CHRISTIAN FAITH AND MILITARY SERVICE
By Steven M. Collins
In light of the shocking September 11th attack upon America, many people in the Churches of God are reexamining the issue of whether Christians can serve and fight in the military services of our nation. This involves much soul-searching as it has long been the tradition of most churches with a Worldwide Church of God heritage to require their members to be conscientious objectors. On the other hand, we must realize that we owe our personal freedoms to the willingness of others to die in combat while fighting for our nation.
Should Christians be willing to fight with deadly force to defend their nation and families in a time of war or does God require us to always “turn the other cheek” and be “conscientious objectors.” I will attempt to answer that question by examining biblical evidence in appropriate historical contexts. I realize that not everyone will agree with me. Indeed, I have good friends on both sides of this issue, and I respect the sincere beliefs of others on this matter. At the outset, I should state that, as a youth, I was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, and I had chosen a military career. However, when I joined the Worldwide Church of God as a youth, I followed the Church’s teachings and served two years of Alternative Service as a conscientious objector. This article reflects my current viewpoints.
We the Sabbatarian Churches of God are a family of churches and fellowships with a common heritage. We must stop dividing and squabbling over every doctrinal question that comes along, and realize that we are friends and brethren who have a great deal in common and a few points in disagreement. The early New Testament Church allowed their congregations to have some doctrinal disagreements (vegetarianism, meats sacrificed to idols, etc.) among their members, and we should follow that biblical example.
I believe we all agree that God is consistent in his nature and in his laws. In Malachi 3:6, God said: “I change not.” The New Testament echoes this principle as Hebrews 13:8 states that Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday, today and forever.” James 1:17 adds that the Father has “no variableness neither shadow of turning.” Jesus Himself asserted in Matthew 5:17-18: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law…till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” These passages tell us that, unless there is canonized evidence that changes God’s previous laws and dispensations (as in the New Testament’s abolition of the Levitical Priesthood and animal sacrifices), God’s laws in the Old Testament are still valid in New Testament times. The Apostle Paul affirmed that principle in II Timothy 3:16 when he wrote: “All scripture is…profitable for doctrine…” Obviously, the “scripture” to which Paul referred were the books of the Old Testament. These scriptures beg the question: “Did God command all his people to be conscientious objectors in Old Testament times? The clear answer is “No.”
While there are rare cases in the Old Testament when God “did all the fighting” for the Israelites (as in the Exodus against Pharaoh’s host), God usually required his people to fight their enemies in warfare. God did exempt the Levites from military service as they were not included in a national census of men available for military service (Numbers 1). Deuteronomy 20 lists God’s laws for making war and for granting exemptions for military service. Notice in verse 1 that God did not say “if you go to war,” but rather “when you go to war…” God expected the Israelites to fight their own battles and he blessed them with victory if they were obedient. Even in God’s Theocracy under the Judges, God usually required the males of Israel to fight their enemies in warfare. However, God allowed exemptions in Deuteronomy 20:4-8 for men who had yet to dedicate a house or enjoy the fruits of a newly-planted vineyard, for men engaged to be married and for the “fearful and fainthearted.” Deuteronomy 20 also includes God’s instructions for conducting warfare, fighting sieges, sharing the spoils of victory from combat, etc.
I think that we as a church have overlooked the fact that God made no provision for people to declare themselves "conscientious objectors" when he ruled Israel in the Theocracy. Some will say: “Yes, but that was before the Holy Spirit was given to people, and these Old Testament armies were not converted, but rather carnal-minded people.” Let’s consider that argument.
Hebrews 11, the “faith chapter,” lists many of the Old Testament heroes who will be in the kingdom of God. Abraham, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah and David were all warriors who killed many men in combat. These giants of the faith saw no ethical or moral conflict between serving God and killing the enemies of their nations in combat. Did they have the Spirit of God? Of course! Were they “converted?” Yes.
Few think of Abraham as a “man of war;” however, Genesis 14 shows he was one. As soon as he heard that his relative, Lot, was a captive, Abraham armed all his trained men and waged war on Lot’s captors. The Bible does not record that God told Abraham to go to war nor does it indicate Abraham made any effort to consult God to see “if it was God’s will” that he wage war. Abraham “walked with God” and he already knew God’s will enough to know that God would allow him to go to war under such circumstances.
The fact that Abraham had sufficient weapons in his encampment to quickly arm 318 servants for war (Genesis 14:14) indicates that while Abraham had “faith in God,” he also traveled with an arsenal of weapons! Abraham saw no conflict between being “a man of faith,” and also being “a man of war” when circumstances required him to be one.
The Holy Spirit of God has not changed. The same Holy Spirit which converted Old Testament heroes is the same Holy Spirit that works with converted people in New Testament times. It was God’s Holy Spirit that moved Jephthah to go to war (Judges 11:29), and which enabled Samson, armed only with the jawbone of an ass, to kill 1000 Philistines in mortal combat (Judges 15:14-16). Even the prophets of God recognized no divine regulation against killing the enemies of God or Israel. Samuel the prophet personally killed (and even dismembered) King Agag the Amalekite after King Saul had refused to do so (I Samuel 15). The prophet Elijah personally killed 450 prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:20-40)! The New Testament proclaims that David was “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), and Psalm 51:11 confirms David had God’s Spirit in him, but David was also a man who killed so many men in combat that one could hardly number them! What power enabled these biblical heroes to victoriously kill so many enemies of their nation? The Holy Spirit of God moved and energized them to do so! Since God “changes not,” why couldn’t the Holy Spirit energize modern warriors to do the same thing?
What about the New Testament’s teachings? The Apostle Paul acknowledged in Romans 13:1-6 that nations have a right to wage war in self-defense by asserting that “rulers” have a right to “bear the sword” against evildoers. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17-18 indicates that Old Testament laws and practices stay “in effect” during New Testament times unless specifically repealed in the scriptures. Given this statement of Jesus and the fact that God’s people routinely fought in (and even led!) their national armies in Old Testament times, the burden of proof that modern Christians should refrain from military service lies entirely on the advocates of that viewpoint.
Jesus Christ did make statements which sound “pacifist,” but have we understood his comments in context? We must understand them within the context that God is consistent, and God clearly allowed (and even required) military service of his people throughout Old Testament times. Did Jesus Christ really “change the law” on this subject?
The sixth commandment actually states: “Do no murder” (Complete Jewish Bible). This commandment forbids premeditated murder, but it does not forbid using lethal force in self-defense. Jesus Christ himself stated in John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus’ statement is not limited to martyrdoms. Many soldiers have “laid down their lives” for their friends and countrymen during combat as well.
In all cases where Jesus addressed his disciples in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was speaking not to a free people, but to a captive population who were subjugated by the Romans. This is a key point, in my view. Rome was a brutal empire, and the Romans killed, beat up and abused captive peoples as they wished. By telling the Jews to "go with him twain" or "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39-41), Jesus likely was advising them on what their best option was in dealing with Rome’s occupying soldiers. This would place his comments in a "master-servant" context rather than any “nation to nation” context which discusses warfare. The Jews of Judea were not a sovereign nation with an inherent right to go to war; they were in the position of being “servants” to the Romans.
Jesus' advise can easily be seen as a cautionary warning to his followers not to provoke Roman soldiers and representatives because doing so would only make things harder on them. For example, if a Roman soldier compelled a Jew to carry his pack for a mile, Jesus’ advise was to carry it two miles. If a Jew was slapped by a Roman, he should “turn the other cheek” because any violent action to resist Romans could have gotten both them and their families killed or sold into slavery. This advise is consistent with that of Proverbs 15:1 that “a soft answer turns away wrath.” In these statements, Jesus was not addressing the issue of whether the citizens of a sovereign nation could serve in the military. He was addressing the very limited options available to the subjugated Jews of Judea who lacked a national sovereignty.
Also, many of Jesus’ pacifist-sounding comments were addressing relationships among brethren, and were never intended to address the issue of responding to an invading army. In Matthew 5:21, Jesus said: “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement.” In Luke 17:1-5, he instructed: “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him and if he repent, forgive him.” Jesus made many such statements about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation among brethren. Such statements were not blanket instructions on how to deal with all humanity in all circumstances. They were statements on how to repair breaches among physical and spiritual brethren! We have made the mistake, I believe, of applying to our enemies, the standard of non-violence that Jesus told us to apply to our brethren! The Al Queda and Taliban (or any other foreign army) are not our "brethren," either physically or spiritually. They are like the enemies who attacked the Israelites in Old Testament examples, and the “men of faith” listed in Hebrews 11 all recognized a divinely given right to resist and slay such enemies.
In a recent issue of The Journal, Pastor Jeff Booth called upon Christians to support the President in our nation’s war on terrorism. I agree with Pastor Jeff Booth, and see no reason why his call should cause any controversy. Not only does Romans 13:4-6 affirm that rulers have the right to “bear the sword” against evildoers, but it also refers to them as “God’s ministers” when they act in such a capacity. President George Bush is exercising a divinely given right to defend our nation against the evildoers who attacked our nation and murdered thousands of our countrymen. We should support President Bush and our armed forces in this war on terrorism!
When Jesus returns, will he meekly "forgive all his enemies" and "turn the other cheek" to those who oppose his rule? Not at all! He will wage war upon them and slaughter them (Luke 19:27, Revelation 14:14-20, etc.)! Given that fact, would Jesus expect us to now be more merciful and forgiving than he will be when he returns? I think not. There is a totally different scriptural standard in one's actions toward others in normal societal and commercial relationships (Matthew 5:38-44), and the actions required to stop murderous enemies who invade to pillage, rape, steal and murder your families and countrymen. We are told that “those who do not provide for their own” are “worse than an infidel” (I Timothy 5:8). If someone is “worse than an infidel” for not feeding, sheltering and clothing one’s family, how can they be any less an infidel if they refuse to fight in their family’s defense?
Jesus dealt personally with a Roman centurion who had great faith (Matthew 8), and God’s Spirit drew a centurion to the Apostle Peter in Acts 10. Neither officer was told by God to “get out of the military” as a condition of serving God. These examples also show that God can and does work with people who are in the military.
When Jesus was being seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the disciples (Peter?) used his sword to try to kill an attacker (Matthew 26:47-56). This speaks volumes. It reveals that Jesus had never told his followers to “put away their weapons” during his three and one-half year ministry with them! It also implies that other disciples were armed as well. When Jesus told his disciple: “Put up thy sword,” he was not making a sweeping doctrinal statement that forbid his followers to use deadly force in self-defense in all times and in all future circumstances. Jesus explained in verse 56 that he specifically forbid armed resistance in that one exceptional instance (the effort to seize him) because “the scriptures of the prophets” had to be “fulfilled.” Jesus limited his non-violent command solely to that one unique instance. Later, Jesus even affirmed to Pilate in John 18:36: that “…my servants would fight” [if prophecy had not required him to be crucified at that time].
When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt via the Exodus, the Israelites were a captive people who could not free themselves. As soon as God liberated them and made them a sovereign nation, he expected them to fight for themselves in battle! Even after God showed them many mighty miracles in their behalf, most of the Israelites had a faithless and cowardly reaction to the “report of the spies” as they were about to enter the promised Land (Numbers 13-14). They feared they would be killed in the ensuing combat to take the Promised Land, and they rebelled against God by refusing to trust God and fight! Only Caleb and Joshua were confident of victory in the pending war as they said, “we are well able to overcome it.” Only Caleb and Joshua, who trusted God to give them victory in the pending war, were allowed to enter the Promised Land. God was disgusted with the Israelites who wouldn’t take up arms and fight in a war to seize the Promised Land. God saw their refusal to fight as a lack of faith! No Israelite who refused to fight at that juncture ever entered the Promised Land. Forty years later, a new generation of Israelites under Joshua entered the Promised Land, and God required everyone but the Levites to fight in their own behalf.
Christians are nearing their own “Promised Land” as the first resurrection draws near. We understand from biblical prophecies that very difficult times will occur in the years ahead. Christians can expect to live through some of these difficult times. There is a promise of divine protection in Revelation 12, and Christians differ on whether this protection applies to Israel or the Church. However, don’t expect the Christians to be “gathered to a single place of safety.” Christ’s own words belie that expectation. In Matthew 24:30-31, Christ said that when he returns, his angels will gather the elect “from the four winds” (i.e. “all directions”) so they can’t possibly all be in one physical location.
How did God divinely protect some of the Old Testament “saints” in Hebrew 11 who will be in the First Resurrection? Where was the “place of safety” for Abraham, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and many other Old Testament heroes during warfare? Their “place of safety” was their relationship with God, who protected them during their combat against the enemies of their nation. Their “place of safety” was not a particular piece of real estate. Hebrews 11:34 relates that some of God’s saints were strengthened by the Spirit of God to: “escape the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight [and] turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” These mighty saints clearly saw no conflict between “faith in God” and military service.
Zechariah 12:8 foretells that at the end of this age, God’s Spirit will again stir up his people to be valiant in combat against their enemies. It prophesies God’s Spirit will divinely enable even the “feeble” among his people to be able to “fight as David.” No doubt Christians should not seek violent conflict. However, as September 11th confirms, sometimes warfare comes to you even if you don’t want it to come. If you ever have to face that circumstance in the future, what will your decision be? You should give the matter some thought now, and be “fully persuaded in your own mind” regarding what to do if future circumstances require you to make a choice to “fight or die” to defend yourself, your family or your nation in the future.
Another issue raised by those who oppose military service by Christians is the issue of the Sabbath. Presumably, military service prevents proper Sabbath observance. However, it is noteworthy that God never regarded this a problem in any Old Testament context. In Deuteronomy 20:19, God recognized that some military campaigns would be long ones (involving many weekly Sabbaths and even including annual Holy Days). Would the Israelite armies have refused to defend themselves if their enemies had attacked them on a Sabbath? No way! There would be no disobedience to God in fighting and killing on the Sabbath to defend yourself and your nation. Why? Because God recognized that normal Sabbath observances would have to be waived during various personal and national emergencies. That principle is “the ox in the ditch” exemption to which Jesus Christ referred in Luke 14:5.
Jesus acknowledged that emergency circumstances could arise on the Sabbath, which would require strenuous efforts to save life and property. In such cases, the usual Sabbath regulations are waived. Allow me to ask a question: Can there possibly be a greater “ox in the ditch” situation than warfare or some kind of attack upon your family and household? Warfare can threaten all the lives and property in a nation! In such cases, the entire nation must suspend normal Sabbath regulations in order to meet the threat.
A modern example was the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in which Arab armies attacked the Israelis on Yom Kippur, thinking the Israelis would be fasting, weak and unable to mobilize quickly to defend themselves. As soon as the attack began, the Jewish rabbis properly recognized the normal requirements of the Holy Day had gone “out the window” due to a gigantic “ox in the ditch” (invading armies which intended to destroy them and their entire nation)! Sabbath-keepers can certainly fight on the Sabbath day in times of war. However, does that mean they can serve in a standing army in times of peace when an army must remain in readiness to fight when called upon to do so? All the Sabbath-keepers in the standing armies of ancient Israel and Judah under Kings David, Solomon, Josiah, Hezekiah, Jehoshaphat, etc. faced that same question, but God allowed Israel to maintain standing armies in peacetime. In this matter, one is left with the need to obey the dictates of one’s own conscience and faith toward God (Romans 14:23).
What impact does all this have on modern members of the Churches of God? Since there is no current military draft in our nation, the issue of military service is actually rather moot. Those who choose to be conscientious objectors can simply refrain from joining the military. Those who wish to pursue military service may do so. The key issue is that brethren with either view should maintain unity in their churches and fellowships and not “judge each other” over the decisions made by others. This is a subject in which each person must be guided by their faith and understanding of the scriptures. Just as the early New Testament Church was “big enough” to include brethren with differing doctrinal views on matters such as circumcision, eating meat sacrificed to idols and vegetarianism, our modern churches should be able to handle some doctrinal differences as well.