One significant “gray area” of the faith involves Christians and military participation. For generations, brethren have disputed whether Christians can or should serve in the military of a government. The dispute seems to always come to a head whenever significant military participation is demanded by the country, from the Mexican War until now.
The disputation has seen great fervor because of great passion for the Kingdom of God and for nations, particularly the United States of America. And yet the Scriptures do not explicitly affirm nor condemn Christian participation in the military. Each person must search the Scriptures and be fully convinced in his or her own mind (Acts 17:11, Romans 14:5, 23). Nevertheless, when the whole of God’s new covenant message is considered, I believe that it poses significant difficulties for participation in the military, especially in any role that involves the taking of life.
Arguments regarding this issue have been formulated and considered for well over one hundred years. In time we will consider many of them; there has been little innovation in these arguments since the days of the Civil War. One feature that has often been lacking in such discussions and disputations involves a Kingdom perspective.
In terms of the Kingdom of God, there is general agreement that God’s purposes cannot be accomplished through military action. Jesus establishes that His Kingdom is not of this world, and the proof of such is that His disciples were not fighting (John 18:36). Paul makes it clear that our conflict is not with flesh and blood, but with the spiritual forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). God has never sanctioned conversion at the edge of a sword or the point of a gun.
Yet there is much more to a Kingdom perspective. A Kingdom perspective looks at the world through the eyes of the Body of Christ, so to speak (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33). Its worldview is the view of its Savior (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:6).
The Kingdom perspective transcends any individual nation’s view. Jesus’ Kingdom broke in pieces and consumed the earthly kingdoms of His day, and it is to remain forever (Daniel 2:44). Its membership is not limited to any particular nation-state; anyone can become a member, and there are members of the Kingdom who live in many different nations (Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, the advancement of the Kingdom and God’s purposes for the Kingdom represent the most pressing priority for every constituent member (Matthew 6:33). Wherever there might be a conflict between God’s purposes for His Kingdom and a nation-state’s purpose for its promotion and advancement, the Christian must choose God over men (cf. Acts 5:29).
We also must give consideration to nation-states and how they function. It has been noted that nation-states rely on the selfless devotion of its citizens in order to achieve its rather selfish purposes. Every nation-state attempts to instill fervent devotion to its doctrines and existence into its citizens. When these principles are combined, we can perceive that nation-states have a vested interest in inflaming and preserving fervent nationalism. Devotion to the nation-state and its purposes must be strong if the state will survive and its purposes achieved. Some nation-states, like Rome, were quite explicit in divinizing the state and its leader: “Roma” was served as a god in many places, and the Emperor cult was legendary. Many other nation-states have been less explicit in this type of idolatry, yet the devotion they demand is idolatrous or easily leads to idolatry.
Ever since God broke off the branches of unfaithful Israel (cf. Romans 11), He has not considered any given nation-state His peculiar possession. The establishment of Christ’s Kingdom as transcending any individual nation-state precludes any such selection. Many nations have attempted to claim God’s elect status, and yet, in truth, God has not selected any such nation.
We can hopefully see that God calls all believers to devote themselves to the Kingdom of Christ and its advancement, and that Kingdom transcends any individual nation-state and its affairs. Meanwhile, nation-states seek the type of devotion God demands from His believers from its citizens for its own purposes to achieve its own ends.
It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that when God does speak regarding nation-states in the New Testament, He shows indifference or hostility. The Christian’s obligations to the government are enumerated in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, and 1 Peter 2:13-17: obey the laws of the land. Pay taxes. Respect authority. Pray for all people, especially government authorities, so that Christians can maintain peace and tranquility. When a governmental power turns and persecutes the Kingdom, God shows His hostility; consider John’s presentation of God’s wrath against Rome in Revelation 13-19.
None of these passages presuppose that Christians are intimately involved in the affairs of government. In fact, they all seem to show indifference to the affairs of governance– the government is the “other,” and we as Christians must live peaceably and lawfully so as to not cause it offense while we pursue the purposes of the Kingdom (cf. Philippians 3:21). When government stands against Christians, Christians do not fight back– that is left to God (Romans 12:19, Revelation 13-19).
Yes, it is true that Paul took advantage of the privileges of his Roman citizenship (cf. Acts 16:37-39, Acts 22:23-29). Yet we see that he uses this privilege not for political gain or to involve himself in Roman affairs, but to allow him to promote the Gospel. We are also told that there are believers among Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22); we know nothing else about them, and they were likely slaves who attended to the needs of the emperor.
We see no imperative, therefore, that Christians are to serve in the military of a nation-state or any imperative to tend to the affairs of nation-states. The New Testament seems to show indifference to such nation-states, and presupposes that believers of Jesus Christ are more focused on His Kingdom and His purposes than what happens to the authority of the countries in which they live (Matthew 10:37-39, Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4).
Can Christians participate in functions of government? Some Christians did participate in governmental functions (Cornelius, Manaen, servants of Caesar; cf. Acts 10, Acts 13:1, Philippians 4:22). It is not inherently sinful, therefore, for Christians to participate in governmental functions. Yet, as in all things, we must take care to serve God over men. If performing a function of government would compromise the faith, we must not perform that function of government.
Military participation provides many opportunities for compromising the faith.
First, there is the oath. To participate in the military, one must swear an oath of devotion to the nation-state and its ideals. In the Roman world, this oath, called the sacramentum, invoked pagan deities. The American oath does no such thing, but it can still lead to conflicts between what God says and what the government demands.
As it is written,
But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment (James 5:12).
The Lord makes a similar comment in Matthew 5:37. There is great concern in being bound by an oath to serve the purposes of any nation-state; in so doing, you oblige yourself to follow the orders of your superiors and to accomplish their initiatives, regardless of the moral legitimacy thereof. If the nation fights an imperialist war or defensive war, you have obliged yourself to fight. If asked to perform a task that conflicts with God’s will, you compromise one of your obligations whatever you do: you either fulfill your oath and violate God’s will, or you fulfill your commitment to God and violate your oath. This is precisely the reason that Jesus would not have us swear oaths: in so doing, we set up a master that may be at variance with our Lord.
There is also the matter of taking life. Jesus commands His followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who would abuse them, to turn the other cheek when wronged (Matthew 5:38-47, Luke 6:27-36). Paul advises Christians to not take vengeance and to not be overtaken by evil, but return good for evil (Romans 12:19-21).
We all recognize and confess the legitimacy of these passages in terms of our personal lives and our spiritual conflicts. Yet many seek to make exception for the purposes of government and “institutional” conflicts.
On what basis can these exceptions be granted? If the Christian is to love his enemy in his personal life, on what basis can anyone argue that he is not to love the enemy of the nation-state in which he lives? If we recognize that the taking of life is “evil” in our personal lives, what makes it less evil when a government commands it?
The whole argument presupposes some kind of distinction between “sacred” and “secular,” and yet no proof or evidence is offered for this distinction. The New Testament does not presuppose any such distinction. The Christian is called to serve God and to abide by His principles in “sacred” arenas and “personal” arenas. He or she is to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). He or she is to have no greater loyalty (Matthew 10:37-39). In fact, he or she is to pattern their lives according to Jesus Christ, and allow their relationship with God to inform the rest of their activities (Galatians 2:20; cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9). If the taking of life is abhorrent to God in one’s personal life, it is abhorrent to God in any sphere of life.
After all, what would happen if two nation-states fought a war, and each nation-state had Christians within it? What if Christians signed up for military service on each side, took weapons, and fought against their brethren? This is no abstraction– it happened for certain during the American Civil War, and it has doubtless happened in other conflicts. We have servants of God taking up arms and killing fellow servants of God in the name of some nation-state. Can this really be acceptable to God? On what basis can this be defended from the New Testament, since the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that God’s purposes for His Kingdom are to be tantamount in our lives (Matthew 6:33)?
If we recognize the dilemma when speaking about fellow Christians, how is it any different if the Christian is fighting non-Christians? God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11). He desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). You cannot lead them to the truth while killing them!
God makes it clear that the taking of life is wrong. God’s purposes for the Kingdom are not advanced on any human battlefield. Where there is war there must be sin somewhere; the Kingdom of God stands against sin.
Many protestations abound. What of John the Baptist and his advice to soldiers in Luke 3:14? We first must recognize that John stands as the last representative of the old covenant, as Jesus Himself confessed (Matthew 11:11-13). Furthermore, his concerns only speak of extortion. If we assume that the soldiers are Roman soldiers, why would he only speak to them regarding extortion? Many believe that since he passes over the matter of soldiers killing in silence he shows that God permits it. But silence is silence– it does not inherently permit or condemn. It could be just as easily advanced that the Roman legion around the Jordan River in 27 CE served more as police than soldiers, and John passes over it in silence because they are not engaged in killing at the time. Since we have nothing else but what John says here, any firm conclusions are entirely speculative and assumptive.
What about Cornelius and the positive example of other centurions (cf. Matthew 8:5-13, Acts 10)? They are commended for understanding authority, and Cornelius is marked by his generosity and faithfulness to the God of Israel. They are never commended for taking life or for execution of military procedures. As with the above, they most likely served more as policemen than true soldiers during this time.
Examples abound in the second century and beyond of soldiers converting to Christianity and deserting the military; many such persons died for their faith. We do not know what happened with the centurions and with Cornelius. But we do know that if Cornelius were instructed to go and persecute Christians, he would refuse. He would not be party to executing faithful believers in Jesus Christ. If we all would agree to that, why would we believe that he would act any differently if he were called upon to kill Jews? Parthians? In the New Testament, whom has God singled out for death on earth while others are to live? We all deserve death for our sins (Romans 5). Yet Jesus died on the cross so that anyone who would believe could be freed from their sin (Romans 5, 1 Timothy 2:4). Who are we to deem some unworthy of life because they live in a different nation-state against whom our nation-state fights?
The fact that some who were in the military heard God’s call and became obedient servants of Jesus Christ does not inherently justify or condemn military participation. All things must be judged by what God has revealed in the New Testament (1 John 4:1, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
What about a draft? According to Romans 13:1-7, we ought to obey the government. If the government calls for a draft, the Christian has the opportunity to be considered as a conscientious objector. Since any military has plenty of tasks that do not involve the taking of life, in the circumstance of the draft, it is in the best interest of all parties involved if the Christian serve in such non-violent capacities. The Christian then does not need to compromise his belief about the value of life, and the government need not be concerned about the commitment of the troops on the front lines.
I would ask everyone to consider what has been written and what the New Testament says– and does not say– in regards to Christians, the government, and military participation. Judge for yourself and be fully convinced in your own mind (Romans 14:5). How can the Christian with the obligation to promote the Kingdom of God to all men reconcile that supreme calling with participation in the military affairs of one particular nation-state?
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52).