A Time For War?

AMS Staff


In any discussion of war, it is unlikely that ‘the Church’ (i.e. the mass of Christians) will speak with ‘one voice’ on the matter. That is because of two complementary aspects of the Bible’s teaching. On the one hand, the Bible teaches that people powerfully pursue their own goals at the expense of others—they ‘sin’ against each other—and such a world requires rulers who sometimes enforce peace by means of coercion (while resisting the temptation also to sin). Yet on the other hand, God intends for human societies to live in peace, without death and bloodshed, and redeems people for himself who are committed to this peaceful life, now and in future.

Therefore Christians condone some forms of coercion, but are pacifist to the core; and these two impulses will be spoken by different Christians at different times in the debate.

The Old Testament records many wars, some of which God commanded or assisted (e.g. Ex. 17:8-16; Num. 31:3-7; Deut. 20:1-4; Josh; Jud 3:10; Isa. 45:1; etc). But God specifically forbids some wars (Deut. 2:4-5,9,19), and there comes a time when God’s Kingdom is no longer expanded by ‘holy war’, with God even allowing his own people to be taken captive in war (e.g. Daniel 1:1-2). There is a ‘time’ for war (Eccl. 3:8); yet God’s ultimate goal is for a world of peace (e.g. Isa. 2:2-4), and much bloodthirsty warfare is condemned (e.g. Isa. 33:1). This complexity has to do with the history of God’s salvation of planet earth, which you could discover more about by joining the Moore College correspondence course Introduction to the Bible (ph. 9577-9911).

According to some Christians, both Jesus and Paul forbade all violence, and therefore all war (Mt. 5:39 & Lk. 6:29;  Mt. 26:51-53; Rom 12:17-21). One early thinker (Tertullian) goes so far as to say that although God previously allowed some warfare, Jesus “unbelted every soldier”. Tertullian therefore demanded the “immediate abandonment” of military service by Christians.
But neither John the Baptist, Jesus, nor the early Christians forbade soldiering (Lk. 3:14, 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13; Acts 10:1-8,22), and for Jesus, war is just a part of how things are (Mk 13:7; Matt 24:6; Lk 14:31-32, 21:9).  Paul, in his letter to the Romans says that God uses rulers to punish evil by use of ‘the sword’ (Rom. 13:1-4). Elsewhere, God commands rulers to rescue the weak and needy (Ps. 82:2-4). The care of a people is committed to those in authority, and their business is to watch over the common good of the people entrusted to them. In a sinful, fallen world, sometimes they must sadly use force to protect people.

Pondering all this, other Christians (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria, Suarez and Grotius) came to the conclusion that rulers must sometimes go to war, as a terrible duty, for “the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good” (Augustine). Their collected thoughts have come to be known as ‘just war’ theory. It is a set of questions to be answered about any war.

Of course humanity has an insatiable lust for conflict, and war is more a disease to be cured than a remedy to be administered. War results from human sin, and is a venue for more and greater sin. Until God brings his new heavens and earth, we live in a world that is under the judgment of God, and God will demand an accounting for the conduct of all war. Although ‘just war’ theory attempts to limit, restrain and quickly finish the melancholy task of war, it does so because war is horrible, and not to justify more war. Just war theory condemns leaders who use war to enhance their glory or to extend their empire. “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (Augustine, Contra Faust. xxii, 74)


Therefore we need to hold leaders responsible for decisions made in our name. In matters of war, Christians to the ‘right’ resent opinions spoken against the government, while some Christians to the ‘left’ are entirely suspicious of government. But a truly Biblical position is more careful than both of these extremes.

According to the Bible, Christians are ‘friends’ of government and are even optimistic about government, since the Lord Jesus Christ—who is known and trusted by us—stands behind all government (Rom 13). We therefore acknowledge that rulers have authority to keep the peace, sometimes by using force. Their difficult task requires our prayer and support (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
But just as a friend might sometimes tell us what we don’t want to hear, so also must Christians sometimes remind rulers that their own rule must keep step with the just rule of the Lord Christ. Hence Christians will sometimes probe and question rulers about the justice of their various decisions.

The ‘bottom line’ though, is that it is given to rulers to rule. Christians can exercise their free speech, but within the acknowledgement that it is finally for the ruler, not the church leader, to commit the state to the use of force.

This acknowledgement is a basis for free speech even if we probe and question very forcefully.
However, we would certainly not ever be this forceful with military personnel. We only enjoy Western democracy because soldiers do what they are told. We can’t have our cake and eat it: if soldiers decide to disobey a lawful command to go to war, then soldiers, not parliament, would effectively be ruling us.

Therefore if Christians oppose war, they are not at liberty to condemn the soldiers who fight it. (Remember the NT attitude to soldiers.) Indeed we should honour those who ‘wield the sword’; and if that sounds weird, perhaps we need to consider that such honour will help soldiers to think and act more responsibly than will suspicion and condemnation. Of course, we continue to urge soldiers to use an economy of force in each tactical situation, to keep casualties as low as possible, and to protect civilians. It goes without saying that where more soldiers in a given unit personally follow the Lord Jesus, the more likely it becomes for the unit to retain its moral compass in the heat of battle.

But it is not given to soldiers to direct the strategic goals or morality of a war. Their commanders, like us, do well to keep beseeching their political masters for clear, just, and achievable outcomes.


1. Is the cause just? (Just causes include defence against violent aggression, but offensive war is only permitted in very limited circumstances)

2. Is the intention to restore justice between friend and foe? (Some wars do irreparable and lasting damage to the prospect of just relationships.)

3. Is the action a last resort? (Every negotiation and other resort must have been properly tried and failed.)

4. Is the action instigated by the highest governmental authority? (In our situation, this is the nation-state, not the UN; but the UN symbolises the greater rule that national rulers are under.)

5. Are the goals limited? (Leaders must clearly state what outcomes are required. This enables an enemy to comply, or an army to secure those outcomes. Otherwise, wars degenerate into a passion for inflicting harm, a cruel thirst for vengeance, a lust of power, etc.)

6. Is the action proportional to the offence? (The methods employed in open warfare must not exceed the initial problem.)

7. Will casualties be kept low, particularly among those who can not or do not bear arms?

8. When contemplating an offensive war, is there a reasonable hope of success? (This prevents some wars of principle, where an attack is against hopeless odds. A seemingly ‘hopeless’ defensive action might still be ‘just’, though.)

“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.” Augustine

By Andrew Cameron, Bruce Smith Lecturer in ethics at Moore Theological College. This was originally part of a longer essay for the Social Issues Executive.

Andrew Cameron has written a slightly more in-depth treatment of just war theory. It appears in the newsletter of the New College Centre for Applied Christian Ethics (CASE). For copies of the newsletter, contact Jacqui Hughes at New College, tel. +61 (2) 9381-1999, email j.hughes@newcollege.unsw.edu.au.