The question of whether governments have a divine right to wage war, and whether Christians have a divine right to participate in these wars, is often controversial. This is understandable. The numerous and various atrocities committed by man during every war in history must be acknowledged. Indeed, the Devil accomplishes much through the horrors of any and all kinds of war. It is because of the existence of this immeasurable carnage that many within the church cannot conscientiously support or participate in any war, no matter the reason for it. All of us must respect and work hard to not offend each other’s consciences and the scruples held by all of us because of our consciences (Rom. 14:1-23). Yet each of us must also “work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12), which includes coming to know and acknowledge all truth, which is defined by Scripture as the totality of what God’s Word says on any given subject (Ps. 119:160a; John 17:17).
History shows us that wars are fought at times for selfish reasons, with one example of such being a desire to conquer and take from other countries and peoples. The second World War was started by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers of Italy and Japan for those reasons. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait for those same reasons. A case could be made that the war between the United States and Mexico and the wars between the U.S. and the various Native American tribes throughout the 1800’s took place because of the U.S.’s interests in “manifest destiny,” i.e., the goal of claiming all the North American continent from coast to coast as belonging to America. Many other examples could be cited.
Yet history also reveals that wars are sometimes fought for the more noble reasons of defense and giving freedom to those without it. The United States entered the second World War after Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war upon America days later. The U.S.’s goals in that war started with defense of their own country and people and eventually grew to include freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny and Jews from Nazi enslavement and genocide. The Civil War began after the Confederate government fired upon the U.S. forces at Fort Sumter and was initially looked upon by the Lincoln administration as an attempt to quell the unlawful rebellion of the Southern states and ended up being a fight not only for the restoration of the Union but also for the termination of the unjust practice of slavery. Other examples could likewise be given.
Tyranny and thievery, whether done on an individual or national level, goes against numerous biblical commands and principles. Wars fought by governments with the goal of promoting such wrongs would thus be unjust and sinful from a biblical perspective. Indeed, this is a major way in which Satan uses the governments of man to further his agenda of sorrow, sin, and evil upon this world. Yet a case could also be made that established governments using lethal force in the venue of warfare out of a desire to defend themselves, right wrongs, and stop unlawful rebellion would fall under the parameter of “not bearing the sword in vain” as God’s servants and His instrument to avenge the ones upon whom wrong has been done by the evildoer (Rom. 13:3-4; Rom. 12:19).
During the time of the patriarchs, cities were built (the first of which likely being the city built by Cain – Gen. 4:17) and governments were likely created to govern those cities. The first kingdom or empire mentioned in the Bible was after the flood; “Nimrod the mighty hunter” was said to rule over it. It started in the land of Shinar at Babel, went on to Assyria and came to include Nineveh and other cities (Gen. 10:8-14). Yet there were also many familial tribes outside the realm of cities, kingdoms, and empires which existed during those times. Abram was the head of one of those familial tribes. Formerly a citizen of Ur of the Chaldeans, he left his country at the Lord’s direction and spent the rest of his life living “in the land of promise as in a foreign country” (Heb. 11:9). When nations and kingdoms fighting each other in a war of conquest conquered Sodom, the home of his nephew Lot, and kidnapped him and his goods, Abram upon being informed of Lot’s capture “armed three hundred and eighteen trained servants” and “went in pursuit,” ending in him and his forces attacking the forces who had kidnapped Lot and rescuing him (Gen. 14:1-16). His involvement in war because he wanted to rescue his family is not condemned in any way in Scripture. On the contrary, the priest of God Most High named Melchizedek blessed Abram and God for delivering Abram’s enemies into his hand (Gen. 14:18-20). That is worthy of note.
During the Mosaic economy, we read of several wars in which God’s nation Israel were involved. Amalek attacked Israel on one occasion and the Lord miraculously intervened to give Israel the victory without any condemnation of their choosing to fight to defend themselves (Ex. 17:8-13). Years later the Lord would direct Israel under the leadership of king Saul to completely destroy Amalek as punishment for attacking Israel in the wilderness (1 Sam. 15:1-3). When Israel was attacked by the Canaanite king of Arad, the Lord helped them conquer the Canaanites and their cities (Num. 21:1-3). The Lord also directed and helped Israel to conquer the Amorites when the Amorites attacked them, not only out of defense but also to punish the Amorites for their iniquities (Num. 21:21-30; cf. Gen. 15:16-21; 1 Kings 21:26; Amos 2:9). He gave the land of Canaan into their hand, not only because He had promised the land to them earlier during the time of their patriarchal ancestors (Ex. 13:5), but again to punish the inhabitants of the land for their sins (Deut. 9:1-5).
More examples from the time of the law and the prophets of God directing His people to engage in warfare could be given, and they all are worthy of note when it comes to the question of whether governments engaging in war is inherently sinful because the Lord is never the source of sin. What He does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19:8; 33:4; 7:9), and He tempts no one to do evil (James 1:13). What He directed Israel to do in these matters was recorded in Old Testament Scripture as an example to us who live in the Christian era and to instruct us (1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4). A case could be made from these Old Testament examples that God would not consider a country to be engaged in sinful conduct if they were involved in a war out of an effort to defend themselves or to punish the wicked. Indeed, as we have seen God has used war between nations to punish the wicked, including war engaged by a nation out of a desire to defend themselves. Since God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), it is reasonable to conclude that He uses wars fought for just reasons to accomplish the same goals today.
As addressed in yesterday’s article, some would say that citing what God directed Israel to do in the Old Testament as an example to Christians today is an example of “picking and choosing” which parts of the Old Testament to follow. They would also say that these kinds of directives from God to Israel were meant to be temporary, as part of Him gradually revealing His complete will which would be realized in the New Testament, at which time He would expect nothing but non-violent behavior at all times from His followers. However, as we are seeing in this study, these divine directives and principles which both allow and command violence towards wrongdoers in certain circumstances existed in the time of the patriarchs, during the time of the Law of Moses, and now in the Christian age. Therefore, when one reads “the entirety of Your Word which is truth” (Ps. 119:160a) and thus comes to see the complete revelation of God’s will for us as established in the New Testament, it is clear that Jehovah has always allowed and even directed violent behavior towards wrongdoers in certain circumstances (which would include war), and He continues to do so today.
As we continue our study, it is interesting to note how the Scriptures teach that God also uses war which is done by unrighteous nations for sinful purposes to accomplish these goals, thus providing another example of how God is in such complete control that He can even use Satan’s own devices to accomplish His own ends! The Lord promised Israel that He would punish them in the same ways He was using them to punish the idolatrous nations they were driving out of Canaan should they fall away from Him (Deut. 8:19-20). Old Testament history repeatedly shows this warning to come to fruition. During the time of the judges when Israel repeatedly fell away from God into idolatrous, sinful living, God sent other nations to wage war against them and conquer them; when they returned to God, he sent them deliverers such as Gideon and Deborah who led them into battle to free them from the foreign oppressors He had previously used to punish them. When the idolatrous, apostatized northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and the southern kingdom of Judah was increasingly following in their footsteps, the prophet Habakkuk was informed by the Lord that He would use the ungodly nation of Babylon and their sinful desire to conquer other nations to punish Judah by conquering her (Hab. 1:5-2:1), a horrific calamity which the prophet Daniel later acknowledged was God’s fulfillment of His oath against Israel should they fall away from Him (Dan. 9:4-16). He then promised Habakkuk that Babylon herself would then be punished for their own iniquities (Hab. 2:5-20). This prompted Habakkuk to remember how God had brought punishment to the wicked and salvation to His faithful people through these means in times past (Hab. 3:1-15). He would use the same methods for these same purposes again a few centuries later during the coming of the Christian age.
As the age of the law and the prophets was ending during the time of Christ and His kingdom was beginning to be ushered in, He and His forerunner and cousin, John the Baptizer, repeatedly alluded prophetically to the coming destruction of the Jewish temple and economy by the Romans which would take place before that generation ended in A.D. 70. John indicted the Pharisees and Sadducees standing before him by alluding to the coming destruction at the hands of the Romans a few decades hence (Matt. 3:7, 10; Luke 3:7, 9). Jesus would follow suit throughout His ministry (Luke 13:1-9; Matt. 21:33-46; 22:1-7; 23:29-39; 24:1-34; Luke 23:27-31). Thus, as God had once used the warring armies of wicked Babylon to punish Judah for her sins, He would use the war waged against Judea by wicked Rome to punish the Jews for rejecting their Messiah. It is worthy of note that He used the warfare waged by Rome against Judea to discipline her during the early years of the Christian era. When we again remember that our Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), we could reasonably conclude that God continues to use wars conducted for unrighteous purposes to accomplish similar goals today as well.
We should also take note of the time in which John the Baptizer found himself preaching to a crowd of people which included some soldiers (Luke 3:1-14). The crowds had been asking the prophet, “What then shall we do?” The soldiers joined in, “And we, what shall we do?” It must be noted that John did not tell them to abandon their profession of soldiering even though he had a clear opportunity to do so if being a soldier was inherently sinful due to their required use of violence in war. Rather, he told them only to “not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
After the new covenant began in earnest upon the death and resurrection of our Lord, it is worthy of note that there is no scriptural record of converted soldiers such as Cornelius the centurion and the Philippian jailer being issued apostolic commands to abandon their professions as part of their newfound allegiance to Christ (Acts 10-11; 16). Additionally, it is noteworthy that the apostle Paul called upon his military guards – whom he was trying to convert to Christ (Phil. 1:12-13; Acts 24:24-26; 25:13-26:29; 28:16, 30-31) and who had as a high priority to do nothing that would hinder the gospel or place a stumbling block on anyone’s path to heaven (Rom. 14:13; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 9:19-27; 11:1) – to be ready to take the lives of wrongdoers (Acts 23:12-33). Why would he willingly call for the possibility of violence? The answer is found when we come back to the Romans passage in which Christians are informed that governmental authorities, of which soldiers engaged in warfare are a part, “do not bear the sword in vain” in the context of being described as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).
Therefore, while it must be said that the warfare commanded of God for Christians is specified as being spiritual rather than worldly in that it is focused on our evangelistic efforts to win souls for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Eph. 6:10-20; cf. Is. 2:2-4), there is also no indication in Scripture that God would be displeased with a Christian whose worldly profession was a policeman or soldier and thus would be required to use violent means, including that of war, to punish evildoers. This is because of His edict that governmental authorities are His servants, His way to avenge the wrongs done upon the good by the evil, and to that end they “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). Some would use the previously cited Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 2:2-4 to conclude that God would not want the Messiah’s followers to engage in any sort of violence for any reason, since “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4). What is overlooked is that if such were definitely the case, then the forerunner of the Messiah would have definitely told the soldiers who specifically asked him what they should do to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is. 2:4). Yet he didn’t. We would have had within the inspired Scriptures (which exist to “thoroughly equip (us) for every good work” – 2 Tim. 3:16-17) clear records of the apostles commanding the soldiers whom they converted to Christ to repent of their soldiering since its required use of violence was inherently sinful and not supposed to be part of any Christian’s life. Yet we do not read of any such command given to Cornelius or the Philippian jailer. The apostle Paul certainly would not have called upon his military captors to be ready to kill people in order to protect his life. However, that’s exactly what he did.
Isaiah 2:2-4 is a Messianic prophecy, but its focus is on foretelling that the spiritual nation which is the kingdom of God, the church, would fight a spiritual war which is basically evangelism. While talking about saving souls, Paul compared it to warfare but clarified that this particular fight – the teaching of the gospel to the lost – is not “waging war according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 10:3). He would go on to say that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (v. 4). Christians, while teaching others the gospel, are to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (v. 5). By specifying that it is a spiritual fight rather than a physical one, he correlates his teaching with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah’s followers shall “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The “kingdom (which) is not of this world” (John 18:36) is not going to fight the spiritual war of evangelism by using physical war and physical violence to force people to follow Christ. Thus, Christ’s spiritual “nation” will “not lift up sword against” any physical “nation” in its efforts to achieve the Great Commission. Rather, it will wield the “sword of the Spirit” which is God’s Word through the teaching of the gospel to win this particular fight.
However, while Christ’s followers are commanded to evangelize through spiritual fighting rather than physical fighting, it is also still true that we live in this physical world. Concerning this physical world, we have seen that God still allows governmental authorities to be his “servants” and instruments to “carry out (His) wrath on the wrongdoer” and thus “not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). His inspired apostle recognized this and its inherent legitimacy for the Christian to involve themselves in it by calling upon soldiers to be willing to engage in violent warfare in order to save his life from assassins (Acts 23:12-32), and the Holy Spirit took the time to inspire Luke to record this incident in Scripture as an example to us in order to instruct us concerning righteousness and equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Therefore, it is not inherently a sin for anyone, including Christians, to be a soldier, jailer or a policeman – professions that would inherently require if necessary violence against evildoers – and it would not be inherently sinful in all circumstances for a Christian who is a soldier or policeman to engage in physical warfare against wrongdoers.
While some wars are waged for satanic reasons such as tyrannical conquest, oppression, and theft of lands and freedoms, other wars are waged for the righteous reasons of defense, the enforcement of the rule of law, and to bring about liberty from tyrannical rule. God ultimately uses both kinds of wars to accomplish His own ends, which the Bible reveals are often to punish evil nations and peoples for their iniquities. The convictions of those whose consciences would refuse to permit them to engage in any kind of warfare must be respected, but the scriptural examples and principles cited above must also be taken into consideration when studying the admittedly complex moral question of warfare, the Christian’s involvement in it, and whether God condemns as sin the choices of the governments which choose to engage in it.