When Should Christians Support Going to War?

As of this writing in January 2020, the United States under Donald Trump recently walked up to the line of armed conflict with Iran, but it seems cooler heads have prevailed and the leaders of each nation have chosen de-escalation over further provocations. But any time the possibility of war raises its head, Christians are necessarily conflicted. Those of us who follow the Prince of Peace do not want to see violence or bloodshed, yet we recognize that war is sometimes a necessity for the prevention of greater evil. How can we know when it is right for us to support the difficult decision to enter into armed conflict with another nation?

Thankfully, we are not the first generation of Christians to think about how we should respond to war. As far back as St. Augustine in the fifth century, Christians have discussed not only whether Christians should support war at all, but also the proper constraints upon the government when war takes place.

Christians who believe that war is never acceptable come from a tradition known as pacifism. Those in this tradition point to passages of Scripture like Matthew 5:38-42, in which Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Another strong influence on the pacifist tradition is Romans 12:17. In this passage, Paul said, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”

Christians who are on the other side of this argument say that the Bible permits what is called “just war.” These believers recognize that Jesus prohibits personal vengeance in the words quoted above, but they would argue that the Bible does not give the government the responsibility to turn the other cheek, but instead to protect its citizens. In Romans 13, Paul told believers to submit themselves to the government leaders. Then he went on to say in verses 3 and 4 that the government “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” “Just war” Christians see this passage giving the government the responsibility to use “the sword” to punish evildoers. This includes other governments that are putting the lives of citizens in other nations at risk.

Christians who believe in just war have spent centuries discussing what constitutes a “just war.” When we summarize their thinking, we see three criteria that allow Christians to support their nation going to war.

Christians Support War When the Cause Is Just

In an article explaining the just war tradition, Marc LiVecche said that just war “promotes the love and flourishing of the neighbor under assault.” Just war seeks to love our neighbors by freeing them from oppression and restoring to them the “order, justice, and peace without which no degree of human flourishing, including life, can long persevere.” This means that “the just war tradition insists that a nation’s concern extends beyond one’s narrow national interests to include intervention and rescue of the oppressed.”

Christians can support war with a clear conscience when the result of that war will be more people living in freedom from disorder, injustice, and fear. This means that Christians should support wars that protect others from certain death, in instances such as genocide. Christians can also support war that helps an ally defend themselves from invasion or to restore human rights that have been “wrongly denied.”

Christians Support War When the Response Is Proportional

For Christians in the just war tradition, the manner in which a war is conducted is as important as the reason for going to war. Christians do not support indiscriminately “blowing them back to the stone age.” Rather, Christians can only in good conscience support those wars in which the bloodshed in war will prevent what would have been greater bloodshed.

To return to the example of genocide from the previous point, imagine that a nation is wiping out millions of people of one ethnic group or religion. The just war tradition believes that the loss of thousands of lives in a war is a regrettable, but necessary means of saving millions of lives. Writing for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Joe Carter explains that proportionality means “going to war must prevent more evil and suffering than it is expected to cause.”

Christians Support War When the Rule of Law Is Respected

Since Christians believe governments, authorities, and laws are ordained by God, Christians have a responsibility to hold their governments responsible for how war is declared and how it is carried out. For American Christians, this means that we believe wars must be declared according to the manner described in the Constitution. The founders of our nation believed that the decision to go to war was too consequential to be delegated to the wisdom of one man. Therefore, they placed the responsibility for declaring war on Congress. We should want that rule respected because we see the wisdom of taking the decision away from one and putting in the hands of many.

In addition, Christians can only support those wars that follow the agreed-upon rules of war which have been decided both by American military commanders and the international community. These rules exist to ensure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire of war and that prisoners of war are treated with basic human dignity. The death of innocents and the mistreatment of prisoners violates the rule of proportionality. At that point, war begins to exact a greater toll than it prevents. Therefore, we must insist that the rule of law be respected, even on the battlefield.

One Day War Will Be No More

Isaiah 2 describes the day of the Lord will he will come to set all things right. In verse 4, Isaiah said, “He shall judge between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” One day Jesus will return and make all things new. Until then, we live in a world where war is sometimes a brutal necessity. For those of us who follow Jesus, we should urge our leaders to only use this measure when necessary and to do so in a manner that is in keeping with human dignity.

Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.” 

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Zabelin

Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”


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