Jesus and War
by Will Pike
Is it wrong for a Christian to support his country by participating in war? While there are a wide variety of opinions on this topic, if we look back to the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church, the answer to this question is very clear.
One of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus is on the Kingdom of God. In his own words as he addresses Pontius Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." (NKJV, John 18:36) Jesus came to establish his kingdom on earth. This kingdom, however, was different than any other kingdom in that its citizens would be under the headship of Christ alone. Therefore, neither the United States nor any other country can properly be considered a "Christian nation."
As Alexander Campbell writes, "A proper literal Christian nation is not found in any country under the whole heavens. There is, indeed, one Christian nation, composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth […] When anyone produces the annals of a nation whose constitution was given by Jesus Christ, and whose citizens are all born of God spiritually, as well as of man physically, I will at once call it, in good faith, without a figure, a true, proper, and literal Christian nation." (142-143)
It can therefore be difficult to live in a nation whose laws and values are inherently worldly while remaining faithful to the standards of Christ’s Kingdom. For a Christian living in the United States, which holds up every citizen’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is easy to be influenced by and adopt this same set of principles. In reality, however, those very principals are not Biblically founded whatsoever. Jesus promises his disciples no such "rights." In addition, he calls them to an expectation of submission.
As Jesus teaches on The Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. (NKJV, Matthew 5:38-42)
This concept of submission was not only foreign to the Jews, but is also foreign to modern Americans, whose nation was founded on rebellion. This teaching was not conditional, but was commanded under all circumstances – no matter how evil the oppressor – even to the point of slavery (1 Peter 2:18). Thus, in order to find the truth on the matter of war, we must strive to clear our minds of all presuppositions or opinions on the subject and seek to understand what Jesus truly teaches.
In addition to nonresistance and submission, Jesus teaches that his disciples must love their enemies: "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (NKJV, Matthew 5:43-45)
By saying this Jesus takes his teaching further by not only calling us to submit and not retaliate, but also to love and pray for those who abuse us. This leaves no room for vengeance at all. Paul elaborates on this as he writes, "Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." (NKJV, Romans 12:17-20) Paul explains that it is our calling as Christians to promote peace and show love to all of our enemies. Rather than showing vengeance to our enemies or enemies of the faith, it is our duty to give to them and leave room for God’s judgment and wrath alone.
As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must also promote peace in all situations. As the writer of Hebrews charges, "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord." (NKJV, Hebrews 12:14) This is another quality that is held up by God and not men. While God desires peace, our culture promotes bravery and rebellion. Campbell again writes, "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." (159)
As Christians, the battle we face is not a physical one, but rather an ongoing spiritual warfare. As Paul writes, "Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." (NKJV, Ephesians 6:10-13)
The only violence we are permitted is combating the devil and his schemes and spreading the light of Christ. Likewise, the only armor or weaponry we are called to use is truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, and the Spirit (Ephesians 6:14-18). Paul again writes "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds." (NKJV, 2 Corinthians 10:3-4)
Just as the teachings of Jesus on hatred and adultery challenged and called the Jews higher, so did his teachings on submission, peace, and loving enemies. While this seemed to go against Jewish tradition, the early Christians saw Jesus as merely fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy, "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (NKJV, Isaiah 2:4). Tertullian states in response to this prophesy, "Who else, therefore, does this prophecy apply to, other than us? For we are fully taught by the new law, and therefore observe these practices. […] The teaching of the new law points to clemency. It changes the primitive ferocity of swords and lances to tranquility. It remodels the primitive execution of war upon the rivals and enemies of the Law into the peaceful actions of plowing and cultivating the land." (677) Although God had permitted war in the Old Testament, the early Christians understood that it was God’s ultimate plan to do away with it and bring peace through Christ.
Just as we should be living our lives in the footsteps of Christ, the "the author and finisher of our faith" (NKJV, Hebrews 12:2), Christ proves to be the ultimate example of pacifism and nonresistance. In Jesus’ final warning to his disciples who try to defend him from capture, he commands "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (NKJV, Matthew 26:52) As Jesus commanded that the sword be put away, it was not only a calling to the disciples present, but also a message to all Christians against violence of any kind. As Tertullian again writes, "How will a Christian man participate in war? In fact, how will he serve even in peace without a sword? For the Lord has taken the sword away." (677)
The early church took Jesus’ teachings on peace and nonresistance literally. Therefore, they did not consider participating in war a "necessary evil" or even tolerable. "If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies (as I have remarked above), whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become people of hatred ourselves. Who can suffer injury at our hands?" (Tertullian 677) As Tertullian suggests, the early Christians believed that retaliation or violence shown in response to an injury would only increase the evil of the offence by bringing blame on themselves. Paul writes "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (NKJV, Romans 12:21)
The early Christians believed wholeheartedly in this teaching; Rather than being wrapped up in the evil, they saw it as their duty to maintain peace at all costs, washing their hands clean of violence altogether. As Origen writes, "If a revolt had led to the formation of the Christian commonwealth, the Christian Lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of men to death. So it could not have derived its existence in such a way from the Jews. For they were permitted to take up arms in defense of the members of their families and to slay their enemies. Yet, Christ nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, no matter how wicked, For He did not consider it to be in accord with His laws to allow the killing of any individual whomever. For His laws were derived from a divine source." (679)
As Origen suggests, the early Christians believed that taking human life, not only in war, but even in the defense of one’s family, was wrong. They took the teachings of Christ seriously, considering Jesus’ life as their example for love and nonresistance. In their eyes, it was better to sacrifice one’s own life than take another’s.
Additionally, seeing that their battle was against no man, but rather a spiritual battle, they understood that participating in war would accomplish nothing other than the death of innocent soldiers. Campbell argues this same point as he writes, "But to the common mind, as it seems to me, the most convincing argument against a Christian becoming a soldier may be drawn from the fact that he fights against an innocent person – I say an innocent person, so far as the cause of the war is contemplated, The men that fight are not the men that make war. […] The soldiers on either side have no enmity against the soldiers on the other side, because with them they have no quarrel. (154)
In the eyes of the early Christians, killing a person – no matter how misguided they may be – was killing a soul made in God’s image. They had a reverence for the life that God put in all men and didn’t see it as their right to ever take that away. As Lactantius writes, "If only God were worshipped, there would not be dissentions and wars. For men would know that they are the sons of one God." (680)
The reason that the early Christians had such strong convictions about nonviolence was not because of their own weakness or a rebellious attitude toward the government, but rather on account of their holy fear of God’s commands and their faith in God as their sole defender. If it was in His will for them to live, then they would live, but if it was not, it would be better for them to die than to lift their hand against another.
This position lead to the deaths of many Christians at the hands of the governing power for refusing to fight. As Hippolytus writes, "A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. […] If an applicant of a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God." (681) This was such a serious matter in their eyes, that if a believer simply joined the military, he must be rejected from the church and considered to have "despised God." If a man truly wanted to follow Jesus and become a member of His kingdom, he had to first completely divorce himself from the world.
Despite these strong beliefs, the early Christians did not see this as an excuse to neglect their duty to the government and leaders that Christ put over them. Paul writes, "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." (NKJV, 1 Timothy 2:1-2) To this Origen adds, "This is a greater help than what is given by the soldiers who go forth to fight and kill as many of the enemy as they can." Thus, it was not that the early Christians refused to submit to their governments, but rather, they submitted to Christ and the standards of the Kingdom first and foremost, not compromising their faith for anything.
After seeing Jesus’ teachings on submission, peace, and love for enemies, understanding that our battle is not physical but spiritual, and seeing how the first Christians applied these teachings, it becomes clear that the idea of a Christian fighting in war completely contradicts the original Christian faith. Our lives should be devoted to making peace and waging spiritual warfare alone. We should be focused on seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness (NKJV, Matthew 6:33) and following the example Christ left us. As Origen asserts, "To those who inquire of us from where we come, or who is our founder, we reply that we have come agreeably to the counsels of Jesus. We have converted into pruning hooks the spears that were formerly used in war. For we no longer take up 'sword against nation,' nor do we 'learn war anymore.' That is because we have become children of peace for the sake of Jesus who is our leader." (678)
Bercot, David W., ed. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002.
Watts, Craig M., ed. Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State. Indianapolis: Doulos, 2005.
About the Author:
Will Pike is an eighteen-year-old committed disciple of Jesus Christ and a senior in high school. He wrote the article above as an essay in one of his high school classes.