This question is very popular, more so from conscientious teenagers who see Military service as a viable career choice, but have many concerns over serving an institution that seems to contradict one of the moral imperatives found in the Ten Commandments – “You shall not murder”.
On the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also clearly tells us (Christians) that we are not to murder (Matthew 5:21) and in the face of evil we are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42).
People have used such teaching to justify pacifism in the assumption that Christians should be meek and mild and not fight in or support any conflict, but simply live in peace.
“They say peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
I have a lot of respect for pacifists and know that such a stance is often the bravest course to take. I also know that many have abused this stance to get out of front line duties and such cowardice has tarnished the reputation of others who have acted in the utmost integrity with a real conviction and a deep love for their fellow man (Matthew 5:44).
But such a stance (however respectable) is not what Jesus taught on the mount, so such verses should not be used to defend this case.
Is Military Service Biblical?
Before we answer this questions, we need to remember that God cannot stand sin (Isaiah 59:2), He cannot lie (Hebrew 6:18), He is unchanging (Revelation 1:8), and His words are perfect (Psalm 12:6).
In Genesis 14:14 we read that Abraham forms an army of 318 men to bring back Lot from the four Kings. In Exodus 17, Israel beat the Amalekites in battle, God Blessed when Moses raised his staff into the air. In Joshua 1 the Lord speaks to Joshua telling him to be strong and courageous (v6) as he goes out to take the promised land, the Lord also told Joshua when to attack Ai (Joshua 8:1).
King Saul had an army (1 Samuel 13:2) and so did King David. The Lord even gave him battle strategies (2 Samuel 5:23). David had mercenaries fighting for him (2 Samuel 15) and a part time army working on shifts (1 Chronicles 27). People were also commissioned to provide weaponry and chariots (1 Kings 10:26).
We also know that Jesus is not going to be a pacifist on His return (Revelation 12:7) and throughout the Gospels we see many instances of soldiers being praised as Christians, God-fearing men and of good character (Matthew 8:5; 27:54; Mark 15:39-45; Luke 7:2; 23:47; Acts 10:1; 21:32; 28:16).
Jesus did not shun or rebuke the centurion but showed respect for his sense of leadership (Matthew 8:5-13). When John the Baptist was asked by soldiers what they should do (in light of the gospel) they were not told to stop serving in the Military, but to be content with their wages and not abuse their power or authority over civilians (Luke 3:14).
All this evidences to the truth that you can be a soldier and lead a godly life. You can be a Christian and serve in the Military.
So what did Jesus mean on the Sermon on the Mount, if it were not an argument for pacifism?
We know that Christians are not to kill or murder, but we also know that Christians should neither sit back and allow injustice.
Throughout scripture we are told to defend the weak (Proverbs 31:8-9), seek justice (Isaiah 1:17), and if necessary lay down our lives for others (John 15:13).
We are to love our neighbours (Mark 12:31) but if your neighbour broke into your house and desired to rape your wife and kill your children, you are not simply to turn the other cheek and hope that this witness would lead to conversion. Call the police! And when they arrive pray that they are not pacifists. Christians all have a Biblical mandate to protect our families (1 Timothy 5:8), our society and to defend the weak (Psalm 82:3).
I went to Auschwitz last year and will be forever horrified by what I saw. If our nation took a “pacifist” position to Hitler during the war, the genocide of the Jews, Polish, Russians and Gypsys would have continued, millions more lives would have been lost to evil forces. The Nazi’s had to be stopped and doing so would honour the Christian values of Justice, defence, law and order.
“There is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8)
Even Jesus chased everyone out of the temple courts with a whip and overturned the money tables. (John 2:15).
So what was Jesus teaching on the sermon of the mount?
Well, to fully understand we have to look at the context……
Jesus was giving life lessons to individuals in society.
Jesus was teaching His followers not to repay evil with evil in the context of our daily lives.
If someone aggressively beeps the horn at you in a Tesco car park, you are not to get out of your car and seek retribution, but simply turn the other cheek, or even better, show them kindness (1 Peter 3:9).
If a relative is being malicious behind your back, do not react, but leave it with the Lord, for such things are His to revenge (Romans 12:19).
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount does not apply to institutions that require Military intervention, He is talking to individuals, not heads of state.
As Christians we are to do what is right, live by God’s law and the law of the land, respecting the authorities who are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:3-4).
We are to submit to those God has put in charge to defend, preserve and protect our societies freedoms (1 Peter 2:13-14), a freedom that allows us to turn the other cheek in our daily lives.
We now have an understanding of the context in which Jesus was speaking on the Mount and we can see how the teaching should be applied to us (individually).
Jesus is not promoting pacifism, neither undermining the authorities or services that protect and defend our freedom.
On the Sermon of the Mount Jesus is teaching that we are to be good and loving citizens by not taking the law into our own hands, by not seeking revenge or retribution on those who have harmed us. Instead we have to trust the authorities to deal with the wrongdoer and leave any ill feeling towards our assailants with God.
Scripture proves that you can be a Christian and serve in the Military and the Sermon on the Mount does not contradict this.
If you are a Christian called to such a duty, you must live by Jesus’ teaching and be honourable in your service as a “sword bearer” for the Authority God has bestowed. Do not abuse your power but be a tool of justice as you fight against evil.
If the authority sends you into war to punish the “wrongdoer” and you kill an opposing “sword bearer” in battle, you have not committed murder, you have not taken the law into your own hands but have followed orders given by the state who were appointed by God.
However, if you abuse your dominance, act cruelly, go beyond just retribution, act in revenge, knowingly attack innocents or seek any unjust gain from your position then you are being unchristian in your service, you need to repent, confess your sin to God and accept the grace of Jesus Christ.
Final points to consider
The state authority has been established by God for the good of the church and we are to submit to it, unless it becomes the “wrongdoer” and goes against Biblical teaching (Acts 5:29).
The government is God’s vehicle for Military action, not the church, we are to rend to Caeser what is Caesars (Mark 12:17) whilst living in Christ’s Kingdom (John 18:36). For our battle is not against flesh and blood but evil forces (Ephesians 6:12), as soldiers of Christ (Philippians 2:25) each day putting on the full Armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) fighting with our divine weapons (2 Corinthains 10:4) and join in Christ’s suffering (2 Timothy 2:3).