At what point do we not follow our government’s orders to kill people in war?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Romans 13 instructs us to follow our government as long as we don’t disobey God. I want to know if there is a biblical mandate to not fight if our government is engaging in genocide. Here I’m thinking of the Nazis, Cambodia, etc. Would it not be murder if the government commanded us to kill... but the people in view were not combatants?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking such an important question. As you noted, Christians should obey their governments; they are the agents of God here on earth. But to what point … because some government-sanctioned killing is overtly inappropriate and/or disproportionate, and it simply feels wrong.

However, there are no specific “biblical mandates.” There are overarching mandates, though, and these still apply… like, love your neighbor as yourselves (Matthew 22:39), do not kill (Exodus 20:13) and do not steal (Exodus 20:15). If we mastered these fundamentals, we wouldn’t have any wars to talk about!

But our situation with war is much like the situation with divorce: in the beginning, it was not so, but — because of the hardness of our hearts — Moses found he had to accommodate sin (Matthew 19:8). War is the very same thing — only on a larger scale. Before Cain slew Abel, there were no wars... but this is the fix we find ourselves in.

Now, despite what naturalistic atheists affirm, God’s morality is “in the air” so to speak. We see this in the way people engage in war. Because of sin, people who live in different nations sometimes find that they have to go to war with one another. But these wars weren’t chaotic. Common sense (read the restraining force of morality that God put in humankind) tells us that there must be rules governing how and when nations should fight one another.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Geneva Convention (1929) where world leaders set down the protocols for how we will treat people during war. This comes from a more fundamental idea called the Just War Theory, and humankind has been talking about this theory for millennia!

The Just War Theory is believed by many to be a Christian invention, but that’s not true. Plato and Aristotle talked about these ideas hundreds of years before Christ. But the church fathers picked it up and ran with it — and this is an important point: even pagans — whose gods were capricious and didn’t obey anyone’s version of the Geneva Convention — understood that war was inevitable… but that people should be protected from war’s excesses.

The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has a useful introductory piece on the Just War Theory. Let me share that with you now.

Just War - introduction

The Just War theory specifies conditions for judging if it is just to go to war, and conditions for how the war should be fought. Although it was extensively developed by Christian theologians, it can be used by people of every faith and none.

Introduction

The just war theory is a largely Christian philosophy that attempts to reconcile three things:

  • taking human life is seriously wrong
  • states have a duty to defend their citizens, and defend justice
  • protecting innocent human life and defending important moral values sometimes requires willingness to use force and violence

The theory specifies conditions for judging if it is just to go to war, and conditions for how the war should be fought.

Although it was extensively developed by Christian theologians, it can be used by people of every faith and none.

Purpose

The aim of Just War Theory is to provide a guide to the right way for states to act in potential conflict situations. It only applies to states, and not to individuals (although an individual can use the theory to help them decide whether it is morally right to take part in a particular war).

Just War Theory provides a useful framework for individuals and political groups to use for their discussions of possible wars.

The theory is not intended to justify wars but to prevent them, by showing that going to war except in certain limited circumstances is wrong, and thus motivate states to find other ways of resolving conflicts.

'Just', or merely 'permissible'?

The doctrine of the Just War can deceive a person into thinking that because a war is just, it's actually a good thing.

But behind contemporary war theory lies the idea that war is always bad. A just war is permissible because it's a lesser evil, but it's still an evil.

Origins

The principles of a Just War originated with classical Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato and Cicero and were added to by Christian theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Elements

There are two parts to Just War theory, both with Latin names:

  • Jus ad bellum:the conditions under which the use of military force is justified.
  • Jus in bello:how to conduct a war in an ethical manner.

A war is only a Just War if it is both justified, and carried out in the right way. Some wars fought for noble causes have been rendered unjust because of the way in which they were fought.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/war/just/introduction.shtml#:~:text=The%20just%20war%20theory%20is,willingness%20to%20use%20force%20and

We need to expand on the last two bullet points because these answer your question most directly. These are the ways we are supposed to behave — and at the end of the day, how we behave towards one another defines civilization.

The BBC did not list the subpoints of those two Latin terms in this introductory piece. I will do that, and I'd like to add a third. These are the criteria for determining if a conflict is just... and if it’s just, your question is answered.

The jus ad bellum section tests to see if a war is justified. It asks, 1. Is the cause just? 2. Are we acting under the right authority? (Here people would question leaders like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.) 3. Are we acting with the right intentions. (One could argue that ethnic cleansing is never the right intention!) 4. Do we have a reasonable chance of success? 5. Is the war we are looking to wage proportional to the offense? 6. Have we tried every other solution?

The jus in bello section tells us how we should conduct a justified war. 1. We should conduct it proportionally. 2. We should conduct it discriminately. 3. We should use military methods only when necessary.

Many people believe that we should add a jus post bellum section to tell us how we should conduct ourselves after the conflict. There are often issues of settlement, resettlement and reconstruction after a conflict. I agree that this would be a useful addition. In today’s world, many nation’s borders are crowded with refugees, and in my opinion, the Western world is not performing its humanitarian duty to these persons.

Since it was sin that brought war into the world, war will be a fact of life until sin is finally dispatched (Revelation 20:14). Now, we Christians should work for peace and we should pray for peace. But let’s not be deluded: we will never have peace without the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). But when we conduct our wars, if we use the principles of the Just War Theory, your question will be answered by our actions.

You see, God has provided relief for victims of war through this extra-biblical protocol. Whether people adhere to it is another question. (Despotic leaders are notorious for not following rules or respecting human rights.) But the fact that the world comes together to redress these wrongs (as in the Nuremberg trials) shows that the world is taking advantage of the type of morality that God put in each of us — the type that has us collectively come up with the Just War Theory.

I’m not sure what prompted your question, but there is quite a controversy about Deuteronomy 20:16-18 where God told the Israelites to totally destroy certain nations; critics say this is ethnic cleansing. But if we look at the Just War Theory’s jus ad bellum section number 2, the Jews were acting under God’s authority — end of discussion!

However, the God-haters will have none of that! ... so they ask, what kind of God would do that? This is a discussion for another day. Just know that Paul Copan has written a very useful book called, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense Of The Old Testament God to address the accusations of the so-called New Atheists concerning this and many other issues. I highly recommend this book... and I pray that this discussion helped.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20201019 When should we not kill people in war?).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)