David W. Jones, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina
The morality of war has been a debated topic in Christian circles from the earliest days of Christianity until the present. Indeed, the divergence of opinion on this topic is understandable in light of the seemingly contradictory biblical material on warfare, including the command not to murder (Exod. 20:13), the God-ordained wars against the Canaanites (Deut. 7:15), and Jesus example and instructions regarding nonviolence (Matt. 5:3839). It is no wonder, then, that various ecclesiastical traditions have differed on the question of if and when warfare is a moral option for followers of Jesus Christ. In spite of the ostensibly opposing passages in Scripture regarding warfare and the divergence of thought within the Christian traditionranging from the medieval crusades of the Roman Catholic Church to the pacifism of the modern day Mennonitesthis brief article will attempt to show that the Bible does in fact present a consistent ethics of warfare.
When dealing with any moral conundrum, the question that all Christians must ask themselves is, What course of action will most glorify God in this situation (1 Cor. 10:31)? Indeed, this is a difficult and sometimes complex question, which is why the Lord provided His followers with explicit directions for the Christian life all throughout his inspired Word. Sometimes these directions are tailored to unique situations or events (e.g., the directions regarding fasting in Matt. 6:1618), other times these directions are summarized in broad strokes (e.g., the greatest and second greatest commandment in Matt. 22:3740), and yet at other times these directions are given as specific commandments representative of vast areas of moral responsibility (e.g., the Ten Commandments in Ex. 20:117). Regardless of their shape or form, however, one must keep in mind that all of Gods moral directions are a reflection of Himself (Exod. 20:2), designed to make His followers holy (1 Pet. 1:1516), and ultimately will point others to God if followed consistently and correctly (Matt. 5:16).
With the above moral framework in mind, when confronted with the question or possibility of violence (such as armed conflict), a Christian must ask and answer the question, What directives in Scripture have been given that will most glorify God in this circumstance? Or, in other wordssince Gods moral directives are a reflection of Himselfa Christian could ask, What aspects of Gods character are at stake in this given context? While a complete answer to this question would be quite lengthy (for Gods character is awesome), for illustrative purposes in this article it may be helpful>
As was mentioned above, there have been disagreements among the various ecclesiastical traditions as to what the Christian ethic of war ought to be. This is due in part, I suggest, by many people mistaking scriptural applications (e.g., turn the other cheek) for scriptural principles (e.g., to do justly). While this is true, many Christians throughout Church history have recognized that in the fallen world in which we live, when we seek to reflect Gods character and to maintain scriptural principles, sometimes warfare is a tragic but morally necessary activity. Indeed, it has been the position of many believers (especially those in the evangelical Protestant tradition) that warfare is not only permissible for Christians, but sometimes it is required in order to be obedient to the Lord and to glorify Him by imitating aspects of Gods character, such as the maintenance of justice (Mic. 6:8) and the protection of the innocent (Isa. 56:1; Ps. 82:34; Heb. 11:3234). This position within the Church has given rise to what has become known as Just War theory. Just War theory has been championed by great Church thinkers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin (just to name a few), and has been the model of warfare adopted by most of the nations in Western culture. Indeed, Just War theory was employed by the United States in both of the World Wars and it was the moral framework cited by President George H. W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
Below are two charts that give various principles that are related to Just War theory. Note that there are separate principles for engaging in warfare and for fighting a just war. Furthermore, note that all of the principles are related to aspects of Gods character (cf. the accompanying scriptural bases). Traditional Just War theory, which I believe represents a Christian perspective on warfare, stipulates that all of these principles must be met and maintained in order for warfare to be truly just and ultimately glorifying to God. Indeed, in the western Christian tradition the majority of debate has not focused upon if war is moral, but upon when just war principles are satisfied (but that is a different discussion). This list below is not comprehensive, however it is inclusive enough to introduce the reader to this historically orthodox Christian view of warfare and perhaps spark further reading and research.
Principles for Engaging in Just Warfare (Jus as Bellum)
|Just Cause||Prov. 2:78; Isa. 56:1; Mic. 6:8; Heb. 11:3334; Rev. 19:11|
|Competent Authority||Ps. 144:4; Rom. 13:1|
|Comparative Justice||1 Sam. 2:3; Dan. 5:2628|
|Right Intention||Rom. 12:19, 21; 14:19; 1 Pet. 3:11|
|Last Resort||Prov. 3:3132; 15:1; Rom. 12:18|
|Probability of Success||Luke 14:3132|
|Proportionality of Results||Job 37:23; Ps. 52:3, 5|
|Right Spirit||Ps. 68:30; 120:67; Amos 1:11; Matt. 5:44|
Principles for Conducting Just Warfare (Jus in Bello)
|Proportional use of Force||Deut. 20:1011; Amos 1:3, 11|
|Discrimination||Gen. 18:23, 25; Deut. 20:19; Amos 1:6, 13|
|Avoidance of Evil Means||Ps. 34:14; Rom. 12:17|
|Good Faith||Amos 1:9|
Interested in further reading on Just War theory, as well as other Christian views on war? Here are some resources:
Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War & Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1960; reprint 1990.
Holmes, Arthur F., ed. War and Christian Ethics: Classical Readings in the Morality of War. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975; reprint, 1991.
Johnson, James Turner. Just War and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Ramsey, Paul. The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. New York: Scribners, 1968; republished, Rowman & Littlefield, 1983.
Yoder, John Howard. Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971; reprint 1992.