SOTM: Matthew 5:38-42 (Just War)

justwarI’m finding myself in the just war camp. I’m not 100% comfortable here, but it makes better sense to me than anything else I’ve heard.


The doctrine defining a just war goes back to Augustine. Augustine was a bishop at a time when the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as its official religion. Therefore, the Caesar was a Christian, and the question quite naturally arose as to when a Christian emperor could order troops into the battlefield.

This was also a time when northern European tribes (“barbarians”) were invading Rome. Rome had to either wage war or turn the Empire over the barbarians.

The Wikipedia summarizes Augustine’s views simply —

First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Since that time, many theologians have sought to refine the theory. There’s an excellent article by Arthur F. Holmes that explains the theory.

The sixteenth-century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria develops the theory further. Examining King Phil­ip’s wars against the American Indians, he condemns their lack of just cause. War, he insists, is not justified for religious reasons (to convert the heathen) nor for economic causes (to gain their gold) nor for political reasons (to extend the empire). The Indians, however pagan, immoral and uncivilized, are human beings with rights equal to those of all other persons. The natural law protects them against violence and injustice. …

The Protestant Reformers meantime addressed the problem in similar terms. … The use of the sword, [Luther] argues, is divinely entrusted to governments in order to repel injustice and keep the peace. It can, there­fore, be a work of love for the common good. But only defen­sive war is just, including action to recover unjustly seized property from previous conflicts. This rules out religious wars, aggression and any attempt to revenge an insult. Only the highest governmental authority has the right to initiate military action, so that rebellion is always unjustified. It was on this basis that he opposed the famous Peasants’ Revolt. Yet the ruler, if wrong, should be disobeyed: selective con­scientious disobedience is not revolt.

He summarizes the Old Testament record thusly —

These [New Testament] limitations are reinforced when one considers the Old Testament attitude toward war. While military conflict is regarded as a tragic fact of life, one for which God strength­ens his people and one which God uses in the execution of justice, it is nonetheless lamented as an evil from whose scourge humanity must be delivered. Israel was instructed to limit the destruction and violence involved in its conquest of Canaan (Deut. 2). David was not allowed to build God’s temple because he was a man of war (1 Chron. 22:8-9; 28:3). The psalmist grieved over violence, looking to the God who makes war cease and destroys its weaponry (Ps. 46; 120). The prophets condemned its fratricide and its atrocities (for example Amos 1:2), mourned its destruction (Lam.), and gloried in the One who will finally bring peace and justice to earth so that none need even feel afraid (Is. 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-9).

Current thinking

Holmes explains the overarching goal of the theory —

Third, the just war theory does not try to justify war. Rather it tries to bring war under the control of justice so that, if consistently practiced by all parties to a dispute, it would eliminate war altogether. It insists that the only just cause for going to war is defense against aggression. If all parties adhered to this rule, then nobody would ever be an aggres­sor and no war would ever occur. The basic intention of the just war theory, then, is to condemn war and to prevent it by moral persuasion. But since people will sometimes not be so persuaded, it proceeds to limit war – its occasion, its goals, its weaponry and methods – so as to reduce the evils that have not been altogether prevented.

He offers these guiding principles as summarizing the thought of current just war theologians —

  1. Just cause. All aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate.
  2. Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain nor ideological supremacy are justified.
  3. Last resort. War may only be entered upon when all negotiations and compromise have been tried and failed.
  4. Formal declaration. Since the use of military force is the prerogative of governments, not of private individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the highest authorities.
  5. Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then un­conditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s eco­nomic or political institutions is an unwarranted objective.
  6. Proportionate means. The weaponry and the force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks, that is to say to secure a just peace. Total or unlimited war is ruled out.
  7. Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict including POW’s and [c]asualties as well as civilian nonparticipants) should be immune from attack.

Now, each of these points raises a host of subsidiary questions. For example, under 3, how many people must suffer or die while the diplomats dither? Obviously, evil rulers are happy to use the diplomats to delay war while they consolidate their forces and continue their evil. And under 5, what if the nation’s political institutions are evil? Was it wrong for the Allies to oust the Nazis from control of Germany? Should they have stopped at the borders of the country? Should the US have forced a change in government in Japan?

So I’m not entirely sold on this version of the theory, but, yes, the scriptures give the government the power to defend its people from evil, and this fact leads to a limitation on what wars are truly just.

Where do we go from here?

Frankly, I doubt seriously that many national leaders — even US leaders — give a lot of thought to Just War theology when deciding whether to go to war. The churches don’t teach this in Sunday school or preach it from the pulpit, and so national leaders follow their instincts and feel little reason to concern themselves with what Christians think. We think almost entirely in secular, political terms when it comes to war — as though God has nothing to say about killing people in large quantities.

Part of the solution is for our pulpits and classrooms to teach our members how to think about the daily news in Christian terms. Of course, our preachers and teachers have virtually no training on this either. Indeed, once we suggest that preachers should consider such things, we open the door for preachers to spout whatever their political party tells them to think — which is scary indeed — and this happens in too many churches already.

It’s good, I think, that the Churches of Christ have largely refrained from using the pulpit to discuss politics, unconsciously following the teachings of Lipscomb and others. But I think it’s good because we don’t know how to do it well, not because it’s off limits. Indeed, we need to develop an understanding of God’s will for such things. Just as the Campbells and Stone preached fearlessly against slavery before the Civil War, our preachers should be qualified to at least train us to think about politics in scriptural terms. We are far from ready to take on that task, but it’s not beyond our ability.

And yet there are plenty of questions not clearly answered by scripture, and we should stay out of what the Bible doesn’t answer. Nonetheless, I think it would greatly help the conversation if we begin by acknowledging what the biblical principles are, even if their application is uncertain. At least we’ll be weighing what God says rather than selfishness or nationalism.

So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to lay out my own thinking, largely because I’ve not managed to sort this out for myself — not entirely. And most of the resources on the subject are so uninformed or agenda driven as to be of very little help. Besides, at present, the topic is the Sermon on the Mount, and I really don’t want to go through another 29 posts on the topic at this time.

But if anyone has any recommendations for good resources on Just War theory, please pass them along. I’d be very interested and, I’m sure, I won’t be alone. On the other hand, I’m already very familiar with some of the premier works arguing for pacifism — such as John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (a marvelous book, especially chapter 7, although he doesn’t convince me on pacifism) and Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, not to mention one of my all-time favorite books, Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (essential reading!).

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:38-42 (Just War)

  1. I hope you’ll find time in the future to flesh out what this would mean to a Christian contemplating military service. Does he join hoping that Congress will always choose just wars? Does he wait to join until there is actually a just war? Once in the military, does he examine each order given in the light of just war theory? Or only “big picture” items?

    To me, the weak point of any sort of justification for military participation is the government. I guess I don’t remember a “Christian enough” government in history to whom I would concede my right to make moral judgments on when and how to use violence.

  2. John says:

    We should never let our love and commitment to our service men and women become the moral standard for war. All nations have loved their children in uniform. And we should never forget, excitement is hell’s bait for war.

  3. Price says:

    God strengthens His people for war… that was the most convincing statement in the whole piece for me. Why would God strengthen His people for war if He did not wish for them to prevail. There were times when He caused them to lose.. when they were disobedient, but He helped them win when they were following His commands. I don’t think of God as One who enjoys death…as He put an end to it after all ! But, it seems like I remember an angel wiping out a 150,000 one night, so when necessary, He responds by doing it Himself or equipping His people to do it..

    I had to laugh when you said that most preachers choose not to speak about it because they were ill-prepared to do so… If that were true, then some assemblies could move to one service on Sunday and do away with Wednesday nights.. 🙂

  4. Dwight says:

    This might muddy the waters, but so be it. In the OT times Israel made war on other nations to gain land, this was dictated by God and was just. But also God led other nations to make war on Israel to punish them and bring them under subjection and since God did this, it was just. On Israels side they usually went to war inquiring of God, but this is not true of the other nations as they went to war to broaden thier border. Now it might be argued that God did not make the other nations go to war, but God did allow them to win.
    So, application. We might or might not know why the war is in motion, but for one reason or another the nation declares war and we hope that we are on the just side, but the outcome will be in God’s hand.
    In regards to us as Christians, we should strive for peace and be peacemakers and seek to do no harm. But when it becomes a national concern we must make our peace with that fact that it is usually for the best interest of the nation and somewhere out there God is in control.

  5. Monty says:

    Puts a humongous burden on an 18 year old kid just out of high school, with his thoughts on furthering his education, getting a job and making a living, finding a mate ,etc.. to know whether or not he should conscientiously object to an eminent conflict that he didn’t see coming perhaps and if it is “just ” or not, especially if he is drafted and it is the nations law. Seems to me, that is almost, well, too much, too soon. Especially if we don’t teach anything about it from our pulpits and classrooms ahead of time. Every government has propaganda to justify their actions. It would take an extremely sharp kid who was well trained to be able to make such a clear choice.

  6. buckeyechuck says:

    Jay, thank you for the discussion. It seems that for whatever reason, the only significant writing on this topic these days comes from the pacifists like Yoder and even the recent Huffington Post article by Lee Camp titled ‘Clint Eastwood’s Sniper, and the American Messiah’ from 1/27/15.

    Camp begins his critique of the movie, which has polarized much of the American people, by invoking the Golden Rule that says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But I believe Camp’s purpose for this post is really to disprove the just war theory. Camp follows with these points:

    “Have we forgotten that in between the two Iraq wars, the U.N. and U.S. sanctions contributed to the deaths of one-half a million children? It refuses to ask what role our own nation’s violence contributes to the development of the violence of other nations, or to remind us of the fact that Saddam Hussein, as one diplomat famously said, when the U.S. was beginning to give support to the despot and responding to the charge that Hussein was an SOB, replied that now “he was our SOB.” It refuses to take seriously that there is a cycle of violence in the world, and that retribution fosters counter-retribution which fosters counter-retribution in an endless cycle.”

    Camp’s point about civilian deaths is an important one in the discussion. But, he fails to refer to the fact that a basic tenet of warfare conducted by Al Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas and ISIS jihadists is to conduct battle using women and children civilians as shields, even schools, mosques and hospitals. They count on the moral position of American and UN troops refusing to fire into the midst of civilians. The real question for the Christian that Camp fails to address is who is responsible for the deaths of one-half a million children; those who use them as shields or those who shoot to stop future killings of other innocents?

    In most wars, specifically referencing the World Wars I & II and several others, war does not end until the deaths of civilians becomes unbearable to that nation’s people. This is why Japan surrendered following the nuclear bombs. The argument is that many civilian lives were ultimately spared because the war stopped. Granted the militaries must become overwhelmed, but a tremendous factor is a loss of will of the people supporting the cause when too many of their soldier sons or civilian women and children have died. Since the live television cameras of Viet Nam up to the present, the American people cannot easily bear watching deaths of civilians in our living rooms. We want a very sterile war conflict with absolutely no civilian casualties. In war, this is not possible. It’s never that lily white.

    Camp follows with: “There is no historically primitive goodness and badness in the political sense, and for us to continue to believe and perpetuate this myth is sheer madness that will even yet more rapidly throw us into the pit of hell which we are enlarging at an alarming rate with our fetish for military might, and increasingly, our fetish for killing at a distance — through the drone’s video screen or the sniper’s scope.”

    The assumption is that there is rarely any inherent goodness or inherent evil by either side of a conflict. If this were true, there would never be any reason to be a part of any government military or armed conflict. There may never be 100% Godly goodness as taught in our Scriptures. But, if you believe that the murder of thousands of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, the beheading of any “infidel,” or an enemy sniper or a woman and child carrying a grenade for the purpose of killing American troops is evil as depicted in the American Sniper, if these are not indefensible evil, then you may not ever be able to come to such a conclusion.

    Camp’s article is timely to this discussion and I would encourage all to read it and the comments that follow on the Huffington Post in order to understand a bit of those who reject any form of just war theory. He concludes the post with the following defense of pacifism:

    “The militaristic, nationalistic tyranny over Christianity in America remains shocking to me. I cannot understand why people who say they read the Sermon on the Mount, or Romans 12, or 1 Peter, continue to let the Eastwoods of this world get away with such subversion of the Christian tradition. Little would most non-Christian Americans have any idea that the New Testament is, in fact, a text subversive to imperialist agendas. The New Testament is subversive to imperialist agendas because it refuses to prioritize the “American” story Eastwood is telling: it refuses to prioritize a good guys versus bad guys narrative, and instead insists that we are all caught up in the drama of brokenness, and that the only solution in the long run is some sort of politically-realistic, patient and suffering good-will for all, brought in not by an overbearing Messiah bearing the sword, but a suffering Messiah bearing a new way of life.”

    The United States is not a theocracy. Jesus, the Son of God, had a ministry of spiritual salvation for humanity; not to establish a physical secular government or theocracy. Michael Moore asked recently whether Jesus would be the sniper. There are lots of similar questions one could ask, such as, could Jesus be a police officer and shoot a criminal who was trying to kill a child? It seems theologically wrong to me to suggest that Jesus would condemn such a role by a believer. Rather, it is actually an act of love towards the threatened child to intervene in such a murder. The pacifist’s argument is often against any military service, other government service such as a school teacher or even to simply vote (Lipscomb.)

    Mark 12:13-17 as well as Romans 13:1-7 speaks directly to the issue. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This statement by Jesus and the ones by Paul in Romans explains and validates the God-appointed purposes of secular governments and also for God’s kingdom. Christians ARE participants in both simultaneously just as Cornelius the Roman Centurian was.

    P.S. Buckeye Chuck did not see his shadow yesterday, so we expect an early spring in Ohio this year!

  7. R.J. says:


    The Israelites fought Canaan mainly for justice. Those 7 nations were extremely wicked and barbaric. Slowly Roasting live babies(or other minors) to death on a scolding hot idol while beating on drums to drown out the infantile sobs.

    By the time Israel conquered the Promise Land, the children either were already dead or were mercifully(perhaps painlessly) killed instantly to save face in that honor/shame society(couldn’t imagine the pain they would’ve gone through growing up as illegitimate children).

  8. Dwight says:

    So, God commanded the annihliation of the Canaanites and others in the area for thier own sake. I don’t buy it. God did promise the land to the Jews and any culture that would not be wiped out from the land would cause future trouble in the way of influence and war and this is what happened. True the other cultures were wicked, but God would also use these wicked nations around Israel to punish Israel. And not all of the children of the pagan nations went the way of Molok or Baal, as they had armies and families. The people of Canaan knew that the Israelites were coming, but they relied on thier gods and didn’t fear the God of Israel, until it was too late. They could have easily left thier country and been spared as all God wanted was the land that He had promised. Children and people that were not destroyed were allowed to live as slaves.

  9. buckeyechuck says:

    Don’t forget that God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh and they did repent…

  10. Dwight says:

    Buckeye, Very good…Ninevah, that great city…repented before God and they were Gentiles and Assyrians, ugh. Now God did pronounce judgement on Ninevah later, but also on most of the other nations along with Israel and Judah. And yet Israel and Judah survived as a remnant and in the form of people. This is a reminder that God is not a respector of persons, but is a respector of righteousness.

  11. Nathan says:

    I recommend The Just War Tradition: An Introduction by David Corey and J. Daryl Charles. Dr. Corey also has an excellent essay on “The Ambiguities of Justice in War.” It will be presented at a conference in Houston this weekend, and I expect it to be available online sometime shortly thereafter.

    A key distinction he makes is that it is the just war tradition, not the just war theory. It doesn’t provide quick and easy answers to all wars past, present, and future. It’s advice isn’t always clean and straightforward.

    On that point, he reminds me of the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. You may be interested in Yoder’s essay “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism.” It’s worth reading.

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