WAR and NEUTRALITY – Should Christians Remain Neutral During War?


WAR and NEUTRALITY – Should Christians Remain Neutral during War?

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that it is the Christian’s duty to remain “neutral” during warfare. In countries throughout the world, many have faced imprisonment and even death for their conscientious objection to bearing arms in war.

Historically, the Watchtower organization permitted Jehovah’s Witnesses to go to war as long as they did not kill anyone or they sought non-combative, civilian service in place of active duty. The August 1, 1898 issue of Zion’s Watch Tower claimed on page 231:

Notice that there is no command in the Scriptures against military service. Obedience to a draft would remind us of our Lord’s words, ‘If any man compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.’ The government may compel marching or drilling, but cannot compel you to kill the foe. You need not be a good marksman. Question. You suggested in a recent WATCH TOWER that, if drafted and in the army, we need not shoot to kill. Would such a course be right? Would it not be fraudulent? Answer. No; it would be quite right to shoot, not to kill. You forget, perhaps, our provisos, which were that we explain our conscientious scruples against war, and seek to be excused; if not excused, that we seek non-combatant positions, as nurses, etc.; but if compelled to go a mile or many miles as a soldier, we still need not kill anybody.”

In addition to allowing alternative service in 1918, the Watchtower encouraged Jehovah’s Witnesses to purchase “Liberty Bonds” which helped fund the United States war effort for World War I:

“A Christian, unwilling to kill, may have been conscientiously unable to buy government bonds; later he considers what great blessings he has received under his government, and realizes that the nation is in trouble and facing dangers to its liberty, and he feels himself conscientiously able to lend some money to the country, just as he would lend to a friend in distress.” (The Watch Tower, June 1, 1918, p. 168)

“Some members of the Brooklyn Tabernacle congregation had previously purchased Liberty Bonds … Members of our Association who have some personal means have bought Liberty Bonds, including Tabernacle workers who are paying 25 percent of their monthly allowances to purchase a bond.” (The Watch Tower, May 15, 1918, p. 152)

While the organization originally permitted some support of the national governments during wartime, later the Watchtower changed its position and prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from even accepting alternative, civilian service. Over the years, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for this stand and some have even been executed.

“‘But what really is your objection to civil, alternative service?‘ The Witnesses explained that it is not that they are opposed to civil service as such, but, rather, it is a matter of strict neutrality. Therefore, any work that is merely a substitute for military service would be unacceptable to Jehovah’s witnesses. … Civilian servitude as a substitute for military service would be just as objectionable to the Christian.” (Awake!, December 8, 1974, p. 23)

“Whether the issue was shedding blood, noncombatant military work, alternative service, or saluting an image such as a national flag, faithful Christians took the position that there was no middle ground. In some cases, they were executed because of this stand.” (The Watchtower, September 1, 1986, p. 20)

The position of the Watchtower Society against any type of substitute military service remained in effect until 1996, when the Watchtower made it a matter of conscience for the individual Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Could a dedicated Christian undertake such service? Here again, a dedicated, baptized Christian would have to make his own decision.” (The Watchtower, May 1, 1996, p. 19)

To minimize the backlash that this change in position could have on the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been imprisoned for their inability to accept alternative service in exchange for combative service, the Watchtower printed positive feedback from imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“The May 1, 1996, issue of The Watchtower contained an in-depth discussion of Christian neutrality and how to balance our responsibilities to Jehovah and to ‘Caesar.’ … Many expressions of appreciation have been heard for the new information provided. Among them is the following letter, written by a Witness in Greece and addressed to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses: ‘I want to express my deepest gratitude to all you dear brothers for taking such good care of us spiritually. Having spent some nine years in prison because of my Christian faith, I truly appreciate the wonderful thoughts in the May 1, 1996, issue of The Watchtower … The increased light in the May 1 Watchtower has been well received here in Greece, especially by those who spent several years in prison or who are still in prison because of their faith.” (The Watchtower, November 1, 1996, p. 27)

Imagine spending a good portion of your life in prison over a position that the organization would later determine to be in error! How would one rationalize these years spent in prison for nothing? And what about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who died for this position that has now been changed? By printing positive statements such as these in the Watchtower, the organization seeks to condition Jehovah’s Witnesses into viewing these changes as evidence of divine leadership, rather than human manipulation.

Having examined the historical position of the Watchtower regarding war and neutrality, we will now turn our attention to Scripture that they use in an attempt to substantiate their position.

  • MATTHEW 26:52: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”1.
  • JOHN 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.'”

The Watchtower claims that in these passages, Jesus was indicating that his disciples “were not to resort to weapons of physical warfare.”2. However, attention must be given to the context which takes place during the arrest and trial of Jesus, prior to His ransom sacrifice for our sins. The Jews were anticipating a triumphant Messiah to take the throne and rescue Israel from Roman tyranny. Since a suffering Messiah did not fit with their expectations, the natural inclination of Jesus’ disciples was to fight in order to deliver Him from death. But Jesus corrected them with the command not to “take up the sword” in His defense. Thus, Jesus’ purpose in His first coming was to die for our sins, and in so doing, establish a Kingdom that “is not of this realm.”

John’s gospel account of the incident provides further insight into Jesus’ command, for it states: “Jesus therefore said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?‘”3. By this explanation, we can clearly see that Jesus intended this injunction strictly for the time of His death and not to be a binding command for all believers to avoid self-defense at all times. In fact, we see at Luke 22:36, Jesus even encouraged his followers by saying, “Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.” Why would Jesus encourage his followers to “buy” a sword, if they were to “lay it down” and never to use it in self-defense? Obviously, Jesus is not against self-defense, but was only against it in the specific case involving His death for our sins.

  • 2 CORINTHIANS 10:3-4: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.”

Regarding this verse, that Watchtower claims, “Paul here states that he never resorted to fleshly weapons, such as trickery, high-sounding language, or carnal weapons, to protect the congregation against false teachings.”4. The Society is correct in assessing that this passage is talking about Paul’s method of defense against spiritual attack. Indeed, fleshly weapons (such as swords and shields) against spiritual forces cannot prevail. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”5. Since this passage is dealing with spiritual warfare and not physical battles between nations, it has no bearing on the subject at hand — namely, Christian involvement in war.

  • LUKE 6:27-28: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

The Watchtower claims that Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” precludes military service for Christians, for one cannot be loving his enemies if he is trying to kill them in war. Again, this argument is invalidated by the context of the passage, for the following verses state: “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.”6.

Was Jesus saying that it is wrong for Christians to protect their belongings? Did Jesus want Christians to lay down their lives to the extent of enduring any abuse afflicted, regardless of circumstances? Are we to take these verses as a blueprint for handling disputes among the people of society? Common sense demonstrates the absurdity of such practice, for to do so would be to invite any type of malice and injustice upon a people. No civilization can endure where people are not held accountable for their actions.

The Jews of Jesus’ day were very concerned about justice being served in equal proportion to evils endured. For this reason, they had a law that if one took the eye of his neighbor, he would forfeit his own eye. It was in reference to this law that Jesus made these statements.7. Thus, we see that far from advocating Christian pacifism, Jesus was rather challenging his disciples to be more concerned about living a life of grace and mercy, than of personal revenge for evils endured. In no way was Jesus giving a blueprint for governments to operate when dealing with “enemy” nations. Just as mercy cannot endure where justice is not upheld, both must be in balance to maintain order in society and with nations at large.

  • JOHN 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The Watchtower asserts that “Christ’s followers were to make disciples of people of all nations; so worshipers of the true God would in time be found in all those nations … If true Christians in one nation were to go to war against another nation, they would be fighting against fellow believers, against people who prayed for help to the same God that they did. “8. Reasoning that Christian “love” for brother is destroyed by the possibility of Christian soldiers fighting in enemy countries, the Watchtower uses this verse to convince Jehovah’s Witnesses that it is wrong to engage in national war.

We believe there is a right side and a wrong side to every war engagement. Scripture makes it clear that the governments “which exist are established by God9. Thus, we are to “submit to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to the governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”10. Just as Romans 13:4 states, governments are a “minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Therefore, we see that God has given the jurisdictional requirement for those in national and governmental authority to guard and protect those under their care by upholding justice and not allowing evil to stand.

Exodus 22:2 states: “If a thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account.” Just as this passage notes, whether it is a person breaking into a house under the protection of a father, or a country who is breaking in (going to war) against another country to try to take what does not belong to it, bloodshed in these instances is justified. Since it is clear that in the case of self-defense, there is no “bloodguilt” involved for the person who kills an intruder, we maintain that the same is true for Christians who evaluate the sides of any given war and only engage on the self-defense side of the war. If Christians truly evaluate the sides of the war prior to engagement, the chances of them killing each other in war on both sides will be eliminated, for they will only be fighting on the righteous (just) side of the war.

To aid in evaluating the moral ethnicity of a given war, in the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas formulated an outline of principles that eventually became known as the “Just War Theory.” In his Summa Theologicae, Aquinas discusses not only when a righteous war would permissible but the kinds of activity that would be morally acceptable during war. Over the centuries as various philosophers and theologians expanded upon the principles of “just war” advocated by Aquinas, the following seven qualifications emerged:

  1. Proper Authority: Just War Theory maintains that only those of legitimate authority may declare war. The primary purpose of this principle is to prevent criminal insurrections. Thus, actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by the national government (or those whom society deems as legitimate) cannot wage war.

  2. Real Injury: In order to justify going to war, there must be a genuine loss for which the war is fought to redress the wrong suffered. Self-defense against an armed attack is often considered a legitimate cause for war — though only with the intention of rectifying the injury endured.

  3. Proportionality: The harm caused by the war must be proportional to the wrong suffered and must not go beyond those boundaries. Thus, force is dealt in equal to less measure to that of the enemy’s attack and limited only to what is necessary to accomplish the original goal of merely redressing the wrong suffered.

  4. Just Means of Fighting: The weapons used in fighting the war must be targeted toward disabling the enemy military forces, keeping civilian causalities to a minimum. A righteous war takes every effort to avoid targeting innocent civilians — the death of which is only permissible if they are unavoidable victims of an intentional attack on a military entity.

  5. Good Chance of Victory: A nation should not engage in war unless there is a reasonable chance of victory without endangering the lives of its own people. Jesus advocated this principle when he said at Luke 14:31-32: “Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”

  6. Failed Negotiations: At Deuteronomy 20:10-12, God gives the following command to Israel, “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then it shall be that all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.” Accordingly, a war can only be waged as a last resort — when all non-violent options for peace have been exhausted within a reasonable amount of time.
  7. Right Motive: The primary purpose of the war is to establish peace. If preemptive strikes are to be justified, they must be done with the focus of neutralizing the enemy’s capacity to kill and destroy — the ultimate goal being that of establishing (or maintaining) peace.

John 15:13 states: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Thus, true Christian love for his brother can be seen during war engagement when one is willing to lay down his life to protect his home and country from enemy invasion. Indeed, we do well to consider the admonition in Ecclesiastes 3:8: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven … A time for war and a time for peace.”

ISAIAH 2:2, 4: “Now it will come about that in the last days He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.”

The Watchtower claims, “Individuals out of all nations must personally decide what course they will pursue. Those who have heeded Jehovah’s judgment give evidence that he is their God.”11. Accordingly, Jehovah’s Witnesses view this evidence consists in not participating in the “carnal warfare” of earthly nations. By looking to Christ Jesus as the King of Jehovah’s heavenly Kingdom, to whom all allegiance is sworn, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not engage in earthly battles.

In evaluating this argument, it is important to note that the event in which “nations will … never again … learn war” does not occur until Jesus Christ judges “between the nations” and takes rulership over the earth. Since this does not occur until the prophesied millennial (thousand year) reign of Christ,12. we are not in a position today were we can avoid war. Daniel 9:26 prophecies that war is inevitable, for it proclaims “even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.” Furthermore, Jesus said that we “will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.”13. Therefore, Christians would do well to consider the following advice from Proverbs in matters related to war:

“Prepare plans by consultation, and make war by wise guidance. … For by wise guidance you will wage war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.” (Proverbs 20:18; 24:6)

Jehovah’s Witnesses acknowledge that it is true that Jehovah God sanctioned war for the nation of Israel in taking over the land that God had promised them, but what about the Christian congregation? Is there any evidence that Christians at the time of Christ and in the early church participated in carnal warfare? Jehovah’s Witnesses assert that they did not.14. However, we have examples of godly men who were soldiers and were not condemned for their choice of career. Keep in mind that at this time, these men were serving under the pagan Roman empire. If Jesus and the apostles of His day did not condemn them, why should we?

LUKE 3:14: Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?‘ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.'”

  • If it is wrong to be a “soldier,” why did John the Baptist encourage the soldiers to “be content” with their wages? How could they be content with their pay if they were not to remain soldiers?

MATTHEW 8:5-10, 13: “And when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.’ … But the centurion said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, “Go!” and he goes, and to another, “Come!” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this!” and he does it.’ Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel‘ … And Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.'”

ACTS 10:1-2, 22: “Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually … They said, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you.'”

ECCLESIASTES 3:1, 3, 8: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven … A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to tear down, and a time to build up. … A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.”

1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible
2. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 271
3.   John 18:11
4. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 271
5. Ephesians 6:12
6. Luke 6:29-30
7. See Matthew 5:38-44
8. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 272
9. Romans 13:1
10. 1 Peter 2:13-14
11. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 271
12. See Revelation 19:11; 20:4
13. Matthew 24:6
14. See Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 272

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