In troubled or peaceful times, the question as to whether a Christian can serve in the military can become a major issue that must be faced.

This monograph is intended as a guide to those who, with open minds and a love for the truth, wish to diligently search the scriptures to resolve this question for themselves.  Let us always bear in mind that we should study NOT to prove that we are right but to find what is right.

There are no specific commandments nor specific teaching in the Bible on military service.  Thus it would be a violation of our duty if we were to add to the Word by crafting rigid, specific doctrine on the subject and make it binding on ourselves or others.

But we do have Biblical example, other insight to the mind of God, corollary teaching and related principle to help us judge for ourselves what we should believe and practice in order to be pleasing to God.  Believing then in the 2 Timothy 3:17 promise that through study of “all scripture”, we “may be perfect (“complete” in the ASV), thoroughly furnished unto all good works” we boldly strive on seeking the truth.

As we proceed, we are also going to have to deal with tangential matters that are essential to the correct interpretation and understanding of the Word and this subject.

Our focus is going to be on the most controversial aspect of military service: that we may be called upon to wreak death and destruction on the enemy.  Other aspects are not so divisive or difficult to resolve.

It is virtually at the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 9:6) when we get some insight into God’s view of taking life when we find “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”.  Killing is especially grievous to God and the last part of v. 6 tells us exactly why: “for in the image of God made he man”.  To kill a person is to show the utmost disrespect for the masterpiece of God’s creation; that is, man.  Here at the very beginning of Biblical history in what we call the Patriarchal Age, we find God’s unmistakable injunction not to “shed blood” or kill.

As we know, it would come to pass that the true and unchanging God would make this a cardinal commandment in all of the religious Ages in His dealings with man.  It would become a part of the Mosaic Law as embodied in the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not kill”. (Ex. 20:13)  And finally in this last Christian Age, the same commandment, perhaps more perfectly interpreted by Jesus, is incumbent upon us.

But the word “kill” must be carefully examined. There are ten different words in Hebrew that are generally translated as “kill” in the Old Testament.  These have different shades of meaning.  For instance, “muth” means “to put to death”.  Others mean “to slay”, “to slaughter”, etc. But only one of them, “ratsach”, means “to murder”.  While the KJV renders this word as “kill”, the ASV and NASV are more faithful to the original and translate it as “murder”.  “Ratsach” is the word used in the Ten Commandments lists of Ex. 20 and Deut. 5.

This is also precisely the case in the Greek of the New Testament.  There are six words generally rendered “kill” in the KJV, but only one, “phoneuo”, means “murder”.  Again, our later versions, instead of “thou shalt not kill” read “thou shalt not murder”.

This deeper look at the original language offers clues that not all “killing” is the same.  For instance, the killing of animals is clearly sanctioned -- see       Deut. 12:15.

There is a very important passage that we need to study carefully and patiently so it is quoted in full. Deut. 19:4-6 (NASV) runs as follows: “4 Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously – 5 as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies – he may flee to one of these cities and live; 6 otherwise the avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously”.

This different “case” or exception to the “shalt not kill” commandment was necessary because the exception did not conform to the commandment’s meaning and intent and particularly its punishment.  Verse 6 affirms the manslayer “was not deserving of death”.  So God ordained the so-called cities of refuge so that the killer “may flee to one of these cities and live”. (v. 5)

The key words in this passage are “manslayer”, “unintentionally”, and “hating”.  The person doing the killing is called a “manslayer” instead of a murderer; the killing is done accidentally without intention, and it is not a result of premeditated hate.

This passage in effect becomes a divine commentary on “thou shalt not kill” and reveals that its application is to murder, committed intentionally and with malice aforethought.

There is yet at least a third instance when “thou shalt not kill” cannot be taken literally.  For God decreed death as a penalty for numerous violations of the Law.  Such quite obviously required that guilty offenders be put to death; that is, killed.  This punishment was left to the oversight and administration of the authorities, who were surely obeying the Law and not breaking the commandment.

Thus it safely follows that the commandment “thou shalt not kill/murder” is not all-encompassing, at least from an Old Testament perspective (in due course, we shall look at the New).  It seems to be directed at the personal act of murdering another in an intentional, mean and vile way growing out of hate.  But not at civil, religious, or military authorities as they carried out their responsibilities.  We would not normally characterize these as “murder”.

Let’s progress now to Biblical example – a course we generally agree is a wise one to follow.

What we find when we do this is that over and over again God actually led the Israelites into war.  This happened on many occasions; one such is recorded in Deut. 20.  A full reading of this chapter leads to the conclusion that God led the Israelites, fought for them (v.4), delivered their enemies (v. 13), required them “to smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword” (v. 13), and instructed them to “utterly destroy the enemy” – all of this in the face of the Law: “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death”. (Lev. 24:17)

In some of these O.T. battles, there were large numbers of dead: “about ten thousand of Moab” (Judges 3: 29), and 42,000 “Ephraimites” (Judges 12: 6), just to mention a couple.

What then shall we say? Is God evil?  God forbid.

Several questions appear to arise out of this construction.  Let us take them out one by one.

Has God changed?  Is what was apparently all right in ancient days now sinful or wrong in our Christian Age?

The answer appears to be found in Hev. 6: 17-18: “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie…”  “Immutable” means “not capable of or susceptible to change”.

Since God took a more active and direct hand in the affairs of man during the preceding ages, does this not represent a change for us today?

There has been one very significant change from the Mosaic Age which is not always appreciated by us today.  The Law of Moses consisted both of a moral code and a civil code.  God made His will known in those days on how He wanted the civil administration to be run.  In the New Testament era, we are no longer directed by a civil code divined by the Holy Spirit.  No doubt God foresaw that such would be grossly unwieldy in our complicated times.  But now our commandment is to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right”.                 (I Peter 2: 13- 14)  And similarly: (Rom. 13: 1ff) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (rulers- v. 3)”.

Then and now, both systems operate under God’s authority, but the form is different.

Waging war and administering justice and punishment are government functions and we are constrained to submit to them unless our consciences are violated.  This is further addressed below.

A final, but vital question: Are not these Old Testament examples and scriptures now “taken away”? Is not all of the above of no effect?  This takes us immediately to the scripture the interested reader has been waiting for – the so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5).

It helps almost always to establish the context and even the “when” and “who” of a scriptural passage.

The Sermon on the Mount took place at the very beginning of Christ’s public ministry, about three years before His death and resurrection, the establishment of the kingdom and the probate of His will.  The listeners were “great multitudes from Galilee, from Decapolis and from Jerusalem and from Judea and from beyond Jordan” (Matt. 4: 25) – all, or certainly almost all, Jews.

Jesus recognized His audience and read their minds: “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5: 17).  Some things would evidently “pass from the law” after fulfillment (v. 18) which would happen when the kingdom came and the Lord’s work was “finished”; that is fulfilled.

Even then the Law was not “destroyed”; we still have it to read and study and it is “profitable for doctrine and for our instruction” (2 Tim. 3: 16).  We have a tendency to think that all of the Old Testament has been “taken away”.  But this is not the truth: the Law of Moses constitutes only a small part of the Old Testament.

And what has passed of the Mosaic Code is the large, sacrificial portion (now fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice), the priesthood part (now fulfilled by Jesus, our High Priest and us as a royal priesthood), the ceremonial part including the feasts and special days (now superceded by the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day), the temple part (our bodies are now a “holy temple”), and the entire civil code (now replaced by delegation of authority to kings and governments).

The moral or spiritual essence of the Law has not been abrogated, but has been renewed and more distinctly and clearly revealed.  Thus we are still subject to the precepts of the Ten Commandments (except one, the Sabbath celebration) which have been incorporated into our Christian code.

This can be seen clearly in the persistent words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount “Ye have heard that it hath been said”, referring obviously to Mosaic principles, “But I say unto you” interpretation.

This “new” divine, let us say more perfect, interpretation of the Commandments shifted the thrust from the act or commission of sin to the root of sin.  Thus for example, Jesus gives us a seemingly stricter interpretation of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” to “That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath commited adultery with her already in his heart”.  But even the Old Testament has told us this in a way: “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23: 7).

It is vital at this point that we look again at the context of the Sermon on the Mount before we turn again to its teaching on murder/killing.  This will regretfully lengthen this monograph but we must be patient if we are to find the truth.

The Sermon on the Mount is not nearly as direct and simplistic as it first appears.  It is not the interpretation of Jesus that is the concern, but our interpretation of its teaching.  It is really a difficult passage and not easily understood.

The term, Sermon on the Mount, is not strictly Bible terminology; rather it is ours.  There are no parallel passages to it in the other Gospels, except for limited, partial references in Luke 6.  So we do not have much scriptural help or divine commentary to assist us in our understanding.

For the most part then, we need to look carefully within Matt. 5 for guidance.  A key verse is #20: “For I say unto you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.  Immediately, Jesus launches into his famous six contrasts between the “old” and the “new”.  Keep in mind that the Bible was not separated into chapter and verse when it was written, so we are safely in context.

Jesus is not speaking against observing all the requirements of the Law, but against hypocritical Pharisaical legalism.  Such legalism was not the keeping of all the details of the Law but the hollow sham of keeping laws externally, to gain merit before God, while breaking them inwardly.  It was following the letter of the Law while ignoring its spirit.  Jesus repudiated the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and their view of righteousness by works.  He preaches a righteousness that comes only through faith in Him and His work.

What Jesus is doing is spelling out important contrasts (this is the key idea) between the hypocritical way the Pharisees kept the Law and the spiritual view we should have of it.  As the esteemed Christian pioneer, H. Leo Boles, wrote in his commentary on Luke 6: 29, 30 regarding “turning the other cheek”: “This sets forth a principle, and is not to be taken too literally”.  The “principle” is that we should return good for evil.

To see clearly the danger of taking some of these Sermon on the Mount scriptures too literally, we need only look at Matt. 5: 29,30 immediately following the “adultery” contrast:  “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell, And if thy right hand offend thee…” etc.  Surely whatever the eye or hand does originates in the heart or the spirit (even a blind man can lust) and Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation.  The principle is that we should deal as drastically with sin as necessary.

No one, except a rare religious fanatic, would ever interpret these particular scriptures literally.  And, if not verses 29 and 30, why would we insist on a literal interpretation of all the others? But if we see the religious principles in these six contrasts, we can see the truth.

Let’s now look at a couple of these important contrasts that exactly relate to our topic.

Verses 21 and 22: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill (murder); and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of judgement: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire”. The verses following speak to how to resolve the cause of conflict.

This passage needs to be analyzed more deeply.  It specifically alludes to murder per the original language.  It specifies “with his brother”.  What does “brother” mean?  The original word in Greek means “of the same womb, a brother, relative”.  But it now probably signifies more, especially as we consider that in Christ, we are all brothers. It could even apply beyond that.  Another phrase, in v.22, is of interest: “without a cause”.  Is it acceptable to be angry with a cause?  The verses which follow offer some explanation.  If there is a cause, seek reconciliation, and if that doesn’t work, punishment may ensue.

As an incidental thought, verse 22 also shows Jesus is directing this teaching to those still under the Law as He warns of “being in danger of the council” (the Jewish Sanhedrin), but there seems to be general agreement in the religious world that all this text applies to us today.

So what principle emerges from Matt. 5:21,22ff?  That we should not commit murder, that we should eliminate the root cause of murder which is anger (which can fester into hate) through reconciliation.

Then, one other passage: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy” becomes “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…”(v.43,44).  Does this scripture, and the others, teach that military service and its possible consequences are wrong?

The answer to this question is the key to the whole matter but finding it is not easy.  Let us seek it with an intense desire to know the truth and God’s will.

Taken together in context, verses 20 through 48, it is unmistakable that Jesus is directing his teaching at individuals in their PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS with their fellow men and women, one on one as we call it.  This is critical to the understanding of the whole.  It prescribes personal conduct and is not incumbent on organizations, kings, rulers, governments or nations – this will be addressed below.

This can be plainly demonstrated by example:

You may be personally accosted by a robber who demands $20, but you can “turn the other cheek” and give him $40, returning good for evil, or feed him if he is hungry.

But if you, the same person, are a bank manager and you are robbed, no one (not even the robber) expects you to come out of your office and to invite the thief into the vault to help himself.

Or if you, the same person, run a government agency which is robbed by an embezzler, no one thinks you are constrained to ignore it and give the embezzler a bonus.

The plain fact is that crime and misdeeds against “the people” as it is termed have to be punished for an orderly society to exist.  In fact, God requires it and distinctly authorizes it.  Romans chapter 13 makes this very clear: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:  For he (a ruler) is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”.  (verses 3 and 4)

We are expressly forbidden to take personal revenge but God gives our rulers express permission to wield the sword and to take revenge on misdeeds – for our good.  See also I Pet. 2: 13-14.

A ruler or government official who is also a Christian then would have a kind of dual responsibility to God – one personal and one official.

These same principles would seem to carry over into the military.  In the same fashion it would be wrong, for instance, for a survivor of the Holocaust or “9/11” to personally seek out and punish the enemy.  But it is right and necessary for our government to wield the “sword” God has put into their hands and do it.  Otherwise, we would have chaos and anarchy and little or no freedom at all.  A Christian then who is in the military service similarly has a kind of dual responsibility, personal and official, and these are compatible because they are both sanctioned by God.

Here is a brief summary of what we have found:

God is opposed to murder and has forbidden it by commandment in all ages.

The Hebrew and Greek words rendered “kill” in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” mean more properly “murder”.

Murder is characterized as being intentional and arising out of hate or anger.

Not all killing is treated alike.  It is specifically murder that is condemned.

We have many examples of where God has led his people in wars with vivid instructions to smite the enemy.

The various commandments incorporated into the “Ten” and generally carried over to the N.T. are directed at PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.

The Sermon on the Mount interpretations of Jesus set forth principles and should not be taken too literally.

The Old Testament civil code including “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” has been taken away and punishment has been placed in the hands of our rulers.

Individuals are not to take revenge but are to return good for evil.

God has authorized rulers and governments to punish the wicked; i.e., to take vengeance on evildoers.

Christians are commanded to submit to the authorities.

Therefore God authorizes man to do in concert what we cannot do as individuals.

And lastly, what about conscience?  Our leaders have recognized the reality that few will have a sincere objection to war and hence the term “conscientious objector” has come into our language.

For those who do not see the answer to our question at hand as being clear and definitive, we are blessed with further guidance from God’s Word.

It is not within the scope of this monograph to enter into a thorough study on the part conscience plays in our obedience to the Lord, but a few remarks are in order.

Interestingly, there are no Hebrew words in the O.T. translated as “conscience”.  We do find it a few times in the New Testament where, in a nutshell as we say, the lesson seems to be “let your conscience be your guide”.

Paul refers to it in Acts 23:1 when he writes “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day”.  Yes, even when he was a chief persecutor of the early Christians, he did what he thought was right.  When Jesus appeared to him and Paul became aware of the magnitude of his misguided zeal, his conscience was vastly transformed, and Paul’s life completely turned around as a result.  It was this great conviction that led him to follow his beliefs that made him the great apostle that he was, and Christ, knowing the heart, must have taken this into account when He chose Paul for the great mission to the Gentiles.

A lesson here is that an untrained or imperfectly trained conscience is not a safe guide, but that a person must be true to their beliefs or a trained conscience will be ineffective in a full transformation to godliness.

It is appropriate out of Paul’s experience that he should address the issue of how brethren should react in difficult or trivial matters when they disagree.  All of chapter 15 of Romans deals with this.  Basically, the teaching is that each should follow his/her own conscience (faith) in the matter with the critical conclusion in 14:23 “…for whatsoever is not of faith is sin”.


So, if a Christian, after examining the Word cannot come up with a satisfying answer to the question of military service, let that person follow his or her own conscience in the matter, one way or the other.  But in no event seek to impose his or her conscience on someone else, nor cause division in the congregation.