THE CHRISTIAN RELATION
STATE AND TO WAR
By G. H. LANG.
1 THE GUIDING PRINCIPLE
At the present time, with warlike preparations so general among the nations, the minds of many younger Christians are much exercised as to the proper attitude and action of a follower of Christ. Not much lead is given by many older brethren. It was not during the Great Wars, and what was given was in opposite directions. Yet it should be said that, as regards public ministry on the subject, there is no example of this in the New Testament; the topic is not openly or directly mentioned, so that a teacher would need to be very sure in his mind that it was his duty to expound it publicly. It is a further consequence from this reticence in the Word that no bondage can be rightly laid upon any conscience in the matter. One marvels that a Christian should ever feel free of his own will to join the forces of destruction; and one can respect the brother who feels a real difficulty in refusing obedience to the law when service is compulsory: but in either case there can be no New Testament authority for reproving one who so acts as if he were an evil doer. It must be from personal conviction that a man takes the strong ground of declining a task to which the law orders him.
And the onus of justifying such refusal lies upon the one refusing, for the general rule of the Word of God is that the Christian is to obey the powers that be. Hence the need that a brother shall have reasons from the New Testament at least as clear and emphatic as the general command to obey. But of course it is only the spiritual mind that can be expected to appreciate these reasons or feel their force. Yet in truth it must be admitted that the world really, at heart, scarcely needs such reasons. It is a usual thing for worldly men, if they know anything at all about Christ, to admit in moments of frankness that a true follower of Jesus ought to take the path of refusal. They know and feel that Christ would not have been coerced into the business of slaughter.
When J. N. Darby, at the time of
the Franco-Prussian war, was asked as to this matter, he replied to the effect
that God gives us in Christ a new centre; that these things of the world moved
him no more; that he felt and knew himself to be outside of them. His letter is quoted in full in chapter 6. The heart that thus knows itself as
having been actually transferred from one moral realm into another will have no
difficulty in understanding this remark or in discerning its own course. It will be as real and simple to him
that he cannot fight for the kingdoms of the world as it would be plain to a
German by birth that he could not further fight for
But it is of vast importance to be able to state distinctly the true ground of our position and action. It is given in 1 Cor. 1: 9 in words that cover the entire range of Christian life and work: “God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” It follows that whatever is at any time the business of our Lord is at that time the business of His followers, and whatever at any time is not His work is not our work. At present Christ is not governing the world, not even invisibly, nor administering its judicial affairs: He is waiting patiently at the right hand of God until the time foreseen of the Father shall have come when His enemies are to be made the footstool of His feet (Ps. 110: 1), and the application of these words to Him after His ascension shows that this attitude continues in this age (Acts 2: 34: Heb. 1: 13).
A day will come when He will leave the throne of the Father and come to the earth and will “in righteousness judge and make war,” though not with carnal weapons, but by His word (Rev. 19: 11; Zech. 14. 1- 15); and at that time His saints also will judge the world and angels (1 Cor. 6: 2, 3). When their Lord changes His attitude and office they will do the same, for they are called into fellowship with Him; but until He does this they should not, and for the same reason, that they are called into fellowship with Him. This is the reason why saints in the very end-days cry out for vengeance on their murderers (Rev. 6. 9-11); it is not that they belong to a different class of believers, but that the dealings of God with men have altered from forbearance to judgment, and they are in fellowship with His mind in the matter.
As long, therefore, as Christ continues to be the executor of the grace of God this is the business of His people. It is really a more difficult office thoroughly to discharge than is the work of vengeance, and at various times Christians have suffered more terribly for their faithfulness to Christ and to this office than even the miseries of war would have imposed upon them. Thus it may well be again before this evil age ends, and their trials with it, at the descent of their Lord.
And of course consistency demands that he whose conscience forbids him to mangle another man’s body with a bayonet should riot earn his own living by making bayonets. Making shells does not differ in principle from firing guns.
When the Lord was among men He
refused point blank to act as a judge in as civil case (Luke 12: 13, 14) and avoided the task in a criminal case (John
8). It was not that it was not
right that an estate should be justly divided, or that the law of God against
crime should be righteously enforced, but it was not the business upon which
Christ had been sent into the world by God at that time. Similarly we are
far from saying with anarchists that the administration of justice is not
proper: of course it is most proper and indispensable, it is a distinct and salutary appointment of
God; “the powers that exist are ordained of God”
Plainly these considerations apply with direct force to the matter of war. As far as a war is an instance of human greed and unrighteousness (which, alas, has been usually the case), it is clear that a Christian ought not to support it; as far as it is associated with deceit, barbarity, and vice, it is certainly no sphere for a child of the holy God: but even viewed on its ideal side, as a species of international justice, part of the governmental rule by which God punishes godless persons and nations, then we say, as above, that it is not a work that is yet undertaken by Him into Whose fellowship we have been called by God as the exclusive and regulating fact of our life.
Therefore we do not with some say that all war is inherently and necessarily wrong, for we recognize that God has ordered wars, overruled them, and is Himself described as Jehovah of hosts and as a Man of War. We do not urge with others that killing is always sinful, for God ordained capital punishment for certain gross offences, and Himself has passed on all sin the sentence of death. We say that all this is not the present business of the associate of the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is not as yet His business. On the contrary, His work and our work is to tell and to show that God wishes that all men should be saved, that He waits to be gracious, is long-suffering, ready to forgive, and delights in mercy. In pursuance of this it is our task and risk to be patient, forgiving, loving to our enemies, and in short to have and to display all those qualities which men call, or rather miscall, the “weaker” virtues, and which, in their nature and exercise, of necessity unfit a man for the cruel work of war, yet are in fact, in such a world as this, far harder to show and more dangerous to exercise. Our Lord said explicitly that He had not come to judge the world but to save the world, by forfeiting His life for His foes. This is the opposite of war, whether viewed ideally or in the dread reality (John 3: 17; 12. 47: etc.).
In consequence of this relation to Christ we know and feel ourselves to belong no further to the system of this world of men out of harmony with, God and His Son. “We are not of the world, even as He is not:” we are distinctly commanded, in unequivocal language, not to be yoked with an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6. 14 - 7: 1), and of all yokes the military, by reason of the dread exigencies of the situation, is of necessity the most rigid and severe. A yoke is an instrument that compels two creatures to move together and do the same work. The unbeliever in Christ cannot do the work of the believer as defined above, and therefore the believer, if yoked with him, must go the way of and do the works of the unbeliever, however contrary to the mind of God. It is thus that so many Christians that have served in war have lost their testimony to Christ.
A one-time officer of the old German Imperial Staff, a Christian, urged to me that he used to pray over his activities. He narrated how he had been enabled completely to wipe out a band of brigands, without the loss of one of his men, and thought that to be an answer to prayer, and so far an endorsement of his position and actions. I answered that it might very well be that he had been helped of God in such an affair, but that it was not Christian work. In that manner David had cried to God about his battles and had received divine guidance and aid; but that it was all foreign to the present business of Christ, and so of His followers. It was not that it was in itself ungodly, but it was not Christian.
In view of this position and
line of conduct it becomes of the very essence of the matter that a Christian
shall be one, not in theory only, but in the deep, experimental realization of
his soul. He must know and feel
these things to be the actual present state of his heart Christward. He must be walking in a humble but
practical separation from this world, its politics, its trade societies, its
pleasure clubs, and so forth. He
must have his heart consciously full of that love of God which is toward all
men equally, and which therefore makes it an outrage of the deepest instinct of
his soul that he should slaughter, or in any lesser degree injure, any
man. He must be in the power of the
fact that he is a member of the family and the
Each of us should therefore search his heart before God as to its actual spiritual state, for only such as know the power of the truth, wrought into the soul’s affections by the Spirit, will be able to endure unto the end the lot of those who walk in fellowship with the Despised and Rejected of men. The first need is for each disciple to believe, and to learn by experience through faith, that the Captain of Jehovah’s hosts is El Shaddai, the God who is enough.
2 THE GROUND OF AND LIMIT OF OBEDIENCE
It is not surprising that some see in 1 Peter 2: 13 a difficulty in the way of disobeying the law; for “Be subject to every ordinance of man” is a wide expression which, taken superficially, seems not to allow any liberty of disobedience to constituted authority. But several considerations show that this is not really so.
1. The word “ordinance” is not a strict translation, and also is itself ambiguous. It means something that is ordained; and while laws that rulers make are somewhat that is ordained, so also, and equally so, is the office of the ruler. Of these two meanings it is the latter that is here intended, as the next clauses show: “Be subject to every human ordinance ... whether to the king ... or unto governors as sent by him”. It does not say, whether to statutes by rulers or orders by governors. This may be seen in Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, where it is expressly pointed out that it is not the laws that are in view but the offices instituted for good government. The R.V. margin gives the correct rendering as “creation”, something created, which can be used of an office or institution, but not of a law. We speak of creating a government department or post, but not of creating a law or rule. The verse therefore teaches subjection to every rank of rightly appointed ruler, but not a blind obedience to every order they may give.
2. And this is implied of necessity in the accompanying reason for obedience. Obedience is to be rendered “for the Lord’s sake:” that is, as a proof that Christ does not allow His subjects to be revolutionaries, a danger to rulers or to society. But suppose a case that has, alas, frequently occurred, that a king orders a private assassination: how could a Christian obey such a command “for the Lord’s sake”? What honour would come to the Lord by such a deed? Was God glorified when Joab obeyed king David, and arranged the death of Uriah? On the contrary God showed His great displeasure by avenging the deed to the end of David’s life (2 Sam. 11 and 12). Thus the reason for the subjection creates its own limit thereof.
3. The attitude of Holy
Scripture is that “there is no authority but of
(a) That those who own the supreme authority of God submit to lower authorities that He appoints or permits, for they will not fight against God. Thus the Son of God submitted without strife to the unrighteous and illegal acts of Pilate against Himself, for He would not contend against that which God allowed (John 19: 11; 18: 11). So the duty of the follower of Christ is obedience, even though he must suffer much thereby. But this is passive submission to wrong, not active co-operation in doing evil.
(b) It also follows that the lower authority must act, and can claim obedience only so long as it acts, within the limits and for the purposes that the higher authority has commissioned it, which in this case is defined as “for vengeance on evil doers and for praise to them that do well” (1 Pet. 2: 14, and Rom. 13: 3, 4). Therefore if a ruler commands deeds which encourage evil-doing he forfeits claim to obedience. No subordinate authority may do or order acts that are ultra vires, that is, beyond the powers delegated to it. For example, if in this country a court of petty sessions were to order a man to be hanged, the hangman would have a duty to disobey the order, that court having no legal right to make it, nor he to obey it.
These considerations show that no ruler other than the Most High Himself may claim absolutely unlimited obedience. Nor can an individual claim exemption from the penalty of a criminal act on the plea that a superior had ordered it, for the one had no right to give, nor the other to obey such an order.
There is therefore a general duty to obey, but it is limited on occasion by a particular duty not to obey. The doctrine that the individual is to be deemed as merged into the State, so that whatever the State demands becomes his duty irrespective of its moral nature, is deeply immoral, ungodly, and is to be resisted unto death. The separate, inalienable responsibility of each individual to God direct is heavily emphasized in Scripture. So then “each one of us shall give account of himself to God:” “each one shall receive the things done through the body:” “they were judged every man according to their works” (Rom. 14: 12; 2 Cor. Cor. 5: 10: Rev. 20: 13). This is inevadable, and it applies to many acts of deceit or violence unavoidable in war.
It becomes therefore a matter for careful discrimination as to the exact point on each occasion where the general duty to obey must yield to the particular duty to disobey. And, as was above remarked, the duty to justify disobedience rests on him who disobeys. Here no one may decide for his neighbour or condemn the other for not acting as he may act. But this does not hinder the privilege and duty to seek to enlighten or to persuade another.
Several situations will arise:-
1. Where a ruler is enforcing a command of the Word of God applicable to a given circumstance he is, of course, to be obeyed without question.
2. When a ruler is exercising a Divinely given right he is to be obeyed. The
best instance is that of taxes.
The office of government being ideally for the good of the governed it is equitable that these should bear the
expense of it (
3. But this instance is valuable by including elements which might easily raise questions for a Christian conscience. In the New Testament time, as since, taxes might be employed for ends plainly obnoxious to the Christian, such as the support of heathen temples, which included false worship and gross immorality, or for the bloody conquest of unoffending peoples. But the responsibility for the misuse of taxes rested upon those who used the money, not on those who paid the taxes. The governing principle is that otherwise applied in 1 Cor. 10: 25-28, even that questions of conscience are not to be sought or forced. They must affect the individual directly, not remotely. And it will follow from this, as well as from the general duty to obey, and from the responsibility to justify disobedience resting on the subject, that in any case of doubt the individual must submit to the authority. The duty to disobey must be clear, not obscure or doubtful.
4. But there have constantly arisen, and will still arise, cases in which the duty to disobey is unmistakable. The Word of God everywhere provides for this unhappy contingency and gives guiding cases. The fundamental principle is stated plainly by Christ, that while we must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, we must still more render unto God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22: 21); and again by the apostle of Christ: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29), whenever their orders clash. Yet the clash must be evident, not imaginary.
The instances of disobedience are clear and full of guidance:-
(1) The king of
(2) Herod the king ordered the massacre of all the baby boys of a small town. The reputed father of Jesus was divinely instructed how to frustrate the intention of the king. Would any heart blame one of those outraged mothers for seeking to defeat the king and save her babe? (Matt. 2)
Thus at the beginning of each Testament stands a God-commended instance of deliberate disobedience to authority, when the authorities were wrongly using their power. A king has a Divinely given duty to execute certain criminals: he has no right to order murder and massacre. War for national revenge or aggrandisement is ungodly, unwarranted, ultra vires from the Divine standpoint, since God has given no general sanction thereto.
That God overrules wars for the
punishment of the wicked does not lessen the wickedness of the rulers that
inflict these horrors, but seals their own subsequent doom. This is clearly shown in Isa. 10: 5-34, especially verse
12, following verse 6. God moves the king of Assyria against
His wicked people
(3) The supreme monarch of his time, Nebuchadnezzar, ordered a co-ordinated, universal State worship. Religion was to be an adjunct of the State, worship was to be in form prescribed by authority. This is to be noted, for it is a general attitude of rulers that religion is to be subservient to their power and ends. The principle has been asserted again to-day in several European countries, and many Christians have suffered for refusing the submission demanded.
The three Hebrews uncompromisingly refused obedience, and they are set forth in Scripture as conspicuous examples of faithfulness to God in so refusing (Dan. 2).
Precisely the same issue confronted Daniel under Darius (chapter 6); he took precisely the same course as his friends had done; and he was signally owned of God in his disobedience to the king.
The very apostles who lay down so positively the general duty of obedience to rulers were themselves often in prison for refusing this obedience in the realm of matters religious, though in no other realm. They were most definitely forbidden by the responsible rulers to preach in the name of Christ; they as definitely persisted in doing so, in spite of their own general principle of obedience. There have been periods when it was by law a capital offence to be a Christian. To have submitted would have been apostasy from Christ and rebellion against the command of God that men are to believe on His Son (John 6: 29: 1 John 3: 23).
The grand principle underlying and demanding this resolute opposition to authority is that of ultra vires mentioned above. God has given no authority whatever to rulers in the sphere of the relations of His creature man to Himself, the Creator. In this realm the ruler is a trespasser, and no trespasser can plead right of law for his trespass and acts connected with it, for the trespass is itself contrary to law. Nor can he complain if those he would wrong by his trespass refuse to assent to his claim to do his will and to command their submission to his unlawful proceedings.
These instances and considerations suffice to establish that 1 Peter 2: 13 lays down no unlimited duty of obedience to rulers but asserts only that general principle of obedience which is, however, subject to very definite and important and far-reaching exceptions. Such unlimited obedience can only be given at the cost of rendering unto Caesar the things that are God’s, a far more serious offence than not rendering to Caesar the things that are his, for to rob God is more heinous than to rob man.
The outcome is that when a ruler commands what is contrary (a) to a plain command of God or of Christ, (b) to morality, (c) to justice, or (d) when he trespasses into the realm of religion, he has forthwith no claim to obedience, but it is rather the duty of the subject to disobey; yet not actively resisting, but simply enduring the penalties the ruler may inflict, even unto death.
The application of these principles to the Christian and war has been already made.
In the sphere of religion the subject should decline all discussion and negotiation with authorities. To negotiate admits that both parties have some rights, which are matter for adjustment. This is to deny the only true and consistent and strong position that the State has no rights in this realm, so that no discussion is admissible.
3. SOME OBJECTIONS
It is an important principle that if a fact or belief has been once established by sufficient evidence, no objections can overthrow it; because in such case belief rests upon knowledge, but the objections upon ignorance.
If what has been before advanced establishes from Scripture the positions taken as to the relationship the child of God should hold toward the State and to war, then obscurities as to some passages that may seem not clear, or practical difficulties in the path of obedience to Scripture, cannot rightly be ground for disobedience. Difficulties must be faced with courage and overcome by patient endurance. The faithful soldier of Christ will set about the task appointed, no matter how dangerous or difficult, relying upon the Divine resources, and confident of the ultimate triumph of his Lord, even though his own death must help toward that triumph.
The objection is urged that Christ told His followers to buy swords (Luke 22: 35-38). Yet when two swords were produced, He said, “It is enough.” But obviously two swords were not enough for the defence of twelve men against an armed band of soldiers and officers. Some other sense of the words must be sought. The words are to be taken, with Alford, as a rebuke. In taking them literally they misunderstood Him, and He said (we use our English idiom) “That’s enough!” and closed the subject. And directly after, in the garden, when Peter used the sword, the Lord immediately undid his work by healing the man struck, and warned Peter to sheathe his weapon, saying that “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword;” not meaning that actually every soldier dies by violence, for that is not the fact, but that every man of violence must take the ordinary risks of a life of violence, and He would guarantee no special protection.
Seeing that the disciples of Christ were not permitted to fight in defence of such a King, when in deadly peril from such gross injustice and violence, when can it ever be His mind that they should fight with carnal weapons? And here is the answer to another suggestion, that, while Christians should certainly take no part in a war of aggression, it is right to defend oneself, others, and the country, from aggression. But it was for defending Him by the sword against the most outrageous aggression that Jesus rebuked His Peter, like many disciples since, had forgotten Christ’s earlier and explicit instructions, “Resist not him that is evil” (Matt. 5: 38-42).
One detail from the trial of the Lord before the high priest illustrates His counsel. When He was illegally struck upon the face by a servant, He remonstrated, but did not resist (John 18: 22, 23). When it is demanded, “What would you do were a man attempting to attack your wife?” the form of the question really begs the question. The question is not what I would do, for I might do what is unbecoming in a follower of Jesus; but what ought I to do according to His instructions? And these are clear, and His own example emphatic; for He had power to have blasted His tormentors, and it would have been justice, but He did not do it. The work He had in hand, the justifying God in acting in grace, forbade it; and the work His follower has to do, the recommending and illustrating that grace of God, equally forbids it.
Moreover the objection is almost entirely hypothetical. Men do not attempt such acts of violence unless they see themselves in the position to work their wicked will; and under those circumstances to resist is but to aggravate their villainy. Christ’s counsel is wise as well as right, and the wisdom that obeys will yet be justified in all her children.
Some feel it a difficulty that in time of war the food of this land must in measure be brought here at risk of life by our fellow-men, and that it is unreasonable to profit by their danger while refusing to share it. If this contention were sound, it would not make void the requirements of Christ upon His followers as before set out. It would only mean that they would need to starve as regards those foods which are imported, as far as they could distinguish these. This might be disagreeable, enfeebling, even fatal; but that is not the affair of the soldier; it is for him to be obedient.
But such as raise the objection should reflect that in measure the same holds true in time of peace. The seafaring life involves perpetual risk; so does the raising of coal from the mine: must no one eat food save the sailor? or burn coal save the miner? If this objection is pressed it must be examined in detail, and one factor that will emerge will be that those who take the risk, whether in peace or war, are presumed to be paid for their services and for the risk taken. Also, during war all are taxed to make this payment, and are therefore entitled to share the benefit. Moreover, the objection would press as heavily against those who are not sent to the front or into the navy, but who serve in government posts at home, or who work on the land or in factories, as against Christians. Must they all starve?
If it be said that these do something towards meeting the dread situation, the answer is that so should every Christian, if he be permitted to do it consistently with Christ’s instructions to His disciples as above indicated, that is, as an individual, not in any organization of unbelievers, and in such peaceable service as becomes a disciple of Jesus. Inasmuch as our Lord so habitually healed the sick, without inquiring how their state of body was caused, including the servant of a soldier, and the man of violence who was injured when attacking Himself, it is plain that it is the duty of His followers to help every needy person, including the soldier. That those He healed might misuse their strength He gave did not hinder the work of healing. Their after-conduct was their responsibility.
These instances may suffice to show that the objections taken are neither radical nor insuperable; but if they were so, that would not make void the duty of the Christian to walk by the precepts of Christ and in His steps.
The question of sharing in politics belongs to our subject. If a man is a citizen of one of the kingdoms of this world he has a duty to do what he can to keep in order and to better its corporate affairs, in which case he will vote in elections; but if he is only a subject, living for a time under this or that government, and presently going on to his own country, he has no business with those affairs. He will do what may be in his power to help any one, but as a foreigner his ways of so helping will be limited, and will not include interference with matters public.
This is the status of the child
of God according to the mind of the King, his Father. He has been translated out of the
In consequence, Peter describes
Christians as “sojourners and pilgrims”
(1 Pet. 2: 11). Both terms (paroikos,
parapidemos) meant at the time simply aliens,
persons in a land but with no rights of citizenship. In his German translation (the Elberfeld) Darby renders the latter word by “ohne Burgerrecht,” that is, without
citizen rights. The force of the
former word is seen in Acts 7: 6 and 29.
The Israelites were aliens in
Consistently with this the Scripture nowhere gives instructions for the conduct of the Christian in the affairs national or international of men. If he join in these he must do so without warrant or counsel from the Lord, and will be cast upon his own poor judgment. The Word of God orders the child of God to be subject to the authorities in any land where life’s journey may take him; it never goes beyond this or contemplates him co-operating in public affairs. That the world does not understand this creates difficulties but does not alter God’s view or the facts. If an alien were offered citizen rights through the misapprehension of officials, and he were honest, he would declare his nationality and refuse the privilege. If then the local rulers sought to force him to act as one of their people he would have a duty to his own sovereign to refuse and to suffer the consequences. He would reflect that, if he submitted to the position sought to be forced upon him, he would be liable to be forced to fight against his proper king if the land of his sojourning went to war with him. And this is the position to which the servant of Christ is quickly reduced, in one degree or another, so soon as he becomes entangled in this world’s affairs. Pharaoh ever strives to employ the people of God in building his treasure cities, and so in strengthening his kingdom. But God brings His people out of it. Pharaoh pleads, “Go not very far away,” but God insists upon a complete and final break.
A man is not responsible that he was born German, Jew, or British. He cannot alter the fact, and there will be occasions when he must admit it. Thus when Paul was officially challenged as to whether he was an Egyptian (Acts 21: 37-39), he replied that he was a Jew, born at a certain place, and “of no mean city a citizen”, where, it should be noted, the emphasis lies upon the dignity of the city, not on the matter of citizenship. The status acquired by birth is undeniable; the question is, what use of it, if any, should the disciple of Christ make?
If it seems that Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship is at variance with what has been above advanced, two factors must be considered. (1) That if it really were so, it would mean no more than that in this matter Paul’s action was not consistent with his teaching. It would not invalidate the latter. But (2) a writer in the Daily News, during the first world war, was certainly right when he pointed out that the modern term to give Paul’s meaning is “subject”, not “citizen”. I do not recall that the writer (a Master of Arts) developed this point, but reflection will justify it; for the apostle claimed three things only: first, that he ought not to have been condemned and punished without trial (Acts 16: 37); second, that he ought not to be tortured to make a confession (Acts 22: 25); third, that to prevent his judge acting against him contrary to the laws he ought to have administered, the prisoner appealed to a higher tribunal open to him (Acts 25: 9-12).
Now it is clear that these three rights are granted by all modern and civilized States to aliens as much as to citizens, and therefore Paul claimed nothing that to-day belongs to citizenship. It is to be observed that he did not lay any complaint at Rome against the illegalities of the officials at Philippi or the chief captain at Jerusalem, though he had that right also. It would be unwarrantable to infer from what he actually did that at Rome he would, for example, have taken part in the election of tribunes to defend the rights of the people against aggression, least of all that he would have joined the Imperial forces to slaughter men to whom he had a mandate from Christ to announce the glad tidings of peace. That were quite unthinkable.
That many Christians have no knowledge of their heavenly calling and standing, and what it involves here and now, and that some, alas, act inconsistently with what they profess, does not alter the Word of God or our duty of obedience. It is strengthening to know that if we suffer with Christ we shall be also glorified with Him in His kingdom. It is solemn to be assured that if we deny Him He also will deny us, that is, in the day of His glory being manifested (2 Tim. 2: 10-13).
Three things may be regarded as certain, (1) That in a world of unregenerate men, ruled at bottom by self-interest, personal, class, or national, strife will never be avoidable. Not till the Spirit from on high is poured out upon all men, at the return of Christ, will they learn war no more (Isa. 32: 14-18: Joel 2: 28; Isa. 2: 4). Then will war be deemed disreputable, not honourable, as now while man is a perverted being. (2) In consequence, they who in this time think that affairs national can be conducted without strife are idealists doomed to disappointment.
(3) Nevertheless, those individuals who have strength enough, by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, “to follow after peace with all men,” however great the personal cost, are the truest benefactors of the world. In the family, in society, in the nation, they have always been a far richer source of blessing than all the men of violence combined. Even though in a time of war, when national passion is high, they may be reproached, yet “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5: 9).
“They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil, and pain:
0 God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train!”
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit ... I can do all things in Him that strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4: 23, 13).
THE CHRISTIAN AND THE OATH
In sundry civil appointments, professions, and affairs, as well as in war, the question arises of taking an oath. The practice has existed from the earliest days of organized society. Its essence is the invoking of the name of such deity as the person swearing honours, implying the incurring of his wrath if the oath in his name be violated. The practice was regarded at first with due awe, and the oath deemed sacred; but human depravity soon led to it degenerating mostly into a formality, and perjury became common, and then into a flippancy, so that the oath was meaningless.
Early in His ministry Christ gave directions upon the subject for the guidance of His followers. He said (Matt. 5: 33-37): “Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King, Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.”
And James, the Lord’s apostle, repeated by the Spirit these instructions (5: 12), saying: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under Judgment.”
There are many who consider that every oath without exception is thus prohibited to the Christian; there arc others who think that the oath to tell the truth is made by Scripture an exception. The following facts arc to be weighed:
1. God Himself has frequently employed oaths to confirm the truth of His Statements. Sometimes naming His very person, “By Myself have I sworn,” sometimes His very existence, “As I live, saith Jehovah” (Gen. 22: 16; Num. 14: 28-30; Ps. 89: 3, 35; 110: 4; Heb. 7: 21). It follows that to take an oath is not inherently, immoral, or God would not do it.
2. God so acting is recognized in the New Testament as His tacit endorsement of the practice of men (Heb. 6: 16-18), whereby He would encourage their dependence on His promises.
3. A legal oath was sanctioned
by God under the law of Moses (Lev. 5: 1). Its
form was a public announcement in the name of God that any person acquainted
with the matter in hand should declare what he knew of it. The one who heard this “voice of
adjuration” and did not speak was guilty of perjury. That the rule is given without detail or
explanation shows that it was dealing with an already existing, well known
custom. Therefore it is not “Mosaic” or “Jewish.” In fact, this form of oath was not
4. It was this oath which Christ Himself honoured before the high priest’s court. He had maintained strict silence, answering no questions, until the high priest administered the oath in due form, saying “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26: 63). Then He at once honoured the law and the oath and answered. Prohibitions in His teaching must be applied in the light of this His own act.
The type of oath most
contemplated in the prohibitions is indicated by the instances given: Swear not
by the heaven, the earth,
To this day the Oriental indulges habitually in just the same class of oaths. The Moslem scarce makes any trivial statement without saying, By Allah, By the Prophet’s tomb, or his beard, or By my head. Thus these instructions remain very necessary for converts from such peoples.
It deserves great weight that the Lord set His instructions in specific contrast to that which had “been said to them of old time”. The reference was to the words of Moses in Num. 30: 2: “When a man voweth a vow unto Jehovah, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” Therefore it is such vows as are then described that Christ forbade to His disciples. Now these were purely voluntary promises and oaths, which no one was obliged to make or to take. It was, therefore, such oaths that Christ was forbidding, and this limits the words “swear not at all” and “nor by any other oath” so far as that it must exclude the obligatory oath now before us. For this latter was not optional. It had been enacted by statute nearly forty years by the time the regulations as to voluntary oaths were given. There was no penalty for not taking an oath voluntarily, but only for not keeping such; but if any one heard the voice of adjuration and remained silent it was “sin” and he must “bear his iniquity” (Lev. 5: 1). This Christ did not annul: it remained binding on every one of the disciples as long as they continued under Jewish law, as the Lord showed by Himself honouring it three years later than when He forbade voluntary swearing. But it was limited to telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It contained no promise to do or not to do.
5. The apostle Paul frequently invoked the divine Name in confirmation of the truth of his statements. His phrases have the utmost solemnity: “God is my witness;” “I call God for a witness upon my soul;” “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not;” “behold, before God I lie not” (Rom. 1: 9; 2 Cor. 1: 23; 11: 31; Gal. 1: 20). This solemn invoking of the name of God is the very essence of the oath. Does any one to-day understand better the precepts of Christ, or what is true Christian practice, than the apostle Paul?
6. In the visions which close the Christian Scriptures one of the most impressive scenes is that a majestic angel descends from heaven, and with uplifted hand, the universal gesture accompanying the invoking of God, swears a mighty oath by the Eternal Creator (Rev. 10: 5, 6), which is a repetition of a similar angelic oath witnessed by Daniel (Dan. 12: 7).
It thus appears that an oath in the name of God, for the purpose of affirming when necessary the truth of a statement, is sanctioned by the practice of God and of the Son of God, by the Word of God and the law of God, and by apostolic and angelic example.
But this being admitted, it remains that the oath to tell the truth is the solitary exception to the general prohibition for which Scripture sanction can be given. Christ and the apostles cannot but have known that two other very important oaths were frequently demanded, the oath of allegiance to the sovereign, and that of the soldier, the sacramentum of Roman law, from which comes our word sacrament, something specially sacred before God.
As regards the former, the oath reads: “I do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen . . Her Heirs and Successors according to law. So help me God.” Allegiance is defined as the duty the subject owes to the Sovereign, but there is no comprehensive authoritative statement as to the extent or detail of this duty. “Duty” here can be regarded as equivalent to the “subjection” to authorities ordered by Scripture, of which also Scripture affords no one comprehensive or detail statement. In this situation the Christian may rightly promise to render dutiful obedience to the sovereign and continue to do so until any occasion arises when some act is demanded which he considers the Word of God to forbid: then he must obey God rather than man and accept patiently present consequences in hope of Divine recompense. See Section I above.
The difficulty of having to take oath on this and other matters does not arise in the United Kingdom, because the Oaths Act of 1888 provides that any person who has no religion, or whose religious belief does not allow the taking of an oath, may instead “affirm,” by declaring “I, A.B., do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm,” etc. This applies to every occasion when an oath is required by law. Duties and consequences of oath or affirmation are alike.
For the Christian the position is otherwise as regards the military oath. This reads: “I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen ... Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.”
It has been shown above that the New Testament applies to the Christian the terms for alien. Now an alien can render full civil obedience to whatever ruler he may happen to be under in the course of life; but it is clear that no alien, consistently with his duty to his own proper sovereign, could take the military oath promising obedience to all orders given; for this oath would involve him in the peril of having to fight for the foreign State against his own Government, since the two might go to war. In this connection it is most pertinent to remember that, according to prophetic Scripture, the kings of the earth will at last league together to resist the authority of Christ at His return to the earth (Ps. 2; Isa. 63: 1‑6; Rev. 16: 12-16; 19: 19-21: etc.). The Antichrist, the last world emperor, will be duly elected by the ten kings as their over-lord, and will thus be their “Successor” according to law. How can a servant of Christ promise in advance, and on oath, unlimited obedience to Antichrist?
Christ left the Christian an example, that he should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2: 21). He lived in due subjection to the authorities, both Jewish and the foreign oppressor; but it is unthinkable that He would have given an unlimited promise to obey Tiberius Caesar, his heirs, and successors. Some of these were to prove the most savage persecutors of His followers.
In relation to man’s responsibility God-ward, such a promise would involve (1) the renouncing of the freedom of the will to do the will of God, since orders contrary thereto might be (as they have been) given; and (2) thus will arise the acute and awful dilemma of either outraging one’s conscience by transgressing the known command of God, or of incurring the guilt of perjury by violating one’s oath taken in the name of God, so falling under the dread sentence James no doubt had in mind, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who taketh His name in vain” (Exod. 20: 7).
dreadful an offence this last is held by God to be may be learned from 2 Chron. 36: 13 and Ezek. 17: 11-21.
Since the taking of an oath is not inherently immoral the grounds for not doing so must be, at least mainly, practical. The considerations now stated illustrate these grounds, and reveal that Christ’s prohibition was for the true welfare of His followers, and that it is plainly wiser for both the Authorities and the faithful disciple of Christ that the latter should not be in the forces.
Under the Military Service Acts, a serious situation was created that may be still worth noting for its lessons. The man called up there under was not required to repeat the oath, because, as it would seem, according to Section 1 he was “deemed to have been duly enlisted,” and so presumably was deemed to have taken the oath, which before had been one item in being duly enlisted. Yet though he did not take the oath he was held to be bound by its provisions, obligations, and penalties.
Was it not in law a new and vicious principle, thus adopted by Statute, that a man was deemed to have done something he had not done, to wit, that he had taken an oath of which perchance he had never even heard, and to which he might have resolutely objected? Of course, morally and before Almighty God no one is bound by an oath to which he had not actually, assented. That by human law men should be held responsible for an act which they had not done, would put potentially a terrible weapon into the hands of the tyrant and persecutor. In principle it is the absolute and fundamental negation of justice. Yet this could not have been intended in Acts which made definite provision for the protection of conscience; but it shows a serious situation for the Christian, in relation to the military sphere, under even the best-intentioned of rulers.
There is no saner conclusion of this discussion than that of the wisest sovereign earth has yet seen. Solomon said: “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for He hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou vowest. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5: 4, 5). It is this “better” that is the basic principle of our Lord’s instructions.
If one who had formerly taken an oath, whether to the Sovereign, the State, or some Association or person, reaches the conclusion before God that he ought not to have done so, he should notify the other party in writing of his change of mind, renounce the oath taken, and declare that henceforth he will regard it as null and void. Of course he must be prepared to accept any consequences that the other party may have power to enforce.
THE ATTITUDE TO WAR AND POLITICS OF CHRISTIANS KNOWN AS THE BRETHREN
of the Plymouth Brethren it is stated on page 271 that “The bar and the services were absolutely banned, and
barristers and military and naval officers generally abandoned their careers if
they joined the Brethren.”
It appears that this is somewhat overstated, for if these spheres had
been “absolutely banned” it should
have, followed that the members of them invariably, not “generally” abandoned them. Also, such a ban would have been an
infringement of two essential principles of these believers: the principle of
personal liberty and voluntary action in all affairs not inherently immoral,
and the principle that every true Christian, not morally disqualified, was to
be received into fellowship. This
last was a first and vital principle of their meetings. It received illustration in the
following incident from the last century.
There entered a meeting of Brethren of humble rank in the neighbourhood
With this qualification the
latter part of the statement quoted remains
true: “military and naval officers generally
abandoned their careers if they joined the Brethren.” A notable instance was J. G. Deck, one of their best known
hymn writers. Another was Julius von Poseck,
of whom Mr. Neatby writes that “He came of a noble Pomeranian family, and as a young man
suffered imprisonment for a refusal to serve in the Prussian army. From prison he addressed to the king an
appeal based on the principle of religious toleration. The king, it is said, directed the
prisoner to forward to him such publications as would explain the religious
principles on which the refusal to bear arms was based. Von Poseck
accordingly sent a selection from the literature of the Plymouth Brethren. It is not likely that the Government
attempted to master this theology, but a glance at it would show that the
prisoner was harmless. He was
liberated by the king, on the condition that he should leave the country. This brought him to
It was through Anthony Norris Groves that the chief
fundamental church principles that came to characterize the Brethren were first
suggested to the group of believers in Dublin who were meeting together to
edify one another, out of which meeting the other assemblies developed, He was
proposing to become a clergyman, and his studies were well advanced, but in
1828 another who was afterwards well known among Brethren from association with
R. C. Chapman, Mr. William Hake,
called on him at
But although Anthony Norris Groves was the first propounder at that time of the distinctive church principles of the Brethren, it was the more celebrated John Nelson Darby who became their then greatest propagator. Of him Francis William Newman wrote that he “had taken high honours in Dublin University and had studied for the bar, where, under the auspices of his eminent kinsman [Chief justice of Ireland], he had excellent prospects; but his conscience would not allow him to take a brief, lest he should be selling his talents to defeat justice” (Neatby, History, 46).
This same conscience, and the conviction produced by the truths of the New Testament as before outlined, determined Darby’s attitude to war also. The following letter was written in 1870, the year of the Franco‑Prussian war, to a French believer. It having been written forty years after the commencement of Brethren meetings shows that the attitude and beliefs persisted. It reads:-
It is clear to me that a Christian, free to do as he will, could never be a soldier, unless he were at the very bottom of the scale, and ignorant of the Christian position. It is another thing when one is forced to it. In such a case the question is this: is the conscience so strongly implicated on the negative side of the question, that one could not be a soldier without violating that which is the rule for conscience - the word of God? In that case we bear the consequences; we must be faithful.
What pains me is the manner in which the idea of one’s country has taken possession of the hearts of some brethren. I quite understand that the sentiment of patriotism may be strong in the heart of a man. I do not think that the heart is capable of affection towards the whole world. At bottom, human affection must have a centre, which is “I.” I can say “My country,” and it is not that of a stranger. I say, “My children,” “My friend,” and it is not a purely selfish “.” One would sacrifice one’s life - everything (not oneself, or one’s honour) for one’s country, one’s friend. I cannot say “My world;” there is no appropriation. We appropriate something to ourselves that it may not be ourselves. But God delivers us from the “I;” He makes of God, and of God in Christ, the centre of all; and the Christian, if consistent, declares plainly that he seeks a heavenly country. His affections, his ties, his citizenship are above. He withdraws into the shade in this world, as outside the vortex which surges there, to engulf and carry everything away. The Lord is a sanctuary.
That a Christian should hesitate whether he ought to obey or not, I understand: I respect his conscience; but that he should allow himself to be carried away by what is called patriotism - that is what is not of heaven. “My Kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” It is the spirit of the world under an honourable and attractive form, but wars come from “lusts that war in your members.”
As a man, I would
have fought obstinately for my country, and would never have given way, God
knows; but as a Christian I believe and feel myself to be outside all; these
things move me no more. The hand of
God is in them; I recognize it: he has ordered all beforehand. I bow my head before that will. If
Many Christians are labouring in the scene of the war; large sums of money have been sent to them. All this does not attract me. God be praised that so many poor creatures have been relieved; but I would rather see the brethren penetrating the lanes of the city, and seeking the poor where they are found every day. There is far more self-abnegation, more hidden service, in such work. We are not of this world, but we are the representatives of Christ in the midst of the world. May God graciously help His own (Letters, vol. ii, 130).
That the before-outlined beliefs and attitude have continued was seen in the late great wars, when a large number of younger men from the assemblies endured reproach, ostracism, imprisonment, hardship, and sometimes ill-usage, rather than compromise their convictions and consciences by joining the forces.
The same attitude was maintained to politics. Mr. Neatby (267, 268), says:-
They (Brethren) believed, too, that the existing secular order - the administration of government, of justice, and so forth - was just as much divinely ordained as the Church itself, Christians ought, they say, to be very thankful for it, and to yield it a perfectly passive support; but they should remember that in its administration Christians, as a heavenly people, possessing a heavenly calling and citizenship, could not lawfully share. ...
They filled no civil or municipal office, if they could help it; they never sat in Parliament, and if by some rare self-assertion one of them voted at an election, he was regarded with the most intense disapproval.
The following quotations, from different schools of Brethren, confirm this statement.
The Church: its Heavenly Character and consequent Position and Office, by Henry Groves. (The Golden Lamp, 1874.)
Matt. 23: 8-11. “Be not YE called Rabbi or Master” and “It shall not be among You to exercise dominion or authority.” Plainly because the Son of Man came “not to be ministered unto but to minister:” because the rule and reign of the Saints is not at present, but in the future; is not while their Head is disowned and dishonoured, but when He shall come in His power and glory; because the Church is to know the fellowship of her Lord’s sufferings.
The Earthly Relationships of the Heavenly Family. J. R. Caldwell (111-113. Pickering and Inglis).
Under what form, then, of the world’s government is the Christian to enter politics? Under which of the wild beasts [of Daniel] shall he take office? Where does he find in the Word of God his warrant to ally himself with government or party to attain ends which he supposes will be for the general good? Where in Scripture prophecy is there a trace of a “Christian government,” any more than of a reigning church? As well might we speak of a Christian seven-headed wild beast!
Who will venture to deny that the alliance of the Church with the world power, however plausible and apparently advantageous, cost the Church its heavenly character, and that, not as an accident, but as the necessary consequence of the position?
And can the individual become a politician, and bend his energies to further the views of government or party, and not likewise surrender his heavenly character and citizenship? ...
Then, as strangers and pilgrims here, let us confess our heavenly character and citizenship, and in no wise ally ourselves with the world and its earth-born movements and world reformation schemes, whether political or social, but wait for His appearing who shall be to this poor, sin-stricken earth the fulfilment of every hope, whose eternal kingdom shall be “righteousness, and joy, and peace.”
What the World is: and How a Christian can Live in it. J. N. Darby (10‑12).
… everybody says that a citizen of the country, a Christian,
should be interested in the government of the country to which he belongs, and
ought to vote, so as to help to put good men in power. God says differently; in many places and
ways, He tells me that, as His child, I am not a citizen of any country, or a
member of any society; my citizenship is in heaven, and I have henceforth to do
with heavenly things; the cross of Christ has crucified me to the world, and
the world to me; if I give my mind and heart to these earthly things I shall be
the enemy of the cross of Christ.
Be not conformed to the world.
What then shall we do with governments? Why, submit to them, since God orders them; and when they
impose tax, pay; and make supplication to God for kings, and all in
authority. All therefore that a
Christian has to do with politics is to be subject to the powers set over him,
not only for wrath but also for conscience sake. It is true that in Christ he is “heir of all things,” including the earth in which the
world-system has now its operation, yet (as to Abraham in the
It was a pregnant saying of another teacher among Brethren, Henry Dyer, that “As a Christian I do not say ‘our king’ but ‘the king’. This is a distinction with a difference - a mighty difference. A citizen says, Our king: an alien says, The king No one can think of Christ calling Tiberius Caesar “Our emperor.” It was the men who clamoured for Christ’s blood who cried, “We have no king but Caesar.” No one can think of Paul or Peter styling Nero “Our king:” their language is “Honour the king.”
The writer’s father may be cited as a competent witness to the common private practice of Brethren. In 1916 he wrote to me as follows: “You are quite right that for sixty years, during which I have been a householder and entitled to vote, I have never done so, and this has been the general practice amongst Brethren, since the revival of the truth of the Christian’s heavenly calling in 1828.”
Those individuals of the Brethren assemblies whose convictions drive them to the opposite conduct are entitled to the respect due to conscience, but they are not entitled to say they follow the views or practice of Brethren in general. And it is for them to show that their views are more in agreement with the Word of God for Christians and with the heavenly calling of the saints of God.