August 22, 2006

Should Christian Go to War?

With the recent escalation of war between Israel and Hezbollah, the debate continues among Christians over the issues of violence and pacifism. Some Christians believe war is a viable response to injustice, while others disagree.

This raises the popular question, what would Jesus do and by extension, what should a Christian do? Does Jesus advocate a nonviolent, nonresistant pacifism, or does he allow for self-defense and military action, up to and including war?

Was Jesus a Pacifist?

Christians who hold to pacifism base their view primarily on two ideas they find in Scripture.[1] In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught not to resist an evil person and to pray for those who inflict persecution, leading pacifists to profess the principle of nonretaliation. And when Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world, the case is made that Christians are citizens of a spiritual kingdom, not any man-made kingdom of this world. So while Christians remain in this world, they should not participate in the politics. Instead, Christians are to live such a unique lifestyle of loving nonviolence and nonresistance that it draws unbelievers to the light of God’s love and forgiveness found in the cross of Christ.

Applying a Biblical Worldview Grid

How should a biblical thinker respond to a peace-at-all-costs interpretation of Scripture? A worldview perspective aids our interpretation of Scripture not only by focusing on the immediate biblical context and cultural setting of the time, but also by incorporating a total integration of biblical worldview disciplines. A thorough study of these three areas gives the Bible student a richer understanding of the meaning of the text as well as a guide to applying that meaning to the contemporary situation.

Biblical context: At the beginning of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5 we read, “His disciples came to Him and he began to teach them . . . .” Jesus is speaking to those who would be His followers and describes how they should interact on a day-to-day basis with one another in community. He is not addressing the role of the state in protecting its citizens from either violence from fellow citizens or attack from outside forces.

Cultural context: When Jesus speaks about not retaliating if an “evil person” slaps you on the right cheek, he is drawing upon a common Hebrew idiom. Since most people are right handed, the back of the right hand would have to be used in order to hit another person on their right cheek. The issue is not so much physical assault as social insult.[2] Jesus’ point is simple: Don’t return insult with insult, which was expected in that day and time.

In their book, Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain the significance of the honor-shame society of Jesus’ day.

[T]he pivotal value of the Mediterranean society of the first century was honor-shame . . . . Since honor of one’s family determines potential marriage partners as well as with whom one can do business, what functions one can attend, where one can live, and even what religious role one can play, family honor must be defended at all costs. The smallest slight or injury must be avenged, or honor is permanently lost.[3]

Thus, Jesus puts a stop to this kind of tit-for-tat social shaming by telling his followers to absorb the insult and to stop the potential family feud in its tracks. He was not addressing the issue of physical violence or abuse, whether upon you, your family, or your neighbor. It is not as though Jesus were advocating that if a rapist attacks your wife, you should give your daughter as well. This passage lends no support in building a case for passivity to violence.

Worldview context: One thing is clear from a worldview study of politics: government is God’s idea.[4] As early as Genesis 9:6, man is given the collective responsibility to bring a murderer to justice through capital punishment, thus laying the foundation for establishing an orderly and peaceful society through the oversight of civil government.

Moving to the New Testament, in the same sermon that Jesus teaches on turning the other cheek, He also maintains that the state has the responsibility to dispense justice (see Matthew 5:25–26). Elsewhere, Jesus affirms paying taxes to the state (Matthew 22:19f), and Peter and Paul also weigh in on government’s God-given role in protecting its citizens (1 Peter 2:13–14 and Romans 13:1–7).

Living in two kingdoms

An investigation of all three contexts reveals that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, the kingdom of Christ as well as the kingdom of this world, yet with differing responsibilities in each kingdom. On the one hand, we are to forgive and pray for those who insult us, seeking earnestly to love them into Christ’s kingdom. Yet on the other hand, we are responsible, as members of the civil body politic, to participate in and support government’s role in maintaining peace and protecting its citizens. Securing these ends, in many cases, involves violent means (self-defense, protecting the lives and property of others, physical arrest, capital punishment, and warfare).

What is concluded from this brief overview? Should a Christian go to war? First, in the final analysis, there are clear biblical reasons on a personal level to defend oneself and one’s family and neighbors from the violent actions of others. And second, the state is given the responsibility of defending the lives of its citizens, up to and including war on a national scale.

For Further Study:

On Pacifism:

On “Just War” Theory:

  1. See, for example, “Can a Christian be a Pacifist?”, an online article by Anabaptist, Don Murphy or Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, by Roland Bainton.
  2. See Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 250, or David R. Plaster, “The Christian and War: A Matter of Personal Conscience” Grace Theological Journal vol. 6: 437.
  3. Bruce J. Malina & Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, (Fortress Press, 1992) 76–77.
  4. For an in-depth study of biblical politics, see the chapter by that title in David Noebel’s Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews.

This post has earned 17 Comments so far.

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  • July 23, 2010 // 11:44 am //  # 
    Jon's avatar Jon

    The “Pacifist Dictionary” link is broken.

    I found the author’s website here:

    And via that website I found a copy of what I believe to be the article you are trying to link to here:

    I do not agree with the author, but I wanted to help anyone passing by with a link to the story referred to in the footnotes under “pacifism” above.

  • September 29, 2010 // 01:44 pm //  # 
    Stuart Graydon's avatar Stuart Graydon

    I think Pacifism further misses several points from the Sermon on the Mount.
    1. The slap on the face was not literal. Scripture makes this evident by recording both Jesus and Paul’s response to a literal slap on the face. (John 18:22-23; Acts 22:2-3)
    2. The point was to overlook personal insults, not life-threatening one or threats to others, for whom we are responsible. This is apparent from the context. Jesus didn’t stop with a single example, but immediately went on to add three more - someone suing to take your coat, a soldier forcing you to carry his load a mile, and someone coming to borrow from you. All of these are clearly personal and non-lifethreatening. (Matt 5:40-42)
    3. Jesus gave us clear guidelines in the earlier passages as to how far He expected us to go with these teachings. He gave a series of clarifications on the law by saying “you have heard ..., but I say unto you…” When He spoke of murder, He made clear anger was the root and that you were not even to hate, insult or slander. In speaking of adultery, He made it clear that lust was the root, that you should consider the command so literal as to cut off a body part, if necessary.  If we go beyond what He said and extend His teaching about the slap on the cheek to not defending our families and neighbors, are we not obliged to at least take literally what He said about lust?

  • October 03, 2010 // 01:26 pm //  # 
    Jon's avatar Jon

    I just came back for a visit to this article and realized that my comment could be mis-interpreted.

    When I say “I do not agree with the author” I mean that I don’t agree with the author I linked to in my comment.  I do NOT mean that I disagree with this article at

    Just don’t want to be mis-understood.  grin

  • March 11, 2012 // 03:41 pm //  # 
    John's avatar John

    I have been researching martial arts, self defense and the christian, wow! there is a lot of contraversy. What started this is the church i attend has several practicing martial artists there and my pastor has made a lot of recent commenets related to self defense and the bible. I beleive a lot of it stems from sending a missions team from our church to Sudan to teach the chaplains there self defense and preach. I’m all for the preaching. Anyway i would like some opinions and biblical new covenant perspective from other beleivers please!

  • March 11, 2012 // 05:43 pm //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon


    John, you mentioned that “would like some opinions and biblical new covenant perspective from other beleivers please!”

    The article you commented on is a great answer to your question.  There are also a bunch of links at the bottom that you can use for your research.

  • March 12, 2012 // 12:50 pm //  # 
    John's avatar John

    thanks thirsty i’m finding there are a lot of resources and a variety of opinions derived from scripture. I think what is important however is that the gospel be preached so the lost can be reached. I believe in protecting family.

  • June 08, 2012 // 03:50 pm //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    While I certainly haven’t read everything ever proposed as justification for the ‘Christian Soldier’, there seems to be a monumental ommission from all of the proponents’ arguments that—for me, at least—is the ‘coup de gras’ to any opposition to Pacificism. Even considering their elaborate, Scriptural-interpretations for “Just War”, they somehow completely ignore the blatant contradiction in someone calling themselves a follower of Jesus while attempting to circumvent His Greatest Commission.

    In Mark 16:15&16;, Jesus is quoted as saying “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to EVERY creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be DAMNED.” [emphasis mine]. He charges his followers to “Go…preach…to EVERY creature [person]”. It is verifiably impossible to take the lives of strangers/opposing-combatants (and, of course, the ‘casualities-of-war’ civilians) whom you have no way of knowing aren’t being sent directly TO HELL as a result of their dying prior to having had a chance to respond to the Gospel, while simultaneously claiming to be in obedience to your Lord’s command to have preached said Gospel to them for the saving of their souls.

    Forget the O.T. “God of War” as your example; forget any implications in the quotations of John, Jesus, and/or Paul exonerating killing others of His “creatures” under the authority of government. The entire debate reduces down to the oxy-moronic question: “Did you preach the Gospel to that person before you sent them into Eternity with your weapon?”. If you still desire the justification of ‘Holy Combatants’ with the hypothesis that maybe God has a different set of rules for those who die without Christ at the hand of a Christian (like some Christian soldiers I know believe), then you have to allow for the extrapolation of that exemption to the ridiculous conclusion of wondering why He didn’t instead command for His followers to “Go into all the world…and guarantee their salvation by killing everyone before they have a chance to reject My Gospel.”. No Christian would support such a preposterous statement; neither should they accept that He would require us to obey a human command that defies His.

  • June 08, 2012 // 04:51 pm //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon

    So…  If someone is trying to kill your children and your efforts to defend them put the life of the attacker at risk.  Are you (@YesAnotherJohn) saying that you should cease to defend your family and while your children are dying say “excuse me, sir, if you died tonight do you know if you’d go to heaven?”

    Heaven and Hell are vitally important, but they are not the only thing the Bible teaches.  I don’t buy your argument that “Preach the Gospel to every creature” over rules every other principle of scripture.  Any verse in the Bible needs to be interpreted in the context of the others.

    So no, I cannot forget the Old Testament; nor can I forget the principles that the New Testament teaches about Civil Government.

    If you “preach the gospel” to somebody and leave out all of the implications about how to live and how to order society and instead tell the lost soul that whether or not they go to heaven or hell trumps every other principle of God…  Well, if you do that you did not Preach the Gospel.  You preached something else.

  • June 08, 2012 // 06:35 pm //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    Ah, yes…..the “What if your family was being attacked?” excuse for Christians to get to shed blood. Besides the fact that this argument insults both your intelligence and the Creator, it completely bypasses having to address the real issue—obedience to Christ’s Great Commission. Incidently, what possibly could you be claiming is more important than submitting to your alleged Lord’s indisputable command? and, do you worship God as Omnipotent with the same mouth that you just used to accuse Him of impotence regarding the safety of your family? O ye of little faith.

    It doesn’t matter whether you “buy” my view on this; what matters is that you realize just why it is that you fear that you cannot trust your all-powerful Deity to protect you.

    Could it be that no one in their right mind can defend or trust the O.T. description of God?  Face your fear….don’t kill your fellow.

  • June 08, 2012 // 09:15 pm //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon

    “What if your family was being attacked” isn’t an excuse.  It’s an important decision to think through in advance.  If you are ever in that situation I hope you already know what you believe.  It is an excellent vehicle for thinking through the implications of “pacifism.”

    And I hope you are never in that situation.  I also hope that I am not.

    You did not address my assertion that your “gospel” is incomplete if it doesn’t contain principles that will help you know what to do in regards to something like defending your family.

    When Jesus gave the “Great Commission” it included “teaching them to obey all.”

    Jesus is also the author of the Old Testament.  There are a number of principles that can be discussed about how to interpret and apply Old Testament Principles to today, but it is clear that they do apply to today.

    You said:

    “Could it be that no one in their right mind can defend or trust the O.T. description of God?  Face your fear….don’t kill your fellow.”

    I’m not sure what you are talking about.  Are you making your argument from the position of being an orthodox (notice the small “o”) believer in Christianity?  Because the historic orthodox version of Christianity teaches that the Jesus of the New Testament is the same One God as the God of the Old Testament.

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    By the way, ditch the remarks about my “fear” or “little faith.”  You do not know me and I do not know you.  If you resort to personal attacks against imagined motives it only makes it look like you don’t really have anything worth saying.  That advice was free.

  • June 09, 2012 // 12:06 pm //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    Thanks anyways, Thirsty…but, we’re done.
    Please remember, though, that circumvention and distraction—as debate styles—are neither respectable nor worth our time.

    Are there any other commenters interested in a productive discussion on this issue? Of particular interest is a successful referencing of chapter-and-verse for this mysterious quote of Jesus:  “I would prefer that you kill your aggressors (possibly sending them straight to hell—for all you know, since you chose not to obey my command to preach my Gospel for the saving of their souls) than for me to see you up here in heaven earlier than I’d planned because you mistakenly trusted me to defend you.”. 

    Forgive the sarcasm; sometimes, it’s simply the most efficient method of directing our attention to the core of the matter, and should be construed to contain the slightest element of disrespect only if you earned it.

  • June 09, 2012 // 02:16 pm //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon


    One thing we can agree on is that the conversation between us is pretty much over.  I probably should have known that in advance from the tone of your initial comment and just refrained from diving in and left you to the moderators (I am not a moderator - I have no formal affiliation with Summit.)

    You have not responded to my points and you keep repeating yours without considering or addressing my questioning of your points.  A sure sign that this is heading towards a “‘tis so, ‘tis not” type discussion.

    I will allow my original questioning of your apparently not-considering-the-whole-of-Scripture method of interpretation to stand and speak for itself.

  • June 10, 2012 // 06:20 am //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    The inherent problem with Thirsty’s “Connect-the-dots” method of Scriptural interpretation, is that the Bible is humanity’s greatest ‘Rorschach-Test’:  one sees what their subconscious wants them to see, subsequently convincing the viewer that “the Spirit” has just communicated Ultimate Truth to them. It’s virtually impossible to find any two people who can agree on every aspect of Christianity; just ask the 30,000+/- various sects, denominations, and divisions within Christianity that are all so assured that their’s is the perfect interpretation that they’re perpetually arguing, debating, and dividing themselves further from the “One Church” that their Founder started. Why would God have chosen such a faulty method of communication—written, human language—when He obviously would’ve FOREKNOWN the catastophic-mess that any Body of Christ would’ve turned-out to be because they can’t agree on what He meant?

    This is the rationale behind my choosing to focus on the one saying of Jesus that every person who claims to follow him actually DOES AGREE ON: His Great Commission. Whether or not this quote of him is actually true and/or accurate can be totally beside the point; what matters it that every Christian BELIEVES it is, and on that concensus it is the most important verse in all of Christianity. It should never be watered-down or subjegated to interpretation through multitudinous other passages. It stands on it’s own. That’s why it should not be reinterpreted through 50 different doctrinal-prisms for analysis:  if you believe that this command came straight from the mouth of your Lord…then, just shut your mouth and LIVE IT!

    Then, it’ll be your obedience (rather than your obfiscations—Thirsty) that will “speak for itself”.

  • June 10, 2012 // 06:44 am //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon

    I never should have fed the troll.

    When will I learn?

    I’ll let all of my previous comments stand.

    Adieu “YesAnotherJohn.”

  • June 10, 2012 // 06:45 am //  # 
    ThirstyJon's avatar ThirstyJon

    P.S.  Is anybody from Summit monitoring or moderating this page?  Hello there?  Anybody there?

  • June 10, 2012 // 06:45 am //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    Should read:  subjugated, and

    ‘Spel-Czech’ sure comes in handy—BEFORE you hit ‘submit’.

  • June 10, 2012 // 06:53 am //  # 
    YesAnotherJohn's avatar YesAnotherJohn

    How can a Christian both obey their Master’s clear command to seek and to save those who are lost AND also kill his lost Crown-Creations? Answer the question! Otherwise, quit demanding the last word!

    Calling me a troll simply confirms your level of “Christ-likeness” for the world to see, but. it doesn’t prove your argument.

    Thirsty, your comments are a two-legged stool.

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