Alexander Campbell’s Eight Reasons for Opposing War

Shortly after the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Alexander Campbell delivered his “Address on War” (you can read it in its entirety here). At the conclusion of his address, Campbell summarized eight reasons why he believed that Christians should be opposed to warfare.

  1. The Innocent Suffer

The right to take away the life of the murderer does not of itself warrant war, inasmuch as in that case none but the guilty suffer, whereas in war the innocent suffer not only with, but often without, the guilty. The guilty generally make the war and the innocent suffer from its consequences.

Campbell believed the Bible authorized taking away the life of murderers. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9.6). He did not, however, believe that capital punishment authorized Christians to go to war. In fact, Campbell believed that the “most convincing argument against a Christian becoming a soldier may be drawn from the fact that he fights against an innocent person.”

“Politicians, merchants, knaves, and princes” are usually the ones who make war, but “the soldiers on either side have no enmity against the soldiers on the other side, because with them they have no quarrel.” Campbell observed that opposing soldiers were to meet each other “in any other field, in their citizen dress, other than in battle array, they would probably have not only inquired about the welfare of each other, but would have tendered to each other their assistance if called for.”

These reflections led Campbell to ask,

How could a Christian man thus volunteer his services, or hire himself out for so paltry a sum, or for any sum, to kill his brother man who never offended him in word or deed?

  1. Old Testament Wars Do Not Authorize Christians to Go To War

The right given to the Jews to wage war is not vouchsafed to any other nations, for they were under a theocracy, and were God’s sheriff to punish nations; consequently no Christian can argue from the wars of the Jews in justification or in extenuation of the wars of Christendom. The Jews had a Divine precept and authority; no existing nation can produce such a warrant.

Campbell recognized that the Old Testament “certainly commended and authorized war among the Jews”, yet he believed it was important to observe that “He gave authority, however, to one family or nation, whose God and King he assumed to be.” In other words, the Jews were “under His own special direction and authority.” Therefore,

What the God of Abraham did by Abraham, by Jacob, or by any of his sons, as the moral Governor of the world, before He gave up the scepter and the crown to His Son Jesus Christ, is of no binding authority now.

Christianity is based upon the observation that “Jesus Christ is now the Lord and King of both earth and heaven.” We are now under “the new administration of the universe.” Therefore, when it comes to the question of war, we must look to the teachings of Jesus for authority to go to war.

  1. The Messiah’s Kingdom Was Prophesied As Peaceful

The prophecies clearly indicate that the Messiah himself would be “the Prince of Peace” and that under his reign “wars should cease” and “nations study it no more.

Campbell wrote, “His kingdom neither came nor stands by the sword.” He believed the the “native influence and tendency of the Christian institution” could be seen by reading the words of the prophets when they first announced the coming of the kingdom. He reflected on passages such as Isaiah 2.4:

And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nations,
And never again will they learn war.

The prophet Micah used almost the same words as Isaiah when he wrote:

For from Zion will go forth the law,
Every word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for the mighty, distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hoocks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.
Each of them will sit under his vine
And under his fig tree,
With no one to make them afraid,
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
– Micah 4:2-4

Upon reading such prophecies, Campbell concluded that “the spirit of Christianity, then, is essentially pacific.”

  1. The Gospel Produces “Peace on Earth”

Reflecting on Luke 2.14, when the heavenly hosts sang in praise after the Savior’s birth, Campbell observed:

The gospel, as first announced by the angels, is a message which results in producing “peace on earth and good will among men.”

  1. The Precepts of Christianity Positively Inhibit War

The precepts of Christianity positively inhibit war – by showing that “wars and fightings come from men’s lusts” and evil passions, and by commanding Christians to “follow peace with all men.

Not only is the spirit of Christianity peaceful, but so is the actual letter of it. Campbell makes his point by raising an interesting question. Suppose that the chaplain of an army were to address the soldiers on the eve of a great battle, and suppose he were to address them from the following passages:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous an the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.44-45

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone… If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Campbell then asks:

Would anyone suppose that he had selected a text suitable to the occasion? How would the commander in chief have listened to him? With what spirit would his audience have immediately entered upon an engagement?

Reflecting upon these questions, Campbell concludes, “A Christian man cannot conscientiously enter upon any business, nor lend his energies to any cause, which he does not approve.

  1. The Beatitudes Pronounce Blessings on Peacemakers

The beatitudes of Christ are not pronounced on patriots, heroes, and conquerors, but on peacemakers, on whom is conferred the highest rank and title in the universe: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.

As much as Campbell disliked the horrors, death, and grief brought on by wars, he felt that the moral desolation brought on by war were far worse. “Behold its influence on mothers, sisters, and relatives; note its contagion, its corruption of public taste.” During times of war, people become “fascinated by the halo of false glory thrown around these worshiped heroes.”

He observed that as a result of war, even churches “are ornamented with the sculptured representations of more military heroes than of saints – generals, admirals, and captains who “gallantly fought” and “gloriously fell” in the service of their country.

This worshipful attitude towards soldiers stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Christ, which pronounce blessings on peacemakers rather than on war heroes.

  1. War is Ineffective in Resolving Conflict

The folly of war is manifest in the following particulars: First. It can never be the criterion of justice of a proof of right. Second. It can never be a satisfactory end of the controversy. Third. Peace is always the result of negotiation, and treaties are its guaranty and pledge.

In Matthew 26.52, Jesus warned, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Campbell observed that this has continually been proved true. Throughout history, all nations that were created by the sword have eventually fallen by it. Therefore Campbell had “no doubt” that it would continue to be proved true in the future.

Wars don’t end wars. They produce greater controversy.

  1. War Constrains Soldiers to Kill Their Brethren For No Personal Cause

The wickedness of war is demonstrated in the following particulars:

First. Those who are engaged in killing their brethren, for the most part, have no personal cause of provocation whatever.

Second. They seldom, or never, comprehend the right or the wrong of the war. They, therefore, act without the approbation of conscience.

Third. In all wars the innocent are punished with the guilty.

Fourth. They constrain the soldier to do for the state that which, were he to do it for himself, would, by the law of the state, involved forfeiture of his life.

Fifth. They are the pioneers of all other evils to society, both moral and physical.

Campbell believed it would be morally wrong for an individual to do that in obedience to his government which he could not do in his own case. He asks the reader to consider a scenario where two neighbors were involved in a property line dispute. If one neighbor were to command his servant to burn the other neighbor’s fields and to kill several of his neighbor’s servants, would any judge or jury excuse the servant’s actions simply because the servant was following the orders of his master?

Campbell thus concluded,

We cannot of right as Christian men obey the powers that be in anything not in itself justifyable by written law… A Christian man can never be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights. No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself. If this is conceded, unless a Christian man can go to war for himself, he cannot for the state.

Conclusion

For these reasons, Campbell believed “no Christian man who fears God and desires to be loyal to the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, shall be found in the ranks so unholy a warfare.

Campbell’s views on war were grounded in both logic and scripture. Since Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, the cause of Christ should not be defended militarily. If the cause of Christ is insufficient for taking up arms, surely no lesser cause would be sufficient for taking up arms.

Does God Expect Governments to Love Their Enemies?

Must governments love their enemies? Are militaries required “turn the other cheek”? Does “do not resist an evil person” apply to police forces? In light of all that the Bible teaches about how to treat enemies, should nations have militaries at all?

Was The New Testament Written to Reform Governments?

The New Testament was not written as a moral code to reform all the disorders and evils of the political powers. The New Testament was not written to fill the world with so-called “Christian nations.”

Matthew 4.17 identifies the theme of Jesus’ teaching as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ hearers knew what the word “kingdom” meant. They were familiar with the Egypitians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and now the Romans. But the Kingdom preached by Jesus was to be distinguished from any of these earthly kingdoms. The kingdom preached by Jesus was the “kingdom of heaven.” That is, it was a kingdom from heaven. In other places it is described as the “kingdom of God.” In John 18.36, Jesus made the nature of his kingdom clear. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world.” Yes, Jesus came to establish His kingdom in the world, but his kingdom is not of this world.

There is an important distinction made between the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdoms of this world. Earthly kingdoms are under the authority of earthly rulers. The heavenly kingdom is under the authority of the heavenly Father. Earthly kingdoms fight. Those in Jesus’ kingdom do not fight.

The teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (and throughout the whole New Testament) are the teachings of the kingdom of heaven, not the teachings of any earthly kingdom. Their purpose is not to reform the world by making earthly kingdoms moral, but rather to set apart the disciples of Jesus as “salt” and “light” to be distinguished from the rest of the world.

Paul understood that “loving your enemies” is an essential requirement for those who follow Jesus (Rom. 12.14-13.2). But Paul also understood that we cannot please God unless we have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.5-16). We cannot love our enemies unless we first present our bodies as living sacrifices and are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12.1-2).

Paul recognized that those who are outside of Christ are in darkness (Eph. 2.1-3). Therefore Paul appealed to Christians not to judge those who are outside the church, but rather to leave their judgment to God (1 Cor. 5.11-12).

The New Testament Is Silent on How Earthly Rulers Should Govern

God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1.2-3), but the New Testament is silent when it comes to how earthly rulers are to govern others. Christians are commanded to submit to earthly rulers (Rom. 13.1-4, 2 Pet. 2.13-18), pray for earthly rulers (1 Tim. 2.1-2), and pay taxes to them (Mt. 22.15-22; Rom 13.7), but nowhere are we given instructions to seek to reform or rule over the nations of this world.

In fact, Jesus taught nearly the opposite.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. – Matthew 28.25-28

When Jesus was approached with political questions, he used these as opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk. 12.13-15). The point of His teaching was never to rule over others with more godly principles than other men. The point of his teaching was to establish a separate kingdom, founded on entirely different principles.

Paul encouraged Christians not to yoke themselves with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6.14-18), not to fight with earthly weapons (2 Cor. 10.3-4), and not to fight against flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12). He encouraged Christians to remember that earthly rulers and authorities have been disarmed (Col. 2.15). Therefore, Christians should not feel compelled to rule over earthly authorities, but rather they should submit to them (Rom 13.1-4).

The mission of the early church was not to solve the problems of the world by making Rome great, but rather to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the place where those problems will be solved. When disciples of Jesus display the peaceful principles of God’s kingdom, they will draw men out of the kingdoms of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Should Governments Turn the Other Cheek?

Sure, it would be great if every nation on earth followed the golden rule. It would be great if every military on earth acted with love towards their enemies. If every nation on earth were to turn the other cheek, there would probably be a lot less evil and war.

Yet for Christians, this is asking the wrong question. Governments don’t spread the kingdom of God. No military, no violence, and no sword can ever spread the gospel of the Prince of Peace. Neither do governments stop the spread of the kingdom of God. The New Testament is not concerned with reforming the Roman Empire into a Christian nation.

The New Testament never commands Rome, America, or any other nation to have a military. Neither does the New Testament command nations to get rid of their militaries.

The Bible does continually teach that nations will be held accountable for the wicked things they do. But when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, where wicked Nero reigned on the throne, Paul did not charge the church with disarming Nero and his forces. Rather Paul encouraged the church to remember that God can use even those who bear the sword for wicked Nero to accomplish good. Therefore, rather than seeking to disarm Nero, Christians should submit to him, recognizing that God uses earthly governments for the necessary work of executing wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13.1-4).

Rather than resisting the desires of evil earthly rulers, the duty of the Christian is to refuse to take vengeance against their enemies (Rom. 12.14-21). When Christians love their enemies and convert them from their evil, they reform society by removing the necessary reason for the existence of earthly governments and their militaries.

Does This Imply a Double Standard?

Some will object that this implies a double standard. That is, some will argue that if something is a sin for one person, it must be a sin for all people. And if something is right for one person, it must be right for all people. Interestingly, this same objection is raised by two different groups, each raising the objection with very different intentions.

On one hand, sometimes pacifists will argue since it would be wrong for Christians to violently resist evil, it would be wrong for anyone to resist evil. Therefore, Christians should actively call their governments to account whenever their government fails to love their enemies.

On the other hand, others will argue that since governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, and since God must be consistent, Christians must not be sinning when they bear the sword against their enemies. This objection argues that since God allows the world to use violence for a necessary purpose of executing wrath on evildoers, God must also be pleased when Christians when they use violence for the same purpose.

In response to this objection it should be noted that God has always held His people to a higher standard. For example, in the Old Testament, God always held priests to higher standards of holiness than other Israelites. When God commanded the Israelites to go to war, the priests were not to be numbered among those who would fight (Num. 1.47-54). This doesn’t make God inconsistent. Rather, because we know that God does not change (Mal. 3.6), we should come to the New Testament, expecting that God would hold the church, His holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2.5) to a higher standard.

The entire Sermon on the Mount is founded upon the idea that Christians are to be salt and light. Paul’s commands about loving enemies in Romans 12 are founded upon the idea that Christians are not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12.1-2). Yes, God may use those in the world to bear the sword, but it is not be problematic to think that God holds Christians to a higher standard. It should be expected!

Hope for the world doesn’t like in simply reforming the governments and militaries of this world with Christian ethics.  The command, “love your enemies”, is directly connected to the work and teaching of Jesus, who turned the other cheek when he was crucified by the Roman government.

If we were to succeed in infusing every earthly kingdom with godly principles, but we failed to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God, we will have failed. We cannot expect the world to conform to Jesus’s teachings without first being transformed by the work of Jesus. The answer to wars and violence does not lie in political reform of earthly kingdoms. The answer is found in following the Prince of Peace and inviting the world into His kingdom.

Overturning the Tables on Violence

Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies (Lk 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44) do good to them (Lk. 6.27, 34-35), bless them instead of curse them (Lk. 6.37), give to them without expecting anything in return (Mt. 5.44; Lk. 6.30, 34), never resist them with force (Mt. 5.38-39), treat them the way we wish they would treat us (Lk. 6.31), turn the other cheek when struck (Mt. 5.39; Lk. 6.29), and pray for them rather than seeking to injure them (Mt. 26.51-53).

Many, however, will argue that since Jesus acted violently when He cleansed the temple, this proves that Jesus did not intend to his teachings about loving enemies to be taken as absolutes or intend to teach total non-violence. The much discussed passage can be found in Mark 11.15-18, with parallels in Matthew 21.12-17, Luke 19.45-48, and John 2.13-17.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.

In order to understand what Jesus was doing in the temple, we must begin by examining the context. Examined in context it becomes clear that the temple cleansing is not an example of random, uncontrolled wrath.  There are key observations that can be made from the texts which indicate that Jesus’s actions were premeditated, intentional, and loaded with meaning. Jesus was acting purposefully to make a point. Only after understanding the point Jesus was making will we be in a position to wrestle with the implications of this text upon our lives.

The Context: Jesus’ Warnings of Judgment Against the Temple

The temple cleaning scene is presented to us in close connection with (and perhaps as the climax of) the rest of Jesus’ work. Jesus often warned of judgment that would come upon those who refused His call to repentance. Even more specifically, Jesus frequently warned that the temple itself would be judged and destroyed for rejecting his message (Mt. 24; 26.61; 27.39-40; Mk. 13; 14.58; 15.29-30; Jn. 2.19; Acts 6.14).

These warnings create a context where the actions of Jesus in the temple would not have been viewed as those of a random Jew whose religious zeal led him to misbehave. These were the actions of the man who had continually warned that the temple would be destroyed as a result of rejecting His message.

Matthew (21.18-22) and Mark (11.12-14; 20-26) both present the temple cleansing in close connection with Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Mark actually splits Jesus’ judgment of the fig tree into two parts, with the temple cleansing sandwiched in the middle. The cleaning of the temple explains and is explained by the cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit.

Luke (19.41-44) places the cleaning of the temple immediately after Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because they had not accepted “the things which make for peace”, and as a result would suffer destruction.

John (2.18-22) connects the temple cleansing with Jesus’s prophetic warning that the temple would be destroyed. This makes it clear that Jesus was acting symbolically to demonstrate that God was displeased with the corrupt religious practices of the temple. In response to the temple cleansing, everyone who witnessed the event understood that the temple cleansing was anything but a spontaneous tantrum of the part of Jesus. The people understood the deep significance of Jesus’ actions.

In all four accounts the cleansing of the temple must be read in close connection with Jesus’ warnings of judgment and the destruction of the temple. Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the animals with a whip, He was making a point, and everyone knew it.

What Point Was Jesus Making?

After Jesus cleansed the temple, He quoted form Jeremiah 7.11 to make his point immediately and explicitly clear (Mark 11.17 and parallels). Jeremiah 7 is part of an important sermon of Jeremiah in which he denounced the temple and offered warning for those who unthinkingly trusted in it. Although lengthy, it is worthwhile to read the entire context from which Jesus selected this quote.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.

Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ – that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD….

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place.”

Jeremiah 7.3-11, 20

The main thrust of Jeremiah’s warning is abundantly clear. Jeremiah offers a serious critique of the Jews of his day, who had placed their confidence in the temple, while simultaneously using the temple as the rallying point for all kinds of wickedness and violence. As a result, the temple would be destroyed.

To refer to this scene as the “temple cleansing” is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus was not simply cleansing the temple of a little bit of corruption. He was warning that the temple would be destroyed because once again, as in Jeremiah’s day, the temple had become a den of robbers.

The word translated “robbers” is not the word used to describe swindlers and thieves. It is the word used to describe those who would use violence to take what they wanted. It is the word that was used for what we would describe as “bandits” or “thugs”. Josephus frequently used this word to refer to violent revolutionaries who were willing kill to bring about their political aspirations (Antiquities Book 13, 16.5; Book 15, 10.1; War Book 1, 16.2-4). The same word is used in John to describe Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15.7; Jn. 18.40).

Jesus was not simply critiquing greedy businessmen in the temple who had inflated their prices. Jesus was warning that the temple would be destroyed because it had become the dwelling place of violent political revolutionaries.

This gives understanding as to why the “cleansing” of the temple is so closely connected with Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem for rejecting his message of peace. What Jesus was doing in the temple is parallel with what Jesus had done to the fig tree. Because those in the temple had failed to bear fruits of repentance, because they had failed to embrace Jesus’ enemy-loving message of peace, they would be destroyed.

Violence Brings God’s Judgment

Rather than demonstrating that violence is sometimes acceptable for the followers of Jesus, when Jesus cleansed the temple he was dramatically demonstrating that violence brings God’s judgment. What we read is not a random outburst of wrath, but rather a premeditated and symbolic condemnation of violence.

But still, the question remains, did Jesus act violently in the temple? Did Jesus use the whip violently against his enemies to make his point? And if so, can the disciples of Jesus use violence for similar purposes?

Jesus most certainly acted aggressively, but the text is not entirely clear that Jesus acted violently. For example, Preston Sprinkle argues that John 2.15 should be translated “And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, that is, the sheep and the oxen”, thus indicating that the whip was only used against the animals, and not against people. Others, such as Greg Boyd, have observed that generally speaking, whips were not used to harm animals, but rather to drive them by making a loud cracking sound.

I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the strengths or weaknesses of these suggestions, but I do find it significant that Jesus was not immediately arrested on the spot, as would be expected if Jesus was actually whipping people.

But suppose for a moment that Jesus did use the whip violently against his enemies. If this is the case, we still must not ignore the main point of the scene. Yes, this might indicate that Jesus did not intend an absolute prohibition against all violence in all circumstances. And yes, this might indicate that there could be exceptions to Jesus’s other “love your enemy” commands, whereby we might be allowed us use violence in limited circumstances. But, even so, we must not look for the exception to the rule to replace the rule itself.

It is a common mistake to look to the temple cleansing to prove that violence is sometimes acceptable, and then starting with the exception, work backwards into Jesus’ commands about loving enemies. This approach reduces “love your enemy” into little more than “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” Instead, we must start by grasping the main point of the temple scene and of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. If there are exceptions to this main point, they must be treated as exceptions, and not the rule itself.

The main point of the temple cleansing is not to show that it is acceptable to use violence against enemies. The point is nearly the opposite. The temple was to be judged because they had rejected Jesus’s enemy-loving message of peace.

A Letter To Christian Youth Considering Military Service

Dear Brother or Sister,

At some point you will be faced with the choice of whether or not to join the military. Throughout history, Christians have wrestled with, and often disagreed about, the appropriateness of military service for a Christian. Only you can decide for yourself whether or not you should join the military. I write this letter, not to tell you what decision to make, but to hopefully bring clarity to some of the questions you may be wrestling with (or perhaps to introduce some questions you have not yet considered).

As you consider your decision, I encourage you to think about two different, but related sets of questions.

Firstly, can you, as a Christian, kill your enemies? You need to know what the Bible says about how Christians should treat their enemies and consider the implications of these commands upon your role in the military.

Secondly, there are several instances where Jesus and his disciples interacted with members of the military. What can be learned from these interactions? How should they impact your decision?

Ultimately you must draw your own conclusions from your own study. It would be wise for you to think about these questions prior to putting yourself in a position where you may be called upon to compromise your conscience.

Can Christians Kill Their Enemies?

The New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat their enemies. We must love them (Lk. 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44), bless them (Lk. 6.28; Rom. 12.14), do good to them (Lk. 6.27; 34-35), turn the other cheek (Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.29), and we must not resist those who do evil.

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.39

We are never to return evil for evil (Rom. 12.17, 19; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Rather we are to give food to our enemies when they are hungry, and we are to give them drink when they are thirsty.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Ultimately, we are called to follow Jesus’s example, who was willing to suffer unjustly, even when he had the power to destroy his enemies (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.4-8; 1 Pet. 2.21-23).

And here’s the thing: there’s never an exception clause. There’s never any kind of statement such as “Love your enemies, except when they present a threat to others” or “Love your enemies, unless your role in the military requires that you kill them.” We’re just supposed to love our enemies. Period. We are to do good to them. Period. We are not to resist evil doers. Period.

We don’t get to say “Yeah, but this doesn’t count when it comes to really bad enemies, such as terrorists.” In fact, those are exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples had in mind. They weren’t only threatened by a foreign nation; they were already conquered by them. The Romans were known to put dozens, even thousands of Jews to death by crucifixion just to keep them living in fear. If you can imagine an America that has already been conquered by our worst enemies, then perhaps you can start to grasp the kind of enemies Jesus had in mind when He commanded his followers to love their enemies.

So the challenging question you must wrestle with is this: in light of all that the New Testament says about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can we, as followers of Jesus, justify killing our enemies?

Jesus Never Denounced Military Service

In light of all that the New Testament says about how to treat our enemies, we might expect to find Jesus denouncing military service all together. However, this isn’t what we find. Although He had numerous opportunities, Jesus never denounced military service. Not even once.

When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, John told them “do not exhort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3.14). But he didn’t tell them to leave the military.

In Matthew 8.5-13, a Centurion approached Jesus asking him to heal his servant. In response, Jesus praised the Centurion’s faith without adding a single word about his role in the wicked and idolatrous Roman army.

In Mark 15.39, Mark records that a Centurion who was assisting in the crucifixion of Jesus confessed “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Other than simply mentioning this confession, Mark didn’t add any other comment, expressing neither approval nor disapproval of the centurion’s role in the military.

In Acts 10, Cornelius, a centurion, was described as an “upright and God-fearing man who is spoken well of by the whole Jewish nationbefore he became a Christian. In the account of his conversion, he was commanded to be baptized. But not one word was spoken about his role as a centurion. He was not asked to leave the military.

In all of these accounts, no military person was ever asked to leave their positions. For many, this settles the question of military service. Many will cite these passages to defend the position that Christians can fight in the military without having any reservations about being called upon to kill their enemies.

However, I caution you not to argue for more than what these scriptures teach. Although none of these passages instruct military personnel to leave their positions, none of them express words of approval of their positions in the military either.

To argue that these passages give Christians full approval for military service is an argument from silence. Arguing from silence is what many will do with the account of the Philippian jailer to argue for infant baptism. Acts 16.33 tells us that the jailer and his whole family were baptized. Some will point and say “see, there’s infant baptism.” But the text doesn’t say that infants were baptized. That’s an argument from silence.We can only infer from what the text says, not from what the text doesn’t say. 

Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commenting on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4.16-18, Jesus spoke with a Samaritans woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a woman she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and cohabitation? Certainly not!

Luke 5.29-30 describes how Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. And yet there’s not one work from Jesus rebuking them. This doesn’t mean that Jesus approved of their sin. It means that Jesus was willing to meet them where they were in life, and start working with them at that point.

We can only argue from what the Bible actually says, not from what it doesn’t say. We can say that Jesus didn’t rebuke soldiers for their military service or require them to step down. We cannot say that Jesus therefore approved (or disapproved) of them in these positions.

It is safe to assume that if each of these soldiers continued to follow Jesus, they would eventually be confronted with the same “love your enemy” commands mentioned above. They would have to work out the implications of those commands in their own lives. Did they leave their military posts? Did they stay and try their best to serve Jesus and love their enemies from within the military? We simply don’t know. The text doesn’t tell us.

The Decision is Yours

The Bible never gives a clear command about whether or not a Christian can join the military. So the question comes down to you. In light of all that Jesus commanded about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can you put yourself in a position where you may be called on to kill your enemies?

If you decide you cannot join the military without compromising your conscience, then don’t join. But, don’t turn your conviction into a formula that you can apply to other Christians who decide to join the military. Although we must clearly teach what Jesus teaches about how Christians are to treat their enemies, we must never draw a line that Scripture doesn’t draw. If Jesus never felt compelled to condemn military service, we shouldn’t either.

No Christian has any business questioning the authenticity of another Christian’s faith, regardless of whether they are in the US military or in a military that opposes the US. In the New Testament, military persons were met with the gospel wherever they were, and were left to work out the difficult implications on their own. We should do the same.

If it seems to us that someone’s position in the military makes them a sinner, let us remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.1-3:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

If you do choose to join the military, nothing in scripture forbids you from making that choice. But never stop wrestling with what it means to “love your enemies”, to “do good to them” and to “leave vengeance to God”.

Make a practice of loving your enemies in small everyday ways. Be kind to your grumpy neighbor. Buy supper for the rude, arrogant, self-centered person in your unit. Pray for the lives and families of enemy soldiers that they will be blessed with the gospel. Train your heart to respond in love to the people who deserve it the least. And then, when you come face to face with your enemy, with your finger on the trigger, have the courage to love them even in that crucial moment.

Never stop following Jesus. Never stop loving your enemies.

In Him,

Your Loving Brother

Capital Punishment, War, and Loving Your Enemies

Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?

Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?

There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.

There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.

You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.

Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)

Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?

Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.

Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.

Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).

Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).

Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.

What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?

  1. God is a Just God

God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6

  1. Not All Killing Is Murder

Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.

  1. The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God

Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.

The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4

When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.

Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.

In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.

The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
-Psalm 33.16-19

Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.

Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands

The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness.  If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?

What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?

The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…

That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.

What About Justice?

Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).

In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.

This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.

God is the all-knowing, and perfectly-just Creator of life. As such, if God wants to use governments to execute His wrath against evildoers, He certainly has that right (Cf. Rom. 13.1-4).

But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).

Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.

What About Common Sense?

Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?

The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.

Does Romans 13 Teach That Christians Have Permission to Kill For Their Government?

It is my conviction that since the fourth century AD, the frequent misinterpretation of Romans 13 has done more to harm the reputation of Christianity than perhaps any other misinterpreted scripture.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God , an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.1-4

This scripture is used to support the idea that Christians have a “dual citizenship.” That is, since God set up government, and since they do not bear the sword in vain, Christians have obligations both to God and to the government. These obligations do not conflict with one another since government authorities have different responsibilities than private individuals.

According to this view, when a Christian is acting as an agent of their government, they may bear the sword against their enemies, but when they act as individuals they are to love their enemies. Therefore a Christian may bear the sword against evildoers without sinning if they are doing so as an agent of the government.

This has been the dominant way of understanding Romans 13 ever since the Catholic Church came into political power in the late 4th century. But this is not what Romans 13 actually teaches. In fact, Romans 13 teaches nearly the opposite.

What is Wrong with the “Dual Citizenship” Idea?

Before looking at Romans 13, these three things should cause us to pause before accepting the dual citizenship interpretation.

  1. The way the New Testament describes Jesus

Jesus didn’t have divided loyalties. Rather, Jesus was executed by the Jewish and Roman authorities because they viewed Him as their enemy. Jesus did have lots to say that should impact the way a Christian approaches politics, but Jesus never sought a political office or political reform. Jesus served only one Master.

Also notice the language that the early Christians used to describe Jesus. In the early Roman Empire, the unifying slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord”, this not only made a statement about Jesus, it also made a statement about Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  They didn’t have two sets of loyalties; they had one. This was the primary reason Christians were thrown into prison and persecuted by their government.

  1. What Jesus taught about love for enemies

Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies rule out any possibility of allowing that love to be qualified by anyone or anything.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.43-45

Christians are to love the way the Father loves, and the Father doesn’t pick and choose who He is going to send rain and sunshine to. Just as the Father has no exception clause when it comes to His love for enemies, likewise Jesus offered no exception clause for Christians when they love their enemies.

This rules out any possibility of Christians saying “I’m going to love this kind of enemy, but not that kind of enemy”, or “I’m going to love my enemies in these circumstances, but not in those circumstances.”  The command has nothing to do with the nature of our enemies or our circumstances.

This undermines the idea Christians must do good to their enemies, unless they are acting in the political realm, in which case they are allowed to bear the sword against them. Unqualified, enemy-love, is the identifying mark of those who are sons of their Father. As soon as we look for a time when it is “okay” to not love our enemies, we have ceased to love the way our Father loves.

  1. What Jesus taught about resisting evil

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.38-39

When Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person,” He didn’t mean Christians are to be passive and do nothing in response to evil.  The Greek word translated “resist” specifically refers to violent resistance. It means that Christians aren’t to respond with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bullet for a bullet, or a bomb for a bomb. Christians can and should resist evil by getting involved and even laying down their lives if necessary, but they aren’t to respond to violence with violence.

Just retaliation was the principle upon which all the Old Testament scriptures about punishing violence were founded (Ex. 21.24), and it is likewise the principle of justice that underlies our modern social system. Jesus said, “You have heard” that principle of justice, and then immediately instructs his followers not to follow that principle. Disciples of Jesus cannot use the principle of justice to justify violence against enemies.

Supporters of the “dual citizenship” idea sometimes look to the Old Testament to defend their position. Jesus recognized that the Old Testament commanded just retaliation. But Jesus commanded His followers not to follow that principle, but rather to love the way the Father loves.

Does Romans 13 Make An Exception?

Romans 13 is often used to make two closely related points. 1) While God doesn’t approve of private retaliation, He does approve of governments when they bear the sword. 2) Therefore, when Christians bear the sword against evildoers as agents of the government, they are not sinning.

Next time you hear Romans 13 used in this way, consider these three points.

  1. “Institutes” does not mean “approved”

The Greek word translated as “institutes” is “Tasso”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines Tasso as “to arrange in an orderly manner.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “To place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint.” “Tasso” cannot be translated as “created” or “approves of”.

When a librarian arranges books, it doesn’t matter whether the librarian likes a book or despises a book. To arrange those books in a certain order doesn’t infer that the librarian approves of what is written in those books.

Romans 13 builds on the Old Testament teachings about how God uses pagan governments to accomplish His will. God used nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians as His ministers, but continually made it clear that He did not approve of the violence of those nations.

Romans 13 doesn’t teach that God “approves” of governments. Rather it teaches that God takes them as they are, whether good or evil, and arranges them in a way which serves His purposes. God arranges them to avenge the one who practices evil for the good of His children. Therefore governments do not bear the sword in vain.

  1. Not bearing the sword in vain is not the same as “not sinning”

In this context, when Paul writes that governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, this means that when governments wield the sword of violence, God arranges them to ensure that their violence is not without purpose.

God can make all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28). In the context of Romans 8, this includes persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. No one would argue that persecution “is good” or “has God’s approval”, but God can use horrible things to work together for the good of His children. They are not in vain.

In the same way, governments do not bear the sword in vain. But there is not one word in Romans 13 that can be used to suggest that Christians have permission to bear the sword against their enemies without sinning.

  1. Context, Context, Context

If we read Romans 13 in context we can see that Paul is actually teaching something opposite of the “dual citizenship” idea.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyoneNever take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 14, 17, 19-21

Like Jesus, Paul offers no qualifications to enemy-love. We are to love all of our enemies, all the time, without exception. Christians are to leave all vengeance to God. This is the same Greek word (ekdikeos) used in Romans 13.4 to describe what God uses governments to accomplish.

Never take your own revenge (ekdikeo), beloved. – Romans 12.19a

Why? Because…

Vengeance (ekdikos) is mine”… says the Lord.” – Romans 12.19b

How does God execute vengeance on our enemies?

[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger (ekdikos) who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.4

God uses governments to do the very thing He forbids Christians from doing. Christians are never to execute vengeance. We aren’t allowed to do that.

Conclusion

Romans 13 must not be used to encourage Christians to bear the sword for their government against evildoers. First of all Romans 13 does not teach God’s approval of governments when they bear the sword. And even more importantly, no Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ. As Christians, we have sworn off all vengeance against our enemies. Vengeance belongs to God, and God uses governments to bring it about.

Christians do not have dual citizenship with dual allegiances and dual sets of responsibilities. Yes, in a legal sense, we do have citizenship in an earthly country. But when it comes to our allegiance, we are to proclaim that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).