With the constant bombardment of the horrific actions by the Islamic group ISIS on the media, I know that pacifism and the Christian response to this has become a hot topic of debate. Seeing men, women, and children being tortured and killed strikes the nerve of everyone, and seeing those belonging to the family of God crucified and hung on a cross for display deeply hurts my heart. So, what should our response be? Should Christians join the military or form a militia to put a stop to this situation using lethal means? This recent article speaking of this very thing has made me think about it a little more. So, this is my entry-level response that I am sure those who have thought through this more could pick it a part. But, here I go:
In the past, I generally only experienced this topic with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are adamantly against any type of military or law enforcement. One situation that I would mention in response is with Jesus and the centurion in Matthew 8. I would say, “if Christ thought this man’s profession as a military officer was sinful, why did he not say something to him at this time?” When he healed others in Scripture, he also would tell them to sin no more. However, of this man, he said he had not seen faith like this anywhere else in Israel (8:10), yet no mention of his vocation as being sinful. So, how can we say that it is sinful to join?
This is somewhat echoed in the words of the Reformer John Calvin:
For if Christian doctrine (to use Augustine’s words) condemned all wars, the soldiers asking counsel concerning salvation should rather have been advised to cast away their weapons and withdraw completely from military service. But they were told: “Strike no man, do no man wrong, be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).[i]
We cannot form a doctrine directly from these situations because these passages in Scripture are not about whether joining the military is permissible for a believer. So then, what are we to think? Well, the reason it is a debate is because there are no explicit texts in the Scriptures either way.
I think the Sermon on the Mount provides probably the clearest evidence against this, particularly Matthew 5:44-45: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” For many, I presume, this passage seals the debate against any type of role that requires violence in the job description. And, as I see it, the requirement of violence—killing—is the key point of debate. However, there is a difference between murder and killing, and I understand that. But, if one is commanded to kill someone, how do we know that it is truly just killing for the sake of the greater good? The information could be wrong, or it could be just a political move needing to be carried out in order for a particular state or nation to move forward with its own agenda of increasing its control and wealth. So, that is where my conflict ultimately rests.
Now, (and here is me internalizing on this) as I see it from Scripture, as Christians, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ. We are to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). We are called out from the world, set apart as holy and blameless for God. Our mandate is to spread the message of salvation, Christ and him crucified, to every tribe, tongue, and nation in accordance with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). Though the Lord is the one who raises up kings and rulers, establishing a governing authority designed to keep order and peace, a Christian should not willingly join in the sections of a governing office that require him to murder anyone. One might say that we are defending our country from tyranny and terrorism. There is evil all around the world, for the Devil is the prince of it, and though God permits evil, he also governs it through the established governments of the world, not Christian governments.
Martin Luther refers to the right hand and the left hand of God: one governs the out workings of the earthly kingdom through appointed governing authorities and the other governs his children of the spiritual kingdom, which he uses to call the other lost sheep through the proclamation of the gospel. Peter tells us that we are, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). And to willingly murder someone as a Christian, whether it is sanctioned by the government or not, is to commit an action that belongs in the darkness of which he was called out from.
I know that many have very strong feelings for and against this. I think this is also a matter of sinning against the conscience and personal conviction. So, we must be discerning in these matters and trust in the Holy Spirit for his guidance in this. I have to ask myself, what level of murder is acceptable to commit as a Christian? Well, none, obviously. I know that we have brothers and sisters in the military and I would never assume they joined believing that what they were going to engage in, if being called to fight on the battlefield, would be classified as murder. One point that was recently mentioned by a Christian brother of mine, which I never really thought about, was the possibility of going to war and killing another brother or sister in Christ, who joined the ranks of the opposing country. That’s heavy….
But back to the question. At what point does it go from defense of life to pursuing to take life because of possible, future evil actions? Where is the point of no return: Front-line troops defending the line, pilots dropping bombs on countries where civilians are killed as well, Navy seals teams taking out terrorist threats, CIA operative who does hits on command…?? What level is ok? I am sure we can all justify one way or the other.
One thing is for sure, I hold the men of uniform up with the highest respect for their service, and I am grateful for the men and women that have given their lives for this country. They have helped restrain the evil of the world. I am sure that sounds very hypocritical of me. And I struggle with thinking that myself. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing videos of a soldier getting off an airplane after being on a tour in the Middle East and seeing his loved ones running to him in tears. And when I hear or see an officer was killed in action, it chokes me up more than most other tragedies. But, as Christians, the Scriptures tell us that our fight is not against flesh and blood (Galatians 6:12).
Paul’s instructions in Galatians 6:11-20 are universal for all of us.
Christ could have crushed the Jews and Romans easily. Did he not say he could appeal to his Father, and he would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? However, he instead chose to be crushed for the sins of his enemies and bring glory to his Father as we are to as Christians in this world.
As it pertains to ISIS, I have to lean on what I see in the Scriptures. I know that the only way to change their hearts is through the grace of God brought by the sword of the Spirit. Only the gospel can change the evil natures of ISIS. I of course would defend my home if ISIS members came to attack my family, but to join an outfit with the purpose of killing them, I just don’t see that the Scriptures permit that. But shouldn’t I help my neighbor? Well, who is my neighbor? ISIS is; the people they are killing and pillaging from are too. We help both. How is that to be done? What does that look like? That is something I would to need consider more.
This is my view, and though I know I have not covered all points exhaustively for or against it nor could I, for I don’t presume to know all of them, this is where I feel the most comfortable on this. The Lord commands me to love my enemy and preach the gospel to him, not kill him. I know I will never have to face the Lord with the blood of someone who I chose to kill instead of sharing the gospel with.
I encourage anyone to share their points and correct me where I am lacking and shed light to aspects I have not considered. God bless
1.John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. II (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1500.