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Should Christians Bear Arms?

Doesn’t the Bible teach that it’s wrong to kill? Why then do Christians bear arms?  This question came from a middle schooler in my church.  His teacher contacted me to help answer the question, since I’ve been a pastor most of my life, and served as a combatant in Vietnam.  Tomorrow morning I’ll be meeting with her class, and I’ll be taking with me a Quaker friend, since Quakers (or, Friends as they more often call themselves) have been stalwart pacifists since George Fox, founded their movement in England in the mid 1600s.

It will help me prepare for that class to write this article, laying out the gist of my reply.

First of all, the student is right.  The Bible does teach that killing is wrong.  The best known instance of a prohibition of killing occurs in the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”   (Exodus 20:13).  Some have argued that this commandment means “Thou shalt not murder,” and that killing the enemy in an armed conflict is not murder.  Well, be that as it may, for Christians there is an even stronger prohibition against killing , because it comes from the mouth of Jesus, and explicitly addresses behavior toward enemies:  “For those who can listen, I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6: 27-28).

Jesus did not mention killing enemies, but it’s hard to see how loving one’s enemies could ever include killing them; and killing enemies is the principle objective of any combatant’s military training.  So, it seems we’re well on our way to answering the student’s question.  But, let’s not settle the issue too quickly.

An expert in Christian history, Roland Bainton, contends in his classic book, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, that before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians did not bear arms.  They were pacifists, obeying Jesus’s teaching to love their enemies.  However, when the emperor made Christianity the official imperial religion things began to change.  Not all at once, but slowly, Christians began to take up arms to defend the empire, for an attack upon it seemed to threaten their religion, not just themselves.

Of course, not all wars are fought in self-defense.  Indeed, perhaps when motives are carefully scrutinized, few are.  For instance, some Christians were willing to bear arms to defend their faith, but not to grab land.  Citizens realized that some wars are just, and some not.  Eventually the Roman Catholic church developed a Just War Theory to define the criteria by which one could determine whether waging a war against an aggressor would be just or not.  Briefly here are the criteria:

  • Grave and lasting damage awaits: one must be certain that the damage that would be inflicted by the aggressor on a nation or community of nations would be grave and lasting;
  • War is the last resort: all other means of putting an end to the aggression have been proven impractical or ineffective.
  • Prospects for the war succeeding must be good.
  • Disproportionate force must not be used. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction, especially atomic weapons, weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These criteria pertain to deciding whether it is just to go to war against an aggressor.  They are labled Jus ad bellum criteria.  There is another set of criteria for deciding what means are permissible for fighting a war once it is underway. These are called Jus in bello criteria. At this point just war theory becomes too complicated for my Sunday school class, but I refer curious readers to the Wikipedia article for further details.

Now, for some final remarks about why I voluntarily enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves in the late sixties, and why I, an earnest Christian, obeyed orders to serve as a military advisor to the South Vietnamese Navy; and finally, how my thinking evolved as a result of my war experience in 1970.

I enlisted as a freshman in college following the attempt of the Soviet Union to set up long range missiles in Cuba which could have struck cities in the United States.  That event aroused in me a patriotism and and a determination to help defend my country in the same way that the destruction of the twin towers sent many a young American to the recruiting office.  A couple years after I finished officer training, because of my ability with languages I was sent to counterinsurgency school, where I learned some Vietnamese and received small arms training.  In 1970 I patrolled the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta, living with my South Vietnamese counterparts and a small team of American advisors.

By 1970 the American people had turned against the war, and my own commitment to it was flagging.  I had not yet discovered that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to gain U.S. legislators’ support for sending large numbers of troops to Vietnam, was a hoax.  On the basis of my field experience, though, I was coming to realize that the South Vietnamese sailors I was advising were not much committed to fighting. Advisor morale was flagging.  Among the advisors there were a few John Wayne types who actually enjoyed the excitement of war, but most of us didn’t want to die for a cause to which most locals were not committed.  So, we were not as aggressive in our patrolling as we might have been.  However, to survive we had to stay on the offensive somewhat, because we decreased the probability of our base being attacked by keeping the Viet Cong from controlling our area (as they once had, before Admiral Zumwalt’s pacification strategy turned the tables.)

I had studied philosophy before my Vietnam experience, and was particularly interested in ethics.  I came to realize that it is only before entering war that one has the freedom to say yes or no to fighting.  Once one is in the fray, one cannot afford not to fight.  Survival requires that one at least attempt to kill, or else, be killed.  This was not so in wars where large units lined up against each other, and the individual soldier, out of sight of his commanding officer, could decide whether to shoot or not.  I’ve learned that in fact there were many soldiers in the Civil War who did not shoot, and surprising numbers in later wars too.  But in shall units in guerrilla warfare one doesn’t have this privilege.  One’s only defense is offense. Kill the small bands of hunters who hunt you, or be killed.

So, war is very nasty business, not noble at all, something no one in his right mind would want to enter into.  I feel blessed to have survived Vietnam, and I’ve spent my life since trying to be a peacemaker, reading, sharpening my understanding of why we get into wars in the first place.  I’ve formed the opinion that although the ordinary citizen sees national wars as policing responses to aggression, in fact most have been fought because wealthy people want to grab more land and precious natural resources, or hold onto what they already have.  The little guy doesn’t know what goes on in the smokey back rooms, and he charges ahead for battle, convinced that his nation’s cause is righteous and just.  I know, of course, that every once in a while a nation does need to wage war to quell aggression.  There is still need for policing using military might.  I am not a pacifist.  But I am much more suspicious of my nation’s reasons for making war, and most nations’ reasons.  I would rather see a strong United Nations policing force, and a strong international court to judge whether causes are just or not.  Unfortunately, most nations do not want to surrender sovereignty to an international force.  Reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society convinced me of the insidiousness of nationalism, and the way that ordinary citizens are duped into believing that their welfare, material and spiritual, depends utterly on their nation’s victory.

Since my Vietnam experience I’ve hung out a lot with Quakers.  I admire these gentle and resolute people who since their beginning have been committed to the deep love ethic of Jesus.   I spend a lot of time with them seeking to be enriched by their spirit, and lending strength to the voices that counterbalance the insatiable appetites of nations, and now alas, corporations.

Well, that’s enough for this post.  Let’s hear your comments!


  1. I generally agree with you on your conclusions about wars having hidden motives, and that nationalism can be very insidious, in particular the conviction of many Americans that unless we are the strongest nation on earth civilization is doomed. I am glad you included what Jesus said about His followers being called to love our enemies.

    I’ve given up on the idea of a just war. Ambiguity and brutality hover over evey war. I do think some wars are necessary, although they are a small percentage of the wars fought.

    However, I think Bainton is not completely right about all Christians being pacifists before Constantine. Some members of the Roman legions were converted to Christianity and continued to serve. Some of these were targeting during times of persecution. It may well be true that people who were already Christians did not then join the Roman army.

    Be that as it may, Constantine’s making Christianity a state religion certainly changed the nature of Christianity in many ways, usually away from the teachings of Jesus. Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament, give no real guidance about how Christians should conduct the business of government in case they became the ones in charge. I don’t think the idea ocurred to them.

  2. admin admin

    The just war theory is difficult to use anymore because the power of weaponry has made the proportionality-of- force criterion hard to meet, and also because many wars these days are counterinsurgency ones, which complicates the application of the old criteria and perhaps require new ones altogether.

    Thanks for your comments on Bainton’s book. It has been many years since I read it, and my recollection of his comments about the very early Christian history may not be accurate.

  3. Brian Brian

    When people ask me if a Christian can defend himself physically, such as bearing arms, I always point to the ultimate source, Jesus. When He was leaving the Last Supper with His disciples, He actually asked them how many swords they had, to which they replied, “We have two.” Acknowledging the fact, Jesus said that those two swords would be a enough. And, of course, we all know that His disciples were armed, because one of them cut off the ear of a soldier later that very same evening. What does this tell us? I suppose, that we live in a world in which not all people are peace lovers, spiritual, or God-centered. And when these people decide to take our lives, we have a right to say that we would prefer to continue to live.
    From there, however, it is a slippery slope, as even Jesus had to rebuke His disciple for applying his sword at the wrong time. There is a time and place for all things.

  4. citadelbob citadelbob

    No. Don’t bear arms. Here’s why: When you become a Christian you have a new life. You are no longer English. American, Afgani, Spanish, German. You now belong to the a new kingdom/Realm. The kingdom of God. And in this kingdom, no nationalities are recognised. You are however, in a war. And it’s a spiritual one not a flesh and blood one. So: If your nation is threatened what do you do? Answer: It’s not your nation. However, you might like to help anyone that God places in your path. It might even be the so called enemy. With a drink, or a meal. Of course …you’ll be hung for it….perhaps by those who call themselves christians. ..So: What if your friend is about to be killed for his belief? Should you kill those who wish to kill your friend, and thus save his/her life? No. But you might suggest that they kill you instead. Of course they’ll kill you both. But consider this: Stephen was killed, stoned to death…..God knew he would be, and allowed evil men to do it. But then there was an explosion of growth through persecution. Remember this. As Paul said. To live is christ, to die is gain. Was he just high when he said this? Or are we to consider ourselves as offerings ready to be poured out for God’s purposes?Don’t worry tho if you have taken up arms and killed. Hey, we’ve all done stuff right?…But like Israel,wondering through the desert for 40 years….God’s looking for a people to take hold of the promises……Can we be those people?

  5. […] Should Christians Bear Arms? » Interfaith ReflectionsJan 8, 2011 … Why then do Christians bear arms? This question came from a middle schooler in my church. His teacher contacted me to help answer the … […]

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