The Bible says, “there is a time for war.” (Eccl 3:8) Determining that time, however, can be difficult. The news cycles of the past week are proof positive of this.
The situation in Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare and a diplomatic Pandora’s box. Chemical warfare lives and 100,000 have died. Most people seem to agree that Syrian President Bashar Assad is an “all-around bad guy.” While some are calling for him to be immediately ousted, others fear his replacement even more. The colorful argument goes: “the devil we know is better than the one we don’t.” Sorting through this tangled web of data is certainly not for the faint of heart.
How are we, then, to think biblically about issues of war? What does the Bible say? And what is the Christian view?
Historically, there is no single “Christian view.” Congress is not the only place that debates going to war. The church does too. Even among those Christians who agree that war is, at times, permissible (jus ad bellum), there are different views on how to even wage such a war (jus in bello). The spectrum is broad.
While time and space do not permit me to introduce every view, here are the two most popular Christian views on war and some of my thoughts on each.
View #1: Pacifism
The first option is the pacifist view. Popular proponents of this perspective are: the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, and Seventh Day Adventists. (I am not saying that all of these groups are “Christian,” just that they make their claims based on the Bible.)
This view, in its purist form, is a non-resistance approach. In other words, war and violence are believed to be incompatible with the theological and ethical guidelines of Scripture. Typically, this view begins with the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ blessing towards “peacemakers” as well as His call for disciples to “turn the other cheek.” It is impossible, they argue, to love your enemies while also trying to kill them.
While I certainly appreciate the pacifist view (and find myself much more sympathetic towards it than I used to), I do think it fails to measure up to the full teachings of Scripture. First of all, the Sermon on the Mount is given in the context of personal vengeance, not national security. Secondly, while pacifists do well at reading Matthew 5, they have apparently not read Revelation 19:11, “He who sat on (the white horse) is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.” In His first coming, Jesus was very pacifistic; in His second coming, not so much. Finally, Romans 13 gives an evil-squelching, sword-wielding authority to every government. This presumably requires some form of security force, such as police and a military. While I agree with the pacifist’s preference for peace over violence, it does not deal with all the biblical data and seems a bit idealistic to me.
View #2: Just War
The second popular option is the Just War Theory. Proponents of this view would say that war should be avoided at all costs, but is permissible if certain criteria are met. These criteria are believed to be consistent with Scripture, especially Deuteronomy 20 and Romans 13. (This is the view which I personally hold to.) Here are a few of the key questions to determine if a war is just:
1. Is the group declaring war a legitimate authority?
Brandishing the sword in a time of war is for “governments” (Rom 13). It is not for individuals or rogue, self-appointed militia groups. The war-declaring entity must be a sovereign body. (Feel free to begin debating the American Revolution in 3…2…1…GO!)
2. Is the group pursuing war for a just cause? And is there a clear goal?
Why does the nation want to go to war? Do they have a humanitarian goal in mind, such as the protecting of innocent lives or the punishing of an evil doer? Or does the group simply want to increase their borders and wealth? What is the actual goal or endgame? Such questions are vitally important to determining a just war.
3. Is it a last resort?
Just War theory assumes that all other avenues for conflict resolution have been exhausted. Diplomacy is just as biblical as war and should be utilized to its fullest.
4. Will the force be excessive or proportional?
There is old saying that goes, “You don’t burn down the barn to roast the pig.” Some shows of force are excessive, even in times of war, and would make the war itself unjust. For instance, I am personally opposed to the use of nuclear weapons in every case because of how indiscriminate they are in killing non-combatants. The harrowing images of Nagasaki and Hiroshima come to mind. Appropriate force is required.
5. Is there a reasonable chance for success?
Jesus even said, in Luke 14:31, that before going to war, a king must “consider whether he is strong enough” to win? A clear endgame and achievable objective must be in view.
While there are many other questions involved, these are some of the key filters. My concern about the Just War Theory is that it reduces war to a kind of mathematical equation: Criteria A + Criteria B = War C. Whenever human life is at stake we should not be reductionistic. Given these options, I think the Just War approach is best in light of Scripture, common sense, and history.
War is never enjoyable and should never be entered into lightly. As we await a decision about Syria, we should pray for our nation’s leaders, for our military, and for peace. Our own doctrinal statement, the BF&M, says it well:
“The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love. Christian people throughout the world should pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace.”
As the song says, we still have a “good God, ya’ll,” and we should seek for and work towards His intervention, mercy, and peace in our world.