Defense and War: A Biblical Perspective

A key responsibility of the civil government is to protect its citizens from attack by wrongdoers. This involves punishing those who break the law. It also involves defending the nation from every external attacker, including nations, other groups of people or dangerous pests and diseases. All these responsibilities are encompassed in the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-8). Therefore, pacifism is not a Christian option.

The Bible gives a nation the right of self-defence. However there are a number of principles which should control the civil government's exercise of this authority in the fulfilment of its responsibilities.

  1. War is only justified for defence (Romans 13:1-8). It should not 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. A nation should never need to establish military domination in another region or nation.
  2. The idea of a Christian Holy War has no basis in Scriptures. The nation of Israel conquered and destroyed the Canaanite nations. This was only done after a specific and direct command from God (Deut 7:1,2). 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 or a Christian nation. 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).
  3. A Christian nation must not have a large “standing army”(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. The military should not be given too much political power, as they will have a tendency to use war to solve all problems.
  4. 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. They will be well prepared, but they will be only rarely called upon to fight.
  5. The militia should be up made 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.
  6. The army of a Christian nation 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 for attacking other nations. The defence of the nation would not need large numbers of them. A modern defence force should choose weapons that are best for defensive purposes.
  7. Only the civil government has authority to declare war. Individuals or companies do not have the authority to commit a nation to war. Any declaration of war must be in accordance with correct legal processes (Deut 20:10).
  8. War should always be the last resort. Before declaring war, the civil government 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. Christians should never glorify war. While it is an honour for a man to give his life to defend his family and community, war is never an ideal solution. A Christian government should be prepared for war, if it is attacked, but it should also hope that it would never have to fight.
  9. A Christian nation should always seek God's will before declaring war. A nation going to war, because it thinks it is right, is being presumptuous (Deut 1:41-44). Presumption is a terrible sin. If the war has God's blessing, the army is more likely to have success.
  10. A Christian government should only declare war if it thinks it has a reasonable chance of success. Jesus said that before a king goes to war, he should sit down and consider whether he can match the army that is coming against him. If not he will send a delegation to ask for terms of peace (Luke 14:31-32), even if this involves a loss of freedom. For Christians freedom is not an absolute value. It may be better to lose freedom to govern, than to lose a large number of lives in an unsuccessful defence. In fact, because Jesus has set us free, we cannot lose our freedom.

Two things should always be remembered,

    1. Christianity can survive under extremely hostile environments. 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. Therefore, Christianity will never be dependent on winning a war for its survival. If a Christian government has no hope of defending against attack, it should surrender, knowing that Christianity will survive.
    2. It is God who determines the appointed times of the nations and the boundaries of there habitations. (Acts 17:26, cf Job 12:23, Deut 32:8) 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 was contrary to God's will, that empire 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.

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. There are actually very few situations serious enough to justify the enormous costs of war.

  1. 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.
  2. Total war, as it has been practised in this last century, is prohibited by the Bible. Those engaged in war are prohibited from attacking and damaging the land (Deut 20). The same protection would apply to women and children. Non-combatants should also be protected.
  3. This prohibition makes nuclear war unacceptable. Nuclear weapons would harm the land and non-combatants. The same principle would rule out many modern weapons. Only weapons which can be targeted at combatants or other weapons can be used by a Christian nation. On the other hand, anti-ballistic missile defence systems may be justified, because they are defensive.
  4. Military alliances are common in the modern world. However these are forbidden over and over again in the Bible. A Christian nation has a covenant with God. It cannot be totally committed to God, and place its faith in another nation for defence (Is 31:1-3). Therefore, defence alliances are not an option for a Christian nation.
  5. God determines the appointed times of the nations and the timing of their rule. (Acts 17:26). 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.) Most attempts by great powers to establish "better" government by force in other nations have failed, because the spiritual forces that control the nation have not been defeated (Dan 10:13).

The principles outlined here allow a nation to defend itself, but there are very severe restrictions on which methods may be used. Likewise there are very strict conditions which must be fulfilled before war may be justified. Almost all modern conflicts would fail to meet these conditions. The Bible recognises the horror of war. There are probably very few situations that would justify the cost of war. It should be an extremely rare event.

The current war in Afghanistan does not fit with these principles. The people who organised the attack on the World Trade Centre, committed a dreadful crime and should be punished as criminals. However, the nation of Afghanistan did not attack the United States. The Taliban did not attack the United States. Afghanistan may be harbouring the criminals who organised the attack, but that is not a justification for war. We may dislike the Taliban intensely, but that does not justify war against them. The United States does not have the right to determine who should govern Afghanistan. (The Taliban gained power through victory in a civil war. This is the same way that the current federal system in the United States was established). The United States is not defending itself against an attack by Afghanistan, so it is not justified in attacking Afghanistan.

The methods of warfare being used in Afghanistan cannot be justified either. Bombs that destroy the land and can kill and maim civilians are forbidden by Deuteronomy 20. The alliance with the ungodly men of the Northern Alliance is also contrary to the Scriptures.

November 23, 2001