According to the New Testament, is it possible to be honored by God and
be a weapon-carrying soldier or law enforcement officer, at the same time? Does God approve of soldiers and officers of the State? Does he condemn the military? If not, may individual Christians serve, Scripturally speaking, in law enforcement and the military?
This article, Part 3 in the series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament, discusses lawful military and civil officers of the State. Some were soldiers who seek repentance from John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-14). Jesus meets a highly respected centurion who needed help (Matthew 8:5-13). Another centurion named Cornelius, serving in the Italian Regiment, receives a strange, divine visit (Acts 10). Finally, a sword-carrying jailer who worked for the civil government of the Roman colony of Philippi carried out his duty to imprison the Apostle Paul (Acts 16:16-40).
Here are their stories in the Greek East of the Roman Empire. The lesson for police officers and military personnel today will become obvious as we go.
John the Baptist and soldiers
According to the New Testament, John the Baptist, coming in the spirit of Elijah, was the forerunner of Christ. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. One day, during the short life of John the Baptist—short because Herod the tetrarch beheaded him (Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29)—some soldiers, likely Jews serving the government in Jerusalem, traveled out to the Jordan River to see him. While they were listening, he told a large crowd that they must bring forth fruit (character and actions) worthy of repentance, not just get wet at their baptism (Luke 3:8). After different classes of people ask what fruit they must produce, the soldiers ask a pertinent question about their own careers.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay." (Luke 3:14)
It seems, then, that the soldiers were deeper than curiosity seekers. They asked about repentance. It is important to note what John says and does not say. He tells them to follow after justice. Apparently, it was common knowledge that soldiers generally used their power and authority to intimidate people. That is what he said. But what he does not say is that they should quit the army.
The silence is significant. John never denounced them as soldiers, exactly at the moment when the fiery preacher could have done so. After all, he tells them to be content with their wages; logically, this implies that they may remain soldiers. One of the requirements of their repentance did not involve walking away from their career. They could repent of their sins and
belong to the military. They did not have to repent for carrying weapons or belonging to the military. This also implies, historically, that they could use their weapons, if necessary.
The following story in the ministry of Jesus is moving (to me, at least). Centurions in Israel were mostly recruited from outside Galilee, not necessarily from Rome or Italy, but they came from such regions as Lebanon and Syria. Centurions were the backbone of the army, keeping the peace and issuing executive orders. They commanded a lot of power. What happens when a centurion and Jesus meet?
Matthew 8:5-13 is long, but I encourage readers to take the time to read it.
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 "Lord," he said, "my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering." 7 Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." 8 The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." 10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. . . . 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour. (Matthew 8:5-13; see Luke 7:1-10)
We can learn at least five truths from this inspiring episode. First, the centurion was kindhearted, for he cared for one of his servants. In the Gospel of the Luke, this episode is interrupted by a pericope (section or passage) about a synagogue ruler who needs help from Jesus, for his daughter was dying. (She “fell asleep,” but Jesus resurrected her.) Yet, the centurion asking help for a servant indicates equal desperation as if he were a moral father, perhaps. He certainly was a caring head of household and commander. Also, the parallel passage in Luke says that some elders of the Jews encouraged Jesus to help the soldier, pleading, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5).
What is the timeless truth drawn from this first point? It is fitting for a soldier to be helpful to a nation that he enters. The (local) elders of the Jews praise this gentile who built their synagogue. It is possible to be godly and to serve in the military, wielding a sword.
Second, the centurion shows some humility. He tells the Lord that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof. This wins the heart of Jesus, catching his attention. Such humility is doubly important for persons in command. Sometimes power corrupts good character, causing us to become arrogant (which is different from confidence, a virtue).
Third, the centurion understands the chain of command. If he tells a soldier to do something, then the soldier does it. In the same, but spiritual way, if Jesus tells the disease to depart, it will obey. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has spiritual authority that transcends time and place. Jesus does not have to be on location to heal, so the centurion wisely discerns. This is truly a remarkable insight.
Fourth, it is now important to note what Jesus says and does, and what he does not say or do. He honors the centurion’s request and heals his servant. Next, he praises the centurion to high heaven for his insight, using superlative language: "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (verse 10), not as great as the gentile commander’s faith. What does Jesus not say or do? He does not denounce the centurion as a military servant of Rome. He never says, “Leave the army, for it is corrupt and intrinsically evil! If you don’t, I’ll never heal your servant!” As a moral example and teacher, if he wanted to point out behavior and practices that harm the people doing them, then he would have done so. But he didn’t.
Fifth and finally, we civilians must honor soldiers and other military personnel. If they need help in practical ways, then let’s pitch in and help. Let’s bring healing not only to a soldier himself or herself, but to his or her household, as well. If Jesus did this, then why should we ignore his example?
Peter and Cornelius, a centurion
Doesn’t a Roman centurion deserve divine censure on the face of it? After all, we’re reading the New Testament that teaches nothing but “peace and love,” right? Note God’s assessment of the commander:
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Acts 10:1-4)
Apparently, Cornelius’ godliness positively influenced his family—not an easy task since often the family can see the hypocrisy in the head of household more clearly than outsiders see it. The end of the story, one of divine coincidences, is happy. Cornelius and his family convert, are filled with the Spirit, and are baptized (verses 44-48). He is a military man and
the first gentile convert to the Church.
The same analysis that was applied to John’s counsel to soldiers and Jesus’ praise of a centurion in the previous two sections fits here as well. Neither God himself nor the lead Apostle Peter tells the centurion to leave the army or give up his weapons. Further, no one knows if Cornelius ever killed an enemy, but if he rose to the rank of centurion, then he probably served for a long time, as a career. And if he served for a long time, then he probably saw some action. If he saw some action, then he probably killed an enemy, or ordered his men to kill. Yet, it is possible to be blessed of God while serving in the military and possibly killing an enemy in battle or in law enforcement. Most important, Cornelius shows that soldiers should develop good and godly characters as they serve the State.
Paul and a jailer
Paul was constantly persecuted just for preaching the gospel, not for committing acts of “righteous” violence. In this case he expelled a demon from a hapless girl, so he waged spiritual warfare, just as we saw Jesus do, in the first article
. In the Roman colony of Philippi he and his traveling companion Silas were “severely flogged” and jailed in the inner cell of prison, which was probably stinky, damp, insect- and rat-infested. Their feet fastened in stocks, they were singing hymns to God, but then an earthquake in the middle of the night loosed their bonds and opened the prison doors.
27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household." 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. (Acts 16:27-34)
Paul never tells the jailer to abandon his career. In fact, the jailer is seen fulfilling his duties in an official capacity the next day (vv. 35-36). The jailer carried his sword after his conversion.
As we have seen in the first two parts in the series, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar are different and distinct. Also, he did not set out to reestablish the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7). This present study confirms the distinctions. That is, all of these passages show individual
converts in the military and law enforcement; the texts do not suggest that the Church as an institution should become militant. The stories are about individuals
serving as lawful agents of the State, not in a Christian institution. They were qualified agents of Caesar, not amateurs, so these examples do not demonstrate that Church may assign weapons to anyone at all.
Parts of the lessons drawn from these passages are based on an argument from silence (what a text or history does not say). However, this is not a problem. Biblical narrative is compressed; that is, it does not go into intricate detail as Greco-Roman texts do, such as the histories of Thucydides and Livy. Silence in the Bible can often (but not always) be significant. Thus, the main characters, followers of God, are teachers or preachers. They are never short of words. If they had something to say about disassociating from the military or from law enforcement, they would have said it. But they didn’t.
In addition, the logic of history requires us to assume that in the Roman Empire at that time soldiers and law enforcement officers may have to kill an enemy. It is completely certain that Jesus and the New Testament authors assumed this. They lived in the Roman Empire, and Jesus predicted his own death by the authorities. In any case, surely there were other kindhearted and generous men—but not part of the military—whom God could have honored with his blessings recorded in the New Testament. Instead, God chose to help and call military men and a law enforcement officer.
Further, each of the passages speaks loudly enough. By means of positive actions, God honors each soldier or law officer with conversion or healing or wise counsel. Apparently, God did not condemn them as soldiers or as a law enforcement officer, demanding them to repent of their involvement in the (alleged) anti-God institutions (what he did not say or do). Instead, he blessed them just as they were (what he did), leaving the issue of weapons at that. Evidently remaining in the military and law enforcement, each one carried his weapons after receiving a divine blessing or conversion.
In a future article, we will see Peter (1 Peter 2:13-14, 20; 4:15) and Paul (Romans 13:1-7) say that God ordains governing authorities to keep the peace. In the Roman Empire, this entailed wielding the sword, if necessary. So why would Peter or Paul tell the centurion or the jailer to give up their careers or weapons in the Book of Acts? The Apostles were acting consistently with their theology in their epistles. So here we have more positive evidence.
Also, not every one in the military or law enforcement is blessed automatically; sometimes individuals may become corrupt. They must be prosecuted. On the other side, these soldiers and officers (studied above) showed godliness, repentance, and humility. This caught God’s attention.
All of these passages, especially the last two, demonstrate that devout Christians may certainly and gladly join the military and law enforcement, without thinking twice about it, if they feel called to those two honorable institutions. If they have to use the sword on evildoers, then so be it, provided the officers and soldiers follow the law. Officially and publicly, they are servants of the State and act in that capacity, so they should have no angst about using force, if necessary and lawful.
However, as noted in the previous articles, the Church as an institution (also distinct from the kingdom of God, which creates the Church) is “pacifist” in its own actions and internal policies because it follows the commands of the kingdom and its heavenly King; his kingdom is his active rule and dynamic reign today. That is, church leaders in the name of the Church or of God should never
convene a council or general assembly in order to raise an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and sinners to conform.
Rather, the mission of the Church, waging only spiritual warfare, is to save souls, teach believers, and help the needy in practical ways, not to bloody opponents with swords.
Previous articles in this series: