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What the New Testament Teaches Concerning War

The New Testament gives no direct teaching on the subject of war, although it does make it plain that the civil government—whether kingdom, empire, or republic, it does not say—is divinely established so that as citizens we are to recognize its authority and to perform our duties toward it. That there should be a difference of emphasis and objective between the Old and the New Testament is quite natural, since there was a difference of dispensations, and since the former was written to and about a nation, while the latter was written to individuals and to a nonpolitical body known as the church. The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament had been fulfilled and had passed away, but the moral laws remained in full force. The two Testaments fit together in perfect harmony.

Even the teaching of Jesus concerning love to our fellow men does not rise higher than the passage quoted by Him from Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” When rightly understood the two Testaments are supplementary, not contradictory. The silence of the New Testament on the subject of war apparently rests on the assumption that the subject had been adequately treated and did not call for any addition or modification.

It has been alleged by pacifists that the teachings of Jesus forbid the Christian to take part in war. We are convinced, however, that the allegation finds no support either in Christ’s words or in His conduct. In the first place it fails to take into consideration His teaching concerning the authority of Scripture. That He considered the Old Testament fully inspired is abundantly clear. He quoted it as such and based His teachings upon it. One of His clearest statements is found in John 10:35, where, in controversy with the Jews, His defense takes the form of an appeal to Scripture; and after quoting a statement He adds the significant words, “And the Scriptures cannot be broken.” His Bible, the only Bible that existed in His day, was the Old Testament. The reason it was worthwhile for Him, or that it is worthwhile for us, to appeal to Scripture is that it “cannot be broken”—and the word here translated “broken” is the common one for breaking the law, or the Sabbath, meaning to annul, or deny, or withstand its authority. For Him an appeal to Scripture was an appeal to an authority whose determination was final, even to its minute details. Whenever Christ or the apostles quoted Scripture, they thought of it as the living voice of God and therefore divinely authoritative. In His stinging rebuke to the Sadducees, “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29), the very thing that He pointed out was that their error came, not because they followed the Scriptures, but precisely because they did not follow them. So common was their use, and so unquestionable was their authority, that in the fiercest conflict Jesus needed no other weapon than the final “It is written!” (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8; 24:26). Hence if we take Christ as an authority, we will also take the entire Old Testament as an authority. He hands it to us and tells us that it is the Word of God and that the prophets spoke by the Holy Spirit. By His numerous quotations He has welded it to the New Testament so that they now form one unified Bible. The two Testaments have but one voice. They must stand or fall together.

But let us consider more specifically the teachings of Jesus. We often hear Matthew 5:39 quoted to prove the pacifist position: “Whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This verse teaches that within reasonable limits it is often better to suffer a personal injustice than to demand our rights and perhaps precipitate a quarrel or a fight. If we are truly Christian, we will live unselfish lives, not always seeking to vindicate our own petty dignity, but returning good for evil. And if the offending person is possessed of even a minimum of manly qualities, such a response makes him ashamed of his conduct so that he is not likely to repeat it. Probably three out of four personal quarrels arise because of misunderstood motives. A reasonable amount of patience on our part, together with the manifestation of a good motive, will go a long way toward smoothing over difficulties.

Furthermore, the injunction to turn the other cheek refers to our individual attitude. A person has the right to sacrifice himself provided he does not exceed reasonable limits; but he does not have the right to sacrifice others. As one writer has said, “I am not to turn my wife’s cheek, or the other cheek of the weak and defenseless whom I am called upon to protect. With this in mind, it may be that going into the firing line is in very truth turning the other cheek—letting the enemy smite our cheek rather than that of those we love. Christ turned His other cheek for us. And when it is all over we are to love and forgive the enemy” (Dr. George W. Arms).

Clearly Jesus never intended this saying to be taken literally. When during the trial before the Sanhedrin He was struck, He did not invite further abuse by turning the other cheek, but immediately rebuked the offender with the words, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?” (John 18:22, 23). Jesus turned the other cheek in the true sense a short time before the events of His trial when in the garden He returned good for evil by healing the servant whose ear had been cut off by Peter’s sword.

Sometimes we hear the Golden Rule quoted to prove that we should not use military force against any people, that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But in the event of war we have to decide who the “others” are in whose place we are to put ourselves—the lustful, murderous invaders who do not want us to resist them, or our own wives and children who need our protection.

On two occasions Jesus went into the temple and with a show of force poured out the changers’ money, overturned their tables, and drove out those who through fraudulent dealings were making the temple a den of robbers. On numerous occasions he met His enemies, the scribes and Pharisees, face to face and denounced them as hypocrites and liars, declaring that they were of their father the devil and were doomed to perdition (Matt. 15:7; 23:33; John 8:44, 45). In the parable of the wicked husbandman He accepted as true and justified the course of action ascribed to the lord of the vineyard (by whom He meant God): “But these mine enemies, that would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (Luke 19:27). No one else in Scripture gave more frequent or sterner warnings of the punishment that God will inflict on the wicked. In the well-known judgment scene of Matthew 25, Jesus Himself sits as Judge and passes sentence on His enemies: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels” (v. 41). Those are not the words of a pacifist, nor could His enemies have looked upon Him as such.

We are sometimes reminded that we should love our enemies, and we are told that if we do love them we will not go to war against them. But while the Christian is commanded to love his enemies, that does not mean that he cannot defend himself or his loved ones against them. Nor does it necessarily follow that self-defense and love of those who would oppress us are contradictory. The judge who passes sentence on the evildoer may at the same time have a deep sense of pity and sympathy for him. We are indeed to love our enemies; but we cannot love them in the same way, nor with the same intensity, that we love our friends. We can love them in that while we are convinced that they are in the wrong and want to injure us, we nevertheless bear them no hate, and we would honestly like to turn them from their evil course and persuade them to a better way of life.

The pacifist is inclined to be governed more by sentiment and emotion than by the hard facts of life and to overemphasize the love of God at the expense of His justice. While to the righteous God is a God of love, to the wicked He is “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29) and will certainly punish sin. The apostle who wrote the great discourse on the love of God as found in 1 Corinthians 13 also wrote in that same book, “If any man loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema” (16:22). And it is often forgotten that even John 3:16 speaks not only of the love of God but also of His punitive justice, not only of heaven but also of hell. To overemphasize the love of God while neglecting His justice is very dangerous, for instead of arousing the sinner to a true sense of his danger, it only makes him more complacent in his sin.

The believing centurion received no rebuke from Jesus for any sinfulness attaching to his profession as such, and Peter welcomed into the church another centurion, Cornelius, who was “a righteous man and one that feared God” (Acts 10:22). When the soldiers who were converted through the stern preaching of John the Baptist asked what they should do to apply those principles of righteousness in their lives, John uttered not one word of rebuke against their profession; but assuming that they would remain soldiers, as is clearly implied in his injunction that they were to be content with their wages, he warned them against those temptations which are peculiar to soldiers: “Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any wrongfully, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). In other words, they were engaged in a lawful profession, a necessary profession if law and order were to be maintained throughout the country. They were simply told to do their duty and not to abuse their authority, which certainly was good practical advice. From New Testament times until the present it has been the policy of the church to admit and retain soldiers as Christians in good and regular standing.

In the last discourse that Jesus had with His disciples, we find some significant words in regard to the use of weapons. He reminded them that on their former missionary journey, which was of short extent and among their own people, He had sent them forth without purse, or wallet, or shoes, and that they lacked nothing. But then, in regard to later missionary journeys that they were to make over long distances and among hostile people, he said, “But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet: and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak and buy a sword” (Luke 22:36). So important would it be that they have some means of self-defense that, if necessary, they were to sell their coats to secure it. As strange as sword bearing may seem to us who live in a peaceful, settled country such as the United States, where a well-organized police force keeps crime comparatively to a minimum, it was entirely appropriate in that lawless, barbarous age. We get a glimpse of those conditions when Paul tells us that often he was “in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26). If we lived under such conditions we would have occasion to become much better acquainted with weapons than we now are.

Peter’s misuse of his sword a little later, when he struck at a servant of the high priest with the evident intent of killing him but succeeded only in cutting off an ear, does not invalidate this teaching. Jesus’ rebuke to Peter was not a command to destroy the sword or to throw it away, but simply, “Put up the sword into the sheath” (John 18:11). The Lord thereby implied that although that was not the proper time or place to use it, since He proposed to surrender Himself voluntarily, there would nevertheless be appropriate occasions for its future use. And the further admonition, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” expresses a truth that has been proved over and over again in everyday life—those who rely on the sword above everything else, those who put their trust in the sword, inevitably perish. The gangster who puts his trust in the pistol perishes by the pistol, for the very simple reason that the officers of the law are authorized to take the pistol against him. We are to put our trust in the Lord, although He expects us to use the ordinary means at our disposal for protection against vicious men as definitely as He expects us to use the ordinary means to provide food to keep us from starvation, or to provide clothing and shelter to keep us from the cold.

For too long the picture of Jesus as a weak, inoffensive, harmless person has been allowed to go unchallenged. The New Testament certainly does not present Him as such a person. These characteristics have been inferred (1) partly, no doubt, from His gentle and sympathetic way of dealing with the erring and with those who were afflicted or sorrowful, (2) partly because of His admonition to “resist not him that is evil” (Matt. 5:38–39, where the context makes it clear that He forbids the taking of revenge, not that He advocates nonresistance in general), and (3) partly because during His public ministry women were drawn with peculiar loyalty to His service and often have been more active than men in the church since that time. It is well to keep in mind that in the ordinary relationships between men and women it is the masculine qualities of strength, initiative, and leadership, and not the feminine qualities, that women admire in men. The disciples and all others who saw and heard Jesus were strongly impressed with His courage, His fearlessness, His tireless energy, and His air of supreme self-confidence and leadership. Repeatedly the Gospel writers use the words “power” and “authority” in regard to Him. From the beginning of His public ministry until He was nailed to the cross He was in courageous opposition to the scribes and Pharisees, showing how they perverted the Scriptures, denouncing them as liars and hypocrites, and exposing their fraudulent practices. Single-handed and alone, He stood against those organized groups that were holding His people in mental and spiritual bondage. In that terrible conflict He was as truly a fighter as was Moses, or David, or Washington, or Grant, or MacArthur, or Eisenhower. He called His disciples not to a life of ease and comfort and safety, but to one of hardship and sacrifice and danger. He sent them out on missions that would take them to the ends of the earth and warned them that they would suffer persecution and in some instances death. Certainly no weakling could have inspired men for such service as that. And for the past two thousand years He has been the dominating influence in our Western world. That He used mental and moral rather than physical force does not alter the fact that He fought, nor does it mean that on appropriate occasions He would not have used physical force. Physical force cannot be regarded as something that is wrong in itself. It is not the kind of force used, but rather the spirit in which it is used, that determines whether or not the encounter is a fight. And the record leaves no doubt but that the purpose of Jesus was to defeat and silence His enemies.

Jesus of course could not sanction war during His earthly ministry without having the whole nature of His kingdom misunderstood. The Jews were in a state of apostasy and were anxiously awaiting a temporal, military messiah who they hoped would place himself at the head of their army, free them from the despised Romans, and restore the kingdom as it had been under David and Solomon. Jesus avoided every appearance of temporal or military power; but even then, at the time of His death, His closest disciples still were not able to grasp the spiritual nature of the kingdom. In the presence of such people any reference to military power would have been entirely misunderstood.

In Romans 13:1–7, Paul gave an emphatic declaration concerning the divinely established authority of the state, which incidentally includes a clear and positive statement against pacifism. He wrote,

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers [that is, to the civil government, whether kingdom, empire, republic, or democracy], for the powers that are are ordained of God. Therefore he that withstandeth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God; and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil.… For he [the ruler] is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain [the sword was used for killing, hence this is the counterpart of the Old Testament command that “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”]; for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil.

Here we are taught that it is the duty of the state to maintain law and order, if need be, by the sword.

The Roman government of Paul’s day, which of course was the government that he had in mind as he wrote, promoted peace throughout the world by force of arms. The emperor was Nero, the persecutor of the Christians, the one under whom Paul eventually was put to death. Paul did not advocate loyalty to the Roman government because of its religious stance (for it was thoroughly pagan, whereas he was Jewish and Christian), but because, all things considered, it was a reasonably good government, maintaining a fair degree of law and order in secular affairs. Although the ruler was a weak and sinful man, he was, nevertheless, in his official capacity, and without knowing it, the minister of God in maintaining justice, law, and order. On several occasions Paul himself had appealed to the Roman authority for military protection and had received it; hence he knew whereof he spoke. Despite its faults, the state of law and order that the Roman government maintained was far better than anarchy.

The distinction between the church and the state has been clearly set forth by Dr. Albertus Pieters, former Professor of Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.

There are two independent sovereignties, both ordained of God: the Church and the State. The State is as truly a divine institution as the Church. The State is the trustee of the law, the Church of the Gospel: the former bears the sword for the forcible restraint of sin, the latter holds the secret of the only remedy for sin. The former compels men to abstain from the grosser forms of open sin; the latter inspires them with a hatred of secret sin and a love for holiness. Both are necessary, and neither has the right to interfere with the other.

Jesus had said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” and Paul added, “Render unto all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7). We are to obey God first and foremost, because He has commanded it; and then, because He has also commanded it, we are to obey the earthly government. We are to remember that Caesar at his best is imperfect and human, and at his worst, thoroughly bad and devilish. The Caesar to whom Jesus commanded the Jews to be obedient was a pagan, unjust, and corrupt. But despite those personal faults, he was the lawful head of the state. The Jews were subject to the Roman Empire and partook of many of the benefits of orderly government. Jesus, therefore, regarded it as their duty to pay the tax and thus help meet the expenses of government. It was perfectly evident that not all of the tax money would be spent for good purposes, but that did not excuse them from paying a reasonable amount.

It often happens that a Caesar, human and fallible as he is, does not know, or deliberately exceeds, his divinely appointed limitations. In such cases if a moral principle is involved, the Christian, like the disciples when brought before their rulers and elders, must choose to obey God rather than men, regardless of the consequences. History is eloquent in declaring that thousands have died martyr’s deaths rather than renounce their faith.

In the present age national governments are a moral necessity without which our social institutions could not be preserved and developed. The church does not have the power to collect taxes or to maintain armed forces. Her powers are spiritual and declarative. But the state, possessing the power to collect taxes, has both the right and the duty to maintain police and military protection for the orderly working of society and for the maintenance of peaceful life and worship by the church.

It is the teaching of both the Old Testament and the New that the ruler is “a minister of God,” holding office not merely by appointment of man but by the appointment of God (and therefore responsible for doing justice and punishing evil, although often negligent in his duty). “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” (Prov. 8:15, 16). “I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Sam. 7:13). God, speaking through His prophet Jeremiah, said, “I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant … therefore, serve him and his people, and live” (Jer. 27:6, 12). And parallel with this are the words of David who, although already anointed to be the future king of Israel and unjustly persecuted by the wicked Saul, when urged to kill Saul, replied, “Jehovah forbid that I should do this thing unto my lord, Jehovah’s anointed”; and again, “For who can put forth his hand against Jehovah’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Sam. 24:6; 26:9).

We believe not only that God created this world, but that He continues to govern it. Occasionally we see famines, floods, plagues, earthquakes, etc., in which thousands of lives and much property is lost. All of these things occur under His providential control. The perversion of the human mind is such that wealth, luxury, security, prolonged good health, etc., often result in profound spiritual indifference; and God in His wisdom may work out greater good through some of these forms of suffering than without them. And if He permits and uses these things, there is no valid reason why He should not also permit and use war as an instrument of moral government. The suffering caused by war is not necessarily any more severe or prolonged than are those which befall people in other ways.

This in general has been the view held by the various Christian churches concerning the lawfulness of war and the authority of the state in so far as they have attempted to base their position on Scripture. The historic position of Presbyterianism, for instance, has been set forth in these words:

God, the Supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil authorities to be under Him over the people, for His own glory and the public good: and, to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing thereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIII, 2, italics ours).

In these words the state is acknowledged to be of divine origin, and its officers are declared to possess “the power of the sword.” This is not a sanction for the church to enter war, nor is it directly a sanction by the church for its individual members to enter war, although that permission is implied. It is specifically a sanction for the magistrate—which would mean primarily the President of the United States, since he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces—to defend this nation in time of crisis. It does not require war, but merely permits it “upon just and necessary occasions.” Even on occasions that the magistrate deems just, this merely says that he “may” wage war, which implies the caution that war is not the only alternative in international disputes and that other things should come first, such as diplomatic exchange of opinions, and reasonable compromise. It also suggests that if our nation is being plunged into war for merely selfish or ambitious reasons, we have the right to resist that movement.

In the light of the general and pervasive Scripture teaching, it is quite evident that the objections raised against the Christian’s participation in military service are based on emotional or philosophical rather than scriptural grounds. Pacifists are able to argue with some plausibility only when dealing with a few selected passages while keeping out of view the general mass of scriptural evidence bearing on the whole subject. As Christians we take our stand on the interpretation of Scripture as a whole; and so long as we hold to the principle that the Scriptures are to be accepted as the sole authority in matters of faith and practice, there is no valid reason for denying that the magistrate “may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war on just and necessary occasions.”

Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985), 18.

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