Christians and the armed forces

The issue of Christians joining the armed forces is an interesting one. Denominations such as the Brethren, Quakers and Mennonites historically advocated pacifism; actively encouraging members away from armed service. However, those Christians that actively espouse pacifism seem to be in the minority. Whilst there are pacifistic elements across the Christian churches most denominations have never officially advocated pacifism usually adopting a deliberately ambiguous position making it a matter for personal conscience. Unless one has a strong ideological opposition to all war or attends one of the historic ‘peace churches’, it seems common for this issue to be overlooked. As such, this post will seek to deal with the question of whether it is legitimate for Christians to join the armed forces.

We must firstly recognise that God himself is not a pacifist. Indeed, throughout the Old Testament there are numerous examples of the Lord telling his people to go to war. Whilst the reasons for this are many and varied we cannot escape the simple fact that God did indeed instruct his people to engage in military actions. This means, first and foremost, that God does not avoid war at all costs. Whilst there may be caveats and requirements placed upon any decision to engage the armed forces, the point nevertheless stands. God does, occasionally, sanction military action and service.

Some seek to argue that the sixth commandment prohibits serving in the armed forces. Certain versions of the Bible translate Exodus 20:13 as ‘You shall not kill’ whereas others translate this commandment as ‘You shall not murder.’ Those who seek to use this passage to argue that military service is sinful tend towards the former translation. However, this reading causes a number of difficulties. Firstly, the commandment does not stipulate who, or what, should not be killed and this understanding of the passage must lead to the view that it is wrong to kill anything including plants and animals. This then contradicts the laws requiring animal sacrifices. Secondly, this reading suggests that God, in instructing his people to mobilise militarily, led his people into sin. This is clearly contrary to the teaching of James 1:12-18. Thirdly, it leads to the view that God contradicted himself by instituting a death penalty for certain crimes under the law. As such, the translation ‘You shall not kill’ is fraught with difficulties. The translation ‘you shall not murder’ is more satisfactory as it makes clear that it is the unlawful killing of another person that is forbidden. Consequently, the sixth commandment does not make war or military service incompatible with obedience to God.

Some argue military service is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught that we should not repay evil with evil, to love our enemies and to give freely to those who hate us. It is argued that all violence is evil and shows a lack of love for those it is brought against. Therefore, it is argued, Jesus’ teachings clearly direct us away from the armed forces as the military, by definition, engage in such evil activities. The problem with this view is that it is based on a particular interpretation of war, namely that it is always evil, and applies this predisposed view to Jesus’ teachings. If war is always evil then, according to these teachings, joining the armed forces is clearly unacceptable. However, is war always evil? We know that God instructed his people to go to war and if such actions are always evil God led his people into sin. Moreover, Revelation speaks of those in Heaven engaging in a war against Satan. If warfare is always evil those warring against Satan are sinning. As such, we must conclude that war is not always evil. Given this, military service does not necessarily run contrary to the teachings of Jesus. If war is not intrinsically evil then to engage an enemy in war does not necessarily constitute repaying evil with evil. Similarly, if war is not evil it is not necessarily unloving to defend oneself against one’s enemies.

It is also possible to cite New Testament examples of Christians serving in the armed forces. We read of the centurion in Matt 8:5-13 of whom Jesus said ‘with no one in Israel have I found such faith (Matt 8:10, ESV).’ Whilst this passage does not by necessity show the centurion to have saving faith, most commentators appear to agree that Jesus’ words are indicative of this. We do not read of this centurion being told to leave his post nor does Jesus suggest his occupation is in some way sinful. We must therefore conclude that this is an example of a saved man who continued to serve in the armed forces. We also read in Acts 10 of the centurion called Cornelius ‘who feared God with all his household (Acts 10:2, ESV).’ Again, we are not told that Cornelius left his position therefore he too represents a Christian involved in military service. There are no examples of servicemen in the New Testament being told to leave their positions on becoming Christians therefore we can conclude that such roles are not prohibited.

With all that in mind, there is no biblical warrant to argue that Christian involvement in the armed forces is sinful or wrong. However, there are some legitimate extra-biblical arguments that should cause us to think carefully about such service. For example, whilst war is clearly not always evil we cannot be certain that our service will always be part of good and just causes. We have a secular government who decide these matters on their own wisdom and understanding. As Christians, we cannot be certain that we will not be asked to fight for causes we believe to be wrong and sinful. We may be asked to serve in a conflict that we perceive to be unjust, self-serving and immoral. Can we, in good conscience, join the armed forces knowing that we may be put in this position? There is no correct answer but this is something we must seriously weigh up in our own minds.

It is also worth considering how strongly we believe our witness can stand when constantly surrounded by unbelievers. Such immersion in this environment is different to any other job. In other occupations, one can come home every day and meet with other believers in church at least once a week. However, in the armed forces one is surrounded by non-Christians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no guarantee that there will be other believers to meet with. This is not to suggest that it is somehow sinful or wrong to join the armed forces but is something that any Christian looking at enrolling should seriously consider.

In summary, we cannot conclude biblically that it is wrong or sinful for Christians to join the armed forces. Indeed, we have some examples in scripture of believers serving in the armed forces and taking part in military action. We have no examples in scripture of Christians being told to leave their post once they have become believers or any direct statements that such service is sinful. Enrolling in the armed forces is therefore legitimate for the Christian. However, one should seriously consider the issue of having to serve in conflicts that are, in one’s own view, unjust and unacceptable. Also, one should consider the extent to which one can maintain a sound witness in such an environment. Nevertheless, these are matters for consideration and are not issues that proscribe the Christian from armed service.

One comment

  1. I dont know many Christians who are in the armed forces. It seems as if its a missionary field thats lacking people to work in it.

    People who are that close to death and always thinking about it will also be open to the Gospel I suppose.

    Anyway, good post. 🙂

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