The Sixth Commandment and War

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips July 2, 2000

Tonight's question for the question box has to do with the sixth commandment and the idea of a just war. Here is the question: "The sixth commandment says "thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). Is killing other human beings during times of war right for a Christian in light of the 6th commandment?"

The writer of this question went on to add that he thought I would be an ideal person to ask this question. He is no doubt referring to the fact that I am the son of a military family and was, for thirteen years, a combat officer in the United States Army. I don't think that gives me any special authority on this issue, but it certainly is true that I have put more thought into this issue than the average Christian probably has.

The first place we want to go is to the Bible, beginning with the sixth commandment. It is widely agreed that the word "kill" is better translated as "murder," which is how the NIV has it. So the prohibition is not against any killing at all, but against unjust killing. A rudimentary knowledge of Scripture will reveal that God does not forbid all killing of human beings; indeed, in many instances He has positively commanded it. Israel was not chided by God for killing the Canaanite peoples in their occupation of the Promised Land, but for not being thorough enough in their killing (1 Samuel 13). As early as Genesis chapter 9 God imposed the death penalty for murder. On the one hand this shows the value God places on human life, but on the other it renders null any claims to a universal prohibition against killing: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6).

In general, there are two kinds of killing that are sanctioned in the Bible. The first is for the punishment of capital crimes. The Old Testament lays out a number of such cases, and murder is one of many crimes that warranted such punishment. The second situation was that of war. All through the Old Testament we see God's people at war with their enemies, and never are they criticized our charged for doing so. Therefore, it is plain to see that the Sixth Commandment does not prohibit these sorts of actions. This is reinforced when we find that the Hebrew word for "murder" in the commandment is a word that is never used when authorized punishment or war are in view. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 13:4, speaks of the civil magistrate as "God's servant to do you good," and adds, "he does not wield the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." So the quick answer to our question is this: the 6th commandment does not prohibit Christians from serving their country in time of war, nor from killing their fellow human beings in battle.

However, as is often the case in a world like ours, things are not quite so simple. The first thing we want to take note of is that we are not living in Old Testament Israel. Ancient Israel was the corporate, national people of God in the way no nation is today. America is not, despite our rhetoric, a Christian nation in any objective way. We have no right to assume that our enemies are the enemies of God. This makes things more difficult.

The first topic we usually come to is that of a "just war." Our own doctrinal standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith, concedes to the civil authority the right to "wage war, upon just and necessary occasion" (XXIII.2). A just war is one that pursues the protection and establishment of justice. An unjust war is one that is waged for vindictive hatred or revenge or simple greed. St. Augustine said, "Righteous wars may be defined as wars to avenge wrongs."1

How much responsibility, then, does a Christian soldier have for the justice of the war in which he is involved? On the one hand, no army can have every soldier sitting in judgment on national policy. People in high office are entrusted, ultimately by God, for matters of high strategy, while the great mass of soldiers are entrusted, also by God, for serving obediently and well. I knew very well that as a commander I was not willing to allow individual soldiers to philosophize on the merits of higher policy.

What then are common soldiers' responsible for? The immediate answer is their own behavior. It is not acceptable to claim higher orders for atrocities such as the murder of non-combatants. This was the plea of the Nuremburg war criminals at the end of World War II and it was rightly rejected. Even a just war, therefore, does not justify every sort of violence. As a soldier, and especially as an officer in command of hundreds of other soldiers, I often reminded myself that I was only order away from the ruin of my career. There are, I was sure, orders I was not willing to obey or enforce but which would result in my lawful arrest and even imprisonment.

War is, by its very nature, anything but cut and dried, clean and neat. The VietNam War was a classic example of this. Many Christians gladly served in that war, utterly convinced from a close vantage point that the war was not only just but was a righteous defense of the weak. Yet of all the many people I have known who served in that war there were none without great regrets, questions, and even qualms. Christians may find contentment in the performance of their duty, while using every opportunity to promote justice, truth, and even peace.

Here, as in many thorny cases of ethics, we do well by returning to the great commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:37-39). Given that framework for conduct, I never wanted to serve any cause, much less kill for any cause, unless it was not just technically "just" but "good" from that biblical standpoint. Raw conquest, or even economic advantage, is surely not a cause worthly of taking or risking life. But, for me, it was always an honor to risk my life for the weak and poor and disenfranchized, for justice and love, and yes, for the pursuit of peace. It was for those things that I became a soldier and that my fathers before me took up the sword. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus taught, "for they shall be called sons of God" (Mt. 5:9).

It is argued by Christian pacifists that Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies (Mt. 5:38-43). As the Bible makes clear, that is not a motive to fail to defend others for whom you are entrusted. And yet we must not be too quick to brush such matters aside. A Christian must wage war without hatred, must fight without seeking evil upon his foe. St. Augustine, I think, summed up the motive of the Christian in war:

Peace ought to be your desire, war only your necessity… War is waged in orer to win peace. Hence, even in warfare, be a peacemaker that you may by conquering your assailants, bring them over to the advantages of peace… Let is be necessity, not your desire, which slays the foe in fight.2

That is, for sure, a tall order, and one for which Christian soldiers should be ever in prayer. If and when our armed forces are called forth to fight, we all should remember to pray for the lives, and yes, the hearts, of all our Christian brothers and sisters called by the nation and perhaps by God to wield the sword.


1 William Barclay, The Ten Commandments, Lousiville, KY: Westminster, 1973. p. 68

2 Ibid

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