Some Christians have believed that the sphere of God’s Kingdom and the sphere of civil government, though equally valid and necessary, are mutually exclusive. Thus no individual can consistently function in both at the same time. Pacifists who consider the state to be performing a necessary function still regard it as something evil or as necessarily using evil means to carry out its purposes. Thus when a person becomes a Christian, he can enter the Kingdom of God only by separating himself from the state. One must choose to obey one or the other; he cannot do both. This applies especially to the question of participation in war, which is almost always done in the name of the civil government. If a person is a Christian, he cannot act on behalf of the state; thus he cannot engage in war under any circumstances. So say many Christians.

On the other hand, most Christians, including myself, have believed that though the church and state are different and perform different functions, they do not conflict with one another but complement each other. The standards of conduct which apply to individuals on the one hand and to the state on the other hand are distinct and different, but they are not contradictory and exclusive. Neither is one higher or more noble than the other. Neither does one apply to Christians and the other to non-Christians; both apply to all persons.

When it lives up to the purposes for which God ordained it, civil government is not evil, nor does it perform an evil function. It is God’s servant (Rom. 13:1-4); its purposes and duties are God-appointed. They are RIGHT. And if the functions of government, including defensive war, are RIGHT to do (and they are), then they are RIGHT for Christians to do. God’s norms apply equally to everyone. God’s rules for personal conduct (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) are intended to apply equally to all people; they are not an exclusive norm for Christians alone (even if Christians are the only ones who actually honor them). The norms for official civil activities also apply equally to all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Whatever is right for unbelievers to do in government service is right for Christians to do as well.

Thus a Christian can participate in any legitimate function of government, even warfare if it is defensive. This is not a violation of Christ’s teaching about personal conduct. (This means that Christians can also be police officers.)

The conclusion is that Christians can and should answer the “call to arms” for participation in a “just war.” Since Christians are commanded to submit to civil authority, it is wrong to refuse to register for a draft or to refuse to be drafted if required. Following the Biblical principles for civil disobedience, though, a Christian must disobey civil authority if asked to do something wrong. The Christian must sit in judgment on the activities of his government. If the government orders him to participate in what he discerns to be an unjust war, in good conscience he must refuse (and accept the consequences). This is called selective conscientious objection. It is the only position consistent with the “just war” concept. (Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not recognize the validity of this position.)

Though pacifism per se in not a Biblical position, the conscience of a pacifist–though misinformed—must be respected.

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  1. It would be interesting to know when the last Just War was fought by the U.S. Certainly none in my lifetime and I’m seeing 70 next birthday. One could claim WWII began as a Just War, but ended with carpet bombing and atomic bombs on helpless civilians.

    • War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
      John Stuart Mill
      English economist & philosopher (1806 – 1873)

  2. Regarding lethal force in personal self-defense, I believe this is acceptable as long as it is distinguished from (a) “getting even” when someone is simply insulting you (which seems to be Jesus’ point in Matt. 5:39), and (b) taking revenge against someone who has done you harm (Rom. 12:17-19), which is a task reserved for civil government (Rom. 13:1ff.). The self-defense must be for the purpose of protecting oneself from serious injury or death.

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