I was recently asked whether I believe military service is Scripturally permissible for believers.
Full disclosure: I served in the Air Force in the immediate post-9/11 months. (My father served in the Army National Guard during the 1990s; his father was a sailor in World War II, had a destroyer sunk from beneath him in the Battle of Guadalcanal.)
Though there was patriotic fervor even amongst civilians following 9/11, it took a different form within the military ranks: aggression. Many soldiers took up a kind of enthusiasm towards vengeance. I vividly remember the videos that circulated through our email inboxes in those pre-Youtube days (this was one of the first and a rather tame example).
I didn’t get into that mindset. I still reject caustic jingoism and delight in death. Though combat requires a resolute and focused mindset, I do not think the Christian can justify bloodlust in the heart.
But the question remains: is violence, even without aggression, conscionable at all for believers? Some (like my Mennonite brothers) do not believe so.
I’ll stick to the Scriptural arguments I know and let you decide. Any other talking point (such as society’s perception of veterans) is secondary.
* There is reason to infer a Scriptural teaching against self-defense for state-persecuted Christians, following Jesus’ model (e.g. “He will not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2) and that of the saints down through the ages.
* Personal revenge is Biblically difficult to justify – “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
However, these two are far from the only situations that might require force.
* Romans 13 is largely about submission, but theologians have traditionally homed in on verse 4 as justifying force to maintain order:
But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. v.4b
Its simple thrust is this: there are wrongdoers in the world, God does something about them, and he uses human agency (the “sword” specifically, flawed though it be) as his instrument. He does not ignore it, nor command soldiers in this case to stand aside for judgment from heaven.
* In 2 Timothy, Paul promotes a soldier’s qualities as admirable and imitable for Christians. In Ephesians 6, he speaks of spiritual equipment at our disposal and uses military equipment as the most comprehensible analog. These are not explicit endorsements of military service, but using military imagery to address Christians doesn’t exactly rule it out, either. Paul could have contented himself with the runner analogy, and he must have been aware of how praising a soldier’s qualities might have been taken. If God explicitly wanted pacifism for his people, it is unlikely that he would have left these verses as they stand.
(The passage is not meant to portray soldierhood as a competitor to Christ. As a matter of good exegesis, we should avoiding reading into a verse things that aren’t there.)
* God used war to conquer Canaan. Though this was a specific dispensation and not permission for wanton violence in our own lives, God still used the sword, not the bargaining table.
* Ecclesiastes 3:8 teaches that there is “A time for war, and a time for peace.”
But for me, the strongest evidence that Christians can join the military in good conscience is God’s command to protect the innocent.
Some might point to Jesus’ command to love your enemies. But Jesus actually commanded us to love all men, enemies and their victims alike (such as the Guatemalan poor).
What happens, then, when one group turns upon another? If love means non-violence, we would thus be choosing a party not to love. Inaction would then be loving the strong at the expense of the weak, the criminal at the expense of the innocent. And the divine command to love would be rendered impossible to follow.
When an evil is clear and present, inaction is complicity. That seems to be the stance of Proverbs 24:10-12:
“If you do nothing in a difficult time,
your strength is limited.
Rescue those being taken off to death,
and save those stumbling toward slaughter.
If you say, “But we didn’t know about this,”
won’t He who weighs hearts consider it?
Won’t He who protects your life know?
Won’t He repay a person according to his work?”
I believe we thus amend our definition of love to include all of Scripture’s implications. We are commanded to love our enemies. We are also commanded to deliver the weak and needy from their hands (Psalm 82:3-4, Prov. 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17). It should be noted that the belief that Scriptures outside the four Gospels carry a lesser authority than Jesus’ words is a position this blog does not entertain.
It is fair to question the righteousness of any war. It is proper to pursue every possible alternative first (and America has historically done so, including in WWII). It is right to remove all hatred and bloodlust from our hearts. And if you cannot stomach war, it’s possible that military service is not part of God’s will for your life.
But at the end of the day, Scripture also tells me that part of my Christian duty is to safeguard the innocent from those who trade in violence themselves. It is naive to think that such men will always respond to the gavel or the negotiator. I believe it is justifiable for Christians to serve in the military under the right circumstances.