When to War?

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. …for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:1–4).

- Romans 13:1–7

Social upheaval occurred in the United States during the Vietnam War because many vehemently opposed U.S. involvement. Similarly, the justice of the recent conflict with Iraq, while not producing exactly the same protest, has also been hotly debated in America.

It is not our purpose to determine the legitimacy of either war. However, Bible-believing Christians have differed in their views of the conflict in both situations. On both occasions, some supported the U.S. action, while others did not. This fact illustrates the complexity of ethical reasoning even among those who serve the Lord. While many Christians are pacifists, we affirm the majority position of the church on this issue that believers can fight in a just war. Just War theory is based on two major elements:

1. All war is the result of evil. Before the fall, there was no strife between human beings. Yet the hostility evident immediately after Adam and Eve sinned (Gen. 3:12–13) has only multiplied as the human population has increased. Today, coveting power or resources produces most armed conflicts. Even the divinely instituted conflict against Canaan resulted from sin, for had the Canaanites not sinned, God would not have needed to judge their wickedness.

2. Fighting in a war is not necessarily evil. Scripture gives us the right of self-defense (Ex. 22:2–3), and war can be self-defense on a grand scale. As today’s passage teaches, God gives the government, not private citizens, the authority to administer punitive justice. Wars can be declared only by governments, and thus, believers can join the army and defend their country against illegal assaults. This does not forbid preemptive strikes in the case of a clear and present danger, but preemption must be used very cautiously.

Other caveats do apply. A nation should go to war only after all other attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have failed (Deut. 20:10–15). There also is to be proportionality; the just party must endeavor not to harm non-combatants and must only respond to an attack in kind. For example, a nation should not use atomic weaponry against a poorly armed militia (v. 14).

Coram Deo

Just War theory tells us the government is not supreme. We cannot defend our participation in an unjust war simply by saying, “I was only doing my duty to the government.” We are never allowed to say, “My country, right or wrong, my country.” Yet when the cause is just, we must obey our authorities. Consider who has more authority in your life, God or the state. Ask the Lord to help you discern how to obey Scripture in the matter of armed conflicts.

Passages for Further Study

Deut. 20:19–20
Deut. 24:5
Jer. 29:7
Luke 22:36
Rev. 14:9–11

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.