The Christian Position on Holy War

A few years ago a local friend reached out to me.

“I’m writing an English language paper comparing the Islamic and the Christian position on holy war or jihad. Could you help me with this paper by telling me what you believe your holy book teaches about this?”

What an invitation! I compiled the following verses and wrote simple English summaries of the content and sent it to him. I post it here, in the chance that others may have Muslim friends with this same question. Groups like ISIS are making the very public claim that violent warfare and slavery is just as much a valid interpretation of the jihad passages as is the modernist interpretation of “inner spiritual struggle.” So Muslims the world over are faced with this question and are wrestling with these things afresh. The following is the response I sent to my friend.

The New Testament clearly teaches that no form of physical holy war (jihad) is permitted for true Christians.

In Matthew 5:38-45, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Instead of fighting against enemies or resisting them, these verses from Matthew teach that followers of Jesus should not resist them, but should serve them, love them, and pray for them.

In Romans 12:14 and 12:17, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In these verses from the book of Romans, instead of fighting enemies in the name of God, believers are told to bless them, to honor them, to live in peace, to not take revenge, to feed them, and to overcome evil by doing good.

In John 18:36, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! Or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

In these verses Jesus teaches that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom. Because of this, his followers do not fight for him in this world. 

The same thing is taught in Ephesians 6:11-18, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

In these verses believers are told clearly that we do not fight against physical flesh and blood enemies, but we do fight against spiritual enemies, Satan and his demons. So, believers need spiritual weapons and armor to fight in this spiritual battle. The sword of a believer is not a literal sword, but is the word of God. His shield is not a physical shield, but his faith.

Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the mob was trying to arrest Jesus, Jesus told him to “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53)

Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, that violence is not God’s way to advance his kingdom. If Jesus wanted to fight, he could ask God for 12,000 angels who would fight for him. But he would advance the kingdom of God by giving his life as a sacrifice, not by fighting. That is the same way followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom, by giving our lives to others as holy sacrifices, not by fighting.

In the New Testament there is no command for Christians to fight unbelievers in a physical way. There are only commands not to fight them, but to love them and to speak truth to them.

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2nd Timothy 2:24-26)

While Jesus was being murdered and while one of the early leaders of the church, Stephen, was being murdered, both of them prayed that God would forgive those who were killing them.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 24:34)

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)

Some people say that Jesus supported fighting because in one passage he says that he came to bring a sword. But when the whole chapter is read, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, but that his message is like a sword that divides people because some believe and some will not. Those who do not believe will persecute those who do believe.

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour… Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)

In this chapter, Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted by those of their own society when they try to spread the message of Jesus. He is not talking about them fighting, but about how their own families will attack them when they try to share the message.

It is clear from these passages that true Christians must never take part in holy war or jihad. They must not try to fight for God in a physical battle. This is because God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and God’s way is to defeat evil by love and sacrifice, not by fighting.

Some people will say that the Bible supports holy war or jihad because the nation of Israel was commanded to fight in order to conquer and defend the land of Israel. The history of this holy warfare is the subject of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. In this time of history, the people of Israel were commanded to fight for God. However, with the coming of Jesus, this kind of fighting was no longer good or necessary. This is because the physical nation of Israel was a temporary physical example of what God was going to do in a spiritual way for the whole world. God chose ethnic physical Israel for a limited time as an example, but his plan was to have a spiritual people, not only an ethnic people, who are believers in him from every nation of the world. When Jesus came, the old age of the temporary and physical things passed away and the new age of the spiritual and eternal things began. That is why Israel was commanded to fight its enemies and Christians are commanded not to fight our enemies any more, but to love them. We now know that our true enemies are not other nations, but are Satan and his evil spirits. This transition from a temporary physical people of God (Israel) to an eternal spiritual people of God (Christians, including Jewish Christian and those from every nation) is what explains the differences between the laws of the Jewish people in the Old Testament and the laws for Christians in the New Testament. Through Jesus, God made a better covenant or relationship with his people where physical fighting was no longer good or necessary.

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt… For this is the new covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

Hebrews 8:7-13)

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on them, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:11-12)

The New Testament teaches that we now live in the age of the New Covenant, where the temporary things of the Old Covenant have been completed by better, eternal things. The New Testament logic is that Christians must not fight for God in a physical way because we live in a new and better age where we overcome evil by love.

In the history of Christianity there have been some Christians who tried to fight in the name of God against others. The crusaders were one of these groups in the middle ages. They fought against Muslims in the Middle East and against Salah-al-Din. However, these Christians were following their own traditions and their own politics and not obeying what is clearly taught in the Bible. According to the Bible, we must never obey our own traditions if they are against what the Bible teaches. However, when the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians should fight in the crusades, they were disobeying what the Bible clearly teaches and following their own traditions.

Jesus says about these kind of people that, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)

“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mark 15:3)

Any Christian who fights in a holy war is wrongly following his own tradition or thinking and is disobeying God’s word. Because true Christians are, through faith, citizens of a spiritual kingdom, they must not fight for their religion in a physical way. The only appropriate way to fight is in a spiritual way, through love for our enemies, by praying for them and giving up our lives for them. This is the Christian and biblical position on holy war or jihad.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

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