What Does The Bible Teach About War? — Jon Mitchell, Editor (Editorial: November/December, 2020)

The majority of the editorials in the Carolina Messenger this year have studied various aspects of what the Bible teaches about government and governing authorities.  As we close out the year, we come to the often-controversial question of whether governments have a divine right to wage war.  The numerous and various atrocities committed by man during every war in history must be acknowledged as we begin this study.  Indeed, Satan accomplishes much through the horrors of any and all kinds of war.  It is because of the existence of these innumerable carnages that many within the church cannot conscientiously support or participate in any war, no matter the reason for it.  All of us must respect and work hard to not offend each other’s consciences and the scruples held by all of us because of our consciences (Rom. 14:1-23).  Yet each of us must also “work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12), which includes coming to know and acknowledge all truth, which is defined by Scripture as the totality of what God’s Word says on any given subject (Ps. 119:160; John 17:17).

History shows us that wars are fought at times for selfish reasons, including a desire to conquer and take from other countries and peoples.  The second World War was started by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers of Italy and Japan for those reasons.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait for those same reasons.  A case could be made that the war between the United States and Mexico and the wars between the U.S. and the various Native American tribes throughout the 1800’s took place because of the U.S.’s interests in “manifest destiny,” i.e., the goal of claiming all the North American continent from coast to coast as belonging to America.  Many other examples could be cited.

Yet history also reveals that wars are sometimes fought for the more noble reasons of defense and liberty.  The United States entered the second World War after Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war upon America days later.  The U.S.’s goals in that war started with defense of their own country and people and eventually grew to include freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny.  The Civil War began after the Confederate government fired upon the U.S. forces at Fort Sumter and was initially look upon by the Lincoln administration as an attempt to quell the unlawful rebellion of the Southern states and ended up being a fight not only for the restoration of the Union but also for the termination of the unjust practice of slavery.  Other examples could likewise be given.

Tyranny and thievery, whether done on an individual or national level, goes against numerous biblical commands and principles.  Wars fought for those reasons would thus be unjust and sinful from a biblical perspective.  Indeed, this is a major way in which Satan uses the governments of man to further his agenda of sorrow, sin, and evil upon this world.  Yet a case could also be made that governments using lethal force in the venue of warfare out of a desire to defend themselves or right wrongs would fall under the parameter of “not bearing the sword in vain” as God’s servants and his instrument to avenge the ones upon whom wrong has been done by the evildoer (Rom. 13:3-4; cf. 12:19).

During the time of the patriarchs, cities were built (the first of which likely being the city built by Cain—Gen. 4:17) and governments were likely created to govern those cities.  The first kingdom or empire mentioned in the Bible was after the flood; “Nimrod the mighty hunter” was said to rule over it and  it started in the land of Shinar at Babel, went on to Assyria and came to include Nineveh and other cities (Gen. 10:8-14).  Yet there were also many familial tribes outside the realm of cities, kingdoms, and empires which existed during those times.  Abram was the head of one of those familial tribes.  Formerly a citizen of Ur of the Chaldeans, he left his country at the Lord’s direction and spent the rest of his life living “in the land of promise as in a foreign country” (Heb. 11:9).  When nations and kingdoms fighting each other in a war of conquest conquered Sodom, the home of his nephew Lot, and kidnapped Lot and his goods, Abram upon being informed of this “armed three hundred and eighteen trained servants” and “went in pursuit,” ending in him and his forces attacked the forces who had kidnapped Lot and rescuing him (Gen. 14:1-16).  His involvement in war because he wanted to rescue his family is not condemned in any way in Scripture.  On the contrary, the priest of God Most High named Melchizedek blessed Abram and God for delivering Abram’s enemies into his hand (vs. 18-20).

During the Mosaic economy, we read of several wars in which God’s nation Israel was involved.  Amalek attacked Israel on one occasion and the Lord miraculously intervened to give Israel the victory without any condemnation of their choosing to fight to defend themselves (Ex. 17:8-13).  Years later the Lord would direct Israel under the leadership of Saul to completely destroy Amalek as punishment for attacking Israel in the wilderness (1 Sam. 15:1-3).  When Israel was attacked by the Canaanite king of Arad, the Lord helped them conquer the Canaanites and their cities (Num. 21:1-3).  The Lord also directed and helped Israel to conquer the Amorites when the Amorites attacked them, not only out of defense but also to punish the Amorites for their iniquities (Num. 21:21-30; cf. Gen. 15:16-21; 1 Kings 21:26; Amos 2:9).  He gave the land of Canaan into their hand, not only because he had promised the land to them earlier during the time of their patriarchal ancestors (Ex. 13:5), but again to punish the inhabitants of the land for their sins (Deut. 9:1-5).

More examples from the time of the law and the prophets showing God directing his people to engage in warfare could be given, and they are all worthy of note when it comes to the question of whether governments engaging in war is inherently sinful.  This is because God is never the source of sin.  What he does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19:8; 33:4; 7:9), and he tempts no one to do evil (James 1:13).  What he directed Israel to do in these matters was recorded in Old Testament Scripture as an example to us who live in the Christian era and to instruct us (1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4).  A case could be made from these Old Testament examples that God would not consider a country to be engaged in sinful conduct if they were involved in a war out of an effort to defend themselves or to punish the wicked.  Indeed, as we have seen God has used war between nations to punish the wicked, including war engaged by a nation out of a desire to defend themselves.  Since God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), it is reasonable to conclude that he uses wars fought for just reasons to accomplish the same goals today.

It is interesting to note how Scriptures teaches that God also uses war which is done by unrighteous nations for sinful purposes to accomplish these goals, thus providing another example of how God is in such complete control that he can even use Satan’s own devices to accomplish his own ends!  The Lord promised Israel that he would punish them in the same ways he was using them to punish the idolatrous nations they were driving out of Canaan should they fall away from him (Deut. 8:19-20).  Old Testament history repeatedly shows this warning to come to fruition.  During the time of the judges when Israel repeatedly apostatized, God sent other nations to conquer them; when they returned to God, he sent them deliverers who led them into battle to free them from the oppressors he had previously used to punish them.  When the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria due to apostasy and the southern kingdom was increasingly following in their footsteps, the Lord informed Habakkuk that he would use ungodly Babylon and their sinful desire to conquer other nations to punish Judah by conquering her (Hab. 1:5-2:1), a horrific calamity which Daniel later acknowledged was divine fulfillment of God’s oath against Israel should they fall away from him (Dan. 9:4-16).  God then promised Habakkuk that Babylon herself would then be punished for her own  iniquities (Hab. 2:5-20).  This prompted Habakkuk to remember how God had brought punishment to the wicked and salvation to his faithful people through these means in times past (Hab. 3:1-15).  He would use the same methods for these same purposes again a few centuries later.

As Christ’s kingdom was beginning to be ushered in, Jesus and his forerunner, John, repeatedly alluded prophetically to the coming destruction of the Jewish temple and economy by the Romans a few decades hence (Matt. 3:7, 10; Lk. 3:7, 9).  Jesus would follow suit throughout his ministry (Lk. 13:1-9; Matt. 21:33-46; 22:1-7; 23:29-39; 24:1-34; Lk. 23:27-31).  Thus, as God had once used the warring armies of wicked Babylon to punish Judah for her sins, he would use the war waged against Judah by wicked Rome to punish the Jews for rejecting their Messiah.  When we again remember that our Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), we could reasonably conclude that God uses wars conducted for unrighteous purposes to accomplish similar goals today as well.

Also worthy of note in our study of what the Bible teaches about war is the time in which John found himself preaching to a crowd of people which included some soldiers (Lk. 3:1-14).  The crowds had been asking the prophet, “What then shall we do?”  The soldiers joined in, “And we, what shall we do?”  It must be pointed out that John did not tell them to abandon their profession of soldiering even though he had a clear opportunity to do so if being a soldier was inherently sinful due to the soldier being required to use violence in war.  Rather, the prophet told them only to “not exhort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3:14).

After the new covenant began, we should notice that there is no scriptural record of converted soldiers such as Cornelius the centurion and the Philippian jailer being issued apostolic commands to abandon their professions as part of their newfound allegiance to Christ (Acts 10-11; 16).  Rather, we find in Paul’s letter to the Roman church where Christians are informed that governmental authorities, of which soldiers engaged in warfare are a part, “do not bear the sword in vain” in the context of being described as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).

Therefore, while it must be said that the warfare commanded of God for all Christians is specified as spiritual rather than worldly in that it focuses on winning souls for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Eph. 6:10-20; cf. Is. 2:2-4), there is also no indication in the Bible that God would be displeased with a Christian whose worldly profession was a soldier and who therefore would be required to go to war to punish evildoers.  This is because of his edict that governmental authorities are his servants, his way to avenge the wrongs done upon the good by the evil, and to that end they “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4).  While some wars are waged for satanic reasons such as tyrannical conquest, oppression, and theft of lands and freedoms, other wars are fought for the righteous reasons of defense, the enforcement of the rule of law, and to bring about liberty from tyrannical rule.  God ultimately uses both kinds of war to accomplish his own ends, which Scripture reveals are oftentimes to punish evil nations and peoples for their sins.  The convictions of those who consciences would refuse to permit them to engage in any kind of warfare must be respected.  Yet the scriptural examples and principles we’ve studied must also be taken into account as one examines the admittedly complex moral question of warfare, Christians’ involvement in it, and whether God inherently condemns all who engage it as being involved in sin.      

— Jon

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