With regard to this “Violence and the Trinity” series, I got a great set of questions from a member of our congregation here, and so I asked him if I could interact with them publicly. He said sure, and so off we go.
“I noticed that in a recent post you refer to several classic anti-pacifist passages, and quite effectively. Here’s the unanswered problem though: Assuming you’re right that ‘there is not a word in the New Testament that hints that the Church is at odds with the State because the State is violent,’ what biblical grounds does the church or the state have to limit violence?”
And I would answer that there are no grounds to limit violence per se. We certainly have warrant to limit unrighteous violence, but not because it is violent. We oppose it because it is unrighteous, and that is defined by the law of God. So long as there is unrighteous violence, there will need to be righteous violence at some level to answer it. (That is not the only answer to unrighteous violence, obviously.) And if unrighteous violence disappeared, and “righteous” violence continued on anyway, then it wouldn’t be righteous anymore — it would be unprovoked and unjustified, and therefore ungodly. And that would mean that at some point a really righteous violence would have to be raised up to counter this unrighteous violence masquerading as righteous violence.
In my take on all this, asking this question is akin to asking what grounds the church or state has to limit “sexual acts.” Well, put that way, it doesn’t have any grounds. It does have grounds to discipline unrighteous sexual acts, like pederasty or rape. So the antithesis is always between righteousness and unrighteousness, and is not to be found between violence and peace. That is a false antithesis, a category mistake. This is because there is such a thing as an ungodly peace (Jer. 8:11), and a godly violence (Ps. 68:23; Matt. 10:34). There is such a thing as a godly desire for peace (Luke 2:14), and an ungodly desire for war (Ps. 120:7). Non-violence and violence in themselves tell us nothing. Peace with Satan is not to be desired, and war against evil is to be honored and praised.
“In other words, you say, “He (Paul) taught that when the magistrate was whacking evildoers (and not God’s saints), the magistrate was acting as a vicar of God.” I agree, but the saints qualifier isn’t in the text. Nor is it offered for the centurion. It seems one could argue that Paul and Jesus and John the Baptist were giving a moral blank check to soldiers. There’s no brakes anywhere, or they’re implicit.
No, I would argue that the brakes are there, right in the text of Romans 13. The magistrate is God’s servant, God’s deacon, and that delegation of authority was established by God with two objects in view — one was to reward the righteous (Rom. 13:4), and the other was to punish the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4). These two moral categories have to be defined in the light of God’s Word. If God commissions the magistrate to enforce His standards, then His standards have to be defined in His way.
So when I said “and not God’s saints,” I should have said, “e.g. and not God’s saints.” The persecution of Christians would be just one possible example of the magistrate kicking against what God told him to do. When the magistrate inverts the moral order, and seeks to punish the righteous and reward the wrong-doer, then the servant of God has rebelled against God, and consequently will at some point be given a pink slip by the God who commissioned him. If the magistrate is attacking the Church, he has absolutely no warrant from God to do so, and more than this, he has explicit instructions to the contrary. A moral blank check cannot be inferred if God only gives the magistrate authority to reward the righteous, and to punish those who are evil.
And the centurions were under the moral law of God, just like every other human being. This means that they were required to remember that law in everything that they did, just like accountants, lawyers, and barbers must do. No vocation has a “moral blank check.” If a centurion forgot that obligatory moral standard, or assumed that it did not apply in a profession such as his, then there is no way that Scripture could describe such a man as “a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22). But Scripture does describe military men in a pagan army in just those ways. A centurion had greater faith than anyone in Israel (Luke 7:9). A centurion at the cross glorified God (Luke 23:47). Cornelius was a just man (Acts 10:22). And lest this last comment be dismissed as simply the opinion of Cornelius’ friends who were concerned to talk him up a bit to the apostle, Luke and the Holy Ghost appear to have shared the same views. Cornelius was a “devout man,” who “feared God,” who gave “much alms,” and who “prayed to God alway” (Acts 10:2). But this was a military man in the legions of Rome. The angel who appeared to him had the same high opinion, saying that his alms and his prayers had ascended as a memorial to God (Acts 10:4). One can only conclude that Luke, the angel, and the Holy Ghost could not really be delegates to your average peace rally. Not to mention the centurion. The only way to argue that military service per se is displeasing to God is to argue in teeth of Scripture.
“Reagan Schaupp recently commented on your post, ‘No Middle Ground’ and said, ‘if Christ tacitly acknowledged officership in Rome’s army–an army engaged, as a rule, in executing the most egregiously unjust campaigns and acts at the whim of rulers who lived like the devil–as a lawful calling, we must ask how a calling to serve in almost any (western?) military could be unlawful prima facie.’ A good question. There don’t seem to be any brakes on military service in the New Testament, and very little in the old. You’ve certainly established the legitimacy of military service in your posts, but the passages you use could be used to defend serving in Nazi Germany, the USSR, etc.”
This may be a bit surprising, but sure, that is true. Was it possible for a faithful German Christian to serve in the German army in WWII? Yes. And in the Soviet navy in the Cold War? Again, yes. In the American military in the invasion of Iraq? Yes. And if that German soldier had been assigned to Buchenwald, and he saw what was occurring there, it would have been his moral duty to resist by all the means at his disposal, whether or not it cost him his own life. If a Soviet Christian in their military were commanded to do a manifestly unrighteous thing, he would be obligated by his Christian baptism to refuse flat out. If an American Christian in Iraq had any inkling of the outrages occurring at Abu Ghraib, it would have been his obligation to find the nearest whistle and to blow it. This is how salt and light work. When we look at some of the atrocities that modern armies have committed in times of war, the reaction ought not to be to try to remove all Christian influence — so that the abominations can roll on unimpeded.
Could there have been Christians in the German army in the Second World War? Yes, and I only wish there had been ten times more of them, all of them devout evangelicals. If you believe in the Spirit’s work through His people, certain things would not have happened.
During the Second World War, a friend of our family was commanded by his superior officer in the field to summarily execute a German prisoner who had been captured, and the commander thought it would be easier to just kill him than to deal with him. This Christian officer refused, disobeyed a direct order, and took the prisoner safely back behind our lines and turned him over properly. This special kind of civil disobedience in the military can only be effectively done if Christians are functioning in the military as Christians, with all their higher loyalties intact.
During my time in the submarine service, it delights me to inform you all that the stalls in what is called a “head” on board ship did not have reading material supplied for us, with the exception of a big poster mounted on the inside of every door — a one page version of the Universal Code of Military Justice. This was done so that every time we went there to think great thoughts, communing with ourselves as the sons of men tend to do from time to time, we had an invitation offered to us by the U.S. Navy to meditate on the fact that an order to commit a war crime was an illegal order, and that it was our duty to disobey it.
Now a military full of men like Cornelius would be a military full of men to whom such a requirement would make good moral sense, and who would have the Spirit-inspired courage to stand tall if they ever had to do their duty in that regard. But what is the intent of pacifism and quasi-pacifism as they apply Scripture to these things? It is to get all godly men out of there, in the vain hope that the removal of light will somehow vanquish the darkness.