How should Wesleyan preachers preach about war?

1244833_plastic_toy_soldiers1. “War can be right.” Some of us feel war is at times good and right. In spite of its terrible realities and unfortunate tragedies war, Wesleyans who hold this view see war as an instrument of justice and a means toward peace where there is no peace. Since “there is a time for war” and since Revelation envisions a second coming framed in militaristic metaphors, war has its time and should not be considered evil. The militant abolitionist history of the Wesleyan Methodist connection provides historical connection points for our thinking here.

2. “War is a necessary evil.” Some Wesleyans believe war is a necessary evil. It is always evil and never good. Following exemplars such as Bonhoeffer they think of war as the option to choose when there is no option but sin. At this point when to kill is sin but to do nothing would be sin, the lesser evil is war. People who truly hold this position recognize they may very well face judgment from God for their participation in war, but feel they will face judgment either way. They present themselves to God’s mercy and choose the necessary evil over the greater evil believing it is impossible in that situation not to sin. Though many Wesleyans use “necessary evil” language, the group who actually mean the phrase is much smaller.

3. “War is always wrong.” Some Wesleyans are pacifists. Following a long tradition in Christianity these Wesleyans view war as not only always evil, but also always the wrong choice. In their view, we should suffer the consequences of not pursuing war as a way of the cross. All arguments for war in their mind stem from the pursuit of comfort, self interest, and gain. As a result, we should face whatever cross God gives and not draw Peter’s sword to strike a way out of it.

4. “War should almost never happen.” Other Wesleyans are so concerned with war’s evil, so doubtful of its good, and hold such high standards for the decision to go to war that they are practically pacifists. They believe there are times when war is necessary, but their qualifications for a just war are so stringent that no war in memory has ever fulfilled them. Just war is a rarity, so rare, that it should almost never happen.

With that diversity of opinion among even our denominational leaders and well-respected pastors, we certainly have diversity of theological positions in the pew.

So, how do you think Wesleyans should preach about war?

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7 thoughts on “How should Wesleyan preachers preach about war?

  1. A few random thoughts:

    —Early Christian reflection on this topic (St.
    Augustine), and even pre-Christian Greek philosophy, framed the question as to
    whether there can be a “just war.” Today, the most robust
    discussions on this topic refer to it as “just war theory.”

    —From the Christian perspective, the basis for a just
    war, ironically, is love, not self-interest. Most of the secular theorists seem to put their money on self-interest and self-preservation.

    —Logically, there would seem to be but two broad
    options: 1) Pacifism, refusal to engage in violence that could take lives
    regardless of the provocation 2) Acceptance that, as a last resort, there could, in theory, be a just war.

    —I doubt if you will get many Wesleyans or anyone to
    say, with your point #1, that war can be “good and right.” But
    under a stringent set of conditions, which would be up for discussion, many might conclude that a just war is
    possible in theory.
    I have never preached about this from the pulpit, but would probably broach the subject in more of a teaching setting.

  2. Probably the most difficult sermon I ever preached was entitled, “What Does the Bible Say About War?” I actually preached it as the War in Iraq was beginning. What made this sermon so difficult for me was my inability to find a consistent voice throughout Scripture on the topic of war. In other words, it seems to me, that one could argue for both pacificism and war from Scripture. Perhaps this is the first thing a preacher needs to affirm when preaching on the topic of war.
    Lenny Luchetti

  3. While Dr. Kind is correct that the default Christian
    position from Augustine onwards would tend in the just war direction, prior to
    Augustine (or Constantine, to be more accurate), the default position was that
    Christians could not support war. One of the dirty little secrets of the
    Wesleyan Church’s founding is that we were opposed to war when we were founded
    (both on the Wesleyan Methodist side and the Pilgrim Holiness side), and, at
    least in the case of the Wesleyan Methodists, we effectively abandoned our
    anti-war position with the start of the Civil War.

    I mention these two facts together because I suspect they
    are related: a church’s position regarding war is tightly connected to its understanding
    of and relationship to the state. When a church stands in a minority position or
    protest position to the state — that is, it expects the state to be generally
    antagonistic (or at least apathetic) to the church’s goals — a church will tend
    to be more pacifist. When we were participating in the Underground Railroad, we
    didn’t fully trust the state, so it would make more sense to reject the notion
    that the state could wage war in a way that would further the church’s goals.
    But when the government shifted its position and the Civil War seemed to be
    moving the nation in the church’s preferred direction, we reconsidered whether the
    state could use violence for godly purposes. The same thing happened 1500 years
    earlier, when the Roman government became officially Christian: the church was
    no longer in a position of being suspicious of the state, because clearly (so
    they thought) God was now doing a great thing through the government. Think also
    of the historic peace churches, many of which have an Anabaptist theology
    that is suspicious of the state.

    In other words, when we expect the government to be
    generally sympathetic to our goals, or when we expect God to accomplish his
    work through the government, we will probably be more likely to support a just
    war position. My own view is that this easily predisposes us to civil religion,
    in which the actions of our government are too often accepted as spiritually
    valid courses of action. This is where we are as a denomination today. Consider
    the fact that our early anti-war stance is not mentioned at all in our most
    recent narrative history of the denomination (and, as far as I’ve been able to
    find, it has received less and less mention in each successive history of the
    denomination): it quite literally doesn’t fit the narrative of who we are any
    more so we’ve written it out, largely because we have become more and more
    comfortable with the state as we occupy less and less of a protest position.

    How does this relate to our preaching on war? Well, it
    means that in many cases, we need to begin with an analysis of our theological
    understanding of the state. While the biblical authors certainly recognize the
    validity of the state in many passages, they are also very often suspicious of
    it and recognize its great potential for evil. Preaching about war involves far
    more than simply pitting “love your enemies” against “the state does not bear
    the sword for nothing;” we need to examine our understanding of how God works
    in history and what, if any, relationship the state has to that work.

  4. It is also worth noting that while we can certainly quote
    different Bible passages to support either side — I’m about to say something
    that will make some of you mad, so brace yourself — there is absolutely no
    Scriptural support for just war theory. None. At all. That is not an exaggeration.
    Think about it; you can argue biblically for pacifism (“love your enemy”) or
    holy war (e.g. a good chunk of the OT), but just war simply is not in there.
    And I hope we can all agree that we don’t want to advocate holy war these days,
    because in that position war is not seen as a necessary evil, it is seen as an
    inherent good (it is commanded by God), and therefore there are few, if any,

    My own view is that the Bible is not nearly as inconsistent
    as people tend to think it is on the topic; just as there is a trajectory in
    favor of greater freedom for women, there is also a clear trajectory that
    eliminates the option of violence for the church. Very briefly:

    -First, we have the wars of conquest, which, as I said, are
    holy wars that were allowed under a special set of circumstances that I doubt
    we want a repeat of.

    -Then, though there certainly are wars in the OT, in general
    those wars are not seen as a good thing: they are defensive wars (with
    exceptions), and the assumption tends to be that when war comes, it is because
    we have done something wrong and God is judging us.

    -With Jesus, the NT begins to present the cruciform life,
    life that is self-sacrificing in love for others (even unrepentant enemies!).
    Jesus is presented not only as a sacrifice for our sins, but also an example
    for our life and death.

    -As the church begins to take shape, there are controversies
    over who can be in (i.e. the controversy over circumcision and food laws), and
    the consistent expectation is that we are to be a reconciling body of Christ:
    the dividing walls of hostility between God and humanity, and between different
    humans, have been deliberately demolished in Christ. So while Paul does not
    apply that principle directly to war, he makes it clear (Galatians, Ephesians,
    Romans, etc.) that the church is to be about the business of bringing together previously
    divided peoples in the name of Christ. Your enemy is no longer your enemy
    because he or she could become your brother or sister in Christ.

    -Moreover, the NT writers pervasively point to the
    crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as the standard for how to respond to
    unjust suffering. Without exception, when we are persecuted, we respond as
    Jesus did: by overcoming evil with good. Jesus has inaugurated a new reality
    (actually the old, pre-Fall reality) in which victory is defined as self-giving
    love, not as survival, power, or avoidance of suffering.

    -And finally, the universal expectation of the church is
    that we would be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ, *not* that we would be
    effective (however we define effectiveness). Take a close look at the book of
    Revelation: yes, it is full of very violent imagery, but at no point does the
    church ever participate in that violence. Every single letter to the churches
    ends with a call to “overcome/be victorious,” and in every case their victory
    comes through patience, repentance, and faithfulness to Christ. Everywhere else
    in the book, God single-handedly wins the victory, and at best the church
    stands by and watches. There is no massive battle of Christians fighting the
    forces of darkness at Armageddon; God simply and single-handedly trounces them.
    Don’t believe me? Take a close look for yourself.

    There’s a lot more to be said, but my point is that
    the trajectory of the Bible is one in which violence is simply excluded as a
    valid option for the church. The NT is not a “pacifist” manual, so to speak,
    but it assumes a new creation in which violence is regarded as simply ineffective,
    according to the definitions of effectiveness established by Christ on the

  5. Luke, you make a fine case, in a world in which the dominant question is: Do we defend OURSELVES against injustice and persecution, etc. But the question becomes more complicated when we are not in danger, but we have power to defend the weak. If an innocent and helpless child were being treated with great cruelty, would Jesus look on and merely explain to you the theological reasons why it is better not to restrain the cruelty with force? If the scriptural case for defending oneself with force is weak, what about the case for using force to defend the powerless, the downtrodden, the oppressed? As I said earlier, the best case for a just war lies not in self-defense, but in love. I refer to love for the oppressed and defenseless, and ultimately even love for the oppressor, if we can hinder or restrain the oppressor from doing even greater evil. St. Augustine’s deep reflections on this have stood the test of centuries and are not so easily dismissed. However, his tests for a just war are rigorous, and not often met. Most who protest they are engaged in a just war are indeed not.

    • I certainly agree with you that there is a clear biblical
      concern for the vulnerable. The first question, though, must be what the Bible
      actually says on the matter. Some brief responses:

      –Augustine’s argument for just war rests on his foundational
      claim that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount require “not a bodily
      action, but an inward disposition;” that is, you can wage war provided you do
      so with a loving intention. Augustine thus decouples action from intent in his
      interpretation of Jesus’ ethic, which is how he makes his case that you can
      kill enemies while still being obedient to the command to love them. This
      raises several questions:

      1) What is the biblical basis for interpreting Jesus in this
      way? Is it biblical to understand morality as depending only (or mostly) on
      intent, not action?

      2) Does Jesus ever allow us the option of choosing between love
      for the vulnerable and love for the enemy? If so, where is it stated or
      implied? Does Jesus distinguish two types of love, one for enemies who are
      attacking me and one for enemies who are attacking others?

      3) Let’s be clear that in war we don’t “restrain the oppressor
      from doing greater evil,” we violently kill them. How does the NT define love?
      What is there in the biblical definition of love that would allow us to stab
      our beloved in the stomach, set them on fire with napalm, or shoot them in the

      –You said, “If an innocent and helpless child were being
      treated with great cruelty, would Jesus look on and merely explain to you the
      theological reasons why it is better not to restrain the cruelty with force?”

      1) Is this a fair dichotomy? Are the only options available to
      us a) standing by and philosophizing while evil runs amok or b) using violence?
      How does the cross inform our options?

      2) Let me ask you your question: what are you suggesting Jesus
      *would* do in that situation? Would he execute the oppressor? What is your biblical

      –You said, “If the scriptural case for defending oneself with
      force is weak, what about the case for using force to defend the powerless, the
      downtrodden, the oppressed?”

      1) That’s an excellent question, but again, let me ask it of
      you: what, specifically, *is* the scriptural case for using force to defend
      others? What justification is there in the NT giving a Christian the license to
      use violence in the defense of the powerless?

      2) What authority is actually granted to us in the Bible? Biblically,
      the strongest action granted to the church that I’m aware of is the binding and
      loosing of sins, which gives us the power of excommunication. The point of
      excommunication, biblically speaking, is the hope of redemption for the
      excommunicate; we are *not* granted the authority to deliver people to hell,
      which is what we are doing in a just war. But more than this, in a just war we
      are not only consigning the actual perpetrator to hell, we are doing the same
      to everyone who fights in his army, and also anyone else who happens to get in
      the way. (Keep in mind that in war, noncombatants usually die in numbers equal
      to or greater than combatants.) Where in the NT are we granted the authority to
      determine who lives and who dies?

      –My overall point is to insist on the actual biblical basis for
      the claims of just war. Too often these discussions fall back on appeals to
      emotion or reason, which are hardly irrelevant, but they are also not what
      guides the behavior of a Christian. We dismiss or mitigate the command to love
      because we think it is not realistic: is this a failure in the word of God, or
      a failure in us?

      • Very interesting read. I hope I can give a little balance :) I think there is an overriding false dichotomy given all the way through this article and those who post. In the SOTM Jesus is addressing the citizens of his Kingdom. This message is a paradigm shift from the Theocratic earthly kingdom to His heavenly (manward) kingdom that is not of this world. His kingdom is NOT to be advanced by violence. As we can see through history violence will never further the message of the cross and God’s love.

        Here is the distinction. Jesus only addresses how his kingdom will function, and how those who are its citizens will function within it. Jesus is not addressing how an earthly kingdom functions. In context, this paradigm shift Jesus presents is against the backdrop of these Galilean/Judean people’s culture and thinking of how God governed from Joshua till the present, and it is about to change. To a Hebrew at this time, the enemy were those who were oppressing them because of their believe in their “One true God”. Now, with their faith and citizenship in the Jesus’ Kingdom, they will be persecuted still, yet are not to retaliate. The clear context of the whole Sermon on the Mount is dealing with their future persecution for their faith in Jesus, as Jesus said, “because of me”. They are to rejoice and be glad as we see Peter do this very thing in Acts.

        Jesus is addressing his kingdom’s behavior and what his kingdom will to be known for. Jesus is using the plural “you”. The enemy are those who are against Jesus’ Kingdom people. We, Jesus’ Kingdom, are to be known as helping the poor, and the oppressed. So when WE, the Jesus’ kingdom people, come to the rescue, it is not to be done with violence, ever. For me to bring Jesus kingdom principles into an earthly government is taking Jesus completely out of context. All through the gospel times, the first church, and the early church, there was a clear distinction between Jesus’ Kingdom and those who served within an earthly government. In every case, when the earthly government servant meets the Gospel of grace, there is never tension between the two – that is – a believer serving in the government in any role. When Jesus meets one who was in the military Jesus said, “I have never seen anyone with greater faith”. Or in Acts, another serving the earthly government in the military was “God fearing”, with no question regarding their position, in fact, the stating of their position shows the importance of it with respect.

        In all early church history we find Christians involved in the military without any protest coming from Jesus or the Apostles. There is a clear distinction from Jesus that within his kingdom his citizens are to further of His kingdom’s message, the good news, without violence and are to do this without discrimination (love your enemies), and even under persecution they are to not retaliate. So when Jesus said to “love your enemies” it is out of context to put this in a setting Jesus had not intended. Hitler would have never been stopped by people taking Jesus out of context, and I think Bonhoeffer got it right. Loving your enemies from the context of second Temple Judaism were those who oppressed them because of their faith and love for God. Jesus is taking them away from their militant mentality of an earthly kingdom to a heavenly driven kingdom and how it will function on earth moving forward. So placing this context of a Jesus Kingdom citizen into how they function in an earthly governed military is out of context. One can have their own “interpretation” even their own “personal convictions” on the matter, but make no mistake, Jesus is addressing his Kingdom and how it will move forward, and not how a follower of Christ, who is NOT under persecution for their faith in Christ, is to enforce a military order against a country who is gassing it’s people, or starving them to death, or is committing genocide.