The Bible on When War is Justifiable, Part 1

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If Jesus calls us to be “peacemakers” then how could a Christian Cabinet Member or Congressman support the idea of going to war? The short answer is this: “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of Jesus’ beatitudes relative to how believers ought to conduct their personal lives (Matthew 5:9). But there is a distinction to be made between Jesus’ instruction regarding personal behavior and the responsibilities He sets forth relative to His ordination of the institution of government (Romans 13:1-8 and 1Peter 2:13-14) that Christian Members are called to serve. In an OT parallel, in the sixth commandment, the Hebrew word for murder is ratsakh in “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), but note this is a different word than the ones God uses in Scripture in relation to His people having to kill someone in war. Accordingly, this week and next, given the threat of war with Syria, Iran, and North Korea, let us investigate more fully what the Scriptures have to say about war. Ralph Drollinger


When Jesus returns He will wage war against the nations led by the Antichrist (cf. Rev. 19:11). In Deuteronomy 20 God Himself sends Israel to war. Therefore this study is not so much about whether or not God condones war; He does. God’s acceptance and use of war in a fallen world is not difficult to understand when viewed in the sense that often and ultimately He is manifesting His attributes of justice and righteousness through its use. Therefore this study is not about whether or not God is for or against war — the answer to that question is obvious from Scripture. This study is more about the kind of war that is acceptable versus unacceptable in His eyes. In gaining a biblical understanding about this, there is a need to first elaborate on what the Bible says is the role of God’s institution of government. This role must be clearly distinguished, contextualized and separated from passages that speak to individual responsibilities — as noted in the preamble. Failure to make this distinction that Scripture itself makes, leads to confusion, as if the Bible contradicts itself, which it does not. Secondly, in gaining an understanding of what kind of wars are acceptable we will examine whether there is a biblical basis for the internationally accepted Just War Theory. There are eight principles that comprise the Just War Theory: Are each of those supported by Scripture? If so, what passages from God’s Word underlie each precept? Said another way, is each of the eight precepts “captive to Christ” (cf. 2Corinthians 10:5) so to speak? Lastly, a study on war would not be complete without examining the two leading camps in opposition to the Just War Theory: The Christian Pacifist and the Noninterventionist (the latter camp is peopled by Christians and non- Christians alike). How do advocates of these beliefs attempt to support their viewpoints — and are these viewpoints biblically based? As a result:


Examining these subjects in this order will hopefully aid the Public Servant in his or her formation of strong, biblically-based convictions regarding the proper use of war.


The fall of man in Genesis chapter three warrants God’s ongoing need to restrain the ensuing evil in and from man. One of the primary means God has ordained (stemming from His holy attribute of perfect justice) in order to achieve restraint is the principle of just recompense. This idea is first illustrated in Genesis right after the fall. The pain of childbearing for the woman and the necessity of labor for man’s/ mankind’s survival (3:16-17) illustrate the just cost of man’s disobedience — a cost to be borne by mankind into his distant, physical future. Further, in Genesis 9:6 God institutionalizes capital punishment: “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” That is to say God will use corporate man as His surrogate to mete out His just recompense, in this case for murder. The due recompense for the premeditated murder of another man will be his death: corporeal punishment by corporate mankind. The idea here is more fully excogitated in Romans 13:1- 4. Scripture says in this regard: Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Notice first of all that governing authorities (vs. 1) are established by God (vs. 1b) for the purpose of (among others) bearing the sword . . . an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil (vs. 4b). This same idea is echoed by 1Peter 2:13-14: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution; whether to a king as the one in authority; or to governors as sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. Human institutions (?????p??? ?t?se?, anthropine ktisei) (“that which is created for humans [by God]”) exist for the punishment of evildoers. This basic truth is foundational to a proper understanding of the role of government in general and in specific as it relates to the subject of war. God’s design, the purpose of government in large measure, is to curtail the evil deeds of men; it is to deter the further wrongdoing of man against the weak and defenseless; it is a form of God’s restraining grace in a fallen world. This fundamental purpose of Government can be expanded to include not only the need to protect its citizenry from evil from within, but to protect its citizenry from evil from outside. In this sense, government is a minister of God for your good.


If this is the purpose of government, then it follows that God would expect a nation to protect itself from forces of evil outside its borders, outside forces that would attempt to harm innocent people in some way. It follows that many times in the OT Israel had to defend itself from the plundering onslaught of the Philistines, Assyrians and Babylonians. (And depending on Israel’s obedience or disobedience to God, God would allow Israel to either be victorious or defeated respectively.) In fact, as mentioned in the introduction, God commanded Israel to go to war in Deuteronomy 20:1: “When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.” Further evidence of God condoning a nation’s self interest through the use of war are the following NT illustrations: John the Baptist does not condemn a Roman soldier for going to war. Rath­er he says, “be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). And, when Cornelius the Centurion was won to Christ the Apos­tles did not condemn his vocation (Acts 10:1; 44-48; cf. Luke 14:31). Their re­sponse is unlike Jesus’ in John 8:11, wherein he tells the woman adulterer “Go. From now on sin no more.” These and other passages serve to illus­trate the idea that God is not adverse to governments engaging in war; that is part of the reason He created them — to in this way benefit mankind. Again, the more difficult question is this:


Certainly the ancient practice of con­quest and plundering another nation for the sake of gaining their wealth and new slaves is not a justifiable cause for war. So then what is? What are the spe­cific earmarks that can help us to ascer­tain the justifiable and unjustifiable use of war in the eyes of God?


Throughout centuries of discussions rel­ative to the ethics of war usage, amongst Christians and non-Christians alike, there has developed a broadly, inter­nationally accepted Just War Theory. Historically in the Church, the primary believers to tackle the issue of war from a philosophical standpoint were Augus­tine of Hippo and then some 900 years later, Thomas Aquinas. Augustine ad­dresses war in his classic book, The City of God:

They who have waged war in obe­dience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of gov­ernment, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such per­sons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not [murder].”

Centuries later Thomas Aquinas be­gan to codify Augustine’s thoughts on war into a punch list of indicators as to if or not a war is ethically justifi­able. The modern day summary of that moral pursuit follows. Given the fact that some of the best ancient Christian scholars originated the skeletal aspects of the Just War Theory, it should come as no surprise to today’s believers that each is undergirded with biblical truth! In summary, war is morally right, or jus­tifiable (the Latin phrase for this is jus ad bellum meaning “the right to go to war”) only when embarking on it meets the following eight criteria:


Is the reason for engaging in war moral­ly right, such as defending a nation from an evil aggressor? As noted in the intro­duction, in Revelation 19:11, God furi­ously wages war against the Antichrist. Notice His principle for engagement: And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. This is a glorious passage of the awesome spectacle of the triumphal Second Coming of Christ. Herein observe that God wages war only when it is for a righteous cause. It follows that those nations considering waging war should do likewise: only consider engagement when the cause is justifiably righteous. Conquering other nations is usually a wrong objective of war because God is for a diversification of nations per Genesis 11. To in any way invade, usurp or colonize another nation is the wrong objective for the use of war. God intentionally scattered the nations, (11:8) and it is His intent that they be kept scattered. (Thank God that this Genesis 11:8 idea is deeply, unwaveringly embedded in our nation’s fabric! Our nation possesses the mightiest war power in world history — a might that could be used alternatively to conquer the world if it were not for our deep convictions stemming from Genesis 11:8! In light of our military muscle, may our continual awareness, understanding of, and convictions stemming from Genesis 11:8 never depart from our corporate culture, our thinking as a nation.)


“Just Cause” is the first principle for a nation to consider when pondering the use of war. A direct threat to a nation need be imminent in order to warrant the use of war.


This next principle asks this question: Has the aggression that a nation is responding to, been declared and/ or proliferated by the actual authority within the nation? Said differently, is a nation’s consideration of going to war in response to a renegade or third party covert action within the nation? This distinction helps to guard against and discern the existence of parties other than those in actual authority who may desire to unrighteously and unjustifiably accelerate a war by the use of deception and agitation. It is not just for our nation to declare war on another nation that is not responsible for the evil actions being propagated within its own geographical boundaries. This principle is rooted as well in 1Peter 2:13-14.


This third principle means this: By way of stark comparison, it should be apparent that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong and the actions of the nation bringing the war are morally right. Notice Romans 13:3 in this regard: For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. The point here is so simple that it could be overlooked: if another nation is doing what is morally right, there is no justification to go to war with them. Relatively speaking, there must be a stark, comparative justification for engaging in the action of war:


For instance, the added plight that America’s invasion brought on the French people was justifiable in comparison to the atrocities suffered under Hitler because it was a moral contrast between unjustifiable national conquest and captivity versus the hope and cost of national liberation.


Is the purpose of the war to achieve justice and righteousness or one of conquest, pillage, and destruction — or perhaps the motives are vengeful? Proverbs 21:2 speaks to what underlies the need to discern right intentions: Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts. Many passages speak of man’s ability to be self-deceived due to the fall (cf. Proverbs 16:2; 24:12; 1Samuel 16:7; 1Corinthians 4:4). The noetic effect of sin, if unchecked by the counsel of God’s Word and the advice of other godly people, can lead to the manifestation of bad intentions. Relative to the sinful proclivities of man, the OT book of Judges states, every man did what was right in his own eyes (17:6) but in doing so they did wrong. Man, in realization of his sinfulness need always obtain the godly counsel of others (cf. Proverbs 13:10). Proverbs 24:6 summarily states how one ought to wage a war that God approves relative to this principle of right intentions: For by wise guidance you will wage war, And in abundance of counselors there is victory. It is critically important to carefully discern if or not the motives and intentions for going to war are just. This can only be accomplished through the counsel of many. It follows then that a nation should not wage war unilaterally by its executive; to seek congressional approval is an idea that is supported by Scripture. Such approval is a check and balance that is necessary in response to the realization that we are often lacking in the best judgment or ability to discern if or not our motives and intentions are proper and God honoring. It summarily follows that establishing right intentions is a sure-footed scriptural principle. Having stated the principle clearly, it is not difficult to ascertain right intentions given Syria President Assad’s blatant slaughter of innocent people.


Have all the other reasonable means of resolving the conflict been seriously tried and exhausted? Romans 12:18 underscore this idea: If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. God is most pleased when parties can resolve their problems thereby eliminating any need for war. At the same time, this principle is often misused by the wrongful party: Is the perpetrating nation using drawn-out negotiations as a stall tactic while they prepare to do evil? The rightful party should not be naïve to this; there comes a time when it is obvious that the grace of one party is being taken advantage of by the other to unjustly delay what in the end will be necessary: the just use of force. War should always be the last resort.


It is foolish to enter into a war unless there is a high probability of success. Luke 14:31 buoys the biblical basis of this principle: “Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” When answering the question of the probability of success of entering a war, the obvious considerations of counting the cost must be taken into account. Determining what a successful effort to go to war will cost is difficult, and each incident is different with its own set of circumstances. The point of this study is not to delve into those weeds, but to point out that weighing the probability of success and the cost of biblically-based considerations are vital before determining to enter into a war.


Will the good results stemming from the success of the war objectives be greater than the losses that will inevitably occur from pursuing the war? Luke 14:28 speaks to this principle: “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” Even though God states that governments are to carry the sword…. to avenge wrath upon the one who practices evil, it doesn’t always follow that the good achieved by avenging the evil is outweighed by the additional harm that could result to innocent bystanders. Perhaps the proportionality of results will increase with patience or further creativity manifest in the timing or type of war utilized. Such considerations going into war are certainly undergirded by Scripture in order to correctly ascertain God’s will in the decision. Using ISIS as an example, if cutting off their supply lines have greater proportional results, is it wiser to do that than it is to attempt to fight an embedded enemy? One need calculate and weigh the costs and benefits of his war strategy before waging it.


All war must be undertaken with great reluctance, sobriety and counsel. Those who engage the force of war must do so with great sorrow. Psalm 68:30d speaks about those who delight in war: He has scattered the peoples who delight in war. Given the pain of punishment, the inevitability of harming innocent people, and the overall further setbacks that will occur to the nation and its citizens, for any individual or nation to gleefully enter into combat is to be woefully displeasing to God. This last criterion of the Just War Theory, likened to all that precede it, are principles substantiated by Scripture.


When the aforementioned criteria are carefully and corporately reasoned and it is just and righteous to go to war, then a nation must engage with its full force, intense focus and all out power in a quest for immediate and decisive victory. In response to fulfillment of all the elements of the Just War Theory when it is just and righteous to go to war, what results can in no way be a half-hearted response! When it is just and right to go to war a nation cannot respond flaccidly with less than clear objectives! Winston Churchill, when faced with the inevitability of engaging Nazi Germany worked through and fulfilled all the above criteria with Parliament. In entering the war, he personally emulated this ensuing right spirit and resolve — what necessarily must follow when justifiably and righteously a nation enters a war. In his address to Parliament in 1940 he said,

Let us therefore brace ourselves to do our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and its Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ And what is our aim? . . . Victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Churchill serves as an executive model for properly leading a nation into war. When war is justified and righteous, a country’s leadership should never enter into it with “low testosterone.” It is an all or nothing commitment of the totality of the nation in its decisive quest for all out victory as quickly as possible!

Next week: We will examine the Four Principles of Fight­ing a War and consider several opposing positions to the Just War Theory: Christian Pacifism and Nonintervention­ism. We will consider whether these are biblically tenable positions.

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