Should a Christian Bear Arms?

The question dealt with here seems to be of the utmost importance to Christians at this present time.  Currently (May, 2003) our nation is faced with issues arising from terrorism and, undoubtedly, problems associated with our nation’s own blind nationalism and that illusive construct known as “national interest,” a concept having little to do with justice or right.

My concern with this question goes back to my childhood.  Something never seemed quite right to me about the entire notion of human violence.  On one hand, humans seemed capable of such great, self-giving, other-centered acts.  At the same time, humans seemed capable of such inhumanity and cruelty.  I was puzzled.  Becoming a Christian as a teenager only intensified my desire to discover what “doing right” in this matter really meant.  I grew up during the Vietnam years and many were questioning.  Becoming a believer only intensified my questions.  Eventually, I arrived at an apparently consistent conclusion.  Looking back at journals and letters, and adding very little to text written from my early seminary days until the past few years, the case can be stated concisely (but certainly not completely).


Should a Christian bear arms?  Consulting any basic history of the church shows that the vast majority of the early church did not think so.  Many reasons have been cited for this refusal to bear arms.  Some propose that it was due to the idolatry of the Roman army.  Others have suggested that, at least when it came to the army, it interfered with the Sabbath-keeping of the earliest Christians.  These are not the reasons given by the early apologists such as Origen, Justin and others.

For these early believers, the issue seems to have been much more a concern related to the teachings or ethic of Christ.  Reading the Sermon on the Mount leaves little doubt:

·         "Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God."

·         "Do not resist the one who is evil.  If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him the left also"

·         “Pray for your enemies.... that you may be like your Father in heaven"

The New Testament is filled with many other admonitions such as, "The Son of Man came not to destroy men's lives but to save them." "If your enemy is hungry, feed him.  If he is thirsty, give him a drink."  "If my Kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight...."  "Our weapons are not carnal...."  There are many other passages that speak of the Christian's call to the renunciation of violence and the way of peace.

There are, indeed, soldiers mentioned in the New Testament who became Christians.  What happened after their conversion is unclear (a point often ignored by proponents as well as opponents of pacifism).  Undeniably, there is no direct injunction given to soldiers regarding military service subsequent to conversion in the New Testament.  We do know that there are clear references to Christians in the military by AD 175.  This does not, however, seem to be normative.  These are quoted as representative samples of many writings and recorded sayings of the early Christians (second-fourth century):

·         "Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaimed that he who takes the sword shall also perish by the sword?" Tertullian

·         "For we no longer take up 'sword against nation' nor do we 'learn war any more,' having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader." Origen

·         Bishop Cyprian, (martyred in A.D. 258) puts it bluntly, "If a murder is committed privately it is a crime, but if it happens with state authority, courage is the name for it." Cyprian believed Christians "are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves." Referring especially to capital punishment he stated, "It is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death." 

·         "I cannot serve [as a soldier], for I am a Christian." Maximilian

Many will point to the Old Testament passages where Israel was enjoined to holy war.  From my perspective, this is a point of very evident discontinuity with the position of the New Testament.  Also, let us remember that ancient Israel was, in many respects, a theocracy.  From a Christian perspective, there are no longer any true theocracies.  Christ's Kingdom knows no national borders.  Sadly, some have wrongly thought of the United States as a Christian nation.  The idea of a Christian nation is foreign to the New Testament, an import by those who desperately want to see righteousness tied to legislation and morality decreed by politicians.  Listen carefully to the rhetoric of civil religion and one can hear echoes of Moses and Joshua.  Unless the plain sense is twisted beyond recognition, one will not hear echoes of Christ and the apostles, who identified themselves with a citizenry “not of this world.”  The call is clearly other worldly.  It is futile to insist on continuity between the civil code of Israel and the moral call of both Christ and the Old Testament prophets.  The Old Testament commands the killing of disobedient children, spells out punishments and penalties for various crimes, and sets forth the principle "eye for eye; tooth for tooth."  While this represents a vast improvement in that the injunction limits revenge, the notion is still directly contradicted by Christ.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that in the Old Covenant, the people moved in types and shadows, but "the reality belongs to Christ."

From my perspective, the New Testament declares Jesus Christ is God among us.  The Sermon on the Mount becomes the manifesto for the New Kingdom; a Kingdom "already but not yet."  For the believer, the Kingdom ethic is NOW.  In the Kingdom coming, it will be for all.

"God is love." That seems clear enough.  The apostle did not want to leave us in the dark about what love is:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7 ESV)

I leave it to you to ask yourself if war and killing are compatible with Paul's description of love.

I'm pro-life because I see God as pro-life.  It is ironic that the very Christians that clamor so loudly against abortion shout the loudest for capital punishment and military might.  To me that seems like a very inconsistent pro-life stance.  God is life affirming.  It has been mentioned that "eye for eye; tooth for tooth" is a part of the civil law code set forth by Moses.  Christians in favor of capital punishment and institutionalized hate (war) are quick to point out that "if a man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed."  Again I ask, how can this be squared with the fact that Jesus quoted the EXACT scriptures dealing with retribution ("eye for eye") in the Sermon on the Mount and clearly refuted the notion?  As a Christian, I am forced to ask, who is the better interpreter of the mind of God, Moses or Christ (assuming that Moses does recommend revenge and retaliation—something I’m not so sure of at all)?  If, Christ is indeed God among us, the answer is obvious.  Revelation is progressive and reaches its pinnacle in the words and example of the Master.  How can one be pro-life and support organized killing, revenge, and methods of death?

Someone will surely say, "What if a given war is just?"  I cannot answer that except to say the teachings of Christ appear absolute.  My concern is with following Christ.  In the same passage (Romans 12) where Paul directs believers not to do wrong to an enemy, he tells us that God will repay.  God is just.  Does this imply that Christians are to pray and do good in the face of national threat; to work for peace instead of resorting to violent resistance?   That's exactly what the evident conclusion seems!  Sound radical?  I challenge you to find a more radical figure than Jesus Christ!  Are we first citizens of this or that nation, or is "our citizenship in heaven?"  If commanded by presidents or kings to kill, let us say with the apostles "We must obey God rather than men." 

This is a hard word.  But discipleship is costly.  Jesus said that no one could be his disciple apart from denial of the spirit of the world (hate, hedonism, and death) and taking up the cross and following him.  God reconciles God’s enemies and we are "ambassadors of reconciliation."  To hold to a larger hope of the restitution of all things and take a human life are not compatible.  Christ calls us to peace.  He calls us to be peacemakers.  How will we respond? 

Speaking of war, George Fox said, "The Spirit of Christ by which we are led is not so changeable so as once to command us from a thing as evil and then to move us unto it."  Have we been truly called by that Unchangeable Spirit?  Do we trust God, as soldiers of an army that sheds no blood, or do we trust in the human wisdom and the sword of iron instead of the Sword of the Spirit?  What would Jesus do?  It is ultimately the character of God as revealed in Christ that is our standard. 

Instead of trying to "mix" Jesus and Moses and create a teaching foreign to words of either of them, we need to recognize the "shadow" and the "reality." Let us look to the character and intent of God as revealed in Christ.  In the Sermon on the Mount, after telling us to love and do good to our enemies, Jesus tells us that, at least in some measure, that is being "perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."


Such was and is the base that informs my thinking.  Where did I derive all of this?  That is a simple answer.  It all started with reading Bonhoeffer.  Reading The Cost of Discipleship as a young man had a powerful impact on me.  The notion that Christ really meant what he said, seemed to be the long awaited solution.  It provided me with the highest justification for a consistent ethic of peace.                 


Hitler's Nazi regime has been recognized as one of the most scandalous aberrations to make an appearance in modern times. Surprisingly, when Hitler first came to power, he was welcomed by many German clergy and laity. To really begin to understand the place of Bonhoeffer and the situation in which he found himself, one has to have a basic understanding of the German Confessing Church.  It is hard to explain the acquiescence of the German Christians to the Nazi state.  Many pious Germans believed that Hitler would bring spiritual renewal because he talked about traditional values, spoke of God, openly declared his interest in religion and his belief in the Bible. Some church leader declared Hitler’s ascension to power a direct intervention of God's mercy.  The fear of a Communist takeover was widespread and many Christians looked to the state, the Nazi state, for their defense.

Most of the churches in Germany were Lutheran. A nationalist movement easily gained power with the objective of uniting the church under a single Reichs-bishop, de facto bringing the church under Nazi control and thereby uniting church and state. In 1933, the so-called "German Christians" elected Ludwig Müller, who openly and enthusiastically embraced Nazism, to head the church. In July, two restrictions were placed on the clergy. They must accept the superiority of the Aryan race and they must be politically reliable. In this, the church began a journey in partnership with the state, using religion to buttress its claims.  It is without dispute that most of the German clergy accepted these demands. 

A small group of dissenters did not. They openly opposed the new state church. The dissidents insisted on obedience to the ethic of Christ and refused to cave in to political pressure. In September, 1933, Martin Niemoeller sent a letter to all German pastors, calling for a meeting of a Pastor's Emergency League to oppose the unified church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth and were among those who supported this call. In October, Niemoeller asked pastors to pledge themselves to the historic Confessions of the church and scripture. They bound themselves to show solidarity with the persecuted, and to acknowledge that Aryanism, racism, and the ideology of hate were a violation of the principles of the Reformation and Christian teaching.  In short, they made a commitment to protest that which they could only acknowledge as a pseudo-faith, Karl Barth, was already a renowned theologian, well known for his commentary on Romans. Barth wrote a refutation of Unified Church doctrines, which he viewed as peppered with sinful and evil capitulations to an ungodly political system. He also produced a document known as Fundamentals, which categorically refuted the teaching of the German Christians. Barth identified the root of the errors of the German Christians in the acceptance of German nationality, history, and politics as a source of normative and authoritative revelation alongside of the creeds and scripture.  To equate Aryanism and racism with the teaching of Christ as proclaimed in scripture was the height of human depravity.

On January 4, 1934, Reich-bishop Müller issued a decree known as the "Muzzling Order," forbidding ministers to preach or speak about the Church controversy. Müller ordered clergy to preach nothing but "the pure gospel," which, of course, meant the "gospel" of racism and hate.

The Confessing clergy refused to be kept out of politics which they believed to violate the deepest principles of faith. The very day that Müller issued his “Muzzling Order,” three hundred and twenty elders and ministers, calling themselves the First Free Reformed Synod, gathered at Barmen. They affirmed Barth's "Declaration on the Correct Understanding of the Reformation Confessions in the Evangelical Church." In April, pastors who opposed Hitler formally created the Confessing Church.  They pronounced the state church as bogus and illegitimate.   The Confessing Church included those from Reformed, Lutheran, and United Church ranks.

The Confessing Church took its name from its affirmation of the authority of the great historic Confessions of the church. In May 1934, the Confessing Church issued the Barmen Declaration, rejecting errors of the Nazi-controlled Unified Church and making a clear demarcation between the church and state—really setting the stage for a view of the church as standing in prophetic judgment over and against the state and never to be co-opted  by the state. The price of dissidence was high. Niemoller went to prison. Barth was deported. Bonhoeffer was hanged.


When I look at the idea of the just war, it is easy to see a certain bankruptcy in that position.  First, even the framers of the doctrine, such as Augustine, recognized that it meant an exception to the rule for Christians rather than the rule itself.  It is a difficult test.  It calls for a dispassionate use of violence, which I have never been convinced has any basis in reality—anthological, psychological, nor spiritual.  At any rate, human nature being what it is, combined with the nature of modern warfare, one has to ask, even if a just war was once feasible, how could it possibly be so now?  The answer seems clear enough.  In this, I was and am influenced by Bonhoeffer.

But then there is that problem with Bonhoeffer, the believer, the pacifist.  It is common knowledge that, almost as he was writing The Cost of Discipleship, he was questioning the relevance of the absolute ethic he so strongly upheld.  It is irrefutable that he was, indeed, deeply involved in a plot to kill Hitler (a choice that eventually led to his execution).  Why?  This is conjecture.  I surmise that he just got stuck on the question, “What if one (or a few) could die and millions be saved?  What would Jesus then do?” As Bonhoeffer framed the issue himself:  "If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver." 

I discover that I too am often stuck with the question.  As time goes on, I find myself less sure of it all than I was as a younger man.  Things do not seem so black and white.  There is much gray.

Of course, not gray about the issue of national interest which is just a short way of saying that the ends justify the means.  If Christianity is clear about one thing it is this:  The ethic of Christ and not expediency is the test of action and desire.  It would appear on the surface that the foregoing pacifist position is just that, ethical.  Still, I’m not so sure.  Bonhoeffer raises a legitimate question.  I think that we dismiss it at our peril.  It must be faced head-on.  It is real.


The position historically held to by the “so-called” peace churches (the tradition in which I was formerly an ordained minister), is reductionistic.  Realizing the stance of the apostolic church as a whole, the tendency is to simply make a clear break between “the world” and “the church.”  Christians do not live in the world.  But in this, they are, at best, inconsistent, for they make use of the benefits and protection provided by the world.  They are selectively not of the world.  It was a satisfactory answer for me once, it is not now.  I am compelled to ask the question of Bonhoeffer, Is force, even deadly force, always wrong? 

Honestly, I am not sure.  It is clear that Romans 12 and 13 make a clear case for force in the world and even speak of the state’s police action as a “service to God.”  Yet at the same time, Paul is quick to call Christians to a higher standard of love.  The reality of it all, I think, is that the entire issue is not sufficiently clear for this to become a measure of spirituality.

I do think that it is clear enough that, for a Christian, the normal way is to reject violence.  It seems that Augustine was struggling with Bonhoeffer’s question, at least to some degree.  What do you do when Christians are in a position to make political/geopolitical decisions?  Do you “hand the world over to the devil?”  Or do you attempt to make a difference?  And what if, in calling for justice, those held accountable don’t particularly want to be held accountable (and they don’t)?  Does a Christian just leave it up to unbelievers to hold the unjust accountable for their decisions?  We see in the just war criteria a struggle between an older position, and an attempt to retain that moral high ground while acknowledging that the world, and the position of Christians does change.


What then?  Do I declare that Augustine really is right and that the Apostolic Fathers, made a grave mistake?  My understanding of the authority of Christ and the church does not allow me to do that.  Yet, there is a path, a road, taken by many sincere fundamentalist believers summed-up well on the bumper sticker, “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it!”  That is simply too simplistic, not to mention the presumption and pride that is involved in such a position.  Strange, but the two views, that represented by the Christian pacifist as well as that represented by those of the Christian right, are in this respect, virtually identical.  They are unyielding, unbendable, and fairly condemning of those who disagree.

The measure of this decision must certainly be love.  The position represented at length above certainly sounds like love.  It looks like love.  It appears to be love.  But is it?  Is always arriving at the pacifist conclusion love?  Is Bonhoeffer’s question telling because somehow it reveals a profound lack of love in the very absolutism of a position that appears to be nothing if not loving; a “giving-in” to evil and all that that entails?  This is an enigmatic quote from Bonhoeffer, hard to square with his words in The Cost of Discipleship:

The destruction of the life of another may be undertaken only on the basis of an unconditional necessity; when this necessity is present, then the killing must be performed, no matter how numerous or how good the reasons which weigh against it.  (Ethics, Translated from the German Ethik. New York: Touchstone, 1995, p. 159.)

I will say that I stand by the usefulness of Augustine’s test as a starting place.  If a Christian makes a choice to resort to arms, that decision needs to be addressed from the vantage point of the eight dimensions Augustine calls us to investigate:  Is there just cause?  Is the intention right (upright)?  Is this the last resort in dealing with evil?  Is there no other way?  Is the action taken personal, or is it declared by a competent (please note the word) authority?  In view of the cost of suffering and death on all sides, is there a real probability of success?  Are the goals proportional?  In other words, is the goal pursued really worth the cost involved?  Are the means proportional?  Is “carpet bombing,” the use of biological agents, the possible escalation to a nuclear exchange, the use of terrorism (surely the US doesn’t engage in terrorism, or support terrorist regimes!), acceptable now or ever?  Does the action discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, or perhaps even between the innocent and the evil?  Is someone from the enemy camp automatically evil?  Is it that simple?

As has been stated, these guidelines were predicated on the notion that a view more closely akin to pacifism is the normative stance for Christians.  Augustine and those who have truly followed in his footsteps have recognized that a resort to arms is a strange position for a believer.  It is shaky ground.

It is obvious that one would be hard pressed to “find a conflict” that satisfies the eight criteria laid down by Augustine and the Post Apostolic Fathers.  I am certain that, I have not encountered any of the conflicts that our country has been involved in during my nearly fifty years of life that fully meet these criteria in any real sense.  And there is always the entire issue of escalation.  That is very real.  Certainly, the notion of a Christian “career soldier” who leaves the evaluation of the situation up to the “competent (we hope) authority” is called into question.  As a national policy, there must be a place for selective conscientious objection.


Is this analysis likely to be very satisfying to those who read it?  I doubt that!  All it really does is raise questions.  I was so very certain that all and any use of force was sin- pure and simple- that I just knew that I would never use deadly force to protect anything or anyone.  Not my country, my wife, my child, or, certainly, myself.  That was just the cost of discipleship.  The price of following Jesus was high and the issue of utility was not a question I had the right to address. 

Thankfully, I never had to face those issues.  In all honesty, they may have been clear to me in a clinical, detached, theoretical sense.  But, would I really have sacrificed my wife or my child on an altar of evil without doing all within my power to rescue them; even if that meant resorting to deadly force?  I don’t think that I could have pulled it off.  I do not think that God would have expected me to pay that price.  Maybe I could and would pay it in terms of self, but I am not at all sure that the godly way would be to pay it in relation to the innocent.

I guess that I am compelled to leave it where Bonhoeffer got stuck.   I find myself stuck exactly the same place.  Yes, war would seem very wrong.  Yes, violence does not offer any real hope of solving the problem of evil in any lasting sense.  Yes, Christ did clearly teach nonviolence.  But Christ bases his Kingdom on justice.  Loving, reconciling justice to be sure, but justice nonetheless.  What if one, a few, some could die and many, a few, one be saved? 

Bonhoeffer speaks of the church that may fall victim to what it most abhors,  The church may way find itself called  "not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself."   In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer comes to rather messy, unsanitized conclusion.  He states, "Ultimately, it is better to do evil than to be evil." 

I do not have the answer.  Maybe it is just me, but I’m not sure that I ever will.  Martin Luther King Jr. once advised: "If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and non-violence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer." Is this, then, the advice Christ would offer?  It is profound advice, yet it seems to smack of a time, long ago, when there was no prophet, and “everyone did what was right in his/her own eyes.”  Can we afford the luxury of living without clear direction?  Is there not a danger in what must certainly be defined as a functional situational ethic?  Is not Bonhoeffer living in the shifting sand of worldly relativism?  I can certainly say that I do not like the notion and find it frighteningly unpalatable.  Plainly stated, I do not like Bonhoeffer’s question.  Plainly stated, I never have walked in Bonhoeffer’s place!  If his answer is ever clear, easy, and apparent to me, I will be forced to ask how I could possibly be so caviler in dealing with something as precious as life—anyone’s life.  Yet, I think I must entertain the question.

James Alexander is a professor at Kentucky Wesleyan College and an ordained Cumberland Presbyterian Minister.

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