Is enlisting in the military the right course of action for Christians? What if the military is combating terrorism? And what about the wars mentioned in the Bible?
As a light fog settles like a death shroud, Jonathan settles into position on the wooded hill above the shattered village. Already secreted in the rubble of a bombed-out school, David nestles his heavy weapon on a section of wall cushioned by his camouflage jacket. Both young men systematically scan the fog through the telescopic sights atop their sniper rifles seeking living, enemy soldiers as targets.
Snipers must be ultimately loyal, highly disciplined, keen of eye, quick of reflex and determinedly calculated. Jonathan and David work hard to be the best in their precision profession, as well they should, having attended the same school.
Suddenly, Jonathan senses slight movement in the ruins below. David detects a flicker of light in the trees above. Instantly their rifles move, and through sinister scopes they recognize each other...
They attended the same Bible school. They last ate together at a Christian fall festival only a few months before David was called back to his native land to join its army, just as Jonathan was inducted into the U.S. Marines. Both dedicated themselves to their nations' causes and excelled in their military training.
Now, on opposite sides of the war, these two young friends wince with recognition a short rifle shot apart as simultaneously their trained fingers pull fateful triggers.
Cut! Cut! Stop the action! What's wrong with this picture?
How can a true Christian shoot or kill a brother in the faith of Jesus Christ? How can the physical cause of one's country be greater than the spiritual cause of the Kingdom of God? How could a Christian ever use violent, aggressive force against a fellow human? Should a follower of Christ even serve in the military? Should a Christian fight?
The introductory scenario of this article is far too potentially real and surreal. In nearly every war in past centuries, soldiers of the same religious faiths followed their different nations' military orders to murder each other in battle.
Could this ever happen in the Church of God? Yes, unless you understand the example of Jesus and the teaching of God about military service, war and violence.
As Christians we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew:4:4). We strive to obey the Ten Commandments and all their ramifications for our lives (Exodus 20; Matthew:19:18-19), including the command not to murder. We also know from our earliest knowledge of God's way of life that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that every human being is made in the image of God and is our neighbor (Luke:10:25-37).
We know that God is love (1 John:4:8), that love is the greatest of all the qualities of God's character (1 Corinthians:13:13) and is to be therefore of ours. We know that "love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans:13:8-10). Since love does no harm to a neighbor, how can a Christian in good conscience be a part of a military organization whose avowed purpose and design is to kill people and break things?
Jesus and the apostles
Did Jesus Christ join the military or use violent, deadly force during His life on earth?
Jesus of Nazareth would have been strong and powerfully built. As a carpenter He worked with stone as well as wood and hiked all over the country during His ministry. Even in His teens He exuded a dynamic and magnetic personality to which all walks of people were drawn (Luke:2:46-52). His intellect and spiritual wisdom were rivaled by none.
Jesus was a robust and forceful man, yet our Messiah was also the greatest man of faith and righteousness that has ever walked this earth. With that in mind, realize that in regard to violence and war, Jesus never took a human life. He never acted violently toward another human being. When threatened with violence, He fled the scene avoiding confrontation (Luke:4:28-29; John:8:59; 10:39). Even when Jesus drove the illegal money changers, livestock dealers and their animals from the Temple, the whip He made of cords was not used as a weapon (John:2:14-17; Matthew:21:12-13).
Among Jesus' 12 disciples there were only two violent incidents—both condemned by Him, and the first was only a threat. The brothers James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy a village of anti-Jewish Samaritans who refused to lodge Jesus and the disciples at their inns (Luke:9:51-56). Jesus scolded them, "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them."
How can a Christian kill fellow humans Christ came to save? To do so denies Christianity.
The other case of violence occurred when Peter whacked off the ear of the servant of the high priest as Jesus was being arrested (John:18:10; Matthew:26:47-54). Peter probably wasn't aiming for the ear! But Jesus replaced and healed it (Luke:22:51), then rebuked the future apostle, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew:26:52). The place of a sword is in its sheath and better, as part of a plow of peace (Isaiah:2:2-4).
Jesus' words for Peter are also aimed at us. Our violent impulses must be resisted and changed to attitudes and actions of peace. Isaiah proclaimed, "neither shall they learn war anymore," and neither should we today.
Bottom line: Christ's disciples learned to be nonviolent. Jesus Himself was not violent, never took human life and was not part of a military structure. We follow Christ, do what He says and do what He did (Matthew:7:21-27). Christians are not supposed to be violent.
Our allegiance to the Kingdom of God
What is the "manner of spirit" we are of then? Where is the faithful Christian's loyalty? Why specifically do we not fight? The answer has to do with the ultimate goal, primary motivation and driving spiritual force of one called by God to follow Christ at this time in history. It is to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew:6:33). As "ambassadors for Christ," the Church of God represents the soon-coming Kingdom of God (2 Corinthians:5:20).
No ambassador or diplomat in the world today joins the military forces or fights for the host nation where he works, but is to be adamantly loyal to his own country. So too, we owe our supreme, spiritual allegiance to God and His Kingdom—not to any physical nation of this world, for we are not of this world (John:17:14, 16, 18). This precludes our serving in the militaries or other violence-dealing agencies of our "host" countries.
It's a matter of citizenship. Although we love our respective physical nations of origin and strive to be law-abiding, productive citizens, we have an overarching citizenship in heaven, the headquarters of the Kingdom of God, from which our head of state, Jesus Christ, will soon come to bring true peace on earth (Philippians 3:20-21). If we immerse ourselves in the political and military actions of this world's nations, we lose our spiritual citizenship. Therefore we must first be ultimately loyal to the Kingdom of God.
A key passage
Is it that as Christians we're afraid to fight? Hardly. Ours is not a religion of saving-your-skin. We already have a battle to fight daily as we'll see, and we will fight alongside our Savior as resurrected, spirit children of God when Christ returns to enforce peace on earth for 1,000 years.
Jesus explained this to Pontius Pilate saying, "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" (John:18:36). This is a key scripture showing that true Christians do not fight, are not violent and do not serve in the militaries of this world.
Inevitably, what-if and what-about questions rise regarding the Bible's teaching that true Christians are conscientious objectors to military service, war and violence. Such questions are all answerable from God's own Word.
What about Romans:13:1-7? Isn't a Christian supposed to be subject to the governing powers of his nation? Yes, he or she is. But if the government orders you to do what is against the law of God, like murder in war, then what do you do?
You do what Peter and the other apostles said and did. When faced with such a choice, they said, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts:5:29). Obey God first, even if it means suffering for doing so.
What about ancient Israel? Why did they fight, especially David who was called a man after God's own heart? The ancient nation of Israel was a kingdom owned by God and governed by His civil code. But all her people were not spiritually converted. They did not have a spiritual citizenship in heaven. Israel was a physical kingdom of this world, and thus fought.
Since she had chosen to fight from early on, God executed certain judgments upon sinful nations through the weapons of Israel, including under King David. (However, God was not pleased that David was a man of war and shed blood, and did not allow him to build the temple because of it, as 1 Chronicles:28:3 shows.) Even then, Israel didn't have to fight because God had promised to fight her battles for her, if the Israelites would only turn to Him and trust Him (Exodus:14:14; Deuteronomy:1:29-32). At key times certain good kings like Asa, Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah did trust God to fight their battles—much to the detriment of their enemies (2 Chronicles 14, 20, 32).
After Christ, God replaced physical Israel with spiritual Israel, the Church of God, as His people. As Christians, servants of Christ, we belong to a spiritual kingdom. As Christ said, "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" (John:18:36).
This is not our world and these are not our wars.
What about Cornelius? Identified as a centurion or noncommissioned officer in the Roman army, he was the first gentile baptized in the New Testament (Acts:10:1-8, 44-48). His example is claimed to show that Christians can and should fight for their countries. Claimed without evidence, however. Already a God-fearer, believing in the God of the Old Testament, at Peter's hand he was converted and received the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit. Centurion Cornelius and his household were in the process of learning "what manner of spirit" they were to imitate.
And that manner was and is the manner of peace not war, of peace not violence, of peace not military service, of obedience to God not to men. Since he had his whole household with him in Caesarea, he may have already retired from the Roman army. Whatever the case, he had to learn the truth about all aspects of his life, including war and violence, just as you are doing now.
What about John the Baptist telling soldiers in Luke:3:14, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely"? Modern translations use "intimidate," but the KJV reads "Do violence to no man."
The Greek word means both, with the emphasis on violence. Therefore, John was telling soldiers to not be violent. Military service advocates eagerly point out that John did not specifically tell the soldiers to immediately leave the army. But think about it. Soldiers who wouldn't be doing violence anymore would be needing to find new careers.
If you don't hate him, is it OK to kill someone?
This common military recruiter argument is an old concept originating in religions commonly viewed as Christian. In a speech in April of 1961, a priest and dean of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., summarized this long-standing belief: "A soldier may kill in time of war, but for him to kill in a spirit of hatred is not the proper Christian attitude."
Do you see where that idea is dead wrong? Do you see what is the right way of thinking?
The proper Christian attitude is not to kill at all! The proper Christian attitude is to not even hate! The proper Christian attitude is to "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" (Matthew:5:43-48, 21-24)! God's way is fundamentally different from man's reasonings—and God's way is right (Isaiah:55:8-9).
The real war
As Christians, should we disregard the great sacrifice of those who put their lives on the battle line to defend their people—including us?
By no means. Their dedication is heart-stirring and profound. But they act only on what they know. The real question is this: Are we as dedicated to the spiritual defense of our cause—the good news of the Kingdom of God?
We have a different kind of battle to fight. Our weapons are not made of steel, titanium and high explosives; our weapons are spiritual (2 Corinthians:10:3-5). We don't fight flesh and blood people; we fight wicked spirits in high places (Ephesians:6:12). And we are already soldiers in this spiritual war that demands our ultimate loyalty.
"You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2 Timothy:2:3-4).
Be assured, the cause you were born to support is the ultimate cause. We will win this war of faith when Jesus Christ returns in the near future and we will then bring a peace to this earth that men have only dreamed about!
Postscript: There is no military draft in the United States at the moment, but future events may move the government in that direction. It is clearly possible that young women may come under the conscription law as well as men.
What should you do now? Study this subject in your Bible. Make the teachings of Jesus about military service, war and violence your own. This article is only a summary of that teaching.
The United Church of God has additional materials to assist you in your study. Please contact us to learn more.