Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?


by Chaplain Kevin Russell Archdeacon to the Royal Australian Air Force

by Chaplain Kevin Russell
Archdeacon to the Royal Australian Air Force

Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military? Not surprisingly, I do not hear this question very often. The reason is obvious; I am a serving member of the Australian Defence Force, serving as a Chaplain. People expect me to say yes, it is right for a Christian to serve in the military! I am perhaps seen as being biased. Many of us, who are Christians, have long ago come to a thoughtful conclusion that Christians do indeed have a place within ‘the profession of arms’.

However, for Christians who do not serve within the military, or are considering whether or not they should serve in the military, ‘Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?’ is a very live question. Sometimes, the question is put as ‘Can a Christian serve in the military?’

Behind the question ‘Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?, is I believe, two important sub-questions, ‘what is the role of the military?’ and ‘does the military serve a legitimate purpose?’ The answer to these two questions will depend on your personal situation.

Militaries are instruments of governments and can be used for the common good or as means of oppression. So in seeking to answer the question ‘Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?’ I am writing from an Australian perspective, thinking of the Australian Defence Force as the military organisation behind the question.

Role

Military force is an instrument of the governing authority. It is clear from the bible that God has given human authority the responsibility of maintaining law and order. God clearly approves the use of force when necessary in order to restrain evil for the common good (Romans 13:1-7)

The Australian Defence Force is used by government for many noble purposes. The Australian Defence Force provides disaster relief in cases of foods, cyclones, tsunamis, and fires. The Australian Defence Force contributes to peacemaking and peacekeeping missions all over our region. Each of those missions presents a different moral frame for the meaning of military service. Clearly, the moral meaning of any profession is tied to what someone who joins it imagines what he or she will be doing as a result of making that choice.

But the core function of the Australian Defence Force, the essential reason for being, is for national defence. Fighting and winning in order to protect Australia and its interests. Put very bluntly, and very coarsely, this task can involve ‘killing people and breaking things.’

In the Bible.

The bible does not directly answer the question, ‘Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?’ Rather, the bible displays an attitude towards those who are serving in the military of the day. That attitude is that a number of military members are treated with positive regard. Also, military principles are used on occasion to illustrate a deeper Christian view point as to how we should live our Christian lives.

For instance, in the New Testament, military members are referred to in the same positive way as workmen, farmers, athletes etc. For instance, the soldier is used as an example of:
– Serving one’s country (1 Corinthians 9:7)
– Standing firm (Ephesians 6:11-17)
– Fighting for what is right (1 Timothy 6:12)
– Enduring hardship (2 Timothy 2:3)
– Single-minded perseverance (2 Timothy 2:4)
– Matthew writes that when Jesus met a soldier (centurion) (Matthew 8:5-13), he didn’t condemn him, rather Jesus commended his faith. Luke points out that John the Baptist reminds us of the moral responsibility of soldiership. (Luke 3:14) He does not condemn the fact that they are soldiers, but encourages them to act morally.

The ‘killing’ question.

As already mentioned, being a member of the defence force may involve ‘killing people and breaking things.’ Is this inconsistent with being a Christian? To be properly understood, there is a distinction between ‘murder’ (e.g. Exodus 20:13 – The Ten Commandments) and the legitimate taking of life in the performance of an essential service for the good of society. It’s a complex form of reasoning that depends on having a legitimate government, a legitimate cause, and being a person of good character. Noting this, all of the Roman Centurions mentioned in the New Testament are praised as God-fearers or men of good character (Matthew 8:5-13, 27:54, Mark 15:39, 44-45, Luke 7:2-10, 23:47,  Acts 10:1-48, 23:22-29, 23:23-35, 27:42-44)

Good Character is about service.

For many, being in the military is a means of serving a higher ideal. John 13:14 is a verse often associated with ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ In the minds of many people who join the Australian Defence Force is the idea that they are committing themselves to a cause larger than themselves, and to possible self-sacrifice in the defence of that cause. Hence, it is not uncommon to refer to these military members as ‘Australia’s finest’.
So, a member of the defence force may face special ethical challenges, but they also have unique opportunities for Christian service on behalf of the broader society and for the common good.