A gracEmail subscriber who is a U.S. military officer asks how he should view killing in war. “I have an allegiance to Christ and to my country,” he writes, “with the latter subordinate to the former. Can you provide any guidance?”
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The Old Testament distinguishes between criminal homicide (murder, punishable by death), accidental homicide (for which asylum was provided in the Cities of Refuge), and justifiable homicide (self-defense and holy war). The New Testament forbids murder and makes no provision for “holy war” by the church, which is a spiritual rather than national or political entity. Through the centuries, devout Christians have differed as to whether ot not believers ought to be combatants for the sake of their countries.
Some Christians note that when John the Baptist instructed soldiers in righteous living, he did not tell them to resign their commissions. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, apparently continued in the same position after becoming a Christian. Paul affirms that civil government can be God’s instrument for maintaining order, even in carrying out capital punishment on evildoers. Non-pacifist Christian ethicists today focus on the difference between “just” and “unjust” wars.
Other Christians observe that the entire example and message of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, encourages and affirms peacemakers. Early Christian leaders such as Tertullian insisted that soldiers who accepted Christ change their profession (as also actors and some others). In the Reformation, the Anabaptists advocated total pacifism even to the point of being killed for their convictions. Today their spiritual descendants — Brethren and Mennonites — refuse military service and make pacifism a general way of life.