A Matter of Christian Conscience - 3

Part 3 - The Christian Conscience and Military service.

A Well-Informed Conscience

A Christian conscience, primed and instructed by the teaching of Christ, will tell us when we do right and will warn us when we do wrong and will urge us always to do right, as we rightly understand it. Such a conscience is a force in human nature.

It will protest when we act impurely; when we lie; when we are dishonest and when we are unjust. It will give us no rest when we depart from the solemn will of God. In cases where human judgement hasto be exercised it might not be surprising if it leads us to disagree with ourfellows.

We come now to the application of the law of Christian conscience and one of the most obvious cases is when we are asked to engage in military service for the country in which we live. Christadelphians claim exemption from military service. We say to governments ‘If you compel us to fight it will violate our conscience – it will make us do something which we believe, as followers of Christ, to be wrong.’ So we ask to be exempt.

Then we have to prove to the authorities that our belief is well founded and sincere. As we have stressed already, conscience is an individual matter and it is the individual who is being tested. Let us now examine the reasons why our Christian conscience objects. Or better still, to start with, let us think of reasons which we cannot advance, so that any misconceptions are removed.

Wrong Reasons

Christadelphians are not pacifists, if by that word is meant that the use of force is wrong under all circumstances and at all times. Nor are we pacifists if by that word is meant that we believe that by refusing to participate in war, we shall eventually bring about world peace. We believe neither of these things. We do not believe that the use of force is always and wholly wrong because in the Bible there are accounts of how God commanded His people to participate in the use of force. On certain occasions He commanded them to go to war. It is evident that in a world which is dominated by sin the purpose of God is to use force where it is required.

Under certain circumstances it is not God’s will that crime and violence shall be allowed to go unrestrained to such an extent as to wholly eliminate law and order in the world. So in the past, as the Old Testament records, God used war to mould the course of history, to punish the wickedness of violent and evil men and to remove those who were irremediably corrupt. If you do not agree, can I stress that you do not have an argument with me. You have an argument with God, because this was His will in times past, and doubtless still is.

Final Encounter

In the Book of Revelation there is a vision of the final stages of human dominion over the earth. We are told that when Jesus Christ returns in power and glory, he is to be opposed by the nations. This is how that situation is described:

The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with him are called, chosen, and faithful (Revelation 17:12–14).

In Psalm 2 we are told that King Jesus will break his opponents as people used to crush a potter’s vessel, in order to use the clay for some other purpose. This graphic image is used to depict the destruction of those who insist on rebellion. So it is no good being a pacifist on the grounds that force is wrong under all circumstances and at all times. That argument cannot be sustained from the Scriptures.

World Peace?

Nor will pacifism bring about world peace. The picture of human society which is presented in the Bible just prior to the end of human government is one in which war and crime and evil abounds. Jesus foretold the future like this:

As the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be (Matthew 24:37–39).

One of the features of Noah’s day was violence. Indeed one of the signs of the Messiah’s coming is wars and rumours of wars. Pacifism is not the essence of our case by any means. Nor will it do to say that one of the Ten Commandments says "You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). People to whom that commandment was given frequently went to war with God’s approval. So evidently the command is not an absolute prohibition upon taking up arms when necessary.

Positive Reasons

The first occasion when Christadelphians as a body actively declared their attitude to war was in the American Civil War of 1865. There were some Christadelphians in the North and some in the South – on either side of the line of conflict – and they resolutely resolved that they would not slay each other, come what may. Instead they petitioned the Confederate government and the United States government to grant them exemption from fight ing in the war. Their conscientious objection was recognized. The next occasion was the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, when the Parliament of Great Britain was petitioned in the same way and for the same reasons as in 1865 in America. It was so again in 1915 in the Great War and in 1939 in the Second World War.

All down our communal history the attitude to war has been the same. We have refused to take part in fighting and have sought exemption from military service, because we believe that to fight and kill would be contrary to our faith and a defiance of God’s will, as we understand it. At first sight this may seem to be contradictory to what we have said already about war being permissible in certain circumstances, but in order to understand our attitude to war it is essential to understand our attitude to life. The two are bound up fundamentally.

Jesus is Coming!

The central feature of the gospel as we understand it is the kingdom of God and the great central event which will bring that to pass in the earth is the second coming of Jesus the Messiah. When he comes, peace and righteousness and purity will be established through his perfect government. When Jesus was on earth he taught his disciples:

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).

This is a call to recognize his kingship and his government so that in prospect his followers become citizens of his coming kingdom. The first step in seeking the kingdom is to submit to its king, believe In its laws, make a commitment to its government and give unqualified allegiance to the king’s service. The point to be emphasized now is this. Where the sovereignty of God is recognised and where there is submission to his government, and where there is allegiance to God’s king, the master prin ciple of the kingdom of God is established.

This master principle was the force that impelled the Christian church in the New Testament. They saw themselves as an elect race, a company of people who were ‘called out’, who were unified by a common faith and a common life. They were a group whose real vocation and real destiny were not any longer in this age and in this society. The real destiny of true believers begins in the age to come, but they are to be mastered by the principles of the kingdom of God even now. The values of that kingdom must now
prevail even ‘love, joy and peace’..

This was the master passion of the New Testament ‘ecclesias’ – congregations of believers. They were attached by very light ties to the countries of this world. They were essentially part of God’s coming kingdom and knew themselves to be but pilgrims passing through this world to another, even the world to come.

The only government to which Christian believers can give unqualified allegiance is the government of God – now and in the age to come. Followers of Jesus are to be people who wait ‘for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrews 11:10). They therefore count it wrong to participate in the wars of the nations since their Lord and King has forbidden it to them.

-  Dennis Gillette

This article first appeared in the Glad Tidings Magazine. To read the current issue and/or to order your free copy, click here: https://gladtidingsmagazine.org/