Think of the beliefs you have which you hold most dear. How much will it cost for you to change those beliefs? Will you change them for a title? Will you change them for prestige? Will you change them for riches? We would like you to be compliant and obedient, so tell us what it will take for you to change those beliefs?
This kind of questioning doesn’t generally happen in interrogation rooms, but the nature of our world is that those in positions of power desire for you to comply, and they will help you toward that goal if they can. So, what will it take for you to sell out your most cherished beliefs, or those whom you care about? Those who believe in non-compliance as a method of changing the world should consider the non-compliant early Christians as an example. You can be changed and perhaps not even be aware of it. Christian history is a cautionary tale for those who would care to learn from it.
We live in a world where war is ever present. We hear it on the news, we read it in the papers, and we send our nation’s newest adults off to fight in them. For most of the past century Americans have been fighting wars. We involved ourselves in World War I, which was “the war to end all wars,’ of course all wars didn’t end. Not long after, we found ourselves in World War II. Then the Cold War started with the communist countries, which placed us into hostilities in Korea and Vietnam. Smaller “wars” were fought in places such as Grenada, Panama and the Dominican Republic, and there were many potential wars with Cuba and Russia.
In more recent years, we’ve had the Gulf War in Iraq, actions in Bosnia, and of course the “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, which spilled over into Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria. In between all of these the American military has been involved in many other “operations” around the world. Our nation has not experienced real peace for a long time.
So, what should a Christian think about all of these wars? More importantly, how should a Christian act in response to war? Let’s begin by entering into our time machines and rewinding back to Old Testament days. This is where we will find the foundations that Christians build their thinking on.
We find many wars in the Old Testament. Generally speaking, the wars in the Bible were ordained by God in order to secure the Promised Land for His people, and to bring His divine plans to fruition. Beyond that, the Old Testament wars were wars against God’s people, which He allowed as a punishment for their sin. If God’s people went to war for their own purposes, or without God’s approval, they were met with disaster.
Deuteronomy 20 gives a list of rules for going to war. The Israelites were never to go to war to expand the Promised Land, or to conquer any surrounding nation, except by God’s command. God wanted His people to trust in Him. Therefore, human desire or effort to prove Israel’s greatness through military strength or acquisition was forbidden. There was not to be any nation building or “puppet regimes” set up to enhance the security of Israel’s borders. God was their protector. They were simply to trust in Him.
Now, let’s reset our dials and time travel to the days of the New Testament. Here we do not see examples of war except in the book of Revelation. There is little that can be used as justification for war. During the New Testament period the story was about love, peace, patience and how to successfully live the Christian life. The New Testament is about Jesus – the Prince of Peace.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, history tells us that for approximately 300 years Christians were mostly a people of peace. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we learn that early Christians would have little to do with fighting or war. Edward Gibbon wrote:
“This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare (of not fighting for the empire) exposed them (the Christians) to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?” 
At this time the general teaching of the church was against warfare, and history tells us further that many of the church fathers advocated nonviolence because they believed this to be the teaching of Jesus. For example:
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.
Early Christians attempted to remain peaceful people who did not comply with government desires to commit violence on the government’s behalf. But then something changed.
In 305 A.D. before the battle of Milvian Bridge, the Emperor Constantine claimed to have seen a heavenly vision of the cross bearing a motto, “By this sign shalt thou conquer.” While this is not the cross of Christ that we know today, it is still an early version, or “christogram” of that cross made up of the first two capital letters (Chi and Rho) of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) which equals Christ, and suggests the crucifixion of Jesus.
Up to this point, the cross had been a symbol of peace and reverence in the church. But when Constantine had it painted on the shields of his soldiers, and adopted it as the new symbol for his army, it suddenly became a symbol of war.
Not long after, Constantine gave many concessions and indulgences to the church in an effort to repeal the persecutions that Christians had been suffering until then. In the Edict of Milan from 313 A.D., confiscated property and meeting places were returned to the church. The hierarchy of the early church was greatly impressed and perhaps indebted to Emperor Constantine. As a result he may have become a great influence on the thinking and practice of the professing Christian church. The problem was that Constantine was a man of war and bloodshed. While there is evidence to suggest that he had become a follower of Christ, he also tolerated pagan religions.
Since the time of Constantine, whenever civic leaders have gone to war they have enjoyed solid support from the church, and greater and greater support from Christians within those churches.
It is important to ask: Why were Christians so unwilling to fight in wars or join a military for the first 300 years after Jesus was resurrected? Could it be that the early Christians would not have anything to do with war because that is what they understood the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to be?
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. Matthew 5:39
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… Matthew 5: 44-45
But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Matthew 26:52
Some of these people knew Jesus and were His disciples. Many others may not have known Jesus, but may have benefited from the teaching of the apostles for several decades. Still further, many had this teaching handed down to them through word of mouth, or written and copied letters from their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Is there something they knew that we have lost, or have never learned? We need to remember that the Christians of this time were persecuted, and many died for their beliefs. One of these beliefs was that people who claim the name of Christ should be people of peace – not war.
One soul cannot be due to two masters – God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action. [Emphasis added]
It is strange that the common teaching in religion today seems quite different from the practice of the Christian Church for those first 300 years. In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.), not only didn’t preach avoidance of war, but gave us rules for war in what is called the “Just War Theory.” Did the church finally give up their original stance and decide that as long as those who claim the name of Christ were going to take part in warfare anyway there should be some rules? Did the church cede ground rightly belonging to God to the politicians and the rulers?
Augustine believed that not all wars are justified morally, so he produced the following framework for evaluating whether or not to go to war, and how to conduct a war.
- There must be a Just Cause, or a very good reason. All aggression is otherwise to be rejected.
- There must be Correct Intention. Nations should not go into wars for revenge, or for conquest of territory; but only to secure peace among the combatants.
- War must be entered into only as a Last Resort. Peace must be offered and diplomacy tried. Economic and other forms of pressure must have failed before war is entered into as a last resort.
- There must be a Formal Declaration of war before hostilities may begin.
- There must be Limited Objectives. Complete destruction of another nation is an improper objective. War should only be waged to make sure that peace is the ultimate result.
- When going to war there must be the use of Proportionate Means. In other words, the weapons and force used should be limited to only what is needed to stop the aggression, and secure peace.
- There must be Immunity for Civilians. The military must be very careful to avoid those not participating in the conflict. In other words, the innocent bystanders whom we call “collateral damage” today.
Some may argue that these were just rules designed to pacify the objections of those Christians who still wanted no part of warfare. Or perhaps it was an attempt to make it okay to take part in military activities. One might say it was a form of gradualism that would bring the objecting Christian into warfare slowly and carefully. If there is any truth to that, then we need to look at the wars we fight today to see how terribly far we have strayed from these rules – very gradually – and ask ourselves how did we get here? How do we get back?
In the 20th century there have been more people killed in warfare than in any previous century. But the 20th century was also predicted to be the “Christian century,” as genuine Christianity and American culture would be in harmony together. Can these two statements be reconciled? In the two world wars alone multiple tens of millions of people (military and civilian) were killed. The numbers vary depending on who is writing the history, but it’s very clear that our capacity to kill is greatly enhanced with each passing war.
Since World War II approximately 150 more wars have been fought with an estimated additional 16 million killed. Does the 20th century sound anything like the Christianity that was taught by the Prince of Peace? Does it sound like a “Christian century?”
Now, in the 21st century as we continue to see warfare around the world. We find that there are three major positions that Christians take on the prosecution of a war.
Pacifism – If we carry the name of Christ, we must live in the non-violent way that Christ lived. The world is violent and we should be different by following the way of Jesus Christ. As previously discussed, this would have been the position of Christians for the first 300 years, but it appears to have been mostly abandoned today.
Activism – Romans 13 says Christians are to submit to government, but does that mean government has a blank check? This position suggests we should assume our leaders have access to better information than we do. But should we trust the government’s judgment? Should we endorse it wholly? Should we obey immoral laws and take part in immoral wars? And why did Paul, the person who wrote those words, end up writing “prison epistles” later on? Were his words only for us and not for him, or is there something that is not understood?
A Middle Ground – The Just War theory would be a guide in determining which wars to participate in.
Only two of these positions leave room for a Christian to become a soldier. If Jesus is the Christian’s Lord and example, then there should be an effort to be like Him. If war is capturing, killing and destroying, does that fit with the nature of Jesus? Be sure to understand the difference between defense and offense – between defending your family or nation, and the other military activities that politicians and bankers lead people into for power, money or legacy.
A reader of the Bible will learn that human life is a very precious thing to God – so much so that God’s rules say if one takes a life he is to incur the penalty of losing his own. In short, society was to defend itself against such people. Further, we are told that in defending our homes we can be found faultless.
If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. Exodus 22:2
So, considering these things, it is important to understand that we do have a God given right to defend ourselves, but that needs to be carefully contrasted with being a warmongering people or nation. If we are “over there” as the song goes, aren’t we in an offensive/aggressive position? If someone from another city does violence to me in my home and then I chase him down the street and kill him – in the world we live in I will likely go to jail for murder. If someone from another country does violence to us in our country, and then we chase them overseas and kill them, why is this not also murder – writ large?
Christians must answer these questions. Does the government get to violate laws that are enforced on citizens? Are things that are considered sin for the individual suddenly okay when committed by a larger group of people callings themselves government?
If you call yourself a Christian, have you ever given your belief in war and military service a second thought? Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate this American Christianity that screams for blood, obeys every government call to military duty, and chants “bomb, bomb, bomb.” As one who follows Christ perhaps it’s time to return to the thinking of those early Christians, and refuse to take part in any more government war-mongering; to refuse to enlist in the military or send our children on any more missions of violence; to learn to live at peace and do good to our fellow man instead of chasing them all over the world. Yes, there is a time for defense, but that is not done “over there,” and it isn’t ever anything that we should sing happy songs about.
So, what has happened to that non-compliant Christian? It appears they may have been purchased with the promise of a free government education, housing assistance or even a paying job in a time of need. They have effectively told the government, I will kill for you (or support the organization that does) as long as I get something in return. Or worse yet, they may have chosen to kill as a form of patriotism, which is basically worship of the State. No matter what, they have given up many of their greatest core beliefs related to love, and peace. They have gone from non-compliance to compliance, and have certainly been tempted in that direction by the tyrannical state.
If Christians would read their Bibles (the book they say they believe) they might be surprised to find that refusal to serve a tyrannical government and their leaders is a very common theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Maybe it’s time for the person who calls themselves Christian to return to their non-compliant roots, and be more like Christ. Maybe it’s time to ask, “How do you reconcile being a warrior with following the Prince of Peace?”
 Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume I (New York: Random House, Inc, 2003), 259-260
 Hippolytus of Rome – From Hippolytos “The Apostolic Tradition”
 Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 19: Concerning Military Service
 The requirement that America’s Congress must declare war has been adopted in Article One, Section Eight of our American Constitution, but World War II was the last time that requirement was actually followed.