Why Didn’t Jesus Denounce Military Service?
A common objection to the claim that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament were opposed to all forms of violence is that neither Jesus nor anyone else speaks out against it. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do in response to his message, for example, he told them not to “extort money,” not to “accuse people falsely,” and to be “content with [their] pay” (Lk 3: 14). He didn’t tell them to leave the military. In a similar fashion, when Jesus encountered a distraught Centurion, he healed his servant and praised his faith without saying a word about his leadership role in the violent and unjustly oppressive Roman-governed army (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10).
Along the same lines, without commenting on his military service, Mark reports that a Centurion confessed faith in Jesus when he witnessed how he died (Mk 15:39). And this same attitude gets carried over into the early church. Indeed, the first Gentile who came to Christ in the book of Acts was yet another Centurion. As Peter preached the Gospel to this man and his household, the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they were all baptized without a word being uttered about this man’s military service (Acts 10:44-8).
From Augustine to Aquinas to Luther up to the present time, these episodes have been frequently cited to justify Christians serving in the military.
This line of reasoning is misguided, in my opinion. First, this is an argument from silence. One could use this line of reasoning to argue that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament were not opposed to a good many things we know they were in fact opposed to. For example, Jesus didn’t rebuke the Samaritan women who had been divorced five times and was presently living with a man who was not her husband (Jn 4:16-8). Does this mean that Jesus condoned divorce, remarriage, and co-habitation outside of wedlock? Nor did Jesus rebuke the tax collectors and prostitutes he regularly fellowshipped with (Lk 5:29-30; 15:1). Does this imply that the religious authorities were correct in surmising that Jesus had no objection to these occupational choices (Lk 7:34)? James even praised the faith of Rahab without saying a word about the sinfulness of her career as a prostitute (Ja 2:25). I doubt anyone would want to argue that this implies that James thought prostitution was compatible with the Christian faith?
The truth is that we can only infer what a person believes by what they actually say, not by what they fail to say, and what Jesus and the New Testament authors uniformly say about violence is that it is forbidden for followers of Jesus. It is simply illegitimate to overturn or qualify this clear and consistent teaching with an argument from silence.
The weakness of the argument from silence becomes even clearer when we notice that, with the exception of the Jewish leaders of his day, Jesus never denounced the sin of the people with whom he interacted. In sharp contrast to other prophetic figures of his day, Jesus never denounced the sinful practices and policies of any ruling political authority. Indeed, he refused to even weigh in on the hot political topics of his day, despite the efforts of others to get him to do so (e.g. Mt 22:15-22).
We find a similar attitude running throughout the NT. For example, Paul confesses that, while we must discipline the behavior of Jesus-followers within the context of a kingdom community, we have no business passing judgment “on those outside the church” (1 Cor 5:12; cf. 1 Pet 1:17). To the contrary, Paul declares that the only message the church is to announce to people outside the church is the message of reconciliation that God has given us: namely, that in Christ God “was reconciling the world to himself…not counting people’s sin against them” (2 Cor 5:19, emphasis added). Far from pointing out people’s sin, our message is to be that God has already forgiven their sin!
It is apparent that Jesus and the New Testament authors are simply not interested in trying to improve the ethical behavior of the people and governments of the world. In this sense it is fair to say that the New Testament doesn’t contain an ethic for humans in general, and perhaps even fair to say that the New Testament doesn’t espouse pacifism, in the sense that it doesn’t advocate non-violence for all people and as an end in-and-of itself. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament are rather exclusively focused on the call of disciples of Jesus to love enemies, which therefore rules out killing them. The very fact that Jesus established the ability to love like this to be the distinguishing mark of a child of God (Mt 5:44-5; Lk 6:35) indicates that he did not intend his command to function as a universal ethical principle.
Hence, the general posture of the New Testament is that, until one submits to the Lordship of Christ and is filled with his Spirit, there is no point addressing the incompatibility of a person’s lifestyle or occupation with the will of God. Indeed, Paul’s teaching on the message of reconciliation that ambassadors of Christ are to preach actually precludes this. And since none of the several soldiers that are spoken of in the New Testament were disciples, it is hardly surprising that we find no critique of their occupation.
I will close one final important observation. While the silence of Jesus about military service doesn’t indicate that he thought military service was compatible with following Jesus, it does illustrate how God meets people where they are at without judging them. The Holy Spirit simply fell on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, without first requiring him to leave the military. Luke doesn’t tell us how Cornelius resolved the dilemma this put him in, but we need to appreciate how messy his dilemma was. The Roman military had no provisions for military leaders to suddenly opt out of service as a “conscientious objector.” Indeed, walking away from one’s military role was considered treason and was punishable by death!
But I am glad Luke doesn’t tell us this, because if he had, we might be tempted to turn it into a formula that we’d try to apply to all Christians in military service. This is precisely what we should never do, for God works in the particulars of each person’s unique and messy life. Cornelius, together with whatever house church he joined after his conversion, would have to work out the messy implications of his salvation “with fear and trembling,” trusting that “God” was working in them “to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12).
This is why I don’t believe anyone has any business questioning the authenticity of a military person’s faith, whether they are serving in the U.S. military or in a military that opposes the U.S. Yes, we can and must clearly espouse the New Testament’s teaching on the prohibition on violence for Jesus-followers, and I will candidly admit that I for one don’t see how following Jesus can be reconciled with military service. But neither I nor anyone else is in a position to apply this to individuals who haven’t invited us into their lives.
We must rather simply trust that God is meeting them, and working in them, where they are. And if it seems to us that their chosen occupation makes them sinners, we are to remember that the speck of dust we think we see in their eye is nothing compared to the tree trunk of sin that protrudes from our own (Matt 7:1-3).