Onward Christian Soldiers?
Christian Perspectives on War

By Timothy J. Demy, Th.D.
Commander, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy

"Kill'em all, and let God sort'em out!" As a Christian, what do you think about this slogan of war that is occasionally expressed in the military environment--sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously? Is it humorous or repulsive? Is it biblical or blasphemous? Interestingly, though it is heard today in conversations, read on bumper stickers and worn on T-shirts, it is not a new sentiment. In fact, it expresses the feelings of a churchman nearly a thousand years ago, who, when asked by a military commander on the battlefield for assistance in distinguishing between Christians and non-Christians replied, "Kill them all. God will know which are His." The latter half of the response may be theologically correct, but the first half is morally repugnant. It was however, fully accepted and acted upon as a "Christian response." Values have consequences. His did, and so do yours. What then, is your view of war?

War and Sin

What should be the Christian attitude and response to the death, destruction, and devastation caused by war? Is war moral, immoral, or amoral? Are all wars the same morally and ethically? When can Christians participate in war? When should Christians abstain from participation or protest against a war? Can Christians fight against other Christians? If we go to war, does Christianity provide any guidance for the conduct of war on either a strategic or personal level? What is there in Christian doctrine that promotes war, and what is there in Christian doctrine that promotes peace? When a Christian begins to think about how to apply his or her faith to the realm of warfare, these are some of the first questions that must be addressed. If we truly believe that our faith matters and that the Bible should be applied to every area of our lives, then we must think about its application in global affairs as well as family, church, vocational, and community life.

Throughout its two-thousand-year history, Christians have justified, rationalized, restrained, and informed the act of war and the conduct of warfare. They have, in various times and by various means, both upheld and departed from biblical standards, and both ecclesiastical and secular leaders have appealed to Christianity's teachings for personal and national guidance and support.

Whenever there is war, there are four elements that come together to determine the course of the conflict: government, military, the public, and technology. Behind these four elements of war there are many influences of which religious values (and in our case, Christianity) are only one factor. Yet religion in general, and Christianity specifically, has been a major factor in the history of warfare. There has not, however, been unanimity in the Christian response. While, as we will see, there has been a prevailing Christian perspective or Christian doctrine of war, there have been several Christian positions articulated on war. Each of these positions has a history and each of these positions has claimed biblical authority and support. War, just like any other biblical topic, has been subject to various interpretations. Just as there are various interpretations on war in the future (Armageddon), so also, are there various interpretations on war in the present.

The apostle Paul wrote, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Rom. 12:18). Yet, history and headlines provide ample proof that "peace" cannot always be the Christian response to the evil that people and nations perpetrate. Before we can think theologically about the conduct of war and in war, we must think theologically about the cause of war. In short, we must consider war and the problem of evil. At the foundation of the Christian understanding of war is a belief in the fallen and broken nature of humanity--a belief that all of humanity and every aspect of personal and corporate life are marred by sin and original sin. Our sin nature corrupts international relations as well as interpersonal relations. War is ultimately a reflection of and consequence of sin. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was both a soldier and a political prisoner under the Stalin regime, said of the widespread effects of sin that "gradually it was discerned to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either--but right through every human heart."

Wars are fought on the battlefields of the globe, but they are waged first in human heart. It is in this light that Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes writes, "To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception. The Christian conscience has throughout history recognized the tragic character of war. The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases avoidable."(1)

The death, destruction, horrors, personal and property losses of war are real issues. For a Christian to think about and wrestle with the issues of war is to struggle with the problem of evil. How then have Christians responded to the problem of evil as it relates to war?

The Christian Spectrum of War

Christians throughout history have recognized that the formulation of a doctrine of war or approach to war is a theological and biblical deduction based upon the interpretation of numerous passages in the Bible (cf. Eccles. 3:1, 8; Matt. 5:44; 24:6-7; Acts 10:1-23; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). How those passages are interpreted determines the position that one holds. There is no "red letter" biblical doctrine of war. Thus the issue is not "what is the Bible's view of war" but, "what view best interprets and reflects the biblical passages regarding war?"

The Christian response to war has been a spectrum ranging from absolute rejection of war and participation in war to full participation with the proclamation of divine blessing and authority. The spectrum has ranged from the pacifist words of the American folk hymn "Gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside, ain't gonna study war no more" to the cry of the Crusaders of the Middle Ages "God wills it!" Several Christian perspectives on war have emerged over the centuries. The spectrum of Christian participation in war runs as follows: pacifism, nonresistance, just war, preventive war, and crusade. For each of these views there are secular as well as religious counterparts, i.e. pacifism and Christian pacifism, just war and Christian just war. Each view also has strengths and weaknesses as well as variations. At the two ends of the spectrum are pacifism and the crusade. The "just war" position is the moderating position in the spectrum and is the view that has been most prevalent throughout church history. It is also a view that was developed largely by Christians (especially Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas).

Critics of pacifism note that the principal problem with pacifism is that it misidentifies the morality of the individual as justification for (or morality of) the behavior of the state. At the other end, the principal problem with the crusade is that the church incorrectly identifies itself with the function of the state, and a theocratic one at that. What then does the just war position state?

Just a war or just war?

The just war tradition developed over hundreds of years. It was heavily influenced by Christianity, but it has also drawn some from Roman law and Greek philosophy. A list of just war criteria has emerged over the centuries for judging the appropriateness of going to war and to govern the conduct of military forces in war. Before looking at the criteria, it is worth noting the presuppositions of just war theory. There are four presuppositions of just war(2):

The just war position recognizes that some evil cannot be avoided. In our actions and moral decisions in life we strive for a biblical perspective. We strive to apply black and white in a world of gray, and sometimes "we are trapped in moral dilemmas whose roots lie in the past as well as the present, such that whatever we do involves us in evil of some sort."(3) We can never underestimate the ramifications of sin.

1. The just war position is normative for all people, both Christian and non-Christian. It doesn't describe how people do act, but how they should act and it applies to all people.

2. The just war position does not try to justify war. Rather, it attempts to bring war within the limits of justice so that if everyone were guided by these principles, many wars would be eliminated.

3. The just war position assumes that individuals or private citizens do not have the right to use military force. Only governments have such a right. Thus, the key issue is not whether an individual can fight in war, but whether a government has the right to engage in armed conflict, and whether a citizen, Christian or not should participate as an agent of that government.

What then are the criteria for war? There are two categories known as jus ad bellum (literally, "on the way to war"), in which the criteria determine when resort to war is justifiable or when to go to war, and jus in bello (literally, "in the midst of war"), in which the criteria dictate how war is to be justly conducted. What then are the criteria or principles? Is there a checklist for engaging in war?

Principles of War

Within the two categories above there are seven principles or criteria for the just war. The first five principles apply as a nation is "on the way to war" (jus ad bellum) and the final two apply to military forces "in the midst of war" (jus in bello). Briefly, they are as follows:

Just cause--All aggression is condemned in just war theory. Participation in the war in question must be prompted by a just cause or defensive cause. No war of unprovoked aggression can ever be justified. Only defensive war is legitimate.

Just intention (right intention)--The war in question must have a just intention, that is, its intent must be to secure a fair peace for all parties involved. Therefore, revenge, conquest, economic gain, and ideological supremacy are not legitimate motives for going to war. There must be a belief that ultimately greater good than harm will result from the war.

Last resort--The war in question must be engaged in only as a last resort. Other means of resolution such as diplomacy and economic pressure must have been exhausted.

Formal declaration--The war in question must be initiated with a formal declaration by properly constituted authorities. Only governments can declare war, not individuals, terrorist organizations, mercenaries, or militias.

Limited objectives--The war in question must be characterized by limited objectives. This means that securing peace is the goal and purpose of going to war. The war must be waged in such a way that once peace is attainable, hostilities cease. Complete destruction of a nation's political institutions or economic institutions is an improper objective.

Proportionate means--Combatant forces of the opposition forces may not be subjected to greater harm than is necessary to secure victory and peace. The types of weapons and amount of force used must be limited to only what is needed to repel the aggression, deter future attacks, and secure a just peace. Therefore, total or unlimited warfare is inappropriate. ("You don't burn down the barn to roast the pig.")

Noncombatant immunity--Military forces must respect individuals and groups not participating in the conflict and must abstain from attacking them. Since only governments can declare war, only governmental forces or agents are legitimate targets. This means that prisoners of war, civilians, and casualties are immune from intentional attacks.

The interpretation and application of these seven rules is not easy in modern warfare. Nor is there any assurance that they will always receive strict adherence. Warfare is not clean or nice. It is horrible. These principles are used, not to promulgate war, but to contain it. They are principles of containment, not principles of conflagration. They are moral and ethical guidelines for attempting to minimize the death and devastation that always accompany war.

So what?

The just war theory has three important functions. First, it seeks to limit the devastation and outbreak of war. Second, the just war theory offers a common moral framework and language with which to discuss issues of war in the public arena. As Christians and as citizens it gives us a starting point for discussion and cultural engagement. Third, just war theory gives moral guidance to individuals in developing their conscience, responsibilities, and response. When the war drums sound, they are often loud and there is frequently confusion, competition, and chaos rather than clear thinking about the moral and biblical consequences of what is occurring. Just war theory is a tool for responsible Christian living and citizenship.

War is a multi-faceted event with multiple causes. Often what keeps a war going is different from what started it. Once wars begin, they follow a unique course all their own. From one perspective, war is: "open armed conflict about power or territory involving centrally organized fighters and fighting with continuity between clashes."(4) Yet, the definition and the experience of war are two vastly different things. In the first half of this decade, from 1990 to 1995, 70 international states were involved in 93 wars which killed five and a half million people.(5) Most of the casualties were civilians, noncombatants. At the beginning of this century, most of the war casualties were military (85-90%). In World War II more than half of all war deaths were noncombatants. Today, at the end of the twentieth century, more than three-fourths of all war deaths are civilians.(6)

There is a Christian response to this tragedy but it must be understood and applied by all who seriously believe that the Bible speaks with authority today. What you believe is very important for it affects how you live. The apostle Paul encouraged us to pray "for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a quiet life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 2:2). His words speak directly to the issues of warfare, spirituality, and evangelism. As you read the headlines, watch the news, and consider war, do so from a biblical perspective. Christian responsibility is not an option for the disciple of Jesus Christ.

1. Arthur F. Holmes, "The Just War," in War: Four Christian Views, Robert G. Clouse, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 117.

2. Ibid., 118-20.

3. Ibid., 118.

4. Dan Smith, The State of War and Peace Atlas (New York: The Penguin Group, 1997), 13.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 14.

Commander Tim Demy is a Navy chaplain presently assigned at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. He graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with the Th.M and Th.D. and has served as an IFCA International chaplain since 1981. He is the author and editor of numerous articles and books on issues in theology and ethics.

Copyright 1999 ICFA International. Used by permission.