[The following is a post in which I am writing about Christian support for a doctrine of "Just War". My friend, Rick Frueh, has written a similar post, in support of Biblical Pacifism.]

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell. – William Tecumseh Sherman

We support and extend the ministry of the Church to those persons who conscientiously oppose all war, or any particular war, and who therefore refuse to serve in the armed forces or to cooperate with systems of military conscription. We also support and extend the Church’s ministry to those persons who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces or to accept alternative service. As Christians we are aware that neither the way of military action, nor the way of inaction is always righteous before God. – The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2004

War and Peace[Please brace yourselves - this is going to be a long article. My dear friend, Rick Frueh, has requested that he and I write opposing papers on the acceptability of Christians supporting a doctrine of "Just War", with me supporting this doctrine, and him rejecting it. I would like to thank Rick for this 'challenge', and apologize in advance for so thoroughly trouncing him, here on the field of battle. :) ]

At Issue

Before embarking on this long road, I think it is probably best to indicate our areas of agreement and disagreement. Both Rick and I agree that war, in and of itself is abhorrent, and is something to be avoided. It is not something that we, as individuals should seek to cause, nor something that our nations should actively seek. Where we disagree, is whether or not acts of violence can be supported by Christians – on an individual or a national scale. Specifically, our disagreement is whether or not Christians should support their country in a war, or serve in that war.

Keeping this in mind, I will examine three basic concepts, which build upon one another, in regards to Christian and the use of deadly force: 1) Self-Defense; 2) Civil-defense; and 3) National-defense. As a backdrop to this, I will also quickly discuss the first century Jewish view of human life that Jesus supported, sometimes referred to as Pikuach Nefesh.

Before moving on to the meat of this article, I’d like to also make one more caveat: My purpose in laying out the case for the doctrine of just war is not to provide/denounce justification for any conflict unfolding in current events. Rather, it is to lay out the rational and theological underpinnings in such a way as to be able to have rational discussions and criteria on whether or not a conflict might be considered just or unjust.

Theological Placement of This Debate

As we begin, I believe it is important to place this issue, theologically, where it belongs – in the realm of personal convictions, and not of moral absolutes.

The Hierarchy of Values Borrowing the diagram to the left from Steve Carter at Mars Hill Bible Church, in the hierarchy of values, there are (A)bsolutes, (C)onvictions, and Personal (P)references. Absolutes are cross-cultural and well-defined as such in Scripture (ex: Theft is a sin, so I do not steal). Convictions are moral values that are held by an individual as something they have been personally “convicted” they cannot or that they must do (ex: I choose not to drink out of personal conviction, but I recognize that other Christians can do so with clear consciences). Personal Preferences are those things which we prefer, but are not commanded/prohibited in Scripture (ex: I prefer worship music that is stylistically modern). In this hierarchy, when we move items higher than they belong (ex: treating a personal conviction as a cross-cultural absolute), we engage in Phariseeism. When we move items lower than they belong (ex: treating cross-cultural absolutes as personal preferences), we engage in Hedonism.

In this hierarchy of values, one’s belief about whether or not he/she, as a Christian, “should or should not support the use of physical violence in limited circumstances” has historically been, and should still be, treated as a personal conviction and not a moral absolute. As such, those who make accusatory statements to the effect of “those who know Jesus and call themselves his Body do not make war or justify its use – period” are simply modern Pharisees. Likewise, any who would make statements like “you cannot truly be a Christian if you do not support America in this war” would be Pharisees, just as well. They are two sides of the same legalistic coin.


In examining the theological questions around “Just War”, we will – like most theological questions – follow the historical grammatical heremenutic, used by most modern scholars in examining Scripture. We will examine the relevant Scriptures to the question, doing our best to first discern the context in which they were understood by their original audience, in particular the First Century AD view of these Scriptures. Then, we will examine Jesus’ and his apostles’ commentary, support and/or clarifications in this same context. Then, having gleaned the relevant principles, we will translate these to our culture for the appropriate contextual ruling.

The sources most helpful and applicable for this exercise are, obviously, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, along with contemporary documentation from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other First Century writings – particularly those that were observed and supported by Jesus and his Apostles. In this particular case, we will not rely on the later church writers for justification/refutation of Just War doctrine (as opinions can be found across the spectrum for which we have much lest appropriate contextual detail), other than to note their definitions of “Just War” for declaration, prosecution and ending of “just war” conflicts.

Thou Shall Not Kill

Exodus 20:13 states, “You shall not murder”. The Hebrew word used here is thrtzch, which specifically refers to a premeditated, deliberate act by an individual to kill an innocent person. The Greek word used in the Septuagint version of Exodus 20:13, is phoneuseis, which has an identical meaning to the Hebrew – a premeditated, deliberate act of killing an innocent person. This is also the word Jesus uses in Matthew 5:21-22 (and elsewhere), and that Paul uses in Romans 13:9 (and elsewhere).

One popular misconception of this command comes from the King James translation of Ex 20:13, which says “Thou shall not kill”. This is not an accurate translation, though, as demonstrated above, because there words available in both the Hebrew and Greek that refer to all killing, and not just premeditated murder. This is also apparent from the later allowances for the use of deadly force, and the judicial provision of capital punishment.

Of Yokes and Pikuach Nefesh

As we have discussed previously, one of the key aspects of a Jewish Rabbi, like Jesus, was his yoke – the means by which he determined which laws were more important than others – specifically if these laws came into conflict. Jesus identified his yoke for a Torah student thus:

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

All of Jesus’ teachings, parables and rulings interpret Torah in this light.

One of the biggest “hot button” topics within Judaism during Jesus’ time was “who is my neighbor?” – with the primary focus of whether or not Samaritans and/or Romans fit within the definition of ‘neighbor’. Beneath this was the controversy of whether the basic doctrine which is the basis of the Christian view of “the sanctity of life”, called Pikuach Nefesh, applied to the Samaritans and Romans, because it would only apply if these enemies of the Jewish people were considered ‘neighbors’.

Pikuach Nefesh, “saving of human life”, taught that a God-fearer (Jew or Gentile) must break all laws save those of blasphemy, murder, or sexual sin in order to save innocent human life. Thus, Sabbath laws, cleanliness laws, honesty, etc. must all be subjugated when in direct conflict with saving the life of your neighbor. Additionally, Pikuach Nefesh contains a caveat that if a person is being assailed by a rodef (”pursuer”) bent on killing them, any bystanders have a moral obligation to stop the rodef from killing them, even if it requires killing the rodef. Stopping a rodef – one who appears to be intent on physically harming another person – is the only form of extrajudicial killing allowed within Jewish law.

Just to complicate things, Pikuach Nefesh was a doctrine that was explicitly present in the Oral Torah (referencing Exodus 20, 22 and other related passages in the Written Torah), which pious Jews believed was handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah was given to him. The Oral Law was basically a ‘concordance’ to help explain the Written law. The pious Jews, primarily led by Hillel (the Jewish teacher with which Jesus was most theologically aligned) believed that they should read the written Torah as interpreted by the oral Torah. The Sadducees and priests, though, believed that only the literal Written Torah needed to be followed [of course there are no modern parallels to this]. Most Jewish Christian scholars can find no evidence that Jesus ever broke Oral Torah, in addition to his never breaking Written Torah.

And so it was that Jesus was asked to rule on “who is my neighbor?“, and he answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ answer, Brad Young (of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research) notes, he clearly rules in favor of Pikuach Nefesh (which the Priest and the Levite did not believe in, since it was Oral Torah, and thus followed the admonition against becoming unclean by touching a dead or dying body, because they placed the laws of ritual cleanliness above loving one’s neighbor) – and Jesus also identifies that even the reviled Samaritans must be considered “neighbors”.

Jesus affirms this doctrine again in Matthew 12:1-14, where he references the story of David and his men who ate the consecrated bread to sate their great hunger (1 Samuel 21). Here, Jesus uses this doctrine (specifically, in this case, that human life is more important than ceremonial observances) as justification for following “heavier”, ‘life-saving’ commands over “lighter” commands (that were often legalistically observed). Jesus’ ruling here, as with his story of the Good Samaritan, is an affirmation of Pikuach Nefesh.

It is this concept – the “saving of human life” – Pikuach Nefesh – that is based in the Hebrew Scriptures, and carried on into the Christian Scriptures – which we must also apply in consideration of whether or not we can defend ourselves, personally, with lethal force; whether we, as a society, can defend the innocent with lethal force; and, ultimately, whether our governments can utilize lethal force in our own protection, or in protection of others.

It is via this concept, and the ancient technique used by Jesus in weighing ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ laws against one another when in conflict, that Christian Germans who lied to authorities in protecting Jewish neighbors could be considered righteous. It is also via this concept that my own Quaker ancestors (who were pacifists) could honor God while operating a stop on the Underground Railroad in southeast Indiana, helping slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

But I am getting ahead of myself.


[Jesus] said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been well accepted that the individuals have a God-given right to self-defense, and a responsibility to defend one’s family and/or the weak. This includes the potential use of deadly force. In Exodus 22, we read:

“If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if he strikes him after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.”

Here, using deadly force in defending one’s self, one’s family and one’s property from an immediate threat is allowed, but vengeance (i.e. killing the thief after he has left) is not. In a similar vein, in Leviticus, we read:

Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened.

This teaching has traditionally been considered as the basis for Jewish laws compelling individuals to come to the aid of individuals who are being unjustly attacked, even if deadly force is required. This is one of the laws to which the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, that we discussed above, is referenced in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is one of the laws supported by Jesus in his story of the Good Samaritan.

Go ahead, make my daySpeaking of Jesus – as noted in the above quote, just prior to his arrest, Jesus instructs his disciples to acquire swords – tools for which the only use is self-defense. As such, it is apparent that Jesus is not opposed to personal defense from harm using deadly force. Now – it might also be pointed out that, several verses after this, Jesus admonishes Peter for using a sword to strike off the ear of a Temple servant. In this case, though, Peter is not using the sword for self-defense or in defense of a weaker party (he knows Jesus is perfectly able to take care of himself – he’s seen it first hand!). Rather, Peter is using it in insurrection toward legitimate authority, and Jesus rightly denounces its use for such purposes. The purpose for which Jesus had his disciples get swords is indicated by the other items he referenced – a purse and a bag, implements of travel. The swords were to protect the disciples on the roads (which were known to be frequented by common criminals), not to foment insurrection!

One common misconception in the area of self-defense arises from Jesus and Paul’s allowance of personal injury from persecution, and Jesus’ blessing on those who are persecuted. In this area, Jesus and the Apostles do suggest that we, as Christians, should endure persecution (harm inflicted in direct opposition to our religious beliefs) rather than assert a right to lethal defense against it (though Paul does assert his right to legal defense on occasion). I would readily agree that abdicating self-defense for the glory of God in persecution is something Christians should be willing to do (I Peter 2:19-21). However, nowhere does Jesus or Paul extend this to self-defense from common crime – nor do they extend this to defense of one’s family or the weak. In fact, Paul’s instructions to Timothy (I Tim 5:8) requiring individual provision for one’s family would contextually include the provision of physical protection for them in addition to economic provision of food, clothing and shelter.

Gun ControlNone of this, though, is to suggest that deadly force is a first option (which Torah indicates it is not), but rather it is an option of last, but allowable, resort. [Paradoxically, as we observe today, simply having the ability to defend one's self is often enough of a deterrent to prevent one from needing to defend one's self in the first place!]

One additional caveat to make, regarding self-defense, is in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

All of the cases Jesus mentions in this passage involve an affront to personal honor – not self-defense. The Ancient Near East was (and in many ways, still is) an honor-based culture, in which losing face was often considered justification for war and blood atonement. Jesus clearly supports the doctrine of Pikuach Nefesh here, in the case of dishonor, by affirming that the only acceptable responses to a loss of honor require maintaining a state of shalom with the one dishonoring you and not seeking revenge. One cannot use deadly force in defense of his or her honor, because the adversary is not considered rodef – a “pursuer” intent on causing harm or death. Revenge is never an option (Lev 19:18).

The Government

Before continuing to examine the just uses of deadly force, it is important to take a brief foray into the topic of government. To begin with, the requirements of government in Scripture differ somewhat from those of individuals, even if many of the principles remain, in some form. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the initial governmental structure is provided by “judges” (Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13), who were to sit as literal judges in their city gates and to organize protection for the people of the city. Over time, though, the people of Israel desired a king – a more formalized governmental structure – and God provided this for the people (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

The purpose of government fits with the primary aspect of God – order. In Genesis 1, when we are introduced to God, He is identified as a Creator who brings order from chaos, which we’ve discussed in depth as tohu u’vohu. As such, the opposing ‘force’ to God is chaos and disorder.

The purpose of government is to provide order, as God provides order, through (1) a system of justice, (2) civil order and (3) common defense. Peter and Paul both affirm the government’s role in providing order, and the Christian’s role in submitting to the civil authority provided by it. [The only right of the Christian in disobeying this authority comes if he/she is given an individual order by that authority to act directly in opposition to God (Daniel 3; Acts 5:27-32).]

In short – the government is a stand-in for God’s authority in preventing chaos, injustice, destruction and anarchy – all of which are opposed to the very nature of God. Government is a way for the people to collectively organize, under God’s authority, to keep shalom – within their own nation and between them and the other nations.

Civil Defense

As we covered earlier, Pikuach Nefesh – the “saving of human life” – is a doctrine in which the protection of life is held as more important than almost all other laws – with the exceptions being: Blasphemy against God, Murder and Sexual Purity. Also within Pikuach Nefesh, we have the concept of the rodef – a “pursuer” who means to bring harm or death to an individual – who innocent bystanders are compelled to stop, using the least amount of force possible, up to and including lethal force.

Please - go ahead and rob meIn light of the government’s role in providing order and justice, and under the constraints of Pikuach Nefesh, it is necessary that the governmental authorities provide a means by which to prevent anarchy, chaos and lawlessness. This entails providing a means by which to prevent the rodef from carrying out violence against the innocent. Following the principles of Pikuach Nefesh, this is to be done using the least amount of force possible. If rational discussion can prevent harm, there is no need for physical restraint. If physical restraint can prevent harm, there is no need for lethal force. If there is no other means by which to prevent the harm of the innocent, it is lawful under God for the civil authorities to utilize lethal force as a means of last resort.

Lethal force can only be used as a preventative measure against immediate harm, not as a means by which to enact justice outside of the judicial system. The punishment of the individual is to take place in the system of justice, though, and not through vigilante action. Vigilantism – the enacting of mob justice – is not supported by any Jewish or Christian teaching.

Without systems of civil defense and justice, chaos would rule. The government provides this Biblical structure by which it maintains shalom. [And again, as with the individual, simply having the option to use physical force (a police presence) is often enough to prevent deadly violence from happening in the first place. Without knowing such and option exists, thieves and murderers could operate with impunity.]

Bad boys, bad boys...Keeping this in mind, there is no Biblical proscriptive measure against a Christian, preventing them from becoming a police officer or any other type of civil defense officer who might, in the course of their duties, be required to use deadly force in preventing immediate, grave injury. There is also no Biblical prohibition against a Christian becoming a prosecutor or judge who might, in the course of his or her duties, be required to ask for, or provide, a sentence of death upon a criminal. All such roles are within the Judeo-Christian bounds of government in providing law and order – which results in a society living in greater shalom with one another, and a society in which the Gospel may be more easily shared and lived out.

Military Might

While we can see that the results of war are regrettable, evil and chaotic, we also cannot deny that God, in the Hebrew Scriptures, commanded its use in preventing other evils. Thus, we cannot say that war is ontologically evil in any and all circumstances, lest we accuse God of pursuing evil – or of being double-minded from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus. Still, though, we also know that these wars were not His original desires, and that they were brought about by the sin of man. They were not God’s actions of first recourse. Because we cannot reliably claim direct revelation from God in conducting modern war, His use of war in the Hebrew Scriptures is not alone justification for its usage today.

Conversely, one would expect that the subject of war – particularly as it pertains to professional soldiering – would have been addressed in the negative (as an outright prohibition) if God’s stance on such a sweeping issue had changed during the intertestamental period. However, we do not find this, but, in fact, we are confronted with a silence on the matter when dealing with soldiers and military officials.

Aside from Jesus’ active recommendation to the disciples to buy swords for self-defense, we have an instance where John the Baptist is directly answering questions about different professions & how they should live:

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Conspicuously absent is any denunciation of their profession, or the need to use deadly force (a key component of their work).

We also have Jesus’ encounter with the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), where no negative comment is made about the man’s profession.

Even more conspicuously, we have Peter’s encounter (Acts 10) with “a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” Cornelius – who had 100 soldiers that reported to him – sent two servants and another God-fearing soldier to request that Peter visit him. Nowhere in the encounter does Peter advise Cornelius to leave his military service.

But what about Paul?

Paul lists soldiering as an appropriate profession (I Cor 9:7), and – even more strangely, if a military career (and therefore the use of violent force) is something that cannot be carried out by a Christian – Paul takes his own name from Sergius Paulus, the military governor of Cyprus, changing it from Saul to Paul. After his encounter with Saul/Paul, Sergius Paulus continued on in his military position before returning to Rome in a high-level political position. And yet, despite his profession – both military and political – he, and his family, were devout Christians. Surely, if such things were completely incompatible with Christian teaching, we would know of Paul’s objections.

So, at the very least, being in a professional role which inherently requires the application of deadly violence is clearly – from John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul – not at odds with being a member of the Kingdom of God.

A Regrettable Necessity

With apologies for taking so long getting here, all of the items we’ve talked about to this point are underpinnings of the God-given responsibility of governments to – in incredibly limited circumstances, and in incredibly limited means – with great regret, use war as an option of last resort.

So when, if ever, is war a “just” or “acceptable” option?

Governments do not exist in isolation, but in community with other similar entities – even more visibly so in this age of rapid, global communication. In this community of governments, they keep their primary roles – maintaining order and preventing chaos – and they are responsible for maintaining shalom – peace – in their dealings with other nations. Governments, like individuals, have no God-given right to make war for the purposes of conquest (theft, envy), or in response to an affront to their honor (pride) – or even for the purpose of ’spreading the Gospel’ (i.e. forced proselytization).

Even so, this does not prevent other governments from becoming a rodef – a “pursuer” of governments perceived as weaker, or dishonorable, or in possession of resources desired by the rodef. It is also possible that a government becomes a rodef to subsets of its own people, pursuing a course of theft, murder and genocide.

Never again...Following the principles of Pikuach Nefesh – the “saving of human life” – it may become regrettably necessary, if all other reasonable, non-violent avenues of recourse have become exhausted, for another government – or group of governments – to act as innocent bystanders witnessing a rodef attacking another innocent party, and to use lethal force in preventing that injustice, particularly if leaving it unchecked would result in much greater evil than if no war was waged to stop it.

It is only in this particular instance – in preventing a lasting and grave ill upon a nation or a set of nations – that a war can be considered ‘just’ and be fully supportable by Christians.

The Precepts of Just War

Because of the potential necessity for governments to defend themselves or others, and the desire of the church to prevent wars that do not fit within the moral bounds of “saving human life”, it was deemed necessary that some sort of precepts be developed, based on Scriptural principles, in which a war might be considered an act of governmental justice, rather than tyranny or chaos.

There are a number of summations available on the requirements for “just war”, most of which were first fully-developed in the church to provide objective criteria by which to weigh the ‘just-ness’ or ‘unjust-ness’ of wars, and how they should be fought, should they become unavoidable. While I will not delve into these in vast detail, the primary criteria were first proposed by Saint Augustine, and later refined by St. Thomas Aquinas. These criteria, some of which are part of the Catholic Church Catechism, include:

  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain: This particular bar exists to prevent the rationalization of trifles and non-rodef-based rationales (similar to honor- or conquest-based killings) as legitimate reasons for war.
  2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective: This means that diplomacy, sanctions and other non-violent means must be used to prevent the conflict, if possible. At some point, though, the non-violent means of avoiding war are no longer means of providing peace, but simply means of avoiding responsibility which exacerbate the cause of the innocent and do nothing to abate the grave pursuit of the aggressor (stereotypically, when it becomes obvious that the 100th “strongly worded memo” from the UN is going to be as effective as the 99th one, which is to say not at all.)
  3. There must be serious prospects of success: If there is little realistic chance of success in preventing the damage inflicted by the aggressor, particularly if the attempt at stopping it would be suicidal or would simply make the atrocities worse, then the attempt should not be made.
  4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated: The ultimate goal of war is to establish a more humane state of shalom between men. Specifically, the state of shalom established after the war should be preferable to the state of shalom that would have existed without the war. Additionally, the force used to prevent the war should be proportionate to the evil it prevented, with the minimal amount of force provided in order to effectively prevent the greater evil.

These criteria have been further refined in the doctrines of Jus ad bellum (the right conduct in going to war), Jus in bellum (the right conduct within a war), and Jus post bellum (the right conduct in ending war). I will not be delving into these in deep detail, other than to note that they exist and can be studied/debated in detail as they apply to the overall “just war” framework.

Regardless, because it may be necessary to conduct a war in order to prevent a much graver, and more lasting, evil, it is also necessary that we have a means, based upon Scriptural principles, on how to best pursue this course of a “lesser of two (or more) evils”. If, however, one wishes to act upon a conviction that war can never be an acceptable option, then it should not be surprising or or unacceptable that they have no seat at the table in determining the appropriate course of action, since – like a potential jurist that cannot in good conscience declare a legal verdict can be summarily dismissed from a jury pool – they would be required to act against their own conscience in selecting all morally and legally available options for society at large. In fact, it would be of best course for them to excuse themselves from any and all such formal deliberations, as a prolonged course of inaction without an appropriate threat of force may be the most immoral action of all.

This is also why it may be a best course of actions for governments to keep on hand a credible enough threat of force so as to prevent the precursors that might compel a war from occurring in the first place.

A Brief Case Study

While most, if not all, modern wars can be debated as to whether or not they fit within the “just war” model, the war by the Allies against Germany in World War II is probably the most cut-and-dried case.

1) The damage being inflicted by the Germans against its European neighbors, and against Jews, Gypsies and other minorities were grave, lasting and certain. In fact, their levels of atrocity were likely exacerbated by the dithering and appeasement of the west; speaking of which:

2) All other means of preventing war with Germany were attempted, beyond the point of which it was obvious that the only reason German was engaged in preventative talks was to stall/prevent greater opposition while their plans were being implemented, hopefully to the point at which it would be impossible to stop them; speaking of which:

3) There was a serious prospect of success, which required the US to join forces with Canada, the UK and its allies in stopping the German aggression. This capability was actually higher in 1939 – 1941, prior to the injection of Japan, which ultimately brought the US into the conflict in 1941.

4) In Germany, at the very least, the use of arms significantly prevented much more serious evils. While there has been a good deal of revisionist historical debate about the ending of war with Japan, there is little question that the peace that existed after the war was much more morally preferable to the peace that would have existed had Hitler (and Hirohito) been allowed to complete their desires for conquest and domination.

This is not to say, though, that many other wars fought by America – including its own founding revolution, and especially its expansionist wars against the native peoples in the western US – would have fallen under the definition of “just war”. In fact, it would be quite accurate to say that most wars fought by “Christianized” countries (or decreed by the Roman Catholic Church, as with the Crusades) have not been “just wars”. Even so, to say that “just war” doctrine, itself, is unwise, unbiblical and un-Christian is naive, at best.

Loose Ends: Conscientious Objectors

If I believe that a Christian can support the notion of a just war, does that mean that I believe that it is illegitimate for a Christian to take the position of a Conscientious Objector? By no means. Paul teaches that if one sins against his or her own personal convictions, even if they are not morally absolute sins, he/she is committing a sin. As such, if one truly holds the conviction that all killing – even in a justly declared war – is forbidden to them, they should take the position of a CO, even if that means they are compelled to serve in a non-combat job/position at the behest of the government.

Loose Ends: Abortion

I have heard it said that “if you do believe in violence and killing to defend others, you MUST believe in killing abortion doctors“. Aside from the fact that this is a false dilemma, the specific instance of abortion doctors in the US, and the morality of killing them and/or bombing their clinics is a question we might consider, as it is tangentially related to the topic of Pikuach Nefesh.

In the case of abortion, our fallen society has created a number of bad trade-offs between evils. First, if we are to consider someone in the case of a woman seeking an abortion as being rodef – a pursuer trying to cause the death of an innocent person – the person in this case who is the “pursuer” is not the abortion doctor, but the mother. In the case of murder-for-hire, it is the instigator, not the instrument, who is guilty for the situation of murder. The most prominent example of this in Scripture is that of David and Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba. In this case, Joab did David’s bidding by having Uriah placed in a situation where he was killed, yet David was declared to be the murderer.

So it is with the woman seeking an abortion.

Paradoxically, if the mother is rodef to her child and if we were to use lethal force to stop her, we would also be using lethal force against the child. Because of this, and because the abortionist is not rodef, we are required to seek justice against both of them in the system of justice provided by our government, and not by vigilantism – which is never Scripturally justified. Because, on this point, our justice system is not aligned with God’s justice (yet we are required by God to be humbly subject to it), our only recourse is to ask God to provide appropriate justice for endangered children and to work within the system provided by our government in which to seek redress (i.e. the voting booth). But that’s another discussion entirely.

Regardless, neither killing abortion doctors nor bombing abortion clinics would be Scripturally justified by the same rationale as by war might be justly declared. In fact, the same rationale, following the same doctrine of ’saving life’ that Jesus upheld, would declare murdering an abortionist as an unjust action and the appropriate declaration of a just war as an appropriate action. There is no contradiction.

Loose Ends: Capital Punishment

The final ‘loose end’ is that of capital punishment. The typical canards used with capital punishment tend to be a) “How can you be against murder in the case of abortion, but not in capital punishment?” or b) “How can you be opposed to capital punishment but agree with the concept of a ‘just war’?” These also fall into the realm of the ‘false dilemma’.

Capital punishment does not fall within the realm of Pikuach Nefesh, because we’re no longer talking about protection of an innocent victim. Rather, we are now talking about the system of justice and its dealings with guilty individuals, of which governmental authorities are the sole biblical owner. As we discussed previously, vigilante justice is never deemed acceptable in Hebrew or Christian Scriptures; provision of earthly justice is the responsibility of the authorities (be they judges or kings), whom God has put in place for this purpose (Romans 13:1-7). As such, they are responsible for determining what punishments befit which crimes.

Capital punishment is neither non-Biblical (see Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), nor non-Christian. While some point to the instance of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) as an instance where Jesus supposedly does away with capital punishment, as we’ve covered here before, Jesus’ response indicates that 1) he does not have the proper authority in the civil system to which he was submitting to make such a ruling; and 2) his response is based upon the inherent injustice of the situation. Some might contend that capital punishment is a form of revenge, but this does not wash, either. The purpose of justice, as given to earthly governments, is both to punish individuals for their crimes against society, and to protect society from further crimes perpetrated by that individual. Neither of these is revenge, and both are inherent responsibilities of government.

Now – where I do quibble with the modern justice system and its application of the death penalty is that it is not always consistent with the biblical minimum evidentiary requirement of two eyewitnesses for allowance of capital punishment (Deuteronomy 17:6). While I might be convinced that DNA evidence could constitute one “eyewitness”, I’ve seen too many cases where men/women were wrongly convicted without reliable eyewitness evidence, only to be set free years later. Without a truly solid case of proven guilt, I would not be in favor of a capital sentence.

In Conclusion

To summarize: The Bible clearly provides grounds for the use of lethal force in self-defense, civil defense and national defense. This doctrine is more thoroughly described in the Hebrew doctrine called Pikuach Nefesh, which Jesus both affirms and shows consistency of thought. Jesus and his disciples do provide a caveat in the case of self-defense in response to persecution, giving blessing to those who persist under persecution and immediate threat of death without exercising lethal force in their own defense. However, they do not expand this caveat beyond the limited case of persecution.

In the case of governments, God has given them the moral authority to exercise lethal force in maintaining a system of justice, a system of civil defense and a system of national defense. Without this authority, they would be unable to fulfill their purpose of maintaining order and preventing lawlessness and chaos – both on a local and national scale.

Because the view of the right to use lethal force in limited circumstances is a personal conviction and not a cross-cultural absolute, we must be tolerant of differing views, avoiding the Pharisaical trap of declaring one position a moral absolute against which no Christian can legitimately disagree. As such, those who hold a view of “just war” cannot morally discriminate against those who conscientiously object, nor can those who hold a conscientious objection to “just war” declare that no Christian can hold a different view without being morally compromised.

In related, but non-central matters, I’ve also shown that, biblically, one may hold a positive view of “just war” while being equally opposed to the use of lethal force against abortionists. I’ve also shown that Christians may hold views of capital punishment that differ (in human outcome) from their views of “just war”, because the two issues, while they involve human life, are not based upon the same Scriptural precedents – since one deals with innocent victims, and the other with guilty criminals.

If you read everything to this point, thank you for your patience. If you just skimmed, shame on you ;)

Blessings, grace and peace

Chris L


This entry was posted on Monday, December 28th, 2009 at 11:18 am and is filed under Hebrew Context, Lessons, Politics, Religion/Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Comments so far

  1. Dave Muller on January 1, 2010 8:50 pm

    A good post with many things to consider. I loved the “no weapons poster”. I generally agree with you except on just war. IMO there is close to no reason to ever go to war, including WWII, which was the creation of Western foreign policy. I do agree with force being used for personal defence.

  2. Chris L. on January 2, 2010 1:35 am


    The purpose of just war doctrine is to prevent unjust wars from occurring, not to try and justify a war in advance. War fits within the purview of the responsibility given to governments, as God’s servants. While I think that many Christians have swung the pendulum too far towards considering violence an answer, I’m not sure the solution is to swing it equally as far in the opposite direction.

    I believe that WWII met the criteria for Jus ad bellum (the declaration of war), but that there were a number of instances where Jus en bellum (conduct in war) was not properly met (like the firebombing of Dresden), and that Jus post bellum was met, particularly in the reparations made to Germany and Japan. Whlie I believe it could have been staved off in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, by the time Hitler’s invasions had begun, there was no other viable solution.

  3. Dave Muller on January 2, 2010 2:20 am

    I understand where you are coming from, but in my view pacifism (or specifically a classically liberal government) would have prevented it from getting there to begin with. The only reason the Nazi party rose up was the war debt and embargoes against Germany. Al-Qaeda was created as an unintentional consequence when the West got involved in the Afghan war and funded freedom fighters. In both cases, what would be considered a just war (to which I partially agree) could have never happened with no war.

  4. Dave Muller on January 2, 2010 2:20 am

    I understand where you are coming from, but in my view pacifism (or specifically a classically liberal government) would have prevented it from getting there to begin with. The only reason the Nazi party rose up was the war debt and embargoes against Germany. Al-Qaeda was created as an unintentional consequence when the West got involved in the Afghan war and funded freedom fighters. In both cases, what would be considered a just war (to which I partially agree) could have never happened with no war.

  5. Chris L. on January 2, 2010 12:45 pm

    but in my view pacifism (or specifically a classically liberal government) would have prevented it from getting there to begin with.

    I agree – but by the time 1941 rolled around, such options were long off the table. I agree that a lot more intelligence and forethought today, rather than expedient solutions, will save much more undesirable decisions in the coming years. Even so, this does not account for the actions outside of our control…

  6. Dave Muller on January 2, 2010 6:20 pm

    Sorry about the double post. I put “Al-Qaeda” in there instead of “Taliban”.

    I didn’t mean to argue so much and the main point is that I disagree but you have many good verses to back up your position that I need to consider.

  7. Len Winneroski on February 18, 2011 12:38 pm

    Wow! This is a very interesting and informative discussion. I am not qualified to comment either way, but i did have a thought about the “mother as rodef” in the case of abortion. What about the father? Is he guilty as a rodef by allowing an abortion to occur. What is the role of the father in the “choice” debate from a Biblical standpoint? It pains me to think about the grief that sexual sin brings upon us when we ignore God’s provision of sex within marriage.

  8. Chris L. on February 18, 2011 1:17 pm


    Good question. I’ve seen the Jewish side of this debate for awhile now. The pursuer (”rodef”) in most instances of abortion is technically the doctor, not the mother. One important note though, is that your personal action in stopping a pursuer assumes that there is no time to engage the civil authority, to which you are to submit, to stop the pursuer. In this case, the pursuer is acting under the authority of the civil authority, so you cannot use potentially violent means to prevent this. Only if you were the mother being forced to abort the child (to be an accomplice), would you have standing to use violent means to prevent the pursuer (the doctor) from killing the child.

    As I mentioned to you yesterday, there is a case where the child might be considered rodef – cases where the child is truly putting the mother’s life in imminent danger (like with tubal pregnancies). In such cases, the mother would have a legitimate, moral right to choose under pikuach nefesh.

  9. Chris L. on February 18, 2011 1:26 pm

    Actually, I got that backward – I meant to say the mother is rodef and the doctor her accomplice… That changes if the mother is being forced to abort (as in China).

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