The Law and Life (7)
“When you go out to battle against your enemies…” Deuteronomy 20.1
There will be wars
The Law of God was given in a context in which war was imminent, inevitable, and virtually continuous. Those nations which were not prepared to go to war would inevitably be the victims of war. This included the nation of Israel.
Not much has changed. Few of us want war. We have a natural aversion to killing, and war has a natural inclination to kill. But not everyone shares this view. There will always be those who see war or military action as a way to gain their ends, and nations must be prepared to discourage such aggression or, if it occurs, to meet it with force.
Thus, war, in these fallen times, is not inherently evil; otherwise, God would not have taught His people to prepare for taking life on such a scale. Sometimes, God wanted His people to know, it is necessary to go to war against neighboring countries, during which wars, we might expect, lives will be taken.
Not much has changed since Biblical times. War or military action is still continuous, at least, somewhere in the world. And given the proliferation of weapons, egotistical world leaders, and terror groups worldwide, war is typically imminent somewhere.
It is not my purpose here to restate the traditional “just war” theory as Christians have articulated it over the years. I simply want to affirm the teaching of God’s Law that, under certain circumstances, when the restoration or preservation of justice requires, war may be necessary.
And at such times, taking the lives of others will be required.
Life-saving war measures
I would, however, like to point out certain “life-saving” measures spelled out in the Law of God that should be taken into consideration when a just war is to be engaged. As urgent as it is to succeed in warfare against a foe, we must not lose sight of other criteria which are crucial for the continuance of a good and loving society.
The Scriptures mention several exemptions allowing certain people to avoid having to go to war. In these we can see how the larger concerns of a just society were preserved.
First, the concerns of family take priority over the concerns of the state. Newlyweds were not sent to war, at least, not right away (Deut. 20.7; 24.5). They were to be free of military duties for a period of one year in order to establish their marriages and, hopefully, the beginnings of a family. The good society of the future would need people raised in a home where the Law of God was faithfully taught and observed.
Similarly, those who have undertaken significant new ventures in building a home—which houses a family—or starting a business—which serves the family and the community—were also exempt, so that they could be free to pursue justice and neighbor-love on a different “front” (Deut. 20.5-7). From the context it seems this exemption, too, had some outside constraints. Once the home was finished and the crop harvested, one who had been thus exempted would be expected to join his comrades in battle.
In times of war those who are fearful of dying should not be sent to engage in it, lest their fear jeopardize the safety and lives of those who fight with them (Deut. 20.8). It is doubtless the case that anyone who goes to war knows a certain measure of fear. Some are more able than others to overcome it. Those who could not were sent home, apparently without stigma or condemnation.
When a just war was engaged, moreover, it was important to take certain measures to try to avoid warfare and others that would allow life to go on once the war had ended. For the first, means were to be employed to encourage the repentance and surrender of the offending opponent before acts of war began. Offers of peace should be made with terms clearly spelled out. Second, armies were to be careful to preserve the natural resources of the opponent, since these would be necessary for future rebuilding and for life to continue (Deut. 20.10, 11, 19, 20).
Even in times of war, as brutal and destructive as wars could be, the priority of life and measures to preserve it must not be overlooked.
Christians on the front lines
What are the implications of these teachings for our day? In the main, we can say that Christians must be on the front lines of promoting policies that support life as God intends it, whether such policies relate to the conduct of war, the punishment of criminals, the protection of the unborn, consideration of the elderly and disabled, or any other issues that concern the ability and duty of human beings to love God and their neighbors as their reason for being.
The Christian community must raise a banner for life, because life is a gift of God and must be preserved and enhanced according to His design; and, while God’s will is revealed throughout the Scriptures, the beginnings of His concerns are to be found in the Law of God. We must neither ignore nor neglect the holy and righteous and good teaching of God’s Law (Rom. 7.12) lest we have only our own opinions to stand on when it comes to preserving and extending policies for life in our day.
1. If war were not a valid option for a nation, where would that leave that nation?
2. What would you say to someone who was adamantly opposed to war for any reason?
3. Is it a contradiction to advocate for life while remaining open to going to war at the same time? Explain.
Next steps—Preparation: Pray for those who put their lives on the line that we may live in freedom.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.