In 1971, at the ripe old age of 21, I found myself serving in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam. I was well aware that the war was controversial back home. I was fortunate in that I saw very little actual combat while I was there (I was a field radio repairman, and happened to be in “Nam” during a lull in the war), but I had plenty of time to think about what would happen if combat did come my way. Would I actually be able to pull the trigger and kill a fellow human being? The answer to that question, in turn, would depend on the morality of war itself. What did God think about the Viet Nam war?
I was poorly prepared to face such a huge moral dilemma. I had been raised in a Christian home and had spent two years in Bible college. Yet neither pastors nor professors had spent much time discussing the morality of war. The sad fact of the matter is that most evangelical Protestant theologians in modern times have not done very well at explaining the elements of what constitutes a just war.
As we have already noted, the word in the Sixth Commandment translated “murder” (NKJV) signifies the taking of human life by a private individual. But the Bible specifically mandates capital punishment for the crime of murder, as well as for a variety of other offenses. Moreover the nation of Israel was directly ordered by God to go to war against the Canaanites, among others.
But then when we come to the New Testament we read such passages as these: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . I say to you, lover your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . .” (Matt. 5:39; NKJV). It was passages like these that led many Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation to espouse the doctrine of Non-Resistance. Many of them held that a Christian could not serve in the military without violating the commandments of Christ.
One of the chief difficulties with this position is that the Bible represents the civil government as an institution ordained by God himself. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1). The passage even goes on to say that “he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4).
Some Anabaptists tried to escape this difficulty by arguing that “The sword in ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ.” As Christians we must follow the example of Christ, and He did not go to war (Schleitheim Confession, Article VI). In one sense, the Anabaptists were certainly right. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Christian country” or a “Christian government,” if by that we mean a government that is based on Christian moral and ethical principles. The various countries of the world are largely made up of lost sinners, and the governments they form are often founded on less than idealistic principles. They exist to advance the interests of society, which are not always God’s interests. And yet they are still “appointed by God” for the purpose of maintaining order in society. Nevertheless a civil government is quite distinct from the Kingdom of Christ. “You know that the Gentiles lord it over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be you servant . . .” (Matt. 20:25,26).
And yet the function of civil government itself is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is honest and administers justice fairly. The mere fact that it punishes evildoers does not make it, ipso facto, evil. In that sense it is merely imitating what God himself will do at the Last Judgment.
Part of the problem with the Anabaptist position is that it would involve God in a double standard. It would have God condoning something in the Old Testament but condemning it in the New; ordaining something for civil magistrates but forbidding it for Christians. But either it is morally right or it is morally wrong. It cannot be both moral and immoral at the same time.
The answer, I think, is that a magistrate acting in his official capacity is not acting out of personal malice or a desire for personal revenge. His desire is to see order maintained and justice established, and with it the peace and security of the entire community. At the bottom of it he operates (we hope!) from a humanitarian impulse, and not from personal malice. Under those circumstances a Christian should be able to serve in a civil government, and even its military.
Next week, Lord, willing, we will take a closer look at what makes a war just or unjust.