Christians and the Military
A friend recently related to me her father’s experiences in World War II and the terrible effects on him and his family. As a young child, she saw the pain he experienced due to his nightmares and depression from the war; they drove him to alcohol to try to drown the pain of a flood of horrors. The painful effects only multiplied.
We think of those who served in war as heroes—men and women who leave all to battle evil. When they return, they feel our gratitude and honor for the sacrifices they made. Yet, there are also the memories of the horrors of battle. Honor and horror. How should Christians regard military service? What are we to make of our patriotic impulses while squarely facing the horrors of war?
In short, we honor those who serve, but we do so in the context of recognizing the evil of war. We honor their service and sacrifices; yet, with empathy and love we also come alongside them with help and support for both the physical injuries and the injuries done to their conscience.
Serving in the military is a legitimate vocation.
First, some people wonder if Christians should even serve in the military. Is military service a legitimate Christian vocation, or is pacifism the only option? How does Scripture address these contrary views?
The answer is that churches ought to regard military service as compatible with Christianity, while recognizing its difficulties and sacrifices. Let’s consider it from a biblical perspective.
What does the New Testament say about military service?
Though the early church was generally pacifist, the New Testament Christians were not prohibited from serving as soldiers. For example, in Luke 3:14, as John the Baptizer called the crowd to repentance, the tax collectors and soldiers who accompanied them asked John what they should do. Instead of telling them to stop being soldiers, he told them how to act—to not use their power to extort money.
Soldiers who were believers in Christ were commended by their Lord and were part of the early church. For example, Jesus praised a humble centurion’s faith (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Cornelius, a Roman centurion who commanded soldiers, was included in the people of God (Acts 10:1-4). The gospels record another centurion confessing Jesus to be an innocent man (Luke 23:47) and the Son of God (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39). Paul did not condemn those who served as soldiers but instead deemed them as being worthy of their wages (1 Cor. 9:7).
On the other hand, those who argue against the legitimacy of Christians serving in the military often point to John 18:11 where, as Jesus was being arrested by soldiers, he commanded Peter to sheath his sword (see parallels in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). Jesus plainly did not want Peter to impede his journey to his crucifixion.
Pacifists sometimes argue from this text that Jesus’ command to Peter to put away his sword means Christians are not to serve in the military, but notice that Jesus did not tell him to get rid of the sword. In fact, in Luke 22:35-37 Jesus commands his disciples to purchase and take swords with them when they go out.
We find numerous military metaphors in the New Testament.
In Scripture, military metaphors provide helpful examples of strength, battle, suffering, perseverance, and relationship to authority. In Ephesians 6:10-17, we are to put on the whole armor of God in order to withstand the schemes of the devil. Paul encouraged Timothy to be strong like a soldier focused solely on his duty, while suffering like a soldier (2 Tim. 2:3-4). He calls fellow workers “soldiers” (Phil. 2:25). Revelation is replete with battle and sword metaphors, including Christ as a lion with a sword in his mouth who battles and conquers (see also Rev. 1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 19:15, 19:21).
Of course, these apocalyptic symbols are not to be taken ethically as either pacifist (for example, a lion being transformed into a lamb) nor to justify violence. It is the sword of God’s word that conquers, not a physical sword (cf. Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16).
In summary, Scripture reveals that serving in the military is a legitimate vocation for Christians. Next, how might the church relate to those who serve and have served in the military? How might veterans be honored without glorifying the horrors of warfare, and how can the church help and support military members and veterans who may carry physical and emotional battle injuries?
Honoring others is legitimate.
The word honor in the Bible means to value, revere, esteem, deem precious, and to respect someone or something. Scripture enjoins us to regard others worthy of honor such as those in authority, and especially God and Christ above all (see Rom. 1:21, 14:6, 1 Tim. 1:17, 6:16; Rev. 4:9, 5:12, 13, 7:12).
We are to honor parents (Exod. 20:12; Matt. 15:4; 19:19; Eph. 6:2) and those who do good (Rom. 2:7, 10). We should honor one another and honor those to whom honor is owed (Rom. 2:7, 10; 13:7). The church shares in honor (or shame) through the unity of the body (1 Cor. 12:23-26). We should honor servants of the Lord, such as Epaphroditus, who nearly died serving the Lord (Phil. 2:29-30). Widows should be honored (1 Tim. 5:3) and masters (1 Tim. 6:1); husbands should honor wives (1 Pet. 3:7). We especially show double honor to elders who rule well, and especially to preachers and teachers of the Word (1 Tim. 5:17).
Christians honor the military through the lens of the gospel.
Anything that tends to glorify war and battle can lead to a prideful self-satisfaction that obscures the sinfulness of humanity. We ought not rest on our good works as though they merit anything before God. Rather than a glorifying human triumphalism, the gospel reminds us of our sinfulness, that our good works merit nothing, and that Christ alone is our only hope and rest.
Churches must not risk obscuring gospel truth by glorifying human works, especially through the tragedies of war. The church is not to become a hotbed of political and military glory. The weapon of the church is not political or military power; it is God’s word.
We need to honor military members and veterans as friends.
Churches that tend to glorify military members can run the risk of being insensitive to the horrors of war and the moral challenges many service members have experienced. Pacifist churches risk alienating those who have faced wartime horrors and personal moral conflicts. From a soldier’s point of view, combat experience is often appallingly tragic. It is a duty that carries with it the internal discord of terrible sadness, guilt, stress, and memories that cannot be erased.
Christians who overly glorify those who have returned from battle risk calling them to a level of heroism they can never live up to. On the other hand, pacifists may label them with derogatory names, showing a lack of love and empathy for what soldiers have been through. Both extremes are unfitting for Christ’s church.
Rather, in honoring those who have served in the military, let us first call them “friend.” All authority is from God, so he has appointed rulers and governments as his servants for our good. By God’s appointment governments do not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). The word of God does not abrogate the vocation of serving in the military.
Scripture teaches us by using the examples of soldiers as faithful members of Christ’s body. We learn from military metaphors what it is like to suffer, to persevere, to be diligent, and to battle against evil in the strength of the Lord wearing the armor of God.
We honor military members and veterans by teaching God’s word.
Churches have an opportunity to learn more deeply from those who have served in the military about sacrifice and risking life—what it means to give up ourselves for others—and what it means to seek peace in love even when injustice makes others an enemy.
When people are considering entering military service, church leaders can counsel them concerning oaths, the biblical roles of rulers and governments, good works, and conscience. It is also important to teach them how military service can be a source of temptation, especially the moral risks of separation from family and church into what can at times be an anti-Christian culture that may include peer pressure to excessive drinking, carousing, infidelity, and inappropriate language. Yet, church leaders should also teach military virtues which are taught in Scripture: “loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and courage” (William Barrick, “The Christian and War”).
Churches should come alongside military members and veterans in order to display the love of Christ.
Christians can show love and care for the person serving, as well as for their families who must carry with them the anxiety of separation and knowing the danger facing their loved ones. Churches should come alongside military members and veterans in order to display the love of Christ for all nations, tongues, and people, rather than be overly patriotic toward a single nation. Christians should honor members of the military for their sacrifices and show compassion for their wounds, helping, supporting, and caring for them in their struggles.
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