Jesus said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:43). He also said that if someone strikes us, we should turn the other cheek. These statement raises some important questions. Can Christians participate in warfare? Can a Christian defend themselves, if they are attacked? Can a Christian community defend against an external attack?

My view is that defence is justified in a limited range of situations. Pacifism is not a realistic option, as community leaders cannot always turn the other cheek.

Defending of my Household

Biblical law provides a foundation for a doctrine of defence, albeit a very limited one. The starting point is Exodus 22:2.

If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed

Several things follow from this law.

  1. A person is entitled to protect his property from someone who wants to steal it.

  2. We have a responsibility to protect and defend the lives of our family and other members of our household.

  3. The use of force is sometimes legitimate, if I am protecting my home from a thief or intruder.

  4. The force must always be minimal. If darkness prevents me from seeing the intruder, I may need to strike him to protect my family. That is legitimate. However, during the day the use of force must be reduced. I should be able to get some friends to assist me in apprehending the intruder, so I will have no need to strike him.

  5. My friends and neighbours have a moral obligation to assist me in defending my house, because this can reduce the intensity of force that is needed. However, I cannot force them to assist me.

  6. This verse does not authorise Christians to use guns. Guns increase the likelihood of someone being killed, whereas a Christian is required to minimise the likelihood of serious harm. A mans defence of his households should be done with less dangerous weapons.

We can conclude from these points that a Christian is justified in defending their household from attack. A Christian is justified in protecting their family from attack. If a man sees his wife or children being attacked by someone evil, he should act immediately to protect them from evil. He should only use sufficient force to set them free.

If several people are engaged in the attack, one man on his own may not be able to do much. Bullies usually ensure that they have sufficient support to dominate those whom they attack. Calling on the assistance of friends and neighbours is wise, because it reduces the intensity of force required to end the evil. Bullies usually run away, when they are faced by overwhelming numbers.

Defending a Local Community

An individual is justified in defending his household from an external attack. The problem is that if a gang of thieves is marauding a city, it will be too late to respond when they arrive at my gate, or on my neighbour's section. I will not be able to stop them from entering my house or my neighbour's house.

The best way to protect our families and our property might be for the people who live in out street too raise a barrier at the entrance to our street and prevent the marauding gang from entering the street. We could take turns at guarding the entrance. If the marauding gang was a long term problem, we might put up a permanent gate and employ a security guard to turn away unwelcome people.

These efforts should be voluntary. I cannot force my neighbours to join in defending our community. I cannot force them to pay for the cost of the security guard. However, I suspect that most would see the benefit and be willing to share the cost of protecting our community. Free loaders should not be seen as a problem, but as an opportunity for Christian generosity.

Defending a City or Town

If a mighty army is marching toward the town or city in which I live, it will be too late when they arrive at the entrance to our street. The fifty people who live in our street would be powerless to prevent them from entering our street. The best way to defend our community might be to join with others to prevent the army from getting close to the city.

Someone city might send out a message to all the communities that make up the city and invite them to come together to defend the city. They would not be able to force anyone to join them. However if they could get enough people to voluntarily join together, this might be sufficient to scare off the attacking army.

Gideon

The story of Gideon is a good example of temporary military leader calling together an army to defend his community.

Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them (Jud 6:33-35).

The community that Gideon lived in faced an external threat. Gideon called together a voluntary army to defend the region from attack. Several important points should be noted.

  1. The man who made the call was not a politician or king. Gideon had not political authority. The people responded to his call because he had proved himself to be a man of integrity and boldness in his local community (Jud 6:24-32). After he was successful, he turned down a role as permanent ruler (Jud 8:22-23).

  2. Gideon could see what was happening to his people and understood something was wrong. He was asking the tough questions and looking for solutions.

  3. And Gideon said to the angel, "Please, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds (Jud 6:13).

  4. Gideon did not act until the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. A visiting angel had previously informed him that he was called to this role.

    The LORD turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you" (Jud 6:14)?

    A community leader should not call the people together without a calling from the Lord.

  5. Gideon sounded the trumpet. A clear prophetic word is needed to call the people together to defend their communities. Gathering the people was a prophetic role.

  6. Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle (1 Cor 14:8)?

  7. Gideon only called on the four tribes that were immediately threatened by the invading army. He did not call all the twelve tribes, because they were not all affected by the threat.

  8. Gideon was not forming a defence alliance with other tribes. Defence alliances with other nations were forbidden by God (Is 31:1-3). Gideon was simply gathering together all those who were threatened.

  9. The people who gathered were not professional soldiers. They took up arms in response to the call to battle.

  10. The men who gathered together to defend their communities were volunteers. Gideon had no authority to force communities to send their young men to fight.

  11. Gideon did not worry about the free-rider problem. Those communities that did not join Gideon's army benefited from the defeat of the Midianites, even though they were unwilling to contribute to the army. Free riders are a fact of life. Fear of benefiting them should not prevent us from doing right.

Counting the Cost

Christian leaders should only attempt to defend their community, if they think they have a reasonable chance of success. Jesus said that leaders should sit down and consider whether they can match the army that is coming against them before deciding to engage in a battle.

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace (Luke 14:31-32).

If the threatening army is too strong, it would be better to send a delegation to ask for terms of peace even if this involves a loss of freedom.

Counting the cost of war is not just a matter of estimating how many soldiers will be lost. The full cost of the war should be counted. There are generally very few winners in war. The cost for the families of those who die is enormous. For the soldiers who survive the cost can also be high. Many will have injuries that blight their lives. Worse still, war has a desensitising effect on its participants, and good men can be drawn into doing great evil. They will have to live with there consciences. War is also an enormous waste of economic resources.

The principle in Jesus parable is very restrictive. War is only justified in the benefits are greater than the total cost. Most wars fail to deliver the hoped for benefits, so very problems can justify the cost of war. The more I read the history of war, the harder I find it to think of a situation serious enough to justify the enormous costs of war.

Defence will be Rare

Defence is rarely a practical option. Enemies with weaker military forces are unlikely to attack. (Some radical religious or political groups may be foolish enough to attack a stronger nation, but this will also be rare). The enemies that do threaten us will generally have an overwhelming superiority of forces, so an attempt at defence would be pointless. This means that there will be very few situations where a nation can defend itself against attack. War is justified if we are attacked by an army that is weaker than ours. If invaded by a stronger army, we would be better to surrender and sue for peace.

When the town of Jabesh Gilead were besieged by they Ammonites, the people of the town knew that they were not strong enough to resist. The elders decided to sue for peace.

The elders of Jabesh said to Nabash the Ammonite, "Give us seven days so we can send messengers throughout Israel; if no one comes to rescue us, we will surrender to you." (1 Sam 11:3).

This was a correct approach. Fighting against a vastly superior force is pointless. Calling for assistance from a larger community made sense. An army of 330 thousand gathered and the Ammonites were defeated.

The elders of Jabesh could not force the Israelites to come to their assistance. If no one had come, they would have had no choice but to surrender to a superior force. This would have been a sensible thing to have done.

God is the Best Defence

A community that trusts in God will be protected. God will be their defender, so they will rarely be called on to defend themselves against attack. This means that pastors and prophets who keep the people right with God are the best form of defence. Military leaders are only needed when this form of defence has failed.

Christians will find that armies have limited value. People who love God and obey his laws will generally be safe from attack, but those who turn away from God will be vulnerable to attack, no matter how large their military forces. An army that is trying to rescue people from an enemy that God has allowed to attack will be on a "hiding to nothing".

They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers. because they forsook him . In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress (Judges 2:12-15).

Military attack is a sign that a nation has slipped away from God. In that situation the most urgent need is not defence, but repentance and getting right with God. When the people call out to God, he will raise up a military leader to rescue them (Judges 2:16). Until he raises up a military leader, military activity will be a waste of energy.

God determines the "times set for the nations and the exact places where they should live" (Acts 17:26, cf Job 12:23, Deut 32:8). He is sovereign, so nothing happens by accident. If he allows an evil empire to invade our country, we should be careful about fighting against his purpose (Jer 27:5-8). Rather than resisting the invader, we should find out why God has stopped defending us, and put things right. Until we have made peace with God, defence is a wasted effort.

Political Freedom

Defending our political freedom should not be a high priority for Christians, because freedom is not an absolute value. Jesus has given us a freedom that cannot take away. Our freedom is "in Christ" so it does not depend on political rule or military power. We should protect our freedom if we can, but if a large invading force attacks, surrender will generally be a better option. Losing our freedom may be better than losing a large number of lives in an unsuccessful defence.

History proves that Christianity can survive in any environment. It was born in the hostile world of the Roman Empire. In our own time, Christianity has blossomed under the hostility of both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Christianity will never be dependent on winning a war for its survival or to protect our faith. If we cannot easily defend our community against an attack, we can surrender knowing that the church will survive. It might even grow stronger.

If a nation is invaded by another and this is not God's will, he will not allow the situation to last long. For example, after the Second World War, the Russian Empire took control of most of Eastern Europe. However, because this empire was contrary to God's will, it had collapsed within fifty years. If a nation is unable to defend itself, all is not lost; God will have his way in the end.

Problems with War

A community of people will sometimes be justified in defending themselves, but these situations will be rare. War will generally be the wrong option.

  1. War is only justified for defence. It should never be used to expand a nation's boundaries, or to take control of another nation, or to extract trade advantages. This is a fundamental principle. War should never be used to establish domination over another region or nation.

  2. A pre-emptive attack is never justified, because it will never be absolutely clear that a nation is going to attack. Christian leaders will always err on the side of peace.

  3. The idea of a Christian Holy War has no basis in God's word (Deut 7:1,2). The nation of Israel conquered and destroyed the Canaanite nations. This was only done after a specific and direct command from God. This was a special case where God had a specific purpose in terms of the salvation he planned for Israel. It is not an example that can be followed by Christians. We should not use war to win people for the gospel. (We should be honest and admit that the crusades were a mistake, however well-intentioned the crusaders may have been).

  4. A large "standing army" is not permitted (Deut 17:16; 1 Kings 10:26-29). An army that is constantly training for war is dangerous, because it will be tempted to find a situation where it can use its skills. A permanent military force will want to use war to solve all problems.

  5. Christian leaders should always seek God's will before going to war. Starting a war, because someone thinks it is right is being presumptuous (Deut 1:41-44). Presumption is a terrible sin. If the war does not have God's blessing, it will lead to disaster, even if the army is victorious.

  6. War cannot solve most of the problems between nations and ethnic groups. Most conflicts are the result of generations of injustice and dishonesty.

    He pursued his brother with a sword,
    stifling all compassion,
    because his anger raged continually
    and his fury flamed unchecked (Amos 1:10).

    These disputes cannot be resolved by war. They will only be resolved by repentance and restoration. War just adds another layer of anger and hatred, which will lead to another war in the future.

    Almost all conflicts between nations are the result of sin, so only the cross can resolve them. True peace can only be achieved through repentance and forgiveness.

  7. No nation has the authority to invade another nation to change its government (even if it is evil). A nation cannot even be invaded to establish democracy. Democracy must come from the hearts of the people; it cannot be enforced from the outside. Establishing democracy is not a justification for the cost of war.

    Attempts by the great powers to establish "better" governments in other nations have usually failed. The great powers either pick the wrong side to back or the backing of the great power corrupts the good side. The reason is that nothing can be done without spiritual warfare. If the spiritual forces that control the nation are not defeated, the new government will behave just like the government that was replaced.

  8. Prayer and preaching of the gospel can bring down an evil government from within. God determines the appointed times of the nations and the boundaries of rule (Acts 17:26). Christians should not use war to remove evil governments, but should leave that task to God. This makes wars against evil empires redundant. The gospel is a safer and more effective weapon against an evil, so removing an evil government does not justify war.

  9. Christians should never glorify war. We may sometimes have to fight to defend our families and communities, but war is never an ideal solution. We should be prepared for war, if it is attacked, but it should also hope that it would never have to fight. Christians throughout history have been too willing to go to war, for causes that were not justified.

  10. War is also dangerous, because it tends to corrupt everyone involved, including Christians. War is a blunt instrument. Human nature being what it is, waging war without descending into evil is almost impossible. Slipping into hatred and evil is easy. We end up trying to overcome evil with evil, which does not work (Rom 12:21). An evil enemy might be destroyed, but the winner of a war is usually morally weakened.

  11. War should always be the last resort. Before starting a war the civil leaders should try every means possible to obtain peace (Deut 20:10). We should never forget the horror of war. It is always costly in terms of human suffering. We should be we willing to give up a tremendous amount of what we have to avoid war.

    A wise nation will sometimes need to "turn the other cheek", because peace is more important than winning. In military disputes, nations often get into an escalating tit for tat of violence. One nation takes a limited action. The other hits back harder. A small problem quickly blows up into a crisis. These situations might be resolved quicker, if one nation chose not to retaliate in order to reduce the tension. Nations will should sometimes choose to "turn the other cheek" for the sake of peace.Christians are followers of the Prince of Peace. He was willing to pay a high price for peace, so if we are serious about following him, peace should be a high on our agenda.

The Bible recognises the horror of war. There are probably very few situations that would justify that cost, so war should be an extremely rare event. Almost all modern conflicts would fail to meet these conditions.

The Real Enemy

Our struggle is against principalities and powers (Eph 6:12). We should be attacking them, not people. We must not demonise people. People are on our side. They are fighting against the same enemy as us, but they just do not know it. If we are attacking people, we have lost track of our enemy.

Putting a bullet into an attacking soldier does not destroy his demons. They remain free to attack me.

Our real struggle is against principalities and power When we participate in a war, we stop fighting against the principalities and powers and start working with them, because they are the experts at killing, destroying and stealing (John 10:10).

We are called to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:24). God has promised that good will triumph in the end. We must be careful not to slip into believing that we can overcome evil with lesser evil, because lesser evil eventually corrupts the good.

War Rarely Works

I dislike war, because the benefits seldom outweigh the costs. The situations where war has positive benefits are extremely rare. Here are some of the possible options.

  1. When a large country is attacked by a small country, fighting to defend the large country does make sense, but this situation is very rare, as most small countries would not run the risk of getting a hiding by taking on a big one. (Georgia did not under stand this reality. A country that has a mini-empire as a near neighbour has its options really constrained. For Georgia, a war with Russia was bound to end in failure.)

  2. When a small country is attacked a big country, fighting is a waste of time, because the small country is going to get beaten anyway. The people might as well give up and seek the best possible terms for peace. Jesus talked about this situation (Luke 14:31-32).

  3. Sometimes a small country may persuade a powerful ally to help defend it against attack by a large country. This often does not work, as the powerful ally usually have its own agenda. The big country will only defend its smaller ally when it suits them. This was Georgia's problem too. The president of Georgia expected assistance from the United States, if Russia counterattacked. Unfortnately, Big George needed help from Russia to put pressure Iran, so he talked tough, but did not come to little Georgia's aid.

  4. A small country being attacked by another small country is about the only situation where war might work as collateral damage is likely to be limited, but if the two countries are evenly matched, the war might drag on with many casualties and no benefit.

  5. War between one empire and another empire never works. Two many nations and people get drawn in and the costs escalate without decisive result (The First World War was a good example of this situation).

Many politicians see war as just another policy option. War is not a policy option. War is a failure of the human spirit.

The Conduct of War

The principles outlined here allow a nation to defend itself, but there are very severe restrictions on which methods may be used.
  1. Before engaging in war, political leaders should negotiate with the leaders of the enemy forces. They should be made and offer of peace (Deut 20:10). Talk and more talk, should always precede war.

  2. The defence force should take the form of a part-time local militia. The central command structure may be full-time professional so that the defence of the nation can be well organised (Deut 20:5). However, most of the soldiers will be trained civilians who can be called up when a defence force is needed. As they have other interests there will be no danger of them becoming over militant and fighting unnecessary wars. However, because they will be defending their families and friends they will be highly motivated if they are needed. We should be well prepared, but hope that we are rarely called upon to fight.

  3. A temporary military leader will call the militia together. This is an important role during an emergency. Gidoen is a good example of temporary military leader.

  4. Conscription is not permitted. The militia should be made up of volunteers. Anyone who is faint-hearted or afraid should not be forced to fight (Deut 20:5-9). People who are at a critical stage in their lives should not be forced into military service. For example, men who have recently married, started building a house or started a business should be freed from service, because they would not be focused on the battle.

  5. The army will not have offensive weapons (Deut 17:16). God forbade the king from acquiring great numbers of horses for himself. The reason for this was that horses and chariots, at that time, were offensive weapons used primarily for attacking other nations. The defence of the nation would not need large numbers of these weapons. A modern defence force should choose weapons that are best for defensive purposes. (I expect that this principle would rule out ANZAC frigates and Skyhawk aircraft.)

  6. Deut 20:1-5 declares that a small army with God on its side can beat a large well-armed one. A good example of this is Gideon, who defeated a large Midianite army with 300 unarmed men (Judges 7). However, this promise should not be used as a justification for foolish wars.

  7. For most of history war was fought be kings, nobles and mercenary soldiers. The ordinary citizens were not involved in the war, except when they were being pillaged by armies on the move. The American Civil War introduced the concept of total war in which the whole of society was drawn into the war effort. Factories and cities become legitimate targets of attack.

    Total war is prohibited by the Bible. Those engaged in war are prohibited from attacking and damaging the land (Deut 20:19-20). The land belongs to God, so it is not to be harmed (Lev 25:23). An attack on the land is an attack on God. The same protection would apply to women and children. Non-combatants should always be protected.

  8. This prohibition makes nuclear war unacceptable. Nuclear weapons would harm the land and non-combatants. The same principle would rule out many modern weapons. Nuclear weapons and half done bombs do so much damage that there will rarely be a cause that would justify their use.

    Only weapons which can be targeted at combatants or other weapons should be used by Christians. Anti-ballistic missile defence systems are justified because they are defensive.

  9. Once an invading army has been repelled, the defending nation should make peace as soon as possible. Mercy is really important in these situations. The victor should not seek revenge or reparations, but should be generous in establishing peace.

  10. Military alliances are common in the modern world. However these are forbidden over and over again in the Bible. Christians have a covenant with God. We cannot be totally committed to God, and place our faith in another nation for defence (Is 31:1-3). Therefore, defence alliances are not an option for Christians.

The Cause of War

War is almost always caused by kings and governments. Individuals have no interest in invading the nation next door. If they want to live in another country, they can migrate and buy a property to live on. People do not even try to take their neighbours land. If they really want their neighbour's property, they can offer a price sufficient to buy it. Ordinary people are too busy with the trials of life to be thinking about invading another country. Anyway, for most of us, there is no place like home. Businesses usually have no interest in invading another country. If a business wants to trade in another country, it can set up a subsidiary or buy assets there. Multi-national businesses have proved that they can operate all over the world without having to invade with an army. Businesses will sometimes connive with the state to get an economic advantage or monopoly, if they can get away with it. They will sometimes try to use government power to get the assets cheap, but they can only do this if the state allows them. A business cannot force the state to go to war on its behalf. This usually happens when political leaders put business interests ahead of the needs of the people. Almost all wars are started by governments. The reason is that politicians have a lot to gain and little to lose. If they win, and often when they lose, war boosts the popularity of political leaders. The cost of the war is paid by the tax payers and the conscripts who give their lives. Political leaders tend to whip up their people to hate their neighbours because they benefit from war. War increases their power and makes them into heroes. The State is almost always the cause of war, so best defence against war is to diminish the power of kings and governments.

Gospel Peace

As the gospel advances, the frequency of war should decline. Most modern wars are the result of the nationalism that emerged during the nineteenth century. We are so used to nationalism that we see it as normal, but nations are not part of God's plan for this world. Jesus came to break down the barriers between nations (Eph 2:14-17). The result of the cross is that,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28)

Christians are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God , so their loyalty to their nation should diminish. As the gospel is preached to the nations, their national identity should become less important, as their loyalty to Christ grows. Eventually there should just be people living in different places with different governments. They should all acknowledge Christ as their sovereign and king, and find their identity in him. As nationalism becomes less important, the pressures that cause war should decline. As the Kingdom of God expands, state power will be pushed down and dispersed among smaller units of government. Larger states will be diffused and be replaced by small self-governing communities. This will reduce the frequency of large wars.

Application

If these principles were applied, it would result in a very different policies in various modern situations.

New Zealand

Afghanistan

Iraq

World War 1

World War 2

Gaza 2008

Israel

Update on Afghanistan