The Christian Attitude Towards War

Rev. Robert S. Marsden

There is among Christians a universal hatred of war. This is as it should be, for war must surely be distasteful to one who has the peace of God in his heart. It is conceded by all Christians that war is one of the greatest evils that can come upon a people. The destruction of life and property which are involved, as well as the moral destruction which attends war, increases its abhorrence to the people of God. Christians are not blind to its horrors. They entertain no illusions about the grandeur and glamour of war, and they know full well that another World War may, from all human points of view, destroy civilization. A Christian will do all in his power to avoid war.

Yet, when all this is said, a Christian will still not be found in the ranks of the pacifists. Organized Protestantism has been moving more and more in the direction of an unbiblical pacifism since the World War. During the War it was officially decided by most of the larger denominations of Protestants that that war was in the class of "just" wars which the Bible permits Christians to wage. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., with which many of us were connected at that time, said, in 1917: "The conflict into which we have been irresistibly drawn is one that is so manifestly for the maintenance of righteousness and in behalf of humanity that it should command the courageous and unreserved support of all our people" (Minutes of the General Assembly, 1917, p. 155). In 1918 the War was called "just and necessary" and the General Assembly called upon the church in its ministry and membership "to support in every possible way and with all resources the government of the United States in the just and necessary war in which it is now engaged" (Minutes, 1918 p. 53). In the same year the Assembly recorded its "profound conviction as to the righteousness of the cause for which the United States and her allies are contending" (Ibid., p. 79). Such were the sentiments expressed by most of the Protestant denominations at that time.

Since then, however, there has been an accelerated movement in most of Protestantism toward a pacificism which goes to ridiculous extremes. In 1937 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. veered sharply toward that position. A desperate attempt was made by pacifists to outlaw all war, and to deny that there can be "just" wars. That attempt was abortive, but competent observers agree that it is only a matter of time until that position will be taken by that church. This trend is echoed in many other modernist circles. Charles Clayton Morrison, a well-known liberal editor, says in a recent article that the church "must excommunicate war from its altars" and "God does not will war." He tells us that millions will refuse to fight, will defy conscription, and take the consequences. I am not so sure that Modernism will provide the moral stamina to make pacifists willing to "take the consequences" of pacifism during a war, but that this is the conviction of a large segment of organized Protestantism is beyond doubt. The newspapers just a few days ago carried a report of a youth who is a student in the liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and who purports to represent a Methodist youth organization, as saying, before a Congressional committee, that he would not bear arms even to protect his own mother from invaders.

We who are orthodox Christians must face the fact that we are in a hopeless minority when we hold to the historic Christian attitude toward war. The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America and similar pseudo-Christian organizations are lined solidly on the side of pacificism. These organizations claim to speak for all Protestantism and we must make it clear that they do not speak for us in their pacifistic resolutions

The Supposed Biblical Basis of Pacificism

Now let us not suppose that pacifists do not appeal to the Bible to support their contention. Most emphatically they do. They quote the Bible and particularly the words of Jesus in support of their contention that the Bible teaches pacifism. They are usually ready to admit that there are other parts of the Bible which speak of war approvingly but they are quite certain that Jesus does not so speak. They unblushingly contrast what they suppose to be the teaching of Jesus on this and on other points with the teaching of the rest of the Bible. They often say, in effect, "Jesus teaches pacifism" or even, "The New Testament is pacifistic," but never that "The Bible teaches pacifism."

Now the contrasting of Jesus with the rest of the Bible, or of the New Testament with the Old Testament, is one of the characteristics of Modernism. It is almost trite to say that Christians admit no such contrast. They hold that the whole Bible is the Word of the same God and that it is self-consistent one part with the other. We are far from admitting any distinction between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus, or between the "spirit" of the Old Testament and the "spirit" of Jesus. Modernism, in its underlying concept, contrasts the various parts of the Bible, setting one against the other. On this point, pacifists would say, they prefer to be governed by Jesus rather than by the rest of the Bible. However, there is no such conflict between the words of Jesus on this subject and the teachings of the rest of the Bible. Neither is such a conflict to be found between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the rest of the Bible on any other subject. A careful reading of the words of Jesus will reveal them to be in perfect harmony with the rest of Scripture, and the New Testament to be in perfect harmony with the Old Testament. One God speaks in the whole Bible, and He does not contradict Himself.

What, then, is the Scriptural basis to which pacifists appeal? Usually appeal is made to the words of Jesus in the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matt. 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49). In these passages, it will be remembered, we do find Jesus saying such things as "Resist not him that is evil," and we find Him extolling the anti-war virtues of meekness, mercifulness and peacemaking, and saying, "Love your enemies." Jesus demands in this passage that evil be returned with good and calls for arbitration in the settling of disputes. He commands forgiveness of one's enemies and urges His disciples to live peaceful lives. Not only that, but He, by His example, practiced what He preached. When He was about to be taken by His enemies, who were committing great evil, He did not resist, and in all His life He was meek and merciful. He displayed His love for His enemies and prayed for those who despitefully used and persecuted Him. Does this not mean that Jesus teaches pacifism? And, as it can be easily shown that the rest of the Bible admits of just warfare, does this not mean that Jesus is in conflict with the rest of the Bible at this point ? Well, as a matter of fact, neither of these things is true. Jesus does not teach pacificism and He is not in conflict with the rest of the Bible at this point. Then what shall we say about these passages?

In the first place, those who appeal to them in support of pacifism forget that many of the so-called pacifistic ideas of the "Sermon on the Mount" are also found in the Old Testament. Do we find Jesus extolling meekness (Matt. 5: 5)? We have the same promise for the meek in the Old Testament: "But the meek shall inherit the earth" (Psalm 37:10). Does Jesus counsel arbitration (Matt. 5:23-26)? So does the Old Testament (Prov. 25: 8-10). Does Jesus urge love and regard for one's enemies (Matt. 5: 43-48)? So does the Old Testament, and in no less emphatic terms (Prov. 25:21, 22). Does He forbid hatred (Matt. 5:25)? So does the Old Testament: "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart" (Lev. 19:17).

And then, too, Jesus was hardly a pacifist in His conduct. We shall see this more clearly when we consider the positive proof of the historic Christian position, but we remind ourselves right here that Jesus did use a weapon to scourge the moneychangers out of the Temple. He forbade His disciples to resist when He was about to be taken prisoner, but He does not in any sense rebuke them for possessing swords. As we shall see, in none of His recorded sayings does He speak against war, and in fact clearly implies that it is sometimes justifiable to fight (John 18:36).

But the questions still persist: "Does not Jesus flatly forbid all physical resistance to evil?" "Does not the Old Testament sanction such resistance with 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' "? "Does not Jesus forbid this with, 'I say unto you, That ye resist not evil' "? "Does this not flatly contradict the Old Testament, and are we not thereby flatly forbidden to take up arms"? Let us look at this passage rather closely.

The quotation, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," is from Lev. 24: 20. In that passage some rules are laid down for the judicial procedure of the Jews. The law was made in order to protect criminals against injustice and unduly severe punishment. A man could not be killed for causing the loss of his neighbor's eye-only an eye could be taken for an eye, and this only by judicial process. The Scribes and Pharisees, whose misconception of the law Jesus was correcting, had made this provision to apply to individual disputes. They held that it permitted vindicative revenge for personal injuries. Jesus is not correcting the Biblical provision, but only the false interpretation which the legalistic minds of His day placed upon it. Jesus, you see, is not referring in any sense to warfare, nor to the application of deserved punishment, judicially applied. He does make clear, in this passage and by His consistent example, that individual vengeance is wrong, but to hold that He forbids all punishment of evil is most ridiculous. Jesus often refers to Himself at His Second Coming as a Judge who will severely punish evil. The favorite passage to which the pacifists appeal in the words of Jesus is thus not even pertinent to the question.

The Biblical Basis of the Christian Attitude Toward War

If we reject pacificism as being unbiblical, what then shall be our attitude toward war? The attitude of most Presbyterian churches is found expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger Catechism. There we find, "It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, 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" (Confession of Faith, Ch. 23:2). The Larger Catechism (Question 136) in answer to the question, "What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?" replies, "The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense...." This is the official attitude of The Presbyterian Church of America. The question may well be asked, "Is that the Biblical attitude?" The answer, we believe, will be found to be, "Yes."

In the Old Testament we find record of many wars which were sanctioned by God. Wars were from time to time commanded, and for their execution God endowed men with special qualifications as warriors. When consulted by means of the Urim and Thummin, or by the prophets which He had ordained, God often gave advice on the propriety of military enterprises. One quotation will suffice to illustrate this. "And the children of Israel enquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, . . .) saying, Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease? And the Lord said, Go up; for to morrow I will deliver them into thine hand" (Judges 20:27, 28). When His people were engaged in battle God often interfered miraculously, in order that the Israelites might be victorious (Josh. 8). God frequently sent His people to battle in order that they might not themselves be destroyed, and in order that the truth of God which had been committed unto them might not be destroyed from the face of the earth with them. There can be no doubt that God in the Old Testament did sanction wars.

But how about the New Testament? Was it not simply because of the weakness of the people that the Lord condescended thus unto them, permitting them to war, and is not this permission abrogated in the New Testament? A careful search of the New Testament will fail to show any such abrogation of the divine permission to go to war "upon just and necessary occasions," and unless there be such express command, as in the case of divorce, we dare not assume one simply to satisfy our desires in the matter.

As a matter of fact the New Testament, and even the teachings of Jesus Himself, imply the permission to go to war. When the soldiers came to John the Baptist and inquired of him what they should do in order to prepare for the kingdom of God, he did not require them to cease being soldiers, but simply commanded them to be good soldiers (Luke 3: 14). Jesus took a similar attitude toward the centurion who came to Him, and He praised him for a faith such as He had not found in all Israel (Luke 7:1-10). On these and similar occasions Jesus, if He had been so minded, could have forbidden His followers to be soldiers, especially of a heathen government, but we find no such prohibition. Indeed, He implies that there are occasions upon which His followers might fight (John 18:36), and tells us that His gospel will bring not peace but the sword (Matt. 10:34-36).

When we turn from the Gospels to the rest of the New Testament we find the apostles taking an identical attitude. In Acts 10 we learn that it was a Roman centurion to whom the gospel first came among the Gentiles. It was upon Cornelius, the Centurion, that the Holy Spirit came with miraculous gifts while he was a centurion. Certainly if engaging in war were sinful, the Holy Spirit could not descend upon such a person as a centurion who, while he was not then engaged in war, by his office proclaimed his willingness to serve when war came. We may quite pertinently ask whether there were no Christians engaged in the war that Jesus predicted, the war which took place in Palestine in 69-70 A.D., when Jerusalem was destroyed. Certainly some parts of the New Testament were written after that war, and we find no record of the apostles, who were inspired of God to direct the early Church, forbidding the participation of Christians in that conflict. We must remember that, if war be wrong, then the participation in it is not only unbecoming to a Christian, but is actually sinful, and it seems unreasonable that the New Testament would have been silent upon the subject of a sin which has ensnared so many of God's people. We must conclude that the New Testament as well as the Old permits the engaging in and promoting of war when it is waged upon "just and necessary occasion."

Our Personal Attitude Toward War

What, then, shall be our personal attitude toward war? As we saw at the very beginning of this discussion, a Christian will hate war. He will do all in his power to keep out of war himself, and will use all his influence to keep his nation, and any other nation in which he may have influence, out of war. He will be sure that his own actions have not been those which have provoked war, save in so far as his righteous acts may provoke evil men to wage war against him. A Christian will not consistently take the attitude many Christians take today, when they say, in effect, "Well, the Scriptures predict that there will be wars until the Lord returns, and therefore we must do nothing about that situation." It is true that the Scriptures thus speak, but they do not warrant God's people remaining indifferent when they may have a part in preventing wars.

But, you may say, "If the Scriptures tell us there will be wars anyway, what is the use of our doing anything to prevent them?" It is amazing how many sincere Christians take that attitude, and yet there could be no more ridiculous thought. Suppose we applied that same line of reasoning in other spheres of life. Suppose, for example, we were to become ill. Well, we might reason, "The Scriptures make it clear that it is appointed unto men once to die, so therefore why do anything about our illness?" It will immediately be evident how ridiculous such an attitude would be. We realize full well, when we are ill and go to a physician, that we shall not be permanently cured of all illness. We know full well that we shall sometime die, unless the Lord should return before that happens. But we also know that God has given us physicians to help us prolong our lives - that the same God who has ordained that we shall die has also provided us with the means of prolonging physical life. He intends us to use those means which He has ordained. The very same is true of means to the peace of the world. The Lord has told us that there will be wars until the return of Christ, but He has also given us the means of preserving peace. Those means a Christian will cheerfully use, whether they be the means of one's individual love of one's enemies or the means of international cooperation through peace treaties. A Christian will hail all those means as of the Lord, and will use them to the utmost of his ability. But, when just and necessary occasion arises and war must be waged for the maintenance of piety, justice and peace, then a Christian will, with the assurance of the blessing of God and of the Prince of Peace, support, with arms if necessary, the lawful authorities in the promotion of the war in which the nation is engaged.

Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 5, No 3, March, 1938. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!


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