Why Does the CRC Endorse ‘Just War’?

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In Matthew, Jesus tells us not to resist our enemies. Yet the Christian Reformed Church endorses just war. How does it reconcile these two claims?

In the Beatitudes—the first 10 verses of Matthew 5—we read a few things relevant to our question, the most important of which is that we should “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Righteousness” is another word for “justice,” which can be understood to mean something like “treating each person, thing, or situation rightly or correctly.”

But the key idea in Matthew 5 isn’t justice; it’s perfection: agape, or sacrificial love. In verse 19, Jesus warns us not to set aside the commands of justice. That is the context for what follows, namely, how agape grows from and through justice, never against it.

When we come to Jesus’ “Do not resist an enemy,” it is reasonable to assume his first-century audience, steeped as they were in the numerous stories of just violence in the Old Testament, understood Jesus not to be condemning these, but adding to these. It seems implausible to me—as it did to Augustine, Calvin, and other teachers in our tradition—to imagine Jesus meant something contradictory like “Desire righteousness, but don’t try to prevent a would-be murderer from attacking your child.” Indeed, Jesus himself seems to qualify what he means in the next set of verses when he tells us not to hate our enemies because such hatred, though not expressed externally as murder, is still sin.

Just war theory tries to achieve what Jesus lays out here. As lovers of justice, we must “deter the lawless,” as our denominational position statement says (bit.ly/2Lujk8P), and to allow evil when we have a duty to be just is sinful. Nevertheless, even the law and the prophets (and the pagans!) know this. Christians, thanks to Jesus’ teaching, know more and must be more: we must love our enemies, even as we stop them; we must deter the lawless, even as we are willing to forgive them. This is the kind of “perfection” Jesus is talking about at the end of the Sermon.    

About the Author

Adam Barkman is a professor of philosophy at Redeemer University College.

See comments (2)


We must also be careful to observe categorical differences between God's revealed will for personal behavior and God's revealed will for governments.  However pacificistically you interpret passages such as "turn the other cheek" or "love your enemies", such commands were not being made in context to governments or governing officials as they carry out their duties.  We must balance God's personal instructions with God's institution of government as one who "does not bear the sword in vain" and who is an "avenger who carries out God’s wrath".  It simply will not do to attempt to hold the instituted government to the standards for personal conduct because government was instituted by God for a specific purpose.  We don't personally seek vengance and punishment on those who have harmed us because we leave that to God, both in the eternal/final sense and in the temporal sense through his instituted agents (government) and through his providential will.  

Ditto what Eric says.  Confusing biblical directions for individuals with biblical directives for government (or the lack thereof) is the most fundamental mistake that most "social justice advocates" who derive their principles from a variety of snippets from Old Testament make. 

If a Christian interprets Scripture's admonitions to people as always also admonitions to government, he or she must advocate for: no military, never engaging in war, no real police force, open borders; but also, and ironically, no political pluralism. 

If the CRCNA wants to become politically involved (as it has been and continues to be), it must answer these fundamental questions, that is, questions about the nature and role of government and whether and how to distinguish the object of a variety of biblical commands and directive.  If it doesn't, "welcome the stranger" mandates no national borders ("open borders") and "turn the other cheek" mandates extreme pacifism.