3 Things a Christian Should Consider before Serving in the Military
Among the many legitimate vocations that Christians can pursue, military service is certainly an acceptable choice. Serving in the military can be very beneficial. Many young people have testified to the fact that military service helped them grow up to be responsible adults. Many have taken advantage of financial assistance programs that help pay for college. Others have learned much about leadership, service, and honor by serving in the military. There are also many benefits—learning technical trades or even learning a unique skill, such as how to fly aircraft—that lead to long and profitable careers later in civilian life.
Even with all these advantages, as a pastor there are several areas in which I would want to provide counsel to a young person if he or she was considering military service as a vocation.
First, I would want to ensure that the person was very spiritually mature.
A regular part of military service is constant relocation and even deployment to foreign countries or war zones. With such an ambulatory life, being a member of a church and having regular access to the means of grace can be a great challenge.
If you’re on a year-long combat deployment to a war zone, you might not be able to hear the preaching of the word or take the sacrament consistently. And when you do, it might have to be a chaplain from another denomination or even religion who would perform a “religious service.” This means that a person has to be spiritually mature enough continually to seek through every means and avenue consistent spiritual nourishment.
Second, the Christian has to have a strong will—a dogged commitment to serve Christ and continually strive for greater sanctification.
The military is no different than the rest of the world, but it can have a strong group mentality, which is quite different from civilian organizations. When companies like Google or Apple encourage individuality, creativity, and spontaneity, the military is the exact opposite—it fosters uniformity, obedience, and group unity. The military uniform is a manifestation of this mindset—everyone has the same basic uniform. In such a context it’s quite easy to get swept up in group immorality.
Stories of group misconduct occurring in top-tier military units have appeared in the press in recent months. There have been reports of war crimes (mutilating enemy combatant bodies, which is in violation of the Geneva Convention), sexual immorality (distribution of explicit sexual images on social media sites), and serious drug abuse, even during combat operations. In this setting the group mentality of military training undoubtedly plays a significant role—if you don’t participate, you stand out because you don’t conform with the group.
I would want to tell a young person, yes, you can pursue a career in the military, but you need to be prepared to say no when everyone else is telling you to say yes. Would you cease to participate in war crimes at the risk of alienating your comrades, at the risk of your life, at the risk of your reputation? Would you be willing to stand for the truth and report the crimes, even if it meant the end of friendships and your career?
Third, the Christian has to have a strong commitment to the Bible’s teaching on the image of God.
War might not be hell, but it’s close to it. War can wreak havoc on a person’s state of mind. All it takes is weeks and months of exposure to brutality and death before a person can become numb to the value of life. A soldier can cease to look at the enemy as a human being created in the image of God and instead see him as subhuman. Once this mindset sets in, the Christian soldier is no longer the sharp point of the magistrate’s sword ordained to punish evil doers (e.g., Rom. 13), but the soldier becomes a killer—someone who takes pleasure in taking life.
Taking another person’s life under legitimate circumstances still leaves scars on the soul, and it doesn’t take much for these scars to harden the heart if too many accumulate. Therefore, the Christian who serves as a soldier needs to beware of such dangers and pray diligently that Christ would protect his soul.
These three things are not the only considerations, but they are some of the most pressing for any Christian considering military service. Give careful thought, prayer, and preparation if you decide to serve in the military. Pray in the end that no matter your vocation, you would glorify God in all that you do, including through your military service.
J. V. Fesko is Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).
The Fruit of the Spirit Is... by J. V. Fesko
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