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.

How the Early Church Approached Politics

In the early church there was widespread agreement that it was inappropriate for Christians to seek political power. These early Christians believed that their separation from the state was an important part of following the example of Jesus. By “early church” I mean the church prior to the year 313, the year Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. When Christianity transitioned from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion, this led to a rapid change of perspective and practice on many issues.

Why Care What the Early Church Did?

The early Christians were fallible human beings. They wrote uninspired words. They were just as capable of error as men in any other generation. Although the early church’s practices and teachings did correspond to the New Testament in many ways, they made errors as well. We shouldn’t just agree with everything the early church said or did. The Bible is our authority, and where the early church departed from Scripture, we are always to go with Scripture.

These early Christian writers were not inspired, and they are not authoritative. But they were dedicated disciples of Jesus, and they were knowledgeable students of Scripture with very strong convictions (convictions they were often willing to die for). They also lived in a time and culture not far removed from the New Testament itself.

Their opinions aren’t authoritative, but we should still pay attention to what they had to say, and carefully consider their words. This is especially true in those areas where we find all of the early Christians speaking on a subject unified in agreement with one another.

Polycarp (69-155, Smyrna)

Perhaps the earliest post-New Testament indication of the church’s relationship to government from The Martyrdom of Polycarp (read chapters 9 and 10 here). Polycarp was personally taught by the Apostle John, and was an elder at the church in Smyrna. As he faced martyrdom, he was given a simple request,

Swear by the fortune of Caesar… Swear, and I will set thee at liberty!

Polycarp responded to this request in the following words:

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme by King and Savior?

According to John’s disciple, Polycarp, to swear an oath of allegiance to the fortune of Caesar was to blaspheme against King Jesus. Yet even while facing death, Polycarp went on to respond further:

To thee have I thought it right to offer and account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honor (which entails no injury to ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God.

Even though Polycarp refused to swear his allegiance to Caesar, he was committed to continually showing honor to governing powers and authorities.

Justin Martyr (100-165, Rome)

Justin Martyr wrote a defense of Christianity to the emperor , explaining that while Christians do not encourage open rebellion against the emperor, there are limitations to what services they can offer. (Read “First Apology” chapter 17 here)

And everywhere, we more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him… Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you…

But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed.

From Justin Martyr’s apology, we observe:

  • When Christians are unhappy with the unsound judgments of their rulers, they are not to rebel against them. Rather they are to continue to gladly serve them.
  • If Christians want to positively influence their rulers towards sound judgment, they may offer prayers and “frank explanations”
  • If these prayers and explanations are not sufficient to bring about positive change, they are to have confidence that God will hold their rulers accountable with the punishment of eternal fire.

Tertullian (160-220, Carthage)

Tertullian was one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers. In His treatise “On Idolatry” (Read chapter 18 here) Tertullian wrote:

He [Jesus] exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king. He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. For if they were to be used, who would rather have used them than the Son of God? What kind and what number of fasces would escort Him? What kind of purple would bloom from His shoulders? What kind of gold would beam from His head, had He not judged the glory of the world to be alien both to Himself and to His disciples.

According to Tertullian:

  • If Jesus had wanted to hold earthly political office, He would have achieved the greatest honors any king has ever known.
  • Yet Jesus rejected the opportunity to become an earthly king.
  • In so doing, Jesus set an example that all Christians should follow.

Tertullian went on in the same chapter to describe political power as an enemy of God.

Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil’s pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God’s, can be no other’s but the devil’s. If you have forsworn the devil’s pomp, know that whatever you touch is idolatry. Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of God.

In another place, as Tertullian was writing a defense of Christianity, Tertullian observed that the testimony of Jesus was so convincing that even the Caesar’s themselves would have believed. The Caesars, however, were prevented from accepting Christianity because they understood that Christians cannot be Caesars. (Read Apology, chapter 21 here)

The Caesars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Caesars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars.

Origen (184-253, Alexandria)

The most complete discussion of Christianity and politics in the early church can be found in the discussion between Celsus and Origen”. Celsus was a pagan philosopher who wrote a serious attack against Christianity in his book “True Doctrine”. Although his book has not been preserved in its entirety, a good portion of it is preserved through Origen’s response, “Against Celsus”. Origen was one of the greatest scholars and most prolific writers in the early church.

Celsus’ Attack

One of Celsus’ primary attacks against Christianity was the way they separated themselves from the state. He viewed Christianity as a “new state of things” that was caused by “rebellion against the state” (3.5). Celsus believed that each nation’s form of government had been preserved for the public advantage.  Therefore, “it would be an act of impiety to get rid of the institutions established from the beginning in various places” (5.25).

At the heart of Celsus’ concern was his understanding that when one becomes a Christian, they withdrew themselves from participating in political powers.

If everyone should do the same as you, nothing would prevent the emperor from being left alone and deserted, and the affairs of the earth would come into the hands of the most lawless and the wildest barbarians; and then there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of your religion or of the true wisdom. (8.68)

Celsus was certainly prejudiced against the Christians, but he was well informed of their way of life. And it is apparent that Celsus did not know of any Christians who had become involved politics, and viewed the rejection of political powers as a matter of principle among them.

Origien’s Response to Celsus

It is interesting to note that Origen did not respond to Celsus’ attack by saying “You are wrong. Look, here are lots of Christians who have sought to reform, strengthen, and support the Roman Empire.” Rather Origen accepted the accuracy of Celsus’ claim, and sought to justify Christians in their separation from the state. Origen pointed out that as a matter of principle, the talent of the church should be devoted to the service of building up the church, rather than to be involved in politics.

“Celsus also urges us to take office in the government of the county, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion. But we recognize that in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches… And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God – for the salvation of men. (8.75)

Origen encouraged Celsus to think through his accusation to its logical conclusion. What would really happen if everyone became a Christian, and thus withdrew themselves from the political powers?

For if, as Celsus says, “everyone should do the same” as I, it is evident that even the barbarians, having come to the word of God, will be most law abiding and civilized, and every religion will be destroyed except that of the Christians, which will prevail. (8.68)

According to Origen it was a “religious act” of Christians to turn people away from the customs of the Romans and to turn them to the better laws enacted by Jesus (5.32). Origin’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship with the state in the early church could be summed up in these words:

We are to despise integrating ourselves with kings or any other men. (8.65)

What Can We Take Away From These Early Christians?

From the preserved writings of early Christian authors, it appears that the early church believed that there were two kingdoms: the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God. Since Christians are committed to imitating the example of Jesus, it would be inappropriate for Christians to seek political power.

And the church grew. Without any Christians in positions of political power, the church increased. Without any “religious freedom” or “Christian principles” in government, the church triumphed.

These early Christians aren’t authoritative. Only the Bible is. Perhaps these Christians were wrong, but their convictions should cause us to think about, and perhaps question, why we believe it is so important for Christians to get involved in politics.

An early Christian named Speratus wrote:

The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve God… Because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.

Speratus refused to give his allegiance to Rome. Speratus went on to defeat the Roman Empire. He was martyred in 180 for his faith. (Read “The Passion of Sciliitian Martyrs” here)