Stop Learning War!
This last Sunday was Veteran’s Day. It’s one of many civic holidays that carries some expectation of commemoration, even celebration, in worship. This particular Veteran’s Day overlapped with a prescribed reading from the prophet Micah who envisions a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” It’s my belief that that vision began to take shape in Jesus and that his followers shouldn’t join the military. The essay below gives some explanation to that belief.
As you know an ambassador is sent by one country to represent its interests in another. So, the USA sends an ambassador to China who is in the country but not of the country. When the ambassador is on the grounds of the embassy, she is legally in US territory. If a United States citizen is in China and gets in trouble, he can run to the embassy and the Chinese authorities will have no jurisdiction as long as he is there. Ambassadors do not get to vote in Chinese elections, are not bound by Chinese law, and do not have to join the Chinese military.
This image helps us understand why Jesus said of his disciples, “they do not belong to the world” and asked God not to “take them out of the world.” (John 17:15–16). It also gives some clarity to what Peter means when he calls Christians “foreigners.” (I Peter 2:11). As “ambassadors for Christ” we are in foreign territory. Our citizenship is in heaven and that means we operate under a different set of laws. Ultimately, we must “obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29). So, this is why Jesus says, “my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…” (John 19:36).
Much has been made of the earliest Christian confession: Jesus is Lord. It is in sharp contrast to “Caesar is Lord” or any other god for that matter. Every god has a set of rules to live by and, as Christians, our allegiance and obedience belong to God. The New Testament is often contrasting Jesus’ followers to “the nations.” Jesus said, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the nations do the same?” This is when Jesus says to love enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43–48). Jesus also said, “You know that the rulers of the nations are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you.” He goes on to say that being great means being a servant (Matthew 20:25–28).
Even Paul gets in on the action when he writes to the Christians in Ephesus, “you must no longer live as the nations live.” He writes about putting away an old life and putting on a new. Christians are to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.” (Eph. 5:1). The point of all of this is to highlight the ways in which we are ambassadors for Christ in the world while not being of the world. Our job is to “disciple the nations” and teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:16–20). As you heard from Micah, part of the instruction is not to learn war anymore.
The earliest church teachers were pretty clear on this. Some of the quotes I’ll share come from people who learned directly from the disciples or lived shortly thereafter.
“Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”
~ Martin of Tours (315AD — 397AD)
“Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
~ Tertullian (160AD — 220AD)
“You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
~ Origen (185AD — 254AD)
“I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.
This view began to change in 313 and began to be eliminated in 380. I’ll let you look up those dates in church history.
Most Christian readers will agree that we must choose Christ over our country. As I read Scripture and listen to early church writers, part of what that means is to learn how to love enemies rather than kill them, how to create peace rather than destroy with war. As ambassadors for Christ, I find it slippery when churches fly national flags in worship because I think it confuses our allegiance and obedience.
Again, our Christian call is not to endorse our nation, but to teach it to obey Christ. Civic holidays, like Veteran’s Day or Independence Day, cause me deep discomfort when celebrated in worship because I know that my view is a challenge to many people and an offense to others. But, for the reasons above, it’s a pretty clear conviction on my part.
I also know that other pastors have other views on this. An opposing pastor might say a couple of things. First, he would say that you only need to read Old Testament books like Joshua and Judges to know that God uses war to stamp out evil in the world. Second, he would say that God has ordained governments to “execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Obeying governments, he might say, is obeying a servant that God has appointed. So, I’ll admit that we’re dealing with matters of interpretation here to some extent.
That said, I have a couple of responses. First, the wars of Joshua and Judges were “holy wars.” They served a particular purpose at a particular time. God used them to cleanse the promised land of the nations who had reached the fullness of sin. Whatever that means, we can’t use it to justify wars in all times and in all places. In addition, the “nation” of God is no longer one country over and against the others. Peter writes that the church is God’s “holy nation” (I Peter 2:9). If anyone has authority from God to wage war, it is Christians and not the United States or Russia or Costa Rica.
While the Bible does talk about a battle Christians face, it is a spiritual warfare. While there are war metaphors in the New Testament, such as the “whole armor of God,” it is important to remember that our enemies are not “flesh and blood;” not other human beings, but “cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Eph. 6:12). “We do not wage war according to human standards” (2 Corinthians 10:3–6). We “destroy arguments” and “take every thought captive.” But, the battle for the mind must not kill the body.
Second, regarding those governments “appointed by God.” It’s difficult to decide which governments are appointed by God and which aren’t. It is human nature to view the world in terms of “us” and “them.” Conveniently, we are often the good ones and they are often the evil ones; our governments are servants while theirs are enemies. But if their government has been appointed by God, then who are we to stand in the way if God has ordained for them to attack us? How do we know that they are not executing God’s wrath on us who are wrongdoers (as God did with Assyria and Babylon toward Israel). We need to be careful not to justify our own behaviors with selective or shallow readings of Scripture.
Not to mention, the word used to describe the sort of government appointed by God is “servant.” It is the same word used of Jesus’s role and the same word that Jesus used to talk about his followers: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Unfortunately, as you read above, the nations are too often acting like tyrants who lord over their people. Again, this is why Christians must “disciple the nations” so that they act like true servants as God intended. When it comes right down to it, “we must obey God rather than any human authority.”
I meant what I said in worship, that I admire and respect the courage that leads someone to join the military. I am even grateful for their sacrifice. While I can honor their courage and sacrifice, I can’t honor the act of war. I know that veterans (like my grandfathers) aren’t proud of killing people either, but I wish they didn’t have to. I’m frustrated with a church that marched them off to war as if they were doing God’s work. I am angry that they were mislead. So, I can honor who they are, but not what they’ve done or even hint that it is an act of God.
I can’t say, “well done, good and faithful servant,” but I will say, “in Christ, you are forgiven.” I just don’t think that courage is properly directed when it leads to the battlefield. I think it is properly directed when it leads people to lay down their lives as Jesus did, to not be overcome by evil, nor repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good. That does not mean killing, nor does it mean learning war anymore. It means turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
It shouldn’t escape our attention that plowshares are used to harvest grain and pruning hooks are used to harvest grapes. Grain makes bread. Grapes become wine. In them we have a signs and seals of the body and blood that we share around the Lord’s table as God’s children. “We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD — 165AD). So, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (Romans 12:20).