Word Aloud

Peacemakers & Just War

Depending on the audience, the notions of Christianity and war either seem to be polar opposites or go together too well. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9). However, we must define the word "peace" before we continue on this topic. Many people think "peace" basically means a lack of warfare. Merriam-Webster defines peace as 1) "a state of tranquility or quiet," 2) "a state or period of mutual concord between governments," or 3) "a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity." Likewise, we may understand the word "peacemaker" to be someone who always looks for a peaceful solution to disputes, or one who stands up for the oppressed when the notion of peace seems impossible. Paul of Tarsus wrote, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18).  

A minority of Christians believe in pacifism, the conscientious objection to war and violence as a way of resolving conflict. This means any war fought by one nation against another—even an individual's military service—are morally wrong in all circumstances. However, most Christians believe in Just War Theory (Latin: Jus ad bellum), the ethical use of lethal force in national defense. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) first discussed Just War Theory in his book The City of God, warning, "For even when we wage a just war, our adversaries must be sinning; and every victory, even though gained by wicked men, is a result of the first judgment of God, who humbles the vanquished either for the sake of removing or of punishing their sins" (19.15). Simply put, we Christians must regret the use of violence, not celebrating it for any reason. There must be fair rules of engagement in war (Latin: Jus in bello), and the just liability of belligerents after the war (Jus post bellum).


Early Christians & Military Service

The early church was uniformly pacifistic from the first to the fourth centuries. Keep in mind, this was during times of harsh Roman persecutions, so they had every reason to fight back. Tertullian of Carthage (c. AD 155–c. 220) wrote,


How will a Christian man participate in war? It is true that soldiers came to John [the Baptist] and received the instructions for conduct [cf. Luke 3:13-14]. It is true also that a centurion believed [cf. Luke 7:7-9]. Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier (On Idolatry 19; cf. John 18:11).


Likewise, he asked,


Is it lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? Will the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? (Chaplet 11).


Other early church leaders such as Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170c. 235), Lactantius of Cirta (240c. 320), and Ambrose of Milan (339397) wrote disparagingly of Christians serving in the military. However, they still allowed those men who converted while serving to stay commissioned or enlisted. The early church leaders took this lesson from Jesus very seriously: "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matt. 5:39-41). One of the main reasons the Jews and Christians eventually parted ways was because the church refused to join the Judean war effort from AD 66 to 70, fleeing to Pella instead (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.5.3).   

Military Service in the Bible

The first generation of Christians were Jewish, a culture that had seen much war and empire. The prophet Daniel mentioned a statute of four different empires that either ruled, or was about to rule, over Israel (cf. 2:38-40). In historical order, they were Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Jews were never an empire-building nation, as even King Solomon's dominion from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates was the result of peace treaties (cf. 1 Kgs. 4:20-21). Moreover, the Jewish feasts of Passover and Chanukkah commemorate the times God saved Israel from the militant Egyptians and the Seleucid Greeks, respectively (cf. Exod. 12:27; 1 Macc. 4:36-59; 2 Macc. 1:18-36). The Jews never maintained a large standing army, ready to expand Israel's borders at whim. Instead, they hoped for the kingdom of heaven on earth, when every soldier would remake his weapon into a farm tool (cf. Isa. 2:4). Things changed when the Romans took over the Levant, especially in AD 6 when the Syrian governor Quirinius (c. 51 BCAD 21) carried out the census of Judea (cf. Luke 2:1-3; Acts 5:37; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.1). The Zealot's insurgency began that year, continuing intermittently until the First JewishRoman War ended in AD 70.    

However, we must consider the triune relationship of Jesus with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, God uprooted the Israelites from Egypt, ordering them to invade Canaan with broad rules of engagement (cf. Deut. 20:16-18). The prophet Zephaniah wrote, "The  LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory" (3:17a). We never see Jesus teach against this, because his monotheistic Hebrew culture justified warring against pagans who exploited their own people. To be sure, the same Jesus who said "turn the other cheek" also made it clear that he was no pacifist: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt.10:34; cf. Luke 12:51). Jerome of Stridon (c. 347c. 419) was the only early church leader who commented on this verse, otherwise a convenient lacuna in patristic literature. That said, the point of warfare in the Old Testament was never about conquest and colonization, as we often assume. God told the Israelites to dismantle the Canaanites' systems of oppression—it was not a genocide. Think about how the Allies defeated Nazi Germany during World War II. Yes, Jesus was adamant about Christians seeking nonviolent solutions to conflict. However, he did enact a little violence when angrily evicting the money changers from the temple, even using a whip to drive away their sheep and cows (cf. John 2:14-15).


Tertullian and the other early church leaders oversimplified Jesus' lessons about retaliation for insults, theft, and abuses of power. When he wrote about Jesus' meeting with the centurion, for example, Tertullian glossed over the obvious realization the man would go report back to his unit. Jesus never told the centurion to be a deserter, and neither did John the Baptist. When Simon Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius, neither did he talk about desertion (cf. Acts 10:1-33). Instead, Luke of Antioch witnessed, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation" (v. 22b). Even with his own disciples, Jesus warned, "And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one" (Luke 22:36b), once their personal safety became an issue. "Turning the other cheek" was a lesson forbidding revenge, neither self-defense nor national defense. Of course, believers must de-escalate all types of conflicts without using violent means offensively. Just War Theory rules out a nation's whim to proactively start wars.



Ever since the Roman emperor Constantine I (c. 280–337) legalized Christianity in AD 313, the church has endorsed many wars from the Crusades (1095–1291), to the Thirty Years' War (16181648), to the Global War on Terror (2001present). In our time, we do well to remember the early church's pacifism and nonviolent resistance. Around 4 BC, Jesus was born during the "Roman Peace" (Latin: Pax Romana), a successful campaign by the emperor Augustus (27 BCAD 14) to enforce law and order across the Mediterranean. It endured from the start of Augustus' reign, ending with Marcus Aurelius (AD 161180). In contrast to Augustus, a title meaning "God revealed," Jesus did not come to us with soldiers to enforce peace. The angels in Bethlehem sang, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (Luke 2:14). The Romans applied the Greek noun euaggelion (G2098, "good news") to the "gospel" of the Pax Romana. However, Jesus came to bring true peace, the "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). He alone is God revealed, and only his gospel is actually "good news." Instead of a peace achieved through war, Jesus tells us, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (John 14:27). War followed by the terms and conditions of peace is how the world gives it to us. However, Jesus gives us peace without terms and conditions, which is good news for the entire world.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul admonished us,


For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (13:3-4).


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (19061945), a Lutheran pastor who ministered in Nazi Germany and took part in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler (18891945), noted:


There is no doubt that the church . . . is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state. The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God's order of preservation in this godless world (pp. 362-63).


He transitioned from being a pacifist to a civil resister, leading the Nazis to execute him on April 9, 1945—two weeks before the U.S. Army liberated the Flossenbürg concentration camp where Bonhoeffer stayed.

As Christians, one of our main objectives is to resist evil. In this fallen world, there is "a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up" (Eccl. 3:3). Keep in mind, there is an ethical and legal difference between murder and killing. The sixth of the Ten Commandments does forbid us from murder (cf. Exod. 20:13), but it is not extend to warfare—it is a civil law, not a law of armed conflict. One of the unspoken reasons the early church leaders could be pacifists was because Jews and most non-Italian gentiles were exempt from military service due to their lack of Roman citizenship. For better or for worse, the early church lacked the political power or cultural influence to consider ethical reasons for warfare. The Roman army was largely pagan and very nationalistic, so criticisms of idolatry and blasphemy like those of Tertullian were understandable in context. The same Jesus who said "turn the other cheek" also warned, "Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth" (Rev. 2:16).

Epilogue: Lessons Learned About Strict Pacifism


Let the tragedy of Operation Turquoise in Rwanda be a lesson learned about strict pacifism. The United Nations (UN) tasked the French military with protecting Tutsi refugees. However, they still let the Hutu génocidaire militias slaughter about 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children between June to August 1994—the "100 days of death." The following year, in July 1995, the UN promised 60,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees protection against the Bosnian Serb army. Yet, when the Serbs attacked, the UN let them systematically machine-gun 7,079 Bosnian noncombatant men of all ages, forcing over 50,000 women and children to flee to Tuzla without their husbands and fathers. The mass graves of Srebrenica were comparable to those made by Nazi Germany during World War II. The UN "peacekeepers" did not keep the peace that day, refusing to value human life. Sometimes, war and violence are necessary to stop evildoers from stealing our peace. Philosophically, the situation of rescuing human lives from destruction outweighs the virtue of conscientious objection.   



Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, for by the sacrifice of your only-begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah, on the cross, all who turn to him in the tribulation of war will find their peace with him in paradise. Amen.


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