Writings: Unpublished

Beyond Pacifism and Militarism

A Canonical Approach to Christians and War

Stone-Campbell Journal Conference

Author: John C. Nugent

04/02/16+ Share

This essay is a plenary address I delivered at the 2016 Stone-Campbell Journal conference, in Knoxville, TN. It is scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the Stone-Campbell Journal. I approach the subject of Christians and war in a way that seeks to unite Christians who have previously held rival positions. Initial feedback from several conference attendees suggests at least partial success.

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Introduction

When it comes to the subject of war, Christians all too often talk past one another. Most of the time we do this because we assume that we already know what others believe. We should know better. Pacifists are not passivists and just war advocates are not warmongers. There is great diversity within both positions. John Howard Yoder has identified twenty-nine varieties of pacifism among religious pacifists alone,[i] and the just war tradition is equally diverse.[ii] Surely we are dealing with an immense and complicated topic.

It would also be a mistake to assume that the positions haven’t changed much over the last century. Most Christian pacifists are not making the same arguments that Reinhold Niebuhr famously rejected and persuasively deconstructed in the mid-twentieth century.[iii] The liberal pacifism of the early 1900s wasn’t rooted in critical engagement with Scripture, theology, or church tradition; it was the byproduct of common sense reasoning. In the wake of World War I, many intellectuals agreed that war settles nothing. The “war to end all wars” didn’t. Thus, pacifism in that day meant rising above petty national self-interest, recognizing that no side is completely innocent, and adopting a truly cosmopolitan disposition. This seemed to line up with the way of Jesus. After all, he taught his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies (Matt 5:38-48). He also declared that those who live by the sword will die by it (Matt 26:52).

Then, Hitler happened, and pacifism no longer seemed reasonable. So Niebuhr reframed the nonviolent way of Jesus as an important yet unrealistic ideal.[iv] Though it helpfully revealed the kingdom to come, it couldn’t govern the world that is. Responsible Christians will have to do what it takes to keep this world out of the hands of destructive despots. The once self-evident ethic of liberal pacifism was eclipsed by the newly self-evident realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

In our day, the war to end all wars has been replaced by war without end, so Niebuhr’s basic thesis has held up remarkably well, even as scholars like Dan Bell, Peter Leithart, and Denny Weaver have begun breathing new life into familiar questions.[v] I cannot here engage these questions, but I can set forth an ecumenical approach that seeks common ground between pacifists and non-pacifists who share a high view of Scripture. It avoids several ecumenical nonstarters, including theologizing from the Sermon on the Mount, theologizing from the wars of Joshua, theologizing from one’s preferred era of church history, theologizing from extreme case scenarios, theologizing from a high Christology, and theologizing from hagiography.

Instead, I recommend a canonical approach. Such an approach presumes fundamental continuity between both testaments when it comes to salvation history and God’s nature.[vi] It strives to situate warfare within the wider arc of the biblical narrative rather than a handful of contested passages. A canonical approach must take seriously the place of sword-bearing powers in Scripture, the specific calling of God’s people, and the central work of Jesus. After surveying the Bible story with these emphases in mind,[vii] I revisit the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as his brother Richard, and suggest a specific way we must move beyond them if we hope to assume a truly canonical and more ecumenical posture.

The Story of the Powers

When recounting any story, it is easy to focus on foreground characters whose actions propel the plot forward and lead to its resolution. But we shouldn’t overlook background characters without which the story makes little sense. In the Bible story, Abraham’s descendants clearly occupy the foreground. Yet their mission would not be possible were it not for sword-bearing powers working in the background to keep this world from plunging into chaos.

We encounter “powers” language in multiple strands of the New Testament, especially Pauline writings.[viii] It is shorthand for “principalities and powers” (Gk. archwn and exousia).[ix] In a few places, these powers are heavenly beings (Eph 3:10; 6:12); in others they are human leaders, religious and political (1 Cor 2:8). When such is the case, translators render the same phrase “rulers and authorities” (Rom 13:1-4).

In the first century Jewish and Christian mindset, heavenly and earthly rulers are connected. God reigns over all creation through a chain of rulers stretching from heaven to earth. He is in charge of archangels who are in charge of lower angels who are in charge of kings who are in charge of governors who are in charge of local rulers who are in charge of cities and so forth.[x]

This chain of command deeply impacts human flourishing. Since human rulers came into power in a fallen world, their impact is often negative.[xi] This is why Christ made a spectacle of the powers and triumphed over them on the cross (Col 2:15). Since that time, they are being subjected under Christ’s feet, and those that resist will eventually be destroyed (1 Cor 15:24-26).[xii]

Yet we should not think of the powers in purely negative terms. In Colossians 1:16, Paul indicates that all rulers and powers were created through Christ and for Christ. This is why several New Testament passages implore Christians to accept the authority of territorial sovereigns.[xiii] They indicate that governing authorities have been instituted by God. They serve him and the overall good of humanity. By punishing wrongdoers and encouraging right conduct, the powers enable believers to lead quiet and peaceful lives. We are urged to pray for them because they can create favorable conditions in which people may be saved.

In short, the powers have the ability and the God-given responsibility to maintain public order. This basic framework spans all of Scripture, going back as far as Genesis. When we read Genesis 1-11 as a unit, we see that violence is the primary symptom of the world’s fallen state and that, even before Abraham, God began to address it. Cain kills Abel, God has to threaten people not to kill Cain (4:15), Lamech kills a man and escalates the threat of vengeance (4:24), powerful rulers take women for themselves at will (6:1-2), a warrior class of Nephilim dominate the earth (6:4), and violence so fills the earth that God resolves to flood it (Gen 6:11, 13).

After the flood, God re-commissions humans to multiply and repopulate the earth. The genealogy of Genesis 10 shows that Noah’s descendants eventually scatter in all directions and found multiple prominent nations—yet not all people obeyed God’s command to scatter. In the land of Shinar, they stay in one place and build a massive power center. God knew this would only lead to more domination and oppression. It is no coincidence that Babel’s founder, Nimrod, is described as a “mighty man” (10:9) whose people seek to make a “name” for themselves (11:4). Before the flood, the earth was populated with “mighty men” of “name”—the Nephilim—the very ones who filled the earth with violence (6:4).

To keep the world from reverting back to its antediluvian or pre-flood state, God confuses their language and forces them to scatter. Multiplying languages means multiplying cultures. As humans migrate, they develop their own language, customs, politics, and economics. They forge a unique way of life that they grow to love and desire to maintain. The more powerful cultures, of course, want to force their way of life on others and expand their sphere of influence. The multiplicity of languages limits this. Each culture will do whatever it takes to keep rival nations from usurping their territory and trampling their culture.

Each nation’s self-interest is all that God needs to keep other self-interested nations under control. This is clearly the backdrop for Israel’s tumultuous story. All throughout Scripture, God uses these nations to preserve order and stability. He uses Assyria to punish Israel, Babylon to subdue Assyria. Persia to topple Babylon, and so forth. These nations seldom recognize that they are God’s instruments, but God does (Isa 10:5-7; 45:4-5). His people had to learn to accept this, which was not easy.[xiv]

What does all of this have to do with Christians and war? My point is this: the tasks of subduing wicked nations, keeping unbridled imperialism in check, and halting the march of tyrannical leaders are crucial for preserving order in a fallen world; but they are tasks that God has assigned to the rulers and authorities of this world. To what tasks, then, has God assigned his chosen people and how did he position them with relation to war?

The Story of God’s People

To answer these questions, we must turn to the story of God’s people. Though this story centers on Jesus, attempts to derive a war ethic from him fall short when they ignore his place in Israel’s story. Jesus was not an itinerant first century moralist; he was Israel’s Messiah. What he said about peace, love, violence, and the sword is relevant. But far more pertinent to the question of Christians and war is what he did and did not do to the social shape and witness of God’s people.

Two events signaled the formation of God’s people in the Old Testament: the calling of Abraham from Ur and the exodus of Israel from Egypt. God sent Abraham and the Israelites away from two of the most powerful and stable nations in their day to a notoriously unstable place. Though flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land was not famine-proof. It required periodic migrations away from home. Such instability made it equally susceptible to periodic raids by powerful kings on all sides. If Israel was going to thrive in the Promised Land, it would only be by God’s provision and  protection. That God would choose a land like this says something about his plans for his people.

Israel’s separation from the nations corresponds to their unique function for the nations. God told Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his descendants (Gen 12:1-3). God told his descendants, after delivering them from Egypt, that they were his “treasured possession out of all the peoples,” “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:3-6). These statements are generic enough that we need to keep reading to grasp their full meaning. But one thing is clear: God did not pull his people out of the most impressive nations in order to do with them exactly what he does with those nations. The language of blessing and priesthood suggests that Israel would be unique. They would not exist merely to provide structure and preserve culture within a specific territory while striving to protect its borders. If all nations are to be blessed through Israel’s priestly service, one way or another, borders will have to be crossed. At this point in the story, it is not clear who will be crossing them or when.

God began to reveal how on Mount Sinai. The way of life set forth in Torah involves economics, politics, agriculture, jurisprudence, diet, worship, and more. Most noteworthy for our topic is its overt military unpreparedness. Strikingly absent is the development of a standing army. This is no oversight. It dovetails perfectly with commands not to crown a king like the nations and not to acquire the latest military technology: horses and chariots (Deut 17:14-20). Instead, God’s people may gather for war only when a priest—not a military commander—blows the trumpet.[xv] Though all ancient nations claimed that their gods fought for them, not many backed such claims by foregoing a militaristic king, standing army, and advanced weaponry.

These strange laws are remarkably consistent with what we find in the canonical record of Israelite warfare. Their earliest victories were divinely orchestrated miracles or Yahweh War.[xvi] They defeated the Egyptians by plague and parting sea (Exod 14), the Amalekites by Moses’ raised staff (Exod 17), Jericho by marching and blowing trumpets (Josh 6), and a coalition of kings by heavenly hail and extended daylight slaying time (Josh 10). Yet when the Israelites forsook God, they were defeated by Ai, even though they far outmatched them (Josh 7). Indeed, so little about the conquest of Canaan parallels contemporary warfare that it seems silly to appeal to it as biblical precedent for today. Indeed, those who draw quick and easy comparisons betray what little attention they’ve paid to the text itself and how much their own questions set the agenda for their reading.

The standard practice of Yahweh War continued throughout the time of the judges. It is most dramatically portrayed in Gideon’s victory over the Midianites. God whittles down the size of his army precisely because it was too numerous to lose, and God didn’t want his people winning by their own strength (Judg 7). The most serious threat to Yahweh War was Israel’s request for a king like the nations. They tired of relying on God as their national security. Their experience at Ai kept repeating itself. God only fought Israel’s battles when they sought his face and trusted him to fight for them. But Israel had largely forsaken Torah, so God handed them over to other nations to discipline them. Weary of the instability, the Israelites sought control of their own fate; a king like the nations appeared to be the only way forward. Through Samuel, God warned that this was a big mistake and predicted that a king would take their daughters and draft their sons into his army (1 Sam 8). Nonetheless, God grants their request. He gives them Saul who quickly usurps the role of priest by consecrating his own battle and offering a sacrifice to God (1 Sam 13). He commits a similar offense later by sparing for a sacrifice spoils of war that God had devoted to destruction (1 Sam 15). God rejects him as king and appoints in his place David, a man who trusts God alone for his victory and not royal armor and spear (1 Sam 17).

Radical trust in God made the young David a man after God’s heart. Unfortunately, after David later acquires Goliath’s sword (1 Sam 21:8-9) and begins wearing the crown, he starts trusting more in his own military might. Unpleased, God tests David by inciting him to count his fighting men (2 Sam 24). To do so would be a sure sign that his priorities were now reversed. David fails the test and God cripples his reign from that point forward.

Saul usurped priestly responsibility and God’s role as commander in chief. David built such an impressive fighting force that God’s help hardly seemed necessary. All that remained to forsake Yahweh War altogether was to keep a standing army in times of peace, acquire the best military technology from Egypt, and form tactical alliances with neighboring nations. Solomon fulfills all three without missing a beat (1 Kgs 10-11). The sword was simply too big a temptation for Israel’s finest and wisest kings.

The remaining monarchs followed suit. Torah observance and kingship like the nations proved to be mutually exclusive. The Israelites were not becoming a priestly kingdom whose distinct way of life God might use to bless all nations; they were becoming a less powerful version of what Babylon and Egypt already were and what everyone else wanted to be. Israel became a pale reflection of Torah’s vision. Indeed, the sword was never a good thing in Israel’s hands. God therefore left his people to fend for themselves with the inevitable result that Babylon conquered them, humiliated them, and divested them of their king and standing army (2 Kgs 24-25).

The Israelites were despondent. What had become of them? Their city in shambles, their leaders in exile, their enemies gloating. If only they could be successful like other nations. The least God could do is allow them to secure their own freedom and prosperity. Then a word from the Lord brought everything into perspective. Second Isaiah reminds God’s people of their proper place, saying, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).[xvii]

It was vitally important for Israel to be restored, but this was not a task that Israel was called to accomplish. God would use Persian kings to defeat Babylon, send the exiles home, and even sponsor the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple and walls (Isa 44:28; 45:1, 13). This is precisely the point at which the story of the powers and the story of God’s people converge. God has access to a limitless supply of world rulers who are itching to organize the masses and wage necessary wars. There will always be “mighty ones” who are eager to secure a lasting “name” for themselves by overcoming evil with a superior show of force. God uses such people to do this very thing. What God wants from his set apart people, however, is much more important according to Isaiah, and only they can do it. It involves being a light to the nations that will reach the ends of the earth. It is “too light a thing” for them to focus on anything else.

The rest of the story leading up to Jesus is ambiguous. Though Persia aids in the partial restoration of Jerusalem, the Israelites remain a Persian province. They are exiles even in their own land (Ezra 9:8-9). But the advice of Jeremiah still rings in their ears: accept life under foreign occupation, seek the peace of whatever city you inhabit, pray for the governing authorities since your well-being is tied to their work, and multiply as God’s set apart people because God is not yet done with you (Jer 29:4-7).

Persia was eventually overtaken by Greece whose Hellenizing agenda made life miserable for God’s people, especially under the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. From this point forward, their fortunes seemed to ebb and flow with the prevailing tide of international powers. If only the messiah would come, set the world straight, and put God’s people in their rightful place.

The Work of Jesus

When Jesus finally arrived, the Jews were looking for answers. Would God ever restore his people to the Promised Land? Would he resurrect the Davidic kingship with a capital city and standing army? Was the monarchy’s collapse meant to be permanent? Were the Maccabees on the right track with a high priest ruling quasi-independently in cooperation with more powerful empires? How exactly would God establish his kingdom and position his people as a source of light and blessing to all nations? 

God’s people were not concerned with moral conundrums or helping their host nations mete out justice fairly. They now knew that they were poorly suited for kingship and warfare like the nations. So in exile and at home, they rallied around Torah and became a people of the book. They had not renounced warfare in principle, but they were gravitating more toward Yahweh War. Without God and his angels, they could only pull off temporary local upsets.

With this in mind, the most relevant Gospel passages about warfare are the ones where Jesus weighs in on the overall posture of God’s people in this world. It’s the ones where he rejects the Sadducees’ strategy of allying with the powers to secure a place for Jews at the imperial table. It’s the ones where he rejects the Zealot’s dream of toppling existing regimes and replacing them with a more just one that God’s people run. It’s his relative apathy towards the fate of Jerusalem despite his awareness of the temple’s imminent destruction. It’s his rejection of the devil’s temptations to gain influence over the nations following the pattern of the powers.[xviii] 

We miss the whole point if we assume that Jesus rejected violent territorial conquest only because his main job was to die on the cross for sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection were not enough to get his followers’ heads on straight. During his post-resurrection appearances, they were still clamoring for top-down territorial rule (Acts 1:6).[xix] The turning point for them was the ascension.[xx] When they see Jesus exalted at God’s right hand, Lord of the cosmos, with all powers being subjugated under his feet—then they realize the direction God is heading with his people. While all eyes were on Jerusalem, Jesus had inaugurated his pan-territorial kingdom in their midst. Jerusalem was too small a prize, the Roman Empire too provincial. God’s reign encompasses all things in heaven and on earth. Jesus commissions his people to be a blessing and light to the nations by embracing, displaying, and proclaiming his reign among every ethnic group on every continent.

The disciples need not bring God’s kingdom; Jesus already brought it. As the apostle Paul memorably put it,

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:17-20).

God’s kingdom has come in Jesus, everything has become new and, most importantly, “all this is from God.” He reconciled us and the world to himself. He made all things new. It is an accomplished fact; and the ministry of God’s people is to make this fact known. The present form of this world is passing, but most people are oblivious to it (1 Cor 7:31). They still think the powers bear the meaning of world history. So God commissioned his people to serve as ambassadors—citizens of one kingdom who represent their government to citizens of other kingdoms. This is the task and social form of God’s people. Though God sits enthroned over all nations and works sovereignly among each one, his kingdom people remain a minority movement. Rival kingdoms, even hostile ones, still exist.

As far as God is concerned, he has absorbed and conquered all hostility in Christ and brokered a lasting peace (Eph 2:16). His kingdom will indeed envelop all kingdoms and encompass all territories, but he neither forces people into it nor counts them as default citizens of it. Instead, he appeals to them through meek and vulnerable ambassadors whose claims are debatable and whose offer can be rejected (2 Cor 4:7-10). Those who accept this gift are incorporated into the body of Christ—a loose federation of ecclesial embassies scattered throughout the world. They are the first fruits of God’s kingdom and they seek it first (Matt 6:33). When people see their good works and love for one another, they are drawn to the king. This is ultimately how God has chosen to bless all nations through his people. It is the sociopolitical form of their priestly service. God sends them into the world as servants bearing a gift. Jesus warns them against being like Gentile rulers who lord their influence over people (Luke 22:25-26). They are called benefactors because they do so for the good of people. This is precisely the kind of influence that world powers possess. The disciples wanted it, too, but Jesus would not allow it.

Jesus then reminds them what God’s kingdom is like: the greatest becomes like the least, the leader a servant (Luke 22:27). That is usually where people stop reading, but the verses that follow are crucial: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (vv. 28-30). Jesus’ disciples needed no power over the kingdoms of this world because God had given them a different kingdom with a different view of power. They already occupied important posts in Jesus’ kingdom. Presiding over rival kingdoms was not their place—it would actually be a demotion.

Christian Responsibility

This way of interpreting the broad sweep of the Bible story puts the question of war in a different light. It doesn’t begin with the morality of war as such, but with God’s providence over world history. It recognizes the global problem of sin and violence as the Bible sees it. It notes the indispensable role that the powers play in God’s effort to keep violence from getting out of control. It traces the unique role of God’s set apart people as harbingers and embassies of God’s peaceful kingdom, which has already begun to supplant the kingdoms of this world.

In light of the full canonical trajectory, one wonders what motive a Christian might have for wanting to wage war on behalf of the powers. We have every reason to believe that God is sovereign over the nations and has plenty of resources to bring low any nation that oversteps its bounds. We have every reason to believe that the role of God’s people is fundamentally different from that of the powers and that God has disentangled us from them so we might fulfill that role throughout the entire world. Though it takes a great deal of faith to trust God with the overall direction of world history, this kind of faith is integral to a biblical worldview.

Yet one motive has long held an intractable grip on Christians, namely, the notion of responsibility. Though this notion was championed by Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother Richard, it has taken many forms. One form claims that since Christians benefit greatly from the coercive work of the powers, it is irresponsible and ungrateful for them to refuse to participate in it.[xxi] Richard Niebuhr takes it one step further: since Christians are partly responsible for the chaotic state of this world, they owe it to the world to do all they can to make it better. Where they enjoy the freedom and opportunity, it is irresponsible to do less.[xxii] This notion of responsibility is deeply rooted in the Western Christian psyche. But—and both Niebuhrs admit this—it is not biblical. Should it therefore be allowed to trump the argumentative force of the canonical trajectory?

There is a better way to conceive of the notion of Christian responsibility. It reaches back in the biblical story and takes its bearings from Israel’s priests. When God brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan, he divided them into twelve territories. To the twelve tribes with territory, God gave leaders who shared the responsibility for overseeing property, economics, justice, and other civil affairs (Deut 16-17). But Levi’s descendants—the priests—received no territorial allotment (Num 18:20). They were scattered among Israel’s tribes to serve them in a unique capacity.[xxiii] They had much to do and they alone were authorized to do it. To free them up to fulfill their responsibilities, God appointed others to govern their host tribes. Levites did not manage the towns of their host tribes; elders did that. They did not settle everyday judicial disputes; judges did.[xxiv] They neither went to war on behalf of their tribes, nor executed capital offenders. Though their fluency in Torah qualified them above most tribal leaders to carry out such responsibilities, they trusted God to meet their host tribes’ basic needs without their help.

The Levites’ hands-off posture toward tribal governance was not viewed as irresponsibility. In enabled them to serve their tribes in ways that only they could. Since Levites didn’t fight Israel’s wars, they could impartially discern when wars were divinely sanctioned. Since they didn’t judge or execute capital criminals, they could host potentially-innocent killers who sought sanctuary in their cities of refuge. Because they didn’t enforce tribal laws and weren’t directly related to many of the accused, they were objective enough to take ambiguous cases to God for a definitive ruling. Because they had no official territory of their own, they could help settle boundary disputes. Since the land on which they lived was not truly theirs, they were free to leave it for extended periods to serve as needed at the tabernacle. They could serve in these unique capacities precisely because they were barred from performing the governing, juridical, and military tasks of other Israelites. They could best render the service to which they were called by trusting God to provide others to do what lies beyond their purview.[xxv]

This priestly analogy breaks down at a few important points. Both the Levites and their host tribes were part of God’s chosen people. Both confessed God’s rule over every aspect of life according to Torah. The church’s relation to its host nations is much different. Modern nations are fallen powers that God uses to uphold the old order; the church has been called to represent the new order of God’s kingdom. Levites could fulfill a chaplain-like function on behalf of other tribes because they belonged to the same Lord and shared the same values. Christians, on the other hand, have been set apart from world powers because they seek a different kingdom, follow a different Lord, and expect a different inheritance when Christ returns.

Despite such differences, the church’s role is comparable to Israel’s priests. [xxvi] God has sent us into all nations as aliens and exiles (1 Pet 2:11) whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). He has done this precisely so we would not attach our identity to our host nations and so we would be properly positioned to serve them in ways that only those who seek first God’s kingdom can. Our respectful disentanglement from running our host nations frees us up to welcome and assimilate those who are a burden or a threat to our unbelieving neighbors. Such disentanglement also positions us to bear witness to an alternative kingdom that is here in part and will someday come in full. Like the descendants of Levi, our priestly “irresponsibility” makes possible our priestly responsibility.

A biblical notion of responsibility recognizes that all authority has been given to Christ and that he alone is positioned to assign responsibility. Coveting responsibility that God, in Christ, has given to others is not a virtue, but a vice. It exudes an aura of honor, but it bears a striking resemblance to manifest destiny, the white man’s burden, and American exceptionalism.

This canonical approach to warfare leads to a stance unlike principled pacifism and justified militarism. It recognizes that war sometimes has a place in God’s governance of the world, yet it avoids assuming that, because God uses war for this world’s benefit, his people are obligated to participate in it. It also confesses that, short of fresh divine revelation, we cannot be sure what exactly God is doing in a particular armed conflict. Sometimes God uses wicked nations with their wicked means and motives to execute his sovereign will. In Scripture, God does not appear to be bound by any specific set of criteria. The church today, like Israel of old, is in no position to justify or accredit God’s work among the powers. But we have been positioned in Christ to serve the world in a de-militarized, pan-territorial, priestly capacity.

The strength and ecumenical promise of a canonical approach is that it takes seriously the wide scope of the biblical narrative. It does not appeal to emotion, experience, or moral practices that sound good in the abstract but have scant Scriptural support. It also avoids building an ethical mountain out of an exegetical molehill. Rather, it leans most heavily upon motifs that are central to the Bible story and well supported by leading scholars from a wide variety of ecclesial traditions.[xxvii] An alternative view of Christians and warfare would have to furnish a more compelling account of the entire narrative of Scripture, the place of Israel and the church, and the nature of God’s kingdom and mission.



[i] John H. Yoder, Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992. For the most convenient and accessible collection of Yoder’s essays on Christians and war, see Revolutionary Christian Citizenship, eds. John C. Nugent, Branson L. Parler, and Andy Alexis-Baker (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2013).

[ii] See Daniel M. Bell, Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009).

[iii] For more on Niebuhr and liberal pacifism, see Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, eds. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), chs. 17-18.

[iv] See Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” (1939), in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 102-120.

[v] Bell, Just War as Christian Discipleship; Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010); Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[vi] It approaches Scripture quite similar to Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006); Craig G. Bartholomew and Michel W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004). I describe this hermeneutic in The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 10-13 and 211-215.

[vii] I engage the biblical narrative at greater length in Politics of Yahweh and Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016). 

[viii] See Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ and the Powers, trans. John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977).

[ix] These terms occur together in Luke 12:11; 20:20; Rom 13:1-4; 1 Cor 15:24-26; Eph 1:20-23; 2:1-2; 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:15-17; 2:9-10, 15-16; Titus 3:1.

[x] Angels are linked to human rulers or nations in Dan 10:10-21, Deut 32:8 (LXX), Isa 24:21-23; Psalm 82; 1 Enoch chs 6-16; 89:59-90; and Jubilees 15:31-32.

[xi] Eph 6:12; Rom 8:38-39. 

[xii] For Christ’s rule over the powers, see 1 Cor 15:22-28; Eph 1:20-22; Heb 10:12-13; 1 Pet 3:21-22.

[xiii] Rom 13:1-6; 1 Tim 2:1-4; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-14.

[xiv] Hab 1.

[xv] Num 10:9; 31:6; Deut 20:1-4; Josh 6:4-6. 

[xvi] See Gerhard von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel, ed. and trans. Marva J. Dawn (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1991); and Millard C. Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980).

[xvii] For insightful analysis of this passage, see Yoder, “Behold My Servant Shall Prosper,” in Karl Barth and the Problem of War and Other Essays on Barth, ed. Mark Thiessen Nation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2003), 149-167.

[xviii] Jesus was tempted in this way not only during his forty days in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11), but also by Peter (Matt 16:21-28) and in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-53). Jesus’ likely alternative to drinking the cup of suffering was righteous revolutionary violence.

[xix] Their question about Jesus restoring the kingdom follows upon earlier requests that connect the kingdom’s coming with the disciples’ promotion to positions of power (e.g., Luke 22:14-30).

[xx] See Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

[xxi] Cf. 1 Pet 2:13-14.

[xxii] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Responsibility of the Church for Society” (1946), in “The Responsibility of the Church for Society,” and Other Essays by H. Richard Niebuhr, ed. Kristine Culp (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 62-75. Niebuhr also brings up the motive of love. This, too, presupposes an unbiblical understanding. In Scripture, we are called to love God and the community of faith (which, in the OT, included aliens who live with them according to Torah, Lev 19:34). We are never called to a universal love for all people. Jesus does broaden the love command to include our enemies. Yet when Christians wage war on behalf of the powers, they risk killing both Christians and enemies—the ones we are clearly called to love—so as to protect fellow countrymen, whom Scripture does not specifically call us to love. See Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimensions of Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 110.

[xxiii] Num 10:8-10, ch. 18, and ch. 35; Deut 31:7-9 and 33:8-10.

[xxiv] Though the Levites served as a final court of appeal in difficult cases (Deut 17:8-12), all tribes appointed their own judges and officials to deal with ordinary matters (Deut 16:18-20).

[xxv] I develop this analogy at great length in The Politics of Yahweh, 191-210.

[xxvi] Exod 19:5-6; 1 Pet 2:4-5; and Rev 1:5-6; 5:10; 20:6.

[xxvii] For scholarly support, see Politics of Yahweh, Part 2.