Is It Right to Fight?
Steve P. Sullivan
of the College of Biblical Studies, Houston, Texas)
The events of September 11,
2001 catapulted us into a war on terrorism. This war led us to fight
in Afghanistan and a different kind of war against the terrorists of
al Qaeda. Then in March of this year we began a war with the evil
regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At the beginning of these conflicts
President George W. Bush made this profound statement on September 20,
2001, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or justice to our
enemies, justice will be done."1
But the question needs to be raised, "Is it just to wage war?" Or we
may put it this way, "Is it right to fight?"
The question of the justice
of war did not start in 2001. The debate on whether a Christian should
fight a war at least began in the third century A.D.2
There were some church fathers who believed Christians should not
fight in war and there were others who believed that Christians could
fight in a just war. Augustine (354 430 A.D.) is the one who developed
the view of a "just war." The Feinbergs summarize Augustine’s
Augustine developed his
theory in response to a Roman general who asked if he should lead
his troops into battle or retire to a monastery. Augustine responded
by bringing together the views of a number of classical thinkers
such as Plato and Cicero and giving them a Christian emphasis. He
argued that wars should be fought to reestablish peace and secure
justice. War must be waged under a legitimate leader and be prompted
by Christian love. Killing and love are not incompatible, as killing
requires a bodily or external act, while loving is an inner emotion.
Moreover, Augustine taught that a just war must be conducted in an
upstanding way. There should be no unnecessary violence; destruction
must be kept to a minimum.3
Men in church history have
debated, developed and expanded the different positions on war.
However, they all may be placed under these three main positions.4
They are activism, pacifism, and selectivism.
Activism believes a Christian is always right to participate in
war. The question of a "just war" is moot to them. Since government is
ordained by God (Romans 13), then the Christian is obligated to submit
to his government and fight in war. The national leaders who declared
the war will be held accountable to God, but the Christian will not
because he is obeying his government according to Romans 13. One major
weakness to this view is its blind obedience to the government as
though it could never do anything unbiblical. The apostles in Acts 5
disobeyed the governmental authorities because they commanded them to
do something clearly unbiblical. They commanded them not to preach the
gospel. This illustration by the apostles and the Bible’s testimony to
the sinfulness of man5 demands that Christians have discernment over
whether government is acting biblically.
Pacifism believes it is
never right for a Christian to participate in war.6
This position must explain the plethora of passages in the Old
Testament which sanctions war by God. They do this by saying that
progressive revelation points the Christian to the New Testament and
specifically to the teaching of Jesus for the correct position on war.
Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in Matthew 5
and Luke 6, tells Christians to love their enemy and be peace makers
and this necessitates pacifism in war. Christ’s example on the cross
in the face of violence and injustice is the example Christians should
follow. The fundamental problem with the pacifist position is its
interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. It fails to distinguish
between private, public and governmental duties. The Feinbergs
As a private individual I
may turn the other cheek when unjustly attacked. However, my
responsibilities are quite different when I stand in the position of
a guardian of a third party as a civil magistrate or parent. Because
I am responsible for their lives and welfare, I must resist, even
with force, unjust aggression against them…. Texts that pacifists
typically cite for nonresistance are verses that have to do with
private or personal duties, not public duties. While Rom 13:1-7 is
not uncontested in its meaning, it sets out the state’s
responsibility to its citizens.7
Is there any inconsistency
between loving one’s enemies and civil justice? I am sure there are
times when it is difficult to discern between personal duty and civil
duty. It is noteworthy to see that a USA soldier can be firing at the
enemy one moment and when they surrender or are injured will supply
medical assistance, food or water. This illustrates that justice
should not be vengeance, but retributive justice.8
The principle that love is embraced in laws of justice helps us see
that loving one’s enemy is to make sure that justice prevails.9 One
other point, if everyone was a pacifist except the evil and
lawbreakers of the world, then the world would be run by evil
dictators or our society would be anarchy. Pacifism in its fullest
sense is untenable in the sinful world in which we live.
The final position on war
is selectivism. Selectivism believes a Christian is
correct to participate in some wars.10
The "just war" position is another way of expressing this view. The
criteria for a just war can be explained by eight points:11
1. Just Cause—This
means that the war must be fundamentally a self-defense war and not
a war of aggression. It must have a just cause.
2. Just Intention—War
must have good moral intentions such as (though not limited to)
reestablishment of a just peace and freedom for all and restoring
confiscated property and goods. However, wars of revenge, economic
exploitation, ethnic cleansing or conquest are not legitimate
3. Last Resort—War
must be the very last resort after diplomatic effort is exhausted,
failed or deemed useless by the proper authority.
4. Formal Declaration—The
formal declaration of war must be by the authority of the government
and not by individuals, vigilantes, or paramilitary groups taking
matters into their on hands.
5. Limited Objectives—The
objective of the war should not be complete destruction or
annihilation of the enemy. When peace is attained then the forces of
war should cease.
6. Proportional Means—The
types of weapons and the amount of force should be limited to
whatever is needed to sufficiently deter and win over the aggression
of the combatants.
Immunity—Military forces must respect and do all that is
possible not to harm the noncombatant civilian population. Only
governmental forces and agents are legitimate targets.
8. Captors Treatment—The
combatants who are wounded and are prisoners of war, or both
should be treated humanly.
There may be many other
points one would want to add and discuss but these are the fundamental
points of the just war position. Now let us turn to the biblical and
theological defense of this position:12
1. No one debates the
fact that the Old Testament supports at least certain types of war.
The question is how should the Old Testament be used in ethical
matters under the new covenant times of the New Testament. The
writer believes that "whatever is binding in the OT continues to
apply to the NT, unless the NT either explicitly or implicitly
Therefore, the Old Testament can be used to give us wisdom when we
establish the New Testament support.
2. Soldiers in the New
Testament are mentioned in a positive light (Lk. 3:14; 14:31; Mt.
8:5ff; Lk. 6:15; Acts 10-11). John the Baptist in Luke 3:14 was
asked by some soldiers what should they do. He replied, "Do not take
money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content
with your wages." He did not say to get out of the military, but his
answer acknowledges their occupation as valid.14
3. Some of the men in the
"Hall of the Faithful" in Hebrews 11 are those who were involved in
the use of force and war (Heb. 11:30-34).
4. Jesus Himself used
force on two occasions when He angrily drove out the moneychangers
from the temple area with a whip and overturned their tables (Jn.
2:15ff and Mk. 11:15).
5. While Luke 22:36-38 is
debated, some of his disciples on the eve of the crucifixion were
carrying swords for self-protection with the approval of the Lord.
6. Our Lord Himself will
be the general of the army which puts down the rebellious nations at
the second coming. (Rev. 19:11-21).
7. The strongest
arguments for a just war position are the statements concerning
governmental force in Romans 13:1-7.15
In Romans 13:4 the government as a "minister of God" has the
authority to "bear the sword" which means the government may use
deadly force in punishing the guilty. Mike Stallard argues this
The government can "bear
the sword" (existence of just war and punishment) but does so in the
context of being ministers of God to punish evildoers (right motives
and intentions). Furthermore, the passage seems to imply that
Christians are to be submissive to the government in all things (a
participatory approach if your country is at war would be consistent
with this command). Peter argues the same way in 1 Peter 2:13-15.
Christians are to submit to every ordinance of man. Government is
seen as having the right to punish which would imply on occasion the
use of force. This is expanded in a second Pauline passage where
government’s responsibility is to provide a climate of peace and
tranquility for its citizens (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Furthermore, Paul seems
to recognize in a common sense and realistic way the circumstances
of life do not always allow you to be at peace with others. He
teaches this in the context of an exhortation to Christian not to be
vengeful (Rom. 12:18). Such realism with respect to life is part of
the spirit that drives the idea of a just war.16
These seven points
establish the biblical support for the first five points of the just
war position. What about the rules of engagements in a just war (which
is the subject of points 6-8 in the just war position)? The beginning
stages in establishing rules in war are seen in the Old Testament.17
However, the rules of engagement in war are developed from a synthesis
of passages dealing with war in the New Testament and the love ethic
from the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the New Testament
which teach how to treat your enemy humanly, being made in the image
The subject "Is it right to
fight?" is a difficult issue because it makes us face the awful issues
of a suppressive dictatorship, evil aggression, killing and death on
the one hand and the "necessary evil" of war to stop it. Could this be
the reason that General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg
said, "It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of
it." The just war position, in the writer’s opinion, fits best with
the Scriptural evidence. Remember, it is possible to love your enemies
and use force against him. The principle that love is embraced in laws
of justice helps us see that loving one’s enemy is to make sure that
justice prevails. In doing so, the Christian is also demonstrating
"love for the ones his enemy has hurt."19
1. The White House Web
2. John S. Feinberg &
Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics For A Brave New World (Crossway
Books, 1993), p. 346. A brief history of war in the church is
summarized by Arthur F. Holmes, "The Just War," War: Four
Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (IVP, 1991 new edition),
pp. 125-130. A survey of war and the Bible in America is given by
Alan Johnson, "The Bible and War in America: An Historical Survey,"
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 1985),
3. Ibid., p.347.
4. A good summary of the
Christian positions on war see Robert G. Clouse, ed., War: Four
Christian Views (IVP, 1991 new edition).
5. See Romans 3:23 and
Ephesians 2:1-3. Paul tells us that even Christians (e.g. national
leaders who are Christians) struggle with sin (Galatians 5:17).
6. There are several
different views on the position of pacifism: (1) Universal
Pacifism—They view that all killing or violence is always wrong. (2)
Christian Pacifism—Christians are never to use violence or killing,
but unbelievers may. (3) Private Pacifism—Personal violence is
wrong, but a nation may at times be justified in using war. (4)
Antiwar Pacifism—Personal violence may be justified in some cases in
defense of one’s life, but war is never justified. Feinbergs, pp.
7. Feinbergs, p. 356.
8. Retributive justice is
the deserved punishment for evil done. Notice Romans 12:19-21 speaks
about our personal responsibility and God’s justice ("wrath") while
Romans 13 speaks about civil responsibility of individuals as a
"minister of God" for retributive justice.
9. Feinbergs, pp. 356-57;
Arthur F. Holmes, "A Just War response," War: Four Christian
Views, pp. 66, 109. The Scripture teaches us that love does not
always embrace a person, but sometimes it disciplines and wounds
them (Prov. 13:24; Prov. 27:5-6; Heb. 12:5-6). Love hates evil and
does what is good (Ps. 33:5; 37:28; 97:10; 119:119,163; Prov. 8:13;
Is. 61:8; Jer. 21:12; Mic. 6:8; Amos 5:15; Zech. 7:9; Lk. 11:42;
Rom. 12:9; Heb. 1:9; Rev. 2:6). Yes, it is truth that Scripture says
that "love does no wrong to a neighbor" (Rom. 13:10), however, true
justice does not wrong a person because true justice is never wrong.
"The call to love one’s enemies does not change the picture for...
the law of love embraces rather than excludes retributive justice"
(Holmes, p. 109).
10. Some have also
espoused a "preventive war" position but this can be a modified
position of the just war position. See Harold O. J. Brown, War:
Four Christian Views, pp. 151-168. The Feinbergs’ comments are
also helpful (pp.367-69).
11. Mike Stallard, "The
Biblical Basis for a Just War," The Journal of Ministry &
Theology, Spring, 2002, pp.36-27; Darrel Bock, "Even For
Christians, War Can Be a ‘Necessary Evil,’" Dallas theological
Seminary Web Site, http://www.dts.edu/war/anecessaryevil.aspx,
accessed April 3, 2003; Kerby Anderson, "Terrorism and Just War,"
Dallas Theological Seminary Web Site, http://www.dts.edu/war/terrorismandjustwar.aspx,
accessed March 24, 2003; Arthur F. Holmes, "The Just War," War: Four
Christian Views, pp. 120-21.
12. Mike Stallard, Ibid.,
pp. 40-42 was helpful in formulating a just war answer from
13. Feinbergs, pp.355
(also see pages 36-40). See also Douglas J. Moo, "The Law of Moses
or the Law of Christ," Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on
the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S.
Feinberg (Crossways Books, 1988), pp. 203-218.
14. Augustine, Contra
Faustum, 22.74, says, "The real evils in war are love of
violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable hatred of the
enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and
it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to
inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful
authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in
such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right
conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way.
Otherwise, John, when the soldiers who came to be baptized asked,
What shall we do? would have been replied, Throw away your arms;
give up the services; never strike, or wound, or disable any one.
But knowing that such actions in battle were not murderous, but
authorized by law, and that the soldiers did not thus avenge
themselves, but defend the public safety, he replied, ‘Do violence
to no man, accuse no man falsely, and be content with your wages."
15. John Calvin,
Calvin’s Institutes, Book 4, chapter 20, No. 11 says in part,
"But kings and people must sometimes take up arms to execute such a
public vengeance. On this basis we may judge wars lawful which are
so undertaken. For if power has been given them to preserve the
tranquility of their dominion…. can they use it more opportunely
than to check the fury of one who disturbs both the repose of
private individuals and the common tranquility of all…. Indeed, if
they rightly punish those robbers whose harmful acts have affected
only a few, will they allow a whole country to be afflicted and
devastated by robberies with impunity? For it makes no difference
whether it be a king or the lowest of the common folk who invades a
foreign country in which he has no right, and harries it as an
enemy. All such must, equally, be considered as robbers and punished
accordingly. Therefore, both natural equity and the nature of the
office dictate that princes must be armed not only to restrain the
misdeeds of private individuals by judicial punishment, but also to
defend by war the dominions entrusted to their safekeeping, if at
any time they are under enemy attack And the Holy Spirit declares
such wars to be lawful by many testimonies of Scripture."
16. Stallard, pp. 41-42.
17. E. Stern, "War,
Warfare," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan,
18. Stallard, p. 42.
19. Stallard, p. 43.
Dr. Steve Sullivan
Dr. Norm Geisler
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute