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‘Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence’

Many churches build their Advent services every year around a prophecy in the ninth chapter of the book of Isaiah that calls the coming Savior “the Prince of Peace.”

Yet, for much of its history, Christianity has been the cause of, or at least the excuse for, killing and destruction by warring kingdoms, states and resistance movements.

As often as not, these have been composed of substantial contingents of Christians who believed that their particular war, rebellion or humanitarian interven­tion was “just.”

Many Christians are troubled by this history, as they know that the Lord Jesus not only taught his followers to love their enemies but also practiced what he preached and commanded his followers to adopt his example.

They might have often heard church leaders and fellow Christians argue that war is an unfortunate but necessary evil to protect our­selves and others from the violence and injustice of tyrants like Hitler and terrorists like Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

However, they remain uneasy with this conclusion, troubled by the lurking suspicion that it fits un­comfortably with the Bible.

As they talk to those outside the church, they are aware that in practice this modern church teaching that war may be acceptable even though Jesus taught that it wasn’t has so often brought the church into disrepute.

They wonder if this means that either their theology is wrong or their faith itself is unworkable in the “real world.”

I have written this book for such Christians and for any Christian concerned about how the church can respond to violence in our world today.

It argues that not only is participation in warfare incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ and the apostles and the whole direc­tion of the biblical testimony, but that it has done inestimable damage to the cause of the gospel.

It has led the church into forgetting its unique call to be “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13,14), that is, to play a distinctive and positive role in the world.

This has had profound consequences – for those who have directly suffered as a result of violence, for the reputation of the church and for the honor of the name of the Savior.

Overviewing the wars, torture, racist violence and genocide committed by churches in the name of Christ over the centuries, atheist writer Sam Harris con­cludes, in his book “The End of Faith,” that “the history of Christianity is principally a story of mankind’s misery.”

Alas, these so-called New Atheist writers do not struggle to find material to adduce in support of such claims.

While I take these arguments seriously, this book contends that such violence is an ugly distortion of Christianity. War is sin, and the church is by definition anti-war, just as it is anti every other sin.

For centuries after Christ, the early church refused to sanction violence and was more true to its calling as a result, spreading like wildfire in a world weary of war.

It was only with the political co-option of the church by the Roman Empire that killing was blessed.

What is more, throughout Christian history, there have always been those who have held the early church’s position; more often than not, it is the examples of these men and women we respect the most.

Against the distortions of Catholic just war theory and Protestant liberal pacifism, I argue that now is the time to return to this more authentic understanding of the gospel.

This means rejecting war and instead being a biblical gospel church.

So doing will allow us to practice and proclaim a more authentic, effective and infectious Christian faith.

Across the world, followers of Jesus who take seriously his call to love their enemies are having remarkable impacts on the communities in which they live.

The argument of the book can be summarized by a sermon and an essay written by British Christian leaders at the outbreak of World War II.

Answering the question of why God allows war, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, pastor of Westminster Chapel, preached that war is “one of the manifestations of sin, one of the consequences of sin.” This sermon appears in his book, “Why Does God Allow War?”

At the same time, Anglican Bishop George Bell penned an essay published in his book, “Church’s Function in War-Time,” in response to the question, “What is the church’s function in war-time?”

Bell wrote simply, “It is the function of the Church at all costs to remain the Church,” that organization which is the trustee of the gospel of redemption, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Today, Christians around the world are faced with questions about how to understand new and frightening wars, and what they should do in the face of them.

Echoing Lloyd-Jones and Bell, this book’s message is simply this: War is sin – so be the church! Preach the gospel!

This does not mean avoiding the challenges of violence but rather addressing them by making peace in the love and power of God. This position is called “gospel peace.” To be clear: It allows no place for participation in war.

As 16th-century church leader Menno Simons put it in his message, “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” “It is in vain that we are called Christians … if we do not walk according to His law, counsel, admonition, will and command and are not obedient to His word.”

Nick Megoran is a lecturer and honorary chaplain at Newcastle University in northeast England and co-convener of the Martin Luther King Peace Committee, which seeks to build a culture of peace. He is a member of Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle and a member of the Baptist World Alliance’s Commission on Peace and Reconciliation. His writings can be found on his website.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the preface of Megoran’s book, “Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence: The Evangelical Case against War and for Gospel Peace.” It is used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. The book can be previewed and purchased here.