Is It Right to Fight?

By: Dr. Steve Sullivan; ©2003
On the heels of the war in Iraq, Dr. Sullivan explains the different positions that have been held by Christians concerning war. Is it always right to fight? Never? Sometimes? How is “just war” determined? (Dr. Sullivan is the Professor of the College of Biblical Studies, Houston, Texas)

Is it right to fight?

The events of September 11, 2001 catapulted us into a war on terrorism. This war led us to fight in Afghanistan and a different kind of war against the terrorists of al Qaeda. Then in March of this year we began a war with the evil regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At the beginning of these conflicts President George W. Bush made this profound statement on September 20, 2001, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”[1] But the question needs to be raised, “Is it just to wage war?” Or we may put it this way, “Is it right to fight?”

The question of the justice of war did not start in 2001. The debate on whether a Chris­tian should fight a war at least began in the third century A.D.[2] There were some church fathers who believed Christians should not fight in war and there were others who believed that Christians could fight in a just war. Augustine (354 430 A.D.) is the one who developed the view of a “just war.” The Feinbergs summarize Augustine’s position:

Augustine developed his theory in response to a Roman general who asked if he should lead his troops into battle or retire to a monastery. Augustine responded by bringing together the views of a number of classical thinkers such as Plato and Cicero and giving them a Christian emphasis. He argued that wars should be fought to reestablish peace and secure justice. War must be waged under a legitimate leader and be prompted by Christian love. Killing and love are not incompatible, as killing requires a bodily or external act, while loving is an inner emotion. Moreover, Augustine taught that a just war must be conducted in an upstanding way. There should be no unnecessary violence; destruction must be kept to a minimum.[3]

Men in church history have debated, developed and expanded the different positions on war. However, they all may be placed under these three main positions.[4] They are activism, pacifism, and selectivism. Activism believes a Christian is always right to participate in war. The question of a “just war” is moot to them. Since government is ordained by God (Romans 13), then the Christian is obligated to submit to his government and fight in war. The national leaders who declared the war will be held accountable to God, but the Christian will not because he is obeying his government according to Romans 13. One major weak­ness to this view is its blind obedience to the government as though it could never do anything unbiblical. The apostles in Acts 5 disobeyed the governmental authorities because they commanded them to do something clearly unbiblical. They commanded them not to preach the gospel. This illustration by the apostles and the Bible’s testimony to the sinful­ness of man[5] demands that Christians have discernment over whether government is acting biblically.

Pacifism believes it is never right for a Christian to participate in war.[6] This position must explain the plethora of passages in the Old Testament which sanctions war by God. They do this by saying that progressive revelation points the Christian to the New Testament and specifically to the teaching of Jesus for the correct position on war. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, tells Christians to love their enemy and be peace makers and this necessitates pacifism in war. Christ’s example on the cross in the face of violence and injustice is the example Christians should follow. The fundamental problem with the pacifist position is its interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. It fails to distinguish between private, public and governmental duties. The Feinbergs explain:

As a private individual I may turn the other cheek when unjustly attacked. However, my responsibilities are quite different when I stand in the position of a guardian of a third party as a civil magistrate or parent. Because I am responsible for their lives and welfare, I must resist, even with force, unjust aggression against them…. Texts that pacifists typically cite for nonresistance are verses that have to do with private or personal duties, not public duties. While Rom 13:1-7 is not uncontested in its meaning, it sets out the state’s responsibility to its citizens.[7]

Is there any inconsistency between loving one’s enemies and civil justice? I am sure there are times when it is difficult to discern between personal duty and civil duty. It is noteworthy to see that a USA soldier can be firing at the enemy one moment and when they surrender or are injured will supply medical assistance, food or water. This illustrates that justice should not be vengeance, but retributive justice.[8] The principle that love is embraced in laws of justice helps us see that loving one’s enemy is to make sure that justice prevails.[9] One other point, if everyone was a pacifist except the evil and lawbreakers of the world, then the world would be run by evil dictators or our society would be anarchy. Pacifism in its fullest sense is untenable in the sinful world in which we live.

The final position on war is selectivism. Selectivism believes a Christian is correct to participate in some wars.[10] The “just war” position is another way of expressing this view. The criteria for a just war can be explained by eight points:[11]

  1. Just Cause—This means that the war must be fundamentally a self-defense war and not a war of aggression. It must have a just cause.
  2. Just Intention—War must have good moral intentions such as (though not limited to) reestablishment of a just peace and freedom for all and restoring confiscated property and goods. However, wars of revenge, economic exploitation, ethnic cleansing or con­quest are not legitimate motives.
  3. Last Resort—War must be the very last resort after diplomatic effort is exhausted, failed or deemed useless by the proper authority.
  4. Formal Declaration—The formal declaration of war must be by the authority of the government and not by individuals, vigilantes, or paramilitary groups taking matters into their on hands.
  5. Limited Objectives—The objective of the war should not be complete destruction or annihilation of the enemy. When peace is attained then the forces of war should cease.
  6. Proportional Means—The types of weapons and the amount of force should be limited to whatever is needed to sufficiently deter and win over the aggression of the combat­ants.
  7. Noncombatant Immunity—Military forces must respect and do all that is possible not to harm the noncombatant civilian population. Only governmental forces and agents are legitimate targets.
  8. Captors Treatment—The combatants who are wounded and are prisoners of war, or both should be treated humanly.

There may be many other points one would want to add and discuss but these are the fundamental points of the just war position. Now let us turn to the biblical and theological defense of this position:[12]

  1. No one debates the fact that the Old Testament supports at least certain types of war. The question is how should the Old Testament be used in ethical matters under the new covenant times of the New Testament. The writer believes that “whatever is binding in the OT continues to apply to the NT, unless the NT either explicitly or implicitly abrogates it.”[13] Therefore, the Old Testament can be used to give us wisdom when we establish the New Testament support.
  2. Soldiers in the New Testament are mentioned in a positive light (Lk. 3:14; 14:31; Mt. 8:5ff; Lk. 6:15; Acts 10-11). John the Baptist in Luke 3:14 was asked by some soldiers what should they do. He replied, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” He did not say to get out of the military, but his answer acknowledges their occupation as valid.[14]
  3. Some of the men in the “Hall of the Faithful” in Hebrews 11 are those who were involved in the use of force and war (Heb. 11:30-34).
  4. Jesus Himself used force on two occasions when He angrily drove out the moneychangers from the temple area with a whip and overturned their tables (Jn. 2:15ff and Mk. 11:15).
  5. While Luke 22:36-38 is debated, some of his disciples on the eve of the crucifixion were carrying swords for self-protection with the approval of the Lord.
  6. Our Lord Himself will be the general of the army which puts down the rebellious nations at the second coming. (Rev. 19:11-21).
  7. The strongest arguments for a just war position are the statements concerning govern­mental force in Romans 13:1-7.[15] In Romans 13:4 the government as a “minister of God” has the authority to “bear the sword” which means the government may use deadly force in punishing the guilty. Mike Stallard argues this point:
The government can “bear the sword” (existence of just war and punishment) but does so in the context of being ministers of God to punish evildoers (right motives and intentions). Furthermore, the passage seems to imply that Christians are to be submissive to the government in all things (a participatory approach if your country is at war would be consistent with this command). Peter argues the same way in 1 Peter 2:13-15. Christians are to submit to every ordinance of man. Government is seen as having the right to punish which would imply on occasion the use of force. This is expanded in a second Pauline passage where government’s responsibility is to provide a climate of peace and tranquility for its citizens (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Furthermore, Paul seems to recognize in a common sense and realistic way the circumstances of life do not always allow you to be at peace with others. He teaches this in the context of an exhortation to Christian not to be vengeful (Rom. 12:18). Such realism with respect to life is part of the spirit that drives the idea of a just war.[16]

These seven points establish the biblical support for the first five points of the just war position. What about the rules of engagements in a just war (which is the subject of points 6-8 in the just war position)? The beginning stages in establishing rules in war are seen in the Old Testament.[17] However, the rules of engagement in war are developed from a syn­thesis of passages dealing with war in the New Testament and the love ethic from the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the New Testament which teach how to treat your enemy humanly, being made in the image of God.[18]

The subject “Is it right to fight?” is a difficult issue because it makes us face the awfulissues of a suppressive dictatorship, evil aggression, killing and death on the one hand andthe “necessary evil” of war to stop it. Could this be the reason that General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg said, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.” The just war position, in the writer’s opinion, fits best with the Scriptural evi­dence. Remember, it is possible to love your enemies and use force against him. The principle that love is embraced in laws of justice helps us see that loving one’s enemy is to make sure that justice prevails. In doing so, the Christian is also demonstrating “love for the ones his enemy has hurt.”[19]


  1. The White House Web Page,
  2. John S. Feinberg & Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics For A Brave New World (Crossway Books, 1993), p. 346. A brief history of war in the church is summarized by Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War,” War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (IVP, 1991 new edition), pp. 125-130. A survey of war and the Bible in America is given by Alan Johnson, “The Bible and War in America: An Historical Survey,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 1985), pp. 169-181.
  3. Ibid., p.347.
  4. A good summary of the Christian positions on war see Robert G. Clouse, ed., War: Four Christian Views (IVP, 1991 new edition).
  5. See Romans 3:23 and Ephesians 2:1-3. Paul tells us that even Christians (e.g. national leaders who are Christians) struggle with sin (Galatians 5:17)
  6. There are several different views on the position of pacifism: (1) Universal Pacifism—They view that all killing or violence is always wrong. (2) Christian Pacifism—Christians are never to use violence or killing, but unbelievers may. (3) Private Pacifism—Personal violence is wrong, but a nation may at times be justified in using war. (4) Antiwar Pacifism—Personal violence may be justified in some cases in defense of one’s life, but war is never justified. Feinbergs, pp. 349-50.
  7. Feinbergs, p. 356.
  8. Retributive justice is the deserved punishment for evil done. Notice Romans 12:19-21 speaks about our personal responsibility and God’s justice (“wrath”) while Romans 13 speaks about civil responsibility of individuals as a “minister of God” for retributive justice.
  9. Feinbergs, pp. 356-57; Arthur F. Holmes, “A Just War response,” War: Four Christian Views, pp. 66, 109. The Scripture teaches us that love does not always embrace a person, but sometimes it disciplines and wounds them (Prov. 13:24; Prov. 27:5-6; Heb. 12:5-6). Love hates evil and does what is good (Ps. 33:5; 37:28; 97:10; 119:119,163; Prov. 8:13; Is. 61:8; Jer. 21:12; Mic. 6:8; Amos 5:15; Zech. 7:9; Lk. 11:42; Rom. 12:9; Heb. 1:9; Rev. 2:6). Yes, it is truth that Scripture says that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10), however, true justice does not wrong a person because true justice is never wrong. “The call to love one’s enemies does not change the picture for… the law of love embraces rather than excludes retributive justice” (Holmes, p. 109).
  10. Some have also espoused a “preventive war” position but this can be a modified position of the just war position. See Harold O. J. Brown, War: Four Christian Views, pp. 151-168. The Feinbergs’ comments are also helpful (pp.367-69).
  11. Mike Stallard, “The Biblical Basis for a Just War,” The Journal of Ministry & Theology, Spring, 2002, pp.36-27; Darrel Bock, “Even For Christians, War Can Be a ‘Necessary Evil,’” Dallas theological Seminary; Kerby Anderson, “Terrorism and Just War,” Dallas Theological Seminary; Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War,” War: Four Christian Views, pp. 120-21.
  12. Mike Stallard, Ibid., pp. 40-42 was helpful in formulating a just war answer from Scripture.
  13. Feinbergs, pp.355 (also see pages 36-40). See also Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Moses or the Law of Christ,” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Crossways Books, 1988), pp. 203-218.
  14. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 22.74, says, “The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable hatred of the enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way. Otherwise, John, when the soldiers who came to be baptized asked, What shall we do? would have been replied, Throw away your arms; give up the services; never strike, or wound, or disable any one. But knowing that such actions in battle were not murderous, but authorized by law, and that the soldiers did not thus avenge themselves, but defend the public safety, he replied, ‘Do violence to no man, accuse no man falsely, and be content with your wages.”
  15. John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, Book 4, chapter 20, No. 11 says in part, “But kings and people must sometimes take up arms to execute such a public vengeance. On this basis we may judge wars lawful which are so undertaken. For if power has been given them to preserve the tranquility of their dominion…. can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one who disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all…. Indeed, if they rightly punish those robbers whose harmful acts have affected only a few, will they allow a whole coun­try to be afflicted and devastated by robberies with impunity? For it makes no difference whether it be a king or the lowest of the common folk who invades a foreign country in which he has no right, and harries it as an enemy. All such must, equally, be considered as robbers and punished accordingly. Therefore, both natural equity and the nature of the office dictate that princes must be armed not only to restrain the misdeeds of private individuals by judicial punishment, but also to defend by war the dominions entrusted to their safekeeping, if at any time they are under enemy attack And the Holy Spirit declares such wars to be lawful by many testimonies of Scrip­ture.”
  16. Stallard, pp. 41-42.
  17. E. Stern, “War, Warfare,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan, 1976), 5:895.
  18. Stallard, p. 42.
  19. Stallard, p. 43.

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