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What Does the Bible Say About War?

Frequently Asked Questions

Contents

Biblical References

Just War Theory

Christian Pacifism

Church Positions on War

Biblical References

Old Testament

In early Old Testament times war was often seen as a holy war, a conflict initiated and led by God. Such a war was declared by God, Himself (Exodus 17:16; Numbers 31:1-3, 1 Samuel 15:1-3), and every facet of war had religious significance. Sacrificial rites were performed to ensure God's continued support (1 Samuel 7:8-10; 13:9). The sacred ark of the covenant, symbolizing the presence of God, was often taken into battle (1 Samuel 4:3).

Later in Israel's history, the prophets began to see the terror of war as God's judgment against his people for their sins, and the glory of war faded (Habakkuk 1:5-11, Jeremiah 21:3-7). Israel began to look to the day when the endless cycle of war would be broken:

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 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. (NIV, Isaiah 2:3-4)

New Testament

In the New Testament, war is universally seen as evil and Jesus emphasized peace instead. He advised us to avoid retaliation and revenge and to extend our love even to our enemies.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. (NIV, Matthew 5:38-45)

The apostle Paul and other New testament writers echoed Jesus' sentiment and expanded on it.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 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; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NAS, Romans 12:17-21)

Despite the immense evil of war, Jesus said it is inevitable that wars will continue until He returns (Mark 13:7-8), and He did not oppose earthly governments or their right to maintain armies (Matthew 8:5-10). Other New Testament passages accept the necessity of maintaining armies and the worthiness of military occupations (Luke 3:14, Acts 10:1-6)

Just War Theory

Clearly, the Christian ideal is total elimination of war and brotherly love among all people. However, in this imperfect world, war may be forced on those who do not desire it. Christian theologians St. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) are primarily responsible for formulating the theory of the Just War which has remained the majority Christian approach to war to this day. There are many variations on the just war theory, but these are the basics:

Christian Pacifism

Pacifism, the opposition to all war, is a minority view throughout Christianity, but is the dominant belief in some denominations such as Mennonite and Society of Friends (Quakers). Pacifists take their example from Jesus who never resisted His persecutors. When the mob came to arrest Jesus, one of His followers tried to defend Him with a sword. But Jesus said,

"Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword." (NAS, Matthew 26:52-53)

Many of Jesus' apostles and other followers were also martyred for their faith, but never used violence to resist their fate.

Another justification for pacifism is the belief that the kingdom of God is set apart from the world (Matthew 5:20, 7:13-14, John 18:36). The world will continue in sin of all kinds, including war (Matthew 24:6-7, Mark 13:7-8), but those who truly belong to the kingdom of God are called to put their total trust in God (Matthew 10:28, John 14:1) and to obey all of Jesus' teachings (Matthew 7:21, 28:18-20, Luke 6:46, John 14:15, 15:10), including His teachings against violence.

A number of other Bible passages are cited in favor of the pacifist position, including Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:18-19, 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, 1 Peter 2:21-23, 3:8-11, 13-17, and Hebrews 10:32-34.

A frequent criticism of pacifism is that it amounts to surrender to aggression, and the evil which results could be much worse than the evil of a war. Another criticism is that pacifism is utopian, and pacifists unfairly reap the benefits of freedom earned by those willing to sacrifice their lives in war. However, pacifists reply that pacifism does not mean being passive; it is active peacemaking through nonviolent means. They point to the success of nonviolent resistance movements such as the Swedish and Danish resistance to Nazism in World War II, Gandhi's independence movement in India, the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King in the United States, and the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. Many Christian pacifists see nonviolence as the only way to alleviate the vicious cycles of oppression, hatred, war and revenge that have dominated human history.

Church Positions on War

Here are the official positions on war of the three largest Christian denominations in the United States:

Roman Catholic

2307. The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

2308. All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.

2309. The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

there must be serious prospects of success;

the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

2310. Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.

2311. Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.

2312. The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."

2313. Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.

2314. "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation." A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons - especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes.

2315. The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. Spending enormous sums to produce ever new types of weapons impedes efforts to aid needy populations; it thwarts the development of peoples. Over-armament multiplies reasons for conflict and increases the danger of escalation.

2316. The production and the sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community. Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them. The short-term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and conflict among nations and compromise the international juridical order.

2317. Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war:
From Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt3sect2chpt2art5.htm

Southern Baptist

XVI. Peace and War. It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love. Christian people throughout the world should pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 5:9,38-48; 6:33; 26:52; Luke 22:36,38; Romans 12:18-19; 13:1-7; 14:19; Hebrews 12:14; James 4:1-2. Adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention June 14, 2000. From http://www.sbc.net/2000_comparative_report.html

United Methodist

War and Peace

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church--2000, ¶165C. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House, http://www.umc.org/abouttheumc/policy/world/c-warpeace.htm

Military Service

We deplore war and urge the peaceful settlement of all disputes among nations. From the beginning, the Christian conscience has struggled with the harsh realities of violence and war, for these evils clearly frustrate God's loving purposes for humankind. We yearn for the day when there will be no more war and people will live together in peace and justice. Some of us believe that war, and other acts of violence, are never acceptable to Christians. We also acknowledge that most Christians regretfully realize that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide. We honor the witness of pacifists who will not allow us to become complacent about war and violence. We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations. We urge the establishment of the rule of law in international affairs as a means of elimination of war, violence, and coercion in these affairs.

We reject national policies of enforced military service as incompatible with the gospel. We acknowledge the agonizing tension created by the demand for military service by national governments. We urge all young adults to seek the counsel of the Church as they reach a conscientious decision concerning the nature of their responsibility as citizens. Pastors are called upon to be available for counseling with all young adults who face conscription, including those who conscientiously refuse to cooperate with a system of conscription.

We support and extend the ministry of the Church to those persons who conscientiously oppose all war, or any particular war, and who therefore refuse to serve in the armed forces or to cooperate with systems of military conscription. We also support and extend the Church's ministry to those persons who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces or to accept alternative service.
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church--2000, ¶164G. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House, http://www.umc.org/abouttheumc/policy/political/g-military.htm

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