Should Christians Participate in “Just War”?

Welcome back.  Hopefully all of you local Seattle dwellers survived the massive heat-wave this week.  Now that it has cooled off a bit, we’ll get back to our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence”.

Today, I want to welcome another guest blogger.  His name is Dr. Gregory Boyd.


Dr. Gregory Boyd

Greg Boyd received his Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1988), his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1982) and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1979).

He was a professor of theology for 16 years at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) and he is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-church in St. Paul, MN.  (for full bio, click here)

Greg is also the author of numerous books, my favorite of which are:

“The Myth of a Christian Nation”

“The Myth of a Christian Religion”

“Satan & the Problem of Evil”

“Letter from a Skeptic”

Dr. Boyd is one of my favorite “thinkers” and writers and though I have mentioned his books on this blog before, I cannot stress enough how highly I recommend the books listed above.   Boyd gives incredible “legs” and voice to this and many other conversations from a well-respected and scholarly perspective.

I asked Dr. Boyd to contribute to this discussion on non-violence and he gave me permission to share this essay that he wrote regarding the question: “Does following Jesus rule out serving in the military if a war is just?”


Jesus and Military People

Some soldiers responded to the preaching of John the Baptist by asking him what they should do.  John gave them some ethical instruction, but, interestingly enough, he didn’t tell them to leave the army (Lk 3:12-13).  So too, Jesus praised the faith of a Centurion and healed his servant while not saying a word about the Centurion’s occupation (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10).

Christian-Air-Force-eAnother Centurion acknowledged Christ as the Son of God at the cross (Mk 15:39) without any negative comment being made about his military involvement. And the first Gentile to receive the Good News of the Gospel was a centurion described as a God-fearing man (Acts 10:22, 34-35).  Clearly none of these texts endorse military involvement.  But just as clearly, they don’t condemn it.  For these and other reasons, most American Christians accept that the New Testament does not forbid serving in the military.

While I respect that people will have differing convictions about this, I must confess that I myself find it impossible to reconcile Jesus’ teaching (and the teaching of the whole New Testament) concerning our call to love our enemies and never return evil with evil with the choice to serve (or not resist being drafted) in the armed forces in a capacity that might require killing someone.

The above cited texts show that the Gospel can reach people who serve in the military.  They also reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus and the earliest Christians gave military personal “space,” as it were, to work out the implications of their faith vis-à-vis their military service.  But I don’t see that they warrant making military service, as a matter of principle, an exception to the New Testament’s teaching that kingdom people are to never return evil with evil.

What About “Just Wars”?

The traditional response to the tension between the New Testament’s teaching and taking up arms to defend one’s country is to argue that fighting in the military is permissible if one’s military is fighting a “just war.”  As time honored as this traditional position is, I’m not at all convinced it is adequate.

For one thing, why should kingdom people assume that considerations of whether violence is “justified” or not have any relevance to whether a kingdom person engages in violence?  Jesus is our Lord, not a human-constructed notion of justice.  And neither Jesus nor any other New Testament author ever qualified their prohibitions on the use of violence.  As George Zabelka remarked, the just war theory is “something that Christ never taught or even hinted at.” (1) We are not to resist evildoers or return evil with evil – period.  We are to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who persecute us, pray for themythofachristiannationpeople who mistreat us and return evil with good – period.  On what grounds can someone insert into this clear, unqualified teaching the massive exception clause – “unless violence is ‘justified’”?

Many have argued that such grounds are found in Romans 13.  Since Paul in this passage grants that the authority of government ultimately comes from God and that God uses it to punish wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-5), it seems permissible for Christians to participate in this violent activity, they argue, at least when the Christian is sure it is “just.”  The argument is strained on several accounts, however.

First, while Paul encourages Christians to be subject to whatever sword-wielding authorities they find themselves under, nothing in this passage suggests the Christians should participate in the government’s sword wielding activity.

Second, Romans 13 must be read as a continuation of Romans 12 in which Paul tells disciples to (among other things) “bless those who persecute you”( vs. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (vs. 17); and especially “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vs. 19).  Leaving vengeance to God, we are to instead feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty (vs. 20).  Instead of being “overcome by evil,” we are to “overcome evil with good” (vs. 21).

Now, in the next several verses, Paul specifies that sword-wielding authorities are one means by which God executes vengeance (13:4).  Since this is the very same vengeance disciples were just forbidden to exercise (12:19, ekdikeo) it seems to follow, as Yoder argues, that the “vengeance” that is recognized as being within providential control when exercised by government is the same “vengeance” that Christians are told not to exercise. (2)

In other words, we may acknowledge that in certain circumstances authorities carry out a good function in wielding the sword against wrongdoers, but that doesn’t mean people who are committed to following Jesus should participate in it.  Rather, it seems we are to leave such matters to God, who uses sword-wielding authorities to carry out his will in society.

How do we know when a war “just”?

Thirdly, even if one concludes that a follower of Jesus may participate in violence if it is “just,” we have to wonder how a kingdom person could confidently determine whether a war is “just” or not.  Few battles have been fought in which both sides didn’t believe their violence was “justified.”  The reality is that the criteria one uses to determine what is and is not “just” is largely a function of where one is born and how one is raised. How much confidence should a kingdom of God citizen place in that?

can-we-talkFor example, unlike most other people groups throughout history and yet today, modern Americans tend to view personal and political freedom as an important criteria to help determine whether a war is “just” or not.  We kill and die for our freedom and the freedom of others.  But why should a kingdom person think killing for this reason is a legitimate exception to the New Testament’s command to love and bless enemies?  Can they be certain God holds this opinion?

Of course it seems obvious to most Americans that killing to defend and promote freedom is justified, but fundamental aspects of one’s culture always seem obviously right to people embedded in the culture.  This criterion certainly hasn’t been obvious to most people throughout history, including most Christians throughout history.  And it’s “obviously” wrong to many non-Americans — including Christians — around the globe today.  Even more importantly, it certainly isn’t obvious in Scripture.  In this light, kingdom people in all countries need to seriously examine the extent to which the ideal that leads them to think a war is or is not “just” is the result of their own cultural conditioning.

Assessing this is no easy matter.  It helps to be mindful of the fact that the person you may end up killing in war probably believes, as strongly as you, that they are also fighting for a “just” cause.  It also helps to consider the possibility that they are disciples of Jesus just like you, perhaps even mistakenly thinking their cause is a function of their discipleship just as some American soldiers believe.  You have to believe that all of their thinking is merely the result of their cultural conditioning — for you obviously believe they’re wrong to the point of being willing to kill them — while also being convinced that your own thinking is not the result of cultural conditioning.  Can you be absolutely sure of this?  Your fidelity to the kingdom of God, your life and the lives of others are on the line.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that political freedom is a just cause worth killing and dying for.  This doesn’t yet settle the matter for a kingdom person contemplating enlisting in war (or not resisting being drafted into war), for one has to further appreciate that there are many other variables alongside the central criterion of justice that affect whether or not a particular war is “just.”

Do you know – can you know – the myriad of personal, social, political and historical factors that have led to any particular conflict and that bear upon whether or not it is “justified?”

Misc+209For example, do you truly understand all the reasons your enemy gives for going to war against your nation, and are you certain they are altogether illegitimate?  Are you certain your government has sought out all possible non-violent means of resolving the conflict before deciding to take up arms?  Are you certain the information you’ve been given about a war is complete, accurate and objective?  Do you know the real motivation of the leaders who will be commanding you to kill or be killed for “the cause” (as opposed to what the national propaganda may have communicated)?  Are you certain that the ultimate motivation isn’t financial or political gain for certain people in high places?  Are you certain that the war isn’t in part motivated by personal grievances and/or isn’t being done simply to support or advance the already extravagant lifestyle of most Americans?

Given what we know about the corrupting influence of demonic powers in all nations, and given what we know about how the American government (like all other governments) has at times mislead the public about what was “really” going on in the past (e.g. the Vietnam war), these questions must be wrestled with seriously.

Yet, even these questions do not resolve the issue for a kingdom person, for a kingdom person must know not only that a war is “justified” but that each and every particular battle they fight, and the loss of each and every life they may snuff out, is justified.  However “justified” a war may be, commanders often make poor decisions about particular battles they engage in that are not “just” and that gratuitously waste innocent lives.  While militaries sometimes take actions against officers who have their troops engage in unnecessary violence, the possibility (and even inevitability) of such unjust activity is typically considered “acceptable risk” so long as the overall war is “just.”  But on what grounds should a person who places loyalty to Jesus over their commander accept this reasoning?

myth of a christian religion

"Myth of a Christian Religion"

The fact that a war was “justified” means nothing to the innocent lives that are wasted, and the question is: How can a kingdom person be certain in each instance that they are not participating in the unnecessary and unjust shedding of innocent blood?  It’s questionable enough that a follower of Jesus would kill their national enemy rather than bless them simply because it’s in the interest of their nation for them to do so.  But what are we to think of the possibility that a follower of Jesus would kill someone who is not an enemy simply because someone higher in rank told them to?

The tragic reality is that most people contemplating entering the armed forces (or contemplating not refusing the draft), whether they be American or (say) Iraqi, North Korean or Chinese, don’t seriously ask these sorts of questions.  Out of their cultural conditioning, most simply assume their authorities are trustworthy, that their cause is “justified,” and that each person they are told to kill is a justified killing.  They unquestioningly believe the propaganda and obey the commands they’re given.

Throughout history, soldiers have for the most part been the unquestioning pawns of ambitious, egotistical rulers and obedient executors of their superior’s commands.  They were hired assassins who killed because someone told them to and their cultural conditioning made it “obvious” to them that it was a good and noble thing to do.  So it has been for ages, and so it will be so long as people and nations operate out of their own self-interest.

The Kingdom Alternative

But there is an alternative to this ceaseless, bloody, merry-go-round: it is the kingdom of God.  To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence.  To belong to this revolutionary kingdom is to purge your heart of “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (Eph 4:31)—however “justified” and understandable these sentiments might be.

To belong to this counter-kingdom is to “live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Eph 5:1-2). It is to live the life of Jesus Christ, the life that manifests the truth that it is better to serve than to be served, and better to die than to kill.  It is, therefore, to opt out of the kingdom-of-the-world war machine and manifest a radically different, beautiful, loving way of life.  To refuse to kill for patriotic reasons is to show “we actually take our identity in Christ more seriously than our identity with the empire, the nation-state, or the ethnic terror cell whence we come,” as Lee Camp says.

Hence, while I respect the sincerity and courage of Christians who may disagree with me and feel it their duty to defend their country with violence, I myself honestly see no way to condone a Christian’s decision to kill on behalf of any country.



(1) G. Zebelka, “I Was Told It Was Necessary,” [Interview] Sojourners, 9/8/80, p.14.

(2) J. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 1994 [1972]), 198. See also Hays, Moral Vision, 320-31.

Further Reading

Beller, K. H. Chase, Great Peacemakers (LTS 2008)

Brimlow, R. What About Hitler? (Brazos, 2006)

Eller, V. War & Peace (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1981])

Roth, J. Choosing Against War (GoodBooks, 2002)

Trocme, A. Jesus and the NonViolent Revolution (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1973])

Trznya, T. Blessed are the Pacifists (Herald, 2006)


4 thoughts on “Should Christians Participate in “Just War”?

  1. WOW… letters from a skeptic had such sound apologetics in it! I must say respectfully, this piece lacks the same sound logic. Although I must hate violence as a course of action for ones self.. I must look at GODs heart and the bigger picture to appreciate an extended view. The first time God dealt with rebellion it ended with a great WAR in heaven. The second time he dealt with rebellion was booting man out of fellowship with Himself and to curse the entire creation. The 3rd time was to nearly destroy every human being in a flood. The 4th was when God was establishing His chosen nation by plague on Egypt and destroying military and children. The 5th was when he established their land by having them commit genocide. When Christ came to earth this mission was a War in the spiritual realm for sure BUT in the future we will be by his side as the WAR will again be physical and spiritual! We are men that God put a wild heart into. That wild heart can succomb to fear or it can choose to fear God alone! One must ask why did God intervene in the military(like in Egypt) during the founding of our country with obvious fantastic miracles?? And then blessed the courses they took for decades after? Lastly…….. all those versus that are repeatedly quoted… love your enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who persecute you, overcome evil with good….. they all PLAINLY are referring to someone personally. Ex: if your neighbor throws garbage on your lawn because you profess Christ. OR if you are slandered or anything for the sake of Christ. BUT you are forgetting verses like… what is true love that one lays down his life for another! What is the ultimate sacrafice…… to save your family and friends, even if that means you die. And how are you put in harms way?? Not by running away obviously! It is plain to see that Jesus taught humility, submission, gentleness… those are throughout the WHOLE BIBLE (Is 66:2/Micah 6:8) BUT .. the ENTIRE BIBLE also shows plainly Gods heart… He “is” a warrior(He fought to save us). And as J. Eldredge puts it… a mans heart is wild and the hope of protection and honor is deeply imprinted by our God on that heart and one day I will fight alongside my Savior in final victory! In the meantime if Im persecuted I will pray, if slandered I will bow humbly, if threatened for my Lords sake and glory??? I will gladly burn on the stake. But if an intruder randomly trys to steal my daughter to sell in sex trade or worse….. I will pull the trigger unflinchingly. I love all you my dear brothers and would lay down my life for you all! It is equally my duty to pray for my brothers… infact the Bible calls it a sin against God if I dont not pray for my brothers… so may God shine His glory within each of your hearts!

    • Hey, Tim: Thanks again for another great comment. Sorry, I didn’t respond quicker but I’ve been out of town quite a bit lately.

      In response: I think the first half of your comment is mistakenly assuming that this conversation is about whether God HImself ever employs “violent” tactics rather than whether humans should. It would seem that God (either in some sort of spiritual warfare–and whatever that looks like–or in a physical way) has the prerogative to engage in violence. Whether this is how he actually works is debatable, but this discussion is more focused on what the human Jesus-follower is commanded to do. It assumes that there are many things that God has authority to do that humans do not.

      Another mistaken assumption in this conversation (that many have made) is that committing to Jesus’ way of non-violence means living a life of passivity in the face of evil. Choosing to live by the Kingdom value of non-violence does not mean that you do NOTHING when surrounded by evil. It simply means that you have limits on how far you will go to respond and TRUST God to handle the rest. It means that you will be creative in “how” you respond. Jesus was not passive. He was quite forceful. But he was also creatively peaceful. We are called to the same.

      This, incidentally is the context of the verse of “laying down your life for your friends.” This statement does not mean fighting and killing for someone, but being willing TO BE KILLED for someone (at least it does as Jesus was referring to Himself in this statement). It is, in the way Jesus meant it, a fantastic statement about non-violence and Jesus’ commitment to it.

      Again, non-violence does not mean doing NOTHING. I am willing, like Jesus, to do SOMETHING. Even if that something means laying down my life for someone else. There are many things that I am willing to die for. That doesn’t mean I am willing to “kill” for them.

      But alas, we are getting into the next post. WE are gonna cover some of this over the last two posts.

      Have a great rest of the summer!

  2. I’m afraid I can’t follow Dr. Boyd here. He acknowledges that Romans 13 allows the government to use violence where necessary to deal with evildoers. But he says Christians should not participate in that violence.

    The only thing I can think of this is…hypocrite. Sorry! “Non-Christians can kill and it’s okay, but it’s not okay for Christians.” That’s a double standard.

    My objection really goes deeper than this. Dr. Boyd dismisses the idea of “just war” basically by saying that you never can really know when the violent action you’re being asked to take is really justified — vs. being the pawn of greedy, selfish commanders or politicians.

    True. But, you could say the same thing about pretty much everything else, especially when under stress. Which of us parents hasn’t scolded our child…and then been humbled when we realized they weren’t at fault, or we had an unrealistic expectation, etc.? Dr. Boyd assumes that non-violence lends us some sort of wisdom and really perfection which violence robs us of. But the facts don’t bear this out.

    The real fact is that life is messy. It’s not just war or violence that makes us wonder, “Did I do the right thing?” Come on, people, we just celebrated Mother’s Day. What’s the #1 fear/concern of most all moms? “Did I do enough? Did I do the right thing by my kids/husband?” (Fathers have much the same concerns.)

    The bottom line of being kingdom people, I say, isn’t a “principle” like non-violence, it’s the absoluteness of forgiveness. The only thing that makes parenting bearable – once you compare yourself with the righteousness of God, which demands not “pretty good” but “perfectly good” – is the even more real fact that God forgives. Ditto for soldiering or being a government bureaucrat or anything. In the end, we’re all beggars, beggars for grace.

    This does not excuse sloppy beligerence. But it does give the Christian confidence that he can wade neck-deep and beyond into the messiness of life, and come out okay, not okay by virtue of his performance, but by virtue of Christ’s performance.

    Boyd sets up a straw man when he dismisses soldiering as beneath a Christian. He needs to hold up the mirror a little more closely to himself and to the roles and careers of his congregants. And he needs to rely on grace. So do we all, Kyrie eleison!

    Full disclaimer: I am a military chaplain. Sure I’ve got a vested interest. But I also am the guy who looks at soldiers in the eye and applies God’s grace to the wounds of war. I practice what I preach here.

  3. I wouldn’t really expect a person with degrees from Princeton & Yale “religious” institutions to see it any other way. I guess Nehemiah should not have directed people to stand guard with weapons when they were rebuilding their city boundaries because such an act certainly held a potential for physical violence against any attackers.

    Sometimes, violence is necessary. Neither Hirohito nor Hitler would have been willing to just sit down and talk things over to resolve their differences with us. Some human beings are like beasts who cannot be reasoned with, and I cannot believe that Jesus would have a “blanket policy” in His will for my life to simply submit to such evil without fighting back with everything I have.

    Sometimes, evil has to be confronted and fought, and sometimes that can involve taking a life, to save another’s life.

    I say this as a former Marine and Dallas Seminary graduate.

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