How should Christians view war? We are not the nation of ancient Israel which had a special covenant with God. We are the church, and we are under a new covenant. So from this passage in Deuteronomy, we can learn God’s heart, but we have to also take into consideration the new covenant we have with God, and that is found in the teaching of the New Testament.
There are those who look at Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount when he says to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, and to “Love your enemies.” These Christians look at the prohibitions against killing in both the Old and New Testaments, and they conclude that war is never right. Our Mennonite and Amish and Brethren friends are examples. They hold to what is called pacifism, or peace. No war, period. They would list Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr as examples of what is called non-violent resistance in order to deal with injustice. They would not serve in the military, receiving conscientious objector status in a draft. What they hold to is a completely legitimate and viable understanding of New Testament teaching.
Then there are those Christians who look to other teaching in the New Testament, and they conclude that war is right in certain specified conditions. They see Paul, in Romans 13, for example, teaching that God instituted governments to restrain evil. From that they create what is called just war theory. Here “just” is being used not in the sense of “only”, but in the sense of “right”. In other words, what are those are circumstances when it is just or right or legal for one country to wage war against another?
Of course there are many viewpoints on this, disagreements, but here are the most common points of what is called Just War Theory:
- For one nation to go to war against another, they must have a just cause – Usually this boils down to self-defense.
- Next, war must be a last resort – All means of diplomacy must first be tried and tried again.
- War must be declared by a proper authority – A recognized sovereign nation.
- War must have right intention – The cause must be justice, not self-interest.
- War must have a reasonable chance of success – Count the cost, particularly to human life.
- The end must be proportional to the means used – For example, don’t use nuclear weaponry for a small border dispute.
And in fact that last point is related to what we see in Deuteronomy 20 verses 19-20 where God says to Israel, “when you bring a siege on a city, don’t cut down fruit trees to build your siege works.”
On the one hand, this is simply wisdom. You need food! So don’t cut off your source of sustenance. Think about the needs of the army, and plan for the future because when you eventually occupy the land, you’ll need those trees for food.
But on the other hand, there is also a principle: when in war use self-control, don’t allow yourself to use anything and everything to make war.
So Just War Theory sets a high bar. I once heard a lecture from a Christian speaker from the Center for Public Justice applying just war theory to some of America’s wars in the past. The most obvious war considered to be just was our involvement in the Allied cause during World War 2. In that war multiple unjust aggressors were not going to stop invading nations and slaughtering millions of people until they ruled the world. After Japan bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor, we committed our military to the cause, sacrificing much. The Allied mission to defeat Japan, Germany and Italy in World War 2 is widely considered to be a just war. That doesn’t mean that every Allied action in the war was just.
But the speaker that day made a surprising comment. He said that the American Revolution might not have been a just war! Was it possible that our forefathers, when they rebelled against the British, did not meet those six standards of just war? Maybe. I’ll let you think on that!
My church and my pastoral credential is with the EC Church, our denomination, and we are not pacifistic. We believe that when there is just cause, one nation can enter into war against another, to restrain evil, and we believe that Christians can in good conscience serve in the military. But because this is an area of theology where Christians disagree, including Christians within the same church, each individual should hold their view with love and grace towards one another.
What I want to be clear about, though, is that Christians and the church should never use violent means to accomplish the mission of God. Sadly we have a poor track record of doing just that, most famously perhaps in the Crusades. We must call any military or violent action of the church what it is: sin. And we must repent of it, over and over. The mission of God is accomplished in love, humility, selflessness, following the example of Jesus who gave his life for the world.