military Christian an Oxymoron?”
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.