Does Just War Theory bring peace or just war?

I saw a question asked online the other day which I found to be quite compelling. I read Rex Butts’ blog post on “The Evangelistic Scandal,” which led me to Scot McKnight’s discussion of Lee Camp’s new book.

The interview refers to “Just War Theory.” If you’re not familiar with Just War Theory, the idea is that there should be a set of criteria to apply to any conflict to determine if it is just or not. Proponents argue that Christians may participate in a just war, but not an unjust one. As far as I know, Augustine borrowed the principles from some Roman philosophers, then Thomas Aquinas further refined Augustine’s work. (Someone please correct that in the comments if my history is wrong; this is off the top of my head)

The basic principles of just war, as commonly expressed, are:

  • A just cause is basically defensive in posture, not aggressive.
  • The intent must also be just—the objectives must be peace and the protection of innocent lives.
  • War must be a matter of last resort when all attempts at reconciliation or peaceful resolution are exhausted.
  • A just war must be accompanied by a formal declaration by a properly constituted and authorized body.
  • The objectives must be limited. Unconditional surrender or total destruction are unjust means.
  • Military action must be proportionate both in the weaponry employed and the troops deployed.
  • Non-combatants must be protected and military operations must demonstrate the highest possible degree of discrimination.
  • Without a reasonable hope for success, no military action should be launched.

There is nothing set in stone as THE Just War Theory, but those principles are widely used.

Or are they? The question that was asked in the comments section of the McKnight article was this:

Has there ever been a war that Christians were considering entering into, but applying the criteria for “just war” talked them out of?

That’s a great question. I can’t think of an example. Can you? Has “Just War Theory” ever been used for anything other than justifying participation in conflict?

Does Just War Theory bring peace or just war?

15 thoughts on “Does Just War Theory bring peace or just war?

  1. K. Rex Butts

    Part of the problem is that there are few, if any, spaces allotted as a gathered church to think critically about the morality of war and violence, giving consideration to both pacifistic and just-war ethics. Without such spaces, it is inevitable that Christians will have their moral consciences co-opted by the will of the state when it comes to supporting and participating in war.

    Grace and Peace,


    P.S., Thanks for linking to the blog.

  2. guy


    J. Yoder’s book The War And The Lamb is all about an examination of the fruits of the just war theory, and basically a critique of the theory based on its historical track record.


  3. Paul Smith

    Tim, I’m not real sure how far back the “just war” theory goes, but we can clearly see how Christians avoided combat situations or involvement in war completely at least through the first World War. After that, the linking of patriotism and nationalism with Christianity made it practically impossible to deeply consider the issues of a “just war.” I truly believe WWII to fit the description – and the more I read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own struggles with his country I am even more convinced that Christians should have done all they could to defeat Naziism. However, WWII was the last declared “war” that I am aware of, so how can we even discuss the “just war” theory when our government refuses to label military actions as a “war” and fight with a clearly defined set of goals?

    In short, yes, I believe a Christian should be able to (theoretically speaking) decide on serving or declining to serve in an action based on self-defense and the defense of a weaker, innocent people (i.e., the Jews in WWII). But in order to do so Christian leaders must fearlessly challenge the whole matrix of patriotism/nationalism/”Christianity” that has developed since the middle to the end of WWI and continuing on today.

    Not to broaden the question too widely, but the whole issue relates to the idea of the two realms – the nation and the Kingdom. The disciple is called upon to follow his or her master, Jesus. The state, as a state, is nowhere commanded to do so. If the state = the Kingdom, then a whole different set of principles would apply. But the Kingdom, as we see it, is clearly not the state, and so the Christian must decide where he or she can participate in the state without compromising Kingdom principles. To me, defending the defensless is clearly a Kingdom principle, whether I put my own life at risk defending a homeless man being beaten, or for an F-16 pilot to put his life at risk defending a race of people who are systematically being exterminated.

    Sorry for the length of the response, I guess this is a slow day.


    Paul Smith

  4. Robert Floyd

    The first question that needs to be answered is, “Should a Christian serve in the military?” (My dad was in the Army for 23 years, so his position was pretty clear.) For a Christian serving in the military, the question of “just war” is a bit moot: the only order s/he can disobey is an illegal one. “Just war” has no impact on the legality of orders issued by the chain of command. While a civilian may be able to debate whether a particular conflict falls under the category of “just war,” the soldier doesn’t have that luxury.

    Given the number of members of the church serving in the military, it’s clear that the question of the appropriateness of military service is being glossed over (I remember discussing it in a Bible study only a couple of times over the past 30+ years). Satan has done a very good job of persuading us that we live in a “Christian” nation, that democracy is the “Christian” form of government, that capitalism is the “Christian” economic system and that to question those assumptions is not only unpatriotic, but ungodly.

    Before we address the concept of “just war,” shouldn’t we address the question of how we, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, are to behave as resident aliens in whatever country God has placed us? Do we need a refresher course in what it means to be pilgrims and strangers on the earth?

    Perhaps we need to seek the old paths….by which I mean the paths being explored before World War I managed to nationalize the church.

  5. Tim Archer Post author

    Paul and Robert,

    I agree that the question of Kingdom-ness needs to be addressed. In fact, I think it’s critical.

    For many Christians, the fallback position is Just War Theory. “We’ll fight when it’s right.” Yet that theory seems to fail in that it can always be manipulated to one’s advantage. And it never leads to peace. Just war.

    Grace and peace,

  6. Robert Floyd

    I actually tend to take a different view of matters such as war and capital punishment. Scripture seems to present the idea that God will use both good and evil to carry out His will. Consider, for example, His use of Assyria to punish Israel, or of Pharaoh to show His power during the Exodus. Paul’s statement that the government is appointed by God to punish evildoers suggests to me that God has chosen to use those who are not His children to carry out the dirty work of this world. Thus, while I could not execute a criminal, the government has been authorized by God to do so and I support that.

    I realize that people will say that such a view is putting Christians in a special, privileged position. I absolutely agree with that: as God’s children, He has given us special privileges (along with special responsibilities). Rather than focusing too much on how we should fit in with/conform to the world, perhaps we should spend a bit more time thinking about how God wants His children to deport themselves in this world. And maybe we should consider that the rules and principles that govern the Christian life cannot expect to be applied to those who are not children of God (what government, for example, could long survive by turning the other cheek?).

    If this is too far off track from the topic at hand, just say, “Rat hole!”

  7. Keith Brenton

    I have a sinking feeling that if Pastor Nadarkhani is executed by Iran for his Christian beliefs, there will be many American Christians crying out for a just war under the mustaken impression that “just war” meams “war that will lead to (our concept of) justice.”

    The sadder truth is what we fail to discuss: That once a war begins, there is nothing just about it. It is survival and violence and vengeance and chaos and hell. It never ends well. People die en masse, including civilians and children; some are captured and tortured and executed, lives and livelihoods are forever destroyed. For survivors, nightmares never cease. Wounds never heal. Limbs do not grow back. Sometimes entire villages disappear. Parts of cities are never rebuilt. Graveyards swallow the land of the living.

    All this happens to people who may have had little or nothing to do with the inciting act; may not have even agreed with it.

    How just is that?

  8. Paul Smith

    I know this is Tim’s site, but I wanted to reply to Keith. Tim, feel free to delete if you need to…

    Keith, you made two statements that are logically false. You state, “Once a war begins there is nothing just about it” and “it never ends well.” Both are theoretically true, but the example of WWII proves the inaccuracy of both statements. Fighting to save millions of people from ethnic cleansing is very much a just cause. And, I would argue that WWII ended quite well, despite the vengeance and chaos and hell. The allies assisted in rebuilding both Germany and Japan, and both nations are now strong, stable democracies. Neville Chamberlain proclaimed, “Peace in our time” and 6 million Jews, diseased, handicapped, and otherwise “undesirable” people were brutally murdered. Which end proved to be the more “Christian” end?

    You see, “passive resistance” works well until you are on the wrong end of a Tiger tank, a Stuka dive bomber and Zyclon B gas. “Always” and “Never” are pretty meaningless terms when you are slowly starving in a concentration camp. We cannot have this discussion without stopping to think about Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and dozens of other experiments in the “ultimate solution.” For every Gandhi there is a Hitler.

    We must have this conversation, and I thank Tim for kindling it. But we must listen to all sides, and as Robert stated above, God is able to use all human endeavors, both military and peaceful, to his ultimate good design.

    Paul Smith

  9. Tim Archer Post author


    Please feel free to reply (respectfully) to anyone at any time. This is a site for open discussion, as long as the rules of polite discussion are respected. Your reply to Keith was very appropriate.

    If you have some time, I’d encourage you to read some on this site:
    World War 2 is the traditional argument used to justify Christians participating in war. Yet it’s meaning is often oversimplified. It’s worth looking at it in depth.

    One point that I think is often overlooked: had “Christianity” not lent itself to the war effort, Hitler could not have raised an army. A large portion of his forces claimed to be Christians, as did their opponents.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  10. Keith Brenton

    Whether my opening statements in my second paragraph are true or false in the perception of the reader, those that follow cannot be denied and they need to be part of the discussion. War isn’t theory for those who experience it; it is reality and a reality which sometimes does not fade away.

    My second paragraph follows from my first. There is no point in going to war if a single pastor is executed. He will receive whatever reward God metes, and going to war will not change that. So will those who execute folks who believe differently from themselves.

    What is “just” and what “ends well” will vary in the perception of the observer. For non-combatants and many combatants who are simply chalked up as casualties of war or victims of conflict or collateral damage … their view may differ markedly from ours.

    I’d go so far as to say that for every Gandhi there are dozen Hitlers. For every Jesus Christ there are millions of petty dictators who rape, torture, mutilate and kill. Does that mean that we bequeath the heritage of war to all generations in order to prosecute every last one? Why one and not another, or all?

    All that I’m saying is that total outcome should be considered in the decision to go to war, and too often we leave unsaid and unconsidered the horrific outcomes.

  11. Paul Smith

    Tim, I’ll try to read some on the link later. Your thoughts on Christians in Germany are true – but there is an interesting wrinkle many do not consider. In Germany you were born into the church – the church was supported by the state. Pastors were paid by the state and the citizens were taxed to support the church. Therefore, patriotism and nationalism were inextricably linked with Christianity. This was the situation that Bonhoeffer faced and he (as well as many other Confessing Church members) realized they could no longer support the “German Christians” in their support of Hitler. Bonhoeffer prayed for the defeat of his country – and believed the war could have been God’s just punishment for the National Socialist’s sins (the Nazis). Even though there is no official church/state relationship in the US, I see a growing link between the two in some people’s minds, and that is why I believe we need to address the whole Kingdom issue afresh.

    To go back even further, had there been a more “just” and Christian response to the end of WWI there would have been no door for Hitler to kick down, and there would have been no WWII. I have come to see that, in a long and complicated way, the treaty ending WWI basically started WWII (the link is not direct, but it is unmistakeable.)

    I personally have deep sympathies with David Lipscomb and his pacifist teachings. But, Lipscomb was not around in 1940-1945, so we do not know how he would have responded to the horror of an Adolf Hitler. He responded clearly to the insanity of the Civil War and Christians fighting Christians in that war. Would he have seen WWII differently? Who knows. We all see in the glass darkly, and we must do our best with the understandings that we have.

    I have passionate feelings about the unjustifed use of military power. But reading Bonhoeffer and coming to a greater understanding of what was occuring in Germany (and what Bonhoeffer and his compatriots were trying to tell the world) has given me a greater understanding of standing up for those who cannot defend themselves. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, (I’m kind of in a hurry here) – “Only those who cry out for the Jews can sing the Gregorian chants.”



  12. K. Rex Butts

    The United States did not enter into WWII in order to save those who were being murdered and imprisoned in the German concentration camps. The US knew by the mid to late 1930’s of what the Germans were doing to the Jews and other political enemies. What brought the US into the war was arguably the attack on Peal Harbor in 1941. While some might see this as a just cause for participation and support of the war, it is also very telling about what motivated the US to participation in war. It was not the unjust oppression and persecution of defenseless people but the threat of having it’s own political existence placed in Jeopardy that motivated the US to war.

    This should really not be that surprising. After hall, the history of warfare has always been a history of nefarious politics. Namely, the struggle of two or more human powers deciding the question of which power will become or remain the king of the mountain. This is why it is all the more important that Christians should, at the very least, be very cautious about their participation and support of such warfare. Because in doing so, such participation is to further the story of a power which, if we truly believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, will fall at the feet of King Jesus. Thus while the kingdom nations of this world are fighting for their own existence, our witness as Christians is to be that holy nation of aliens among this world (cf. 1 Pet 1.9-12) proclaiming among the world that the verdict of all human history has been rendered in Jesus’ death and resurrection and therefore there is only one true kingdom (meaning all kingdoms including the American nation will cease).

    Grace and Peace,


  13. Jerry Starling

    When I was a boy (about 6 decades ago), we used to sing a song with these words (as I remember them):

    The kingdoms of earth pass away one by one,
    But the kingdom of heaven remains!
    It is built on a rock, and the Lord is its king,
    And forever and ever He reigns.

    It shall stand! (It shall stand!) It shall stand! (It shall stand!)
    Forever, and ever, and ever, It shall stand! (It shall stand!)

    I do not remember the other verses, but they went on in the same vein. I have not seen that song in any hymnal in years. It has been replaced with patriotic songs like, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” – even “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” While this later song is written in some of the imagery of the prophets, it is strictly a partisan, jingoistic song of a nation at war.

    We need to relearn and return to a stance as aliens and pilgrims in this world. And, we need to live like we understand that it is only what we do for King Jesus that endures.


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