The Bible does not allow us to sit in judgment of our government when it
comes to obeying orders that do not force us to sin. We must obey an
unjust government no less than we must obey a just government. But we
must never obey an evil order, whether that order comes from a
relatively benign or relatively evil government.
May a believer serve in the military of the United States? Yes.
May a believer serve in the military of Great Britain? Sure.
Both of these situations are covered by Luke 3:14 in light of Romans
13:1-7, especially Romans 13:4. That is why a completely pacifist
position cannot be sustained biblically. Saint Paul teaches that
authority “is God’s servant to do you good.” And he warns believers that
worldly government has been given divine authority to enforce justice
using deadly force: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does
not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent
of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Furthermore, when the greatest prophet of the Old Testament was asked by
soldiers concerning their obligation in view of the coming of the
Kingdom, he replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people
falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14). In other words, John the
Baptist does not tell soldiers to lay down their arms and quit the army.
Rather, he tells them to do what is just and honest as they go about the
business of being soldiers, bringing to bear the force of the Tenth
Commandment when he warns these soldiers to be content with their pay.
The same is true with the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, a centurion
in the armies of Imperial Rome. He is baptized and welcomed into
the Christian Church, while remaining on active duty to Rome, stationed
in Israel at Caesarea (Acts 10).
Where it gets more difficult emotionally, but not biblically, is the
question of whether a believer may serve in the military of the People’s
Republic of China or under the Kim dynasty in the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea. But the Bible does not distinguish Finland from North
Korea or the United States from Communist China in terms of our
obligation to our own nations.
However, we owe unreserved, unquestioning, absolute obedience and
loyalty only to one, our sovereign God. Indeed, we may say that we are
never to obey or be loyal to anyone except as it flows out of and is an
expression of our loyalty and obedience to him. That is part of the
reason why our Lord demanded: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate
(in the sense of preferring someone over the Lord) his own father and
mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his
own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
In the Bible people sometimes faced pagan husbands, masters, and
governments, but it is conflicts with pagan governments that we
encounter most frequently in Scripture, and they give us principles that
can guide us in these other relationships.
THE AUTHORITY OF SOLDIERS AND OFFICERS OF THE LAW
If I am a soldier or other official serving under civil authority, I
always have an overriding loyalty to my King. The first time I took an
oath as an office-bearer, I stated to the person swearing me in, “Please
know that I am taking this oath as a follower of Jesus Christ.” The
reason that I stated that is because the Christian civil servant is
first and foremost an agent of the Lord Jesus Christ, as is every true
Christian. That means that every enterprise and every relationship must
be evaluated by how it impacts our exclusive allegiance to him.
Private citizens should never take up arms against other people in an
attempt to bring about justice, but police and military people have been
given divine authority to wield deadly means to enforce justice. But
this can lead us into complex situations.
What does a soldier do in a situation such as My Lai 4, back during the
I submit that he attempts to stop Lieutenant Calley’s order from being
carried out. And if there is no other way, he points his rifle at his
commanding officer and kills him.
It is a judgment call, and the only judgment that one can make in such a
situation is prima facie. Such a soldier would undoubtedly be
court marshaled and probably executed himself. But that is the price of
moral leadership; it is the fundamental difference between the person of
conscience and those who goose-stepped in the Third Reich.
In that light, I would submit that it is the duty of a husband or father
to attempt to protect his wife or children against those who are intent
on raping and killing them, because a husband or father is an
office-bearer and not simply a private individual.
However, prayer is the fundamental thing, and we do not live in a
universe where simply anything can happen. We
live in a universe where only that which God has ordained for our good
can happen. We pray earnestly and daily for our families because we
realize that our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe, that his craft
and power are great, that he is armed with cruel hate, and that on earth
is not his equal.
NO EASY CHOICES
I find history exceedingly complex with many shades of gray. Heroism and
villainy often blur as we distance ourselves from issues that seemed so
clear at the time. If even Saint Paul found it impossible to come to
absolute conclusions about his own conduct, how much more we? How much
more as we examine historical figures? “But with me it is a very small
thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I
do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but
I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do
not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will
bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the
purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from
God” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).
INCREASING COMPLEXITY AND CONFUSION AS HISTORY RUSHES
In light of the complexity and confusion we are likely face, it may well
be prudent to avoid the overwhelming pressure to violate our consciences
by not enlisting, especially in a nation state such as North Korea.
And as history progresses to an Omega point, the conflict between good
and evil intensifies, but not as is easily seen or in stark contrast,
Unlike earlier wars that we fought with bows and arrows and swords and
spears, as military technology has advanced it has become increasingly
difficult to wage war justly according to Christian tradition.
Even with modern “weapons of mass destruction” like the cannon, a
measure of restraint was still possible, and soldiers could avoid
murdering civilians if they chose.
A good example of restraint in war is the American Civil War. With rare
exceptions, the military forces of both the North and the South did not
knowingly murder civilians. It was a brutal war, to be sure, but it was
a war fought with biblical restraint, nonetheless. Even with Union
general, William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea,
destruction was brought to the properties of Southern civilians in order
to deprive the Confederate armies of supplies. But Sherman did not
knowingly kill civilians, and when a Union soldier was caught killing or
raping a civilian, he was court-martialed and hung.
However, with rapidly advancing military technology, war becomes
increasing difficult to be waged justly. The classic example is the use
of nuclear weapons by the Allied Powers at the end of World War II,
where a Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Mary’s, or the
Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki was the most identifiable target in an
explosion of unfathomable destruction that annihilated innocent babies
and elderly grandmothers and left a generation of people to die slowly
from cancer. In stating this, I am neither attacking nor defending
President Truman’s decision; I am only stating the obvious: modern
weapons make it increasingly impossible to fight according to Christian
principles of what constitutes a just war.
I leave the judgment of others to God. However, One day, the whole
of humankind will stand before the Judge of all the earth, and millions
of people will be weighed in the scales and found wanting. Then we may
discover that a war hero from a great and noble nation may fair no
better than a terrorist suicide bomber (Revelation 20:11-15).
As we weigh the question of military service, on the other hand, as we shall see below, God has often used godly people in high
places to bring help to sufferers, even under wicked governments. We
should thank God for people of conscience who serve in government and
NEVER PARKING OUR CONSCIENCES
Jesus Christ is Lord; he is our King. For the believer, public service,
as every other service, is ultimately to Christ alone. Paul wrote to
Timothy, using a military analogy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier
of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since
his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Using
Paul’s metaphor, Christian government workers’ or political leaders’
public service is a “civilian pursuit,” while their living out the
Christian life is their service as Christ’s soldiers. We may never
forget that we cannot serve two masters. We are never Christians and
Canadians, or Christians and Americans, much less Christians and
Republicans or Democrats (to speak within the American political
We are Christians, period, but Christians who serve Christ by serving
others, including our nation and perhaps sometimes a political party.
However, when it comes to submission to civil authority, we must
sometimes withhold obedience even in a just cause, and we must oft times
obey even in an unjust cause, because Christ, not man, is King—King over
every square inch of his creation.
This principle of our obedience to human authority being subordinate to
divine authority is unequivocally set forth in Scripture. Inasmuch as
we, too, are exiles from our true homeland (1 Peter 1:1), our models for
living in the New Testament era, in no small way, are Daniel, Hananiah,
Mishael and Azariah.
They worked in the civil service of one of the most ruthless governments
the world has ever known—every bit as ruthless as Nazi German—the
Neo-Babylonian Empire, a civilization that was ultimately cursed by God
and destroyed. But there they were, doing their jobs with exemplary
faithfulness, praised even by their worldly superiors.
Yet when loyalty to the civil authority was pitted against loyalty to
the Lord, they respectfully stood their ground even though they faced
the death penalty (Daniel 1:8, 19-20; 3:12, 16-18). When Babylon fell to
the Medes and Persians, and Daniel found himself serving under a kinder
and gentler new world order, he still faced life and death decisions
about his loyalty to the Lord. But he stood the test (Daniel 6:10), as
Even under this kinder and gentler new world order, a genocidal effort
to annihilate all the Jews in the known world was stopped because a
Jewish woman was in the right place at the right time, serving in the
harem of the Persian Shahanshah (Esther 7). The question with which she
had to deal is the same one we face:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all
the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and
deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your
father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to
your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Yet, when we are called upon to disobey civil authority, we do so
selectively and respectfully. Neither Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah,
Peter, John nor Paul is abusive to the anti-biblical authorities with
whom they had to deal. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah did not renounce
the authority of Nebuchadnezzar over other areas of their lives; they
simply declined obedience in the one matter of his forcing them to
commit idolatry. Furthermore they didn’t make obscene gestures with
their middle fingers or speak abusively to him when they stated their
ultimate loyalty to God:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this
be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning
fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if
not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or
worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
The same example is true of Peter and John when they said, “We must obey
God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Their response infuriated the
authorities, not because they hurled abuse, but because they withheld
absolute loyalty and obedience to their God and his holy Word. When
these authorities ordered them whipped, they humbly submitted to this
abuse. Not only did they not “cuss out” the officials or “flip them
off,” they maintained a cheerful spirit, knowing that their Sovereign
had ordained all these things for their good and the glory of the name
of Jesus Christ, whom alone they served: “The apostles left the
Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering
disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
Therefore, disobedience to human authority is sometimes our calling,
even when we serve in the military, but this must always be done with
the utmost respect for authority.
THE SUPREME EXAMPLE
All of this is carried out under the pattern of the Lord Jesus himself.
In the life of Jesus, the Moral Law is radically transformed into an
ethic of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Taking on the mindset of Jesus,
who is God incarnate, I must be willing to lay down my rights and
privileges for the sake of others. What can we call the cross but that
God almighty in his human nature became the doormat on which we wipe our
sins in order to enter heaven? Without the connotation of cowardly
silence, we, too, are called upon to be doormats for the welfare and
needs of others, humbly entrusting ourselves into the hands of our
heavenly Father when we are abused by other people, including evil
political leaders (Philippians 2:1-18).
These principles apply in a variety of situations. Without endorsing
slavery, Saint Peter admonished slaves:
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the
good and gentle but ALSO TO THE HARSH” (1 Peter 2:18).
Rather than looking for my rights under the law, I voluntarily submit to
injustice for the sake of Christ trusting in God to protect and deliver
me in his good time and providence—as Peter adds: “For it is commendable
if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is
conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating
for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you
endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called,
because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should
follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:18-21).
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he
suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who
judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). And the self-denial of Christ becomes the
pattern for all our dealings with others: “Wives, IN THE SAME
WAY . . . Husbands, IN THE SAME WAY . . . “ (1
Peter 3:1, 7).
In all these difficult situations, I am called to model the law of
Christ as unfolded in the New Testament as I, too, walk the way from the
Judgment Hall to the Cross. But the Via Dolorosa becomes the
pilgrimage of joy unspeakable and a peace beyond all natural and worldly
comprehension as I walk it in Christ, not full of myself but full of his