Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We Used to Be Non-Combatants

I was in a Seventh-day Adventist church this past weekend, and was intrigued to see a big display standing immediately inside the front door, greeting everyone who walks into church. The display showed six young men who were members of that church, all part of the military and serving our country in Iraq.

There used to be a time in our denominational history when we strongly emphasized non-combatancy. Now we celebrate these young people who bear arms in the lobbies of our churches.

Don't get me wrong. I would like to offer my spiritual and emotional support to these individuals however I can, but my conscience does not allow me to pretend that I agree with a Christian's decision to carry a weapon, and be in a position to actively take someone else's life.

The truth is, it seems to me that more and more Seventh-day Adventist young people are choosing to serve in the military these days - and not just as non-combatants. Last week, when I was in Maine for Camp Meeting, one boy (and he seems like a boy to me, seeing as I've known him since he was about eight and I cannot imagine him as anything but that age) told me that he was thinking about joining the military, and he asked me what I thought of the idea. I asked him if he wanted my honest opinion, and when he told me that he did, I said to him, "I don't agree with a Christian doing that." I was then informed that the young man standing next to him was in the military.

I can tell you story after story of young men who I have had this exchange with. Another boy who I have watched grow up told me he was thinking about doing the same thing, and when I asked him why, he said, "Because there's nothing else going on in my life." Sounds like a good reason to join a group that may force you to take someone else's life.

Of course, we need to be clear on both what the Bible says, and what our response as a church is. Officially, the Seventh-day Adventist church maintains this stance on combatancy:
This partnership with God through Jesus Christ who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives but to save them causes Seventh-day Adventists to advocate a noncombatant position, following their divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it. As they accept the obligation of citizenship as well as its benefits, their loyalty to government requires them willingly to serve the state in any noncombatant capacity, civil or military, in war or peace, in uniform or out of it, which will contribute to saving life, asking only that they may serve in those capacities which do not violate their conscientious conviction.
What this statement plainly maintains is that we should choose to follow Christ's example of saving life, rather than taking it. Christ never used physical force to execute His will, instead essentially saying that those who "live by the sword shall die by the sword" (see Matt 26:52).

But we, as Seventh-day Adventists, have lost sight of this important truth. And now, sadly, we find ourselves in a position to potentially have Seventh-day Adventists killing other Seventh-day Adventists (which has certainly happened in places such as Rwanda). Nevermind Seventh-day Adventists, though: what about Christians killing other Christians? Or even more troubling: what about Christians killing non-Christians, forever robbing them of the opportunity to hear about the saving message of Christ?

Of course, the main objection to non-combatancy is that we, as Christians - and more specifically, Seventh-day Adventists - want to enjoy the freedoms that a powerful military affords us, but do not want to participate in the effort to maintain those freedoms. We are being cowardly, some might say, since we expect others to do the dirty work for us (much like an Orthodox Jew would ask a Gentile to turn the light on for him on Sabbath, since he is not allowed to do it himself). But all I know is that Jesus enjoyed those same freedoms within the relative safety of His time, yet He never chose to forcefully participate in any type of policing or military action.

Truthfully, there is no doubt that God has allowed secular powers to "execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:4), but nowhere does the New Testament condone the idea of Christians bearing arms and enforcing law by violence.

Of course, some would also pause and point out the fact that we also believe in the Old Testament - something that we as Seventh-day Adventists take particular pride in. It seems as though one cannot turn a page in the Old Testament without reading about some type of military campaign that God's people were taking part in.

But while this definitely happened, we must recognize that God was actively and objectively directing such campaigns - which no one country can claim today (and, in fact, two opposing countries could actually both claim God's leading, despite their violence towards one another) - and that, more importantly, such campaigns were far from His ideal. In fact, in beautiful words, written through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord declared, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). Non-violence and peace has always been God's ideal - even in the Old Testament. Why should we not make every effort to achieve this before Christ's Second Advent?

I have been studying with a gentleman who is 87-years old. He served our country in World War II in the Pacific. In fact, he was on the USS San Jacinto - the same aircraft carrier that the senior George Bush was on. About 80% of our conversations together revolve around his military service, which he is extremely proud of. He thinks that the greatest privilege is to serve God and country.

During our last study together, he brought up the inevitable question of military service. As a person who desperately wants to know truth, and what from his past life was not in accordance with the biblical witness, he wants to know if, in fact, the Bible advocates non-combatancy and whether Seventh-day Adventists still maintain this.

Unfortunately, I think our position on this has become very ambiguous.


Andrew said...

You forgot to quote the last sentence of the statement "This statement is not a rigid position binding church members but gives guidance leaving the individual member free to assess the situation for himself"
-Because of this several friends of mine at college a few years ago risked going to prison for refusing to take part in their country's national service. They were told that if we had an unequivocal position they wold be allowed a form of civil service instead, however they could not give a statement from the church saying "this we do not do..."

Here in the UK Adventists were sent to some of the harshest prisons in the country during WWI as traitors because there was no possibility of serving in a non-combatants role. After the war they found it almost impossible to find jobs and communities ostracised them for standing up for their beliefs..

A lot of people gave up a lot and a lot still risk a lot, because of their belief in non-combatantcy.

You do find Adventists in the military outside of the US, but they are the very small exception and most of them serve in medical positions.

Maybe there is just something about American culture and theology which places duty/service to an earthly kingdom in tension with that of the kingdom of God? Here in Europe you hardly ever see the church and state come together like you do in the states on 4th July, for example.

Chad said...

A very good post! And a good comment as well.

Charles said...


This is a gray area. No black and white. The SDA Church's stance has been non-combatancy, but how does that play in a society where rule of law requires deadly force at times?

Can adventists be police officers and S.W.A.T team members, or is that sin? Can SDA's be soldiers and marines? The way I read my Bible, I see no sin in this, especially if one senses a duty to his/her nation and his/her God.

Why? Well, though we are not under a theocracy, we are told that God still sets up kingdoms and takes them down. Ultimately, He is in control. Also, in history, He has required of His people to destroy evil with deadly force. Much of the OT is filled with extreme bloodletting, though it is obvious that this was not his plan - it is an unfortunate result of sin (but you know all this, so apologies if I am grandstanding!!!)

My questions to you are as follows: as much as war is horrible (I hate war), are other Christians who actively serve, out of a sense of duty and justice, are they sinners? Does God still use nations to fulfill His plan on earth, even if those nations are using war? If we vote in people who support war and sign off on it, are we guilty buy proxy?

Tough questions for tough times.

Hope you had a marvelous July 4th...

Charles said...

p.s. Apologies on some word errors in the last few sentences. Was in a hurry. (by proxy....Yikes! lol)

Shawn Brace said...


Thank you for all of your comments. Andrew, yours were particularly enlightening and intriguing to me. I think that, as a church, we are challenged by the fact that we do not want to take a "hard stand" on some of these issues. We don't want to turn into the Catholic church, declaring who is or who is not a part of God's community, but at the same time, it seems as though we look down upon people for much more petty "crimes." We turn our nose to those who wear jewelry or drink coffee (two vices that I would not condone, nor do I practice), yet we have come to the place where we don't think twice about others who join the military and take someone else's life.

Am I missing something?

Chad . . . aren't you moving somewhere, sometime? Thanks for your thoughts as well!!

Charles, let me also respond to what you have shared. You wrote that we live in a society where "rule of law requires deadly force at times." I have my opinions on whether "deadly force" is ever necessary, but assuming it is, does this necessarily mean that I, as a Christian, should be the one who executes that "deadly force"? I just don't see it in the life of Christ.

Let me try to answer your probing questions as well, one by one:

1. Are other Christians who actively serve, out of a sense of duty and justice, are they sinners?

I am not exactly sure what you mean by "sinners." You already know that we are "all" sinners, who fall short of God's glory. It doesn't matter if I'm a soldier, a doctor, a pastor, whomever . . . we are all sinners. But, probably more specifically, you are wondering if someone who serves as a police officer, for example, and takes the life of someone else, whether they are "sinning" by executing such "justice."

Perhaps I could be postmodern in my answer by sharing a story I just heard this last week. It happened to a young man who went to a Seventh-day Adventist academy in New England. He was a friend of mine from High School and we played basketball against each other.

He became a police officer back in 2003. A few weeks ago, he pulled a gentleman over for a moving violation, and when the man tried to drive away, my friend tried to grab the keys from the ignition but, instead, his hand got caught in the steering wheel and the man dragged him, along with another officer, 400 yards down the road. So my buddy pulled out his gun, shot the guy two times and killed him.

What was most tragic about the whole incident is that the guy who was killed was a former Seventh-day Adventist, who had just been released from jail. He was supposedly coming back to church and had at one time studied the Bible with my friend's dad.

Of course, my friend has been incredibly traumatized because of the incident. He is beside himself. (The unfortunate story is detailed here.)

Besides the fact that it was the case of a Seventh-day Adventist killing another Seventh-day Adventist, how was my friend in any position to make a real judgment on whether the shooting was necessary? The military and police departments do not ask people to analyze, through prayer, whether God wants someone killed or not. They are trained to aim, shoot, and kill. This was not the case in Old Testament days, however. God had a more direct and unemotional hand in declaring who was, and who was not, to be killed in biblical times. Such is not the case today (and as mentioned before, God would rather not take the "violent" route, anyway).

1. Does God still use nations to fulfill His plan on earth, even if those nations are using war?

Paul seems to leave little doubt that God does "use nations" to "execute wrath against evil." Does this mean that they are "fulfilling His plan" on earth? I am not sure. And I would be hesitant to say that God "uses" nations to execute wrath, and probably choose to interpret Paul as meaning that God "allows" nations to execute wrath against evil. God has a way of allowing less-than-ideal circumstances and instruments to bring about His plan.

I think your question also touches on a question about "just war," and whether there is such a thing. As someone who is a pacifist by nature, I have my reservations about using violence to "execute wrath against evil," but can see the way it has been utilized in the past for the benefit of the world (ie., World War II). Was this God's ideal solution to Nazi Germany? Probably not. But, given the circumstances, I guess it is what it is. (For an excellent discussion about "Just War" and other ethical issues, I would highly recommend the book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, by Glenn Stassen and David Gushee.)

3. If we vote in people who support war and sign off on it, are we guilty buy proxy?

This is, obviously, a very tough question, because there is no such thing as the "perfect candidate." What happens if, within the two choices I have for president, one is a warmonger, and the other one believes in the right to kill innocent babies (boy, does this dilemma sound familiar???)?

I am not sure if I have a very conclusive answer for this, but it seems that somewhere in my mind Ellen White addressed this subject. I don't know what your feelings are about her, but I tend to value her thoughts and I will try to find that comment sometime.

Thanks, again, for your questions! I hope it doesn't seem as though I think that I have all the answers.

Charles said...

Shawn, thanks for addressing my questions. These are definitely interesting times! As one who is politically a conservative leaning centrist (yeah, don't laugh!) and religiously a moderate progressive (ok, thats enough giggling) I find myself at odds with the Adventist church, in general, on many things. Also, apologies on the sinners comment. You were right to read me as you did, since obviously we are all sinners. My bad on not making that a bit clearer.

Regardless, I see there can be common ground attained here, even if we choose to disagree, and peacefully too! :-) I do have some other thought/musings/questions to toss around, only cuz this medium of blogging is so useful for it:

1. Didn't EGW state that God allowed the South to exact vengeance on the North (first battle of Bull Run) to punish the North for allowing slavery for so long, and also that angels fought along with the North? (memory muddled here). If so, would this not be an example of God using war to fulfill his plans? (As you well know, families and church members fought against each other, and killed each other).

2. The problem I see with pacifism is that it allows evil to build up to a place where it needs to be handled by brute force. As stated earlier, I hate war. absolutely hate it. Yet often I find it irrevocably necessary. WWII was definitely just. The civil war was definitely just. However, specifically for WWII, pacifism at the outset, at least in my mind delayed what should have been dealt with much sooner. Perhaps D-Day or other horrific battles could have been avoided...

3. Do you think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was wrong in his attempts to get Hitler assassinated? Personally, I think his association and attempts were heroic and inspiring. He gave his life so that others might live. Pity he didn't succeed in his attempts. Shouldn't German SDA's (heck, all of us everywhere) been more proactive in challenging the Nazi regime?

What if in the course of history, SDA's were seen as a people who could be trusted to combat evil wherever it may be found, yet were a people filled with love for sinners? I guess, as Aslan would say, "no one is ever told what would have happened..."

Cameron Horsburgh said...

I shudder when I read your friend's comment that he joined the military to serve God and country. Which is it?

My reading of the New Testament suggests that calling Jesus 'Lord' was more than a religious nicety. If Jesus was Lord, Caesar couldn't be. That was the reason for the persecutions in the early years of Christianity. Rome had no problem with Christians following their religion, but they did have a problem with them not recognising the Emperor as supreme. Calling Jesus 'Lord' was tantamount to treason.

If I am going to serve God and country, I will do it by serving God first. If I join the military will I be required to put my country in his place? Most oaths of enlistment I have read involve swearing allegiance to the nation concerned. Can I really do that knowing I have already sworn my allegiance to Christ?

Shawn Brace said...


Your last comments are very challenging to me, I must admit! I don't have the answers. There is definitely a tension between carrying forth the need to treat everyone with love, yet at the same time allow secular governments go about their job of taking care of evil.

Similarly, we understand fully well that there will never be a Utopian existence on this earth, prior to the millennium, so we can't necessarily take up the Beatles admonition that "all we need is love." Of course, should this prevent us from aiming for that ideal?

I guess I don't know!

PS. Yes, I do believe those statements that you have credited to EGW are accurate.

Shawn Brace said...


Your points are well-taken, and I agree with them. However, just a few questions as I sift through this whole topic.

Do God and country necessarily have to be opposed to one another? Thus, if I am pledging my allegiance to the United States, does this necessarily mean that I am turning my back on God?

When I take on a pledge or marriage oath to my wife, does this mean I am being any less allegiant to God? Is this comparable to the discussion?

Maybe it isn't, but just some reflections.

Staci said...


I found your blog and the dialogue exchange here to be extremely thought provoking and helpful. So thank you! I appreciate your stand and agree with you in it. It is also a concern of mine that so many of our young people are joining the military. I read recently that 7500 SDAs are serving in combatant roles in Iraq. (Yep .. the number was correct!)

Two Michigan pastors published a book earlier this year called "I Pledge Allegiance: The Role of Seventh-Day Adventists in the Military." One of them used to be in the military. I think you would appreciate it. Here is a link to where it can be purchased: http://adventistsconnect.org/books.IPledge.htm

Once again thanks for your post!

Shawn Brace said...


Nice to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by. That 7500 SDAs are serving in Iraq is astounding to me. Could you point me in the direction of where you heard that stat?

Thanks, also, for the book recommendation. I had actually read about the book in Ministry magazine, I believe. Maybe I'll peruse it sometime if I get a chance.


Gorazd AndrejĨ said...

Congratulations Shawn for a nice blog and post.

Regarding just war theory... I don't think that any just war theorist beliefs that any war is just in absolute sense, or perfect. It can not be. Reinhold Neibuhr when he developed his understanding of the "Christian pragmatic realist" attitude towards war he talked about choice of lesser evil. To let Hitler do his atrocities around Europe was greater evil than to go into war with Germany at that time.

I think the Adventist belief that God will spare us from having to choose "the lesser evil" (I remember EGW rebuking people who said that sometimes, rarely., one has to choose between braking one or the other God's commandment) explains our reluctance in taking responsibility for imperfect ethical decisions in this imperfect world. Our ethics was traditionally extremely individualistic: All that matters is me not braking the revealed commandments of God, no matter what the consequences of the action. I think this stance, understood too literally, leads into incapability to make complex moral decisions in this world, in society.

So in the case of the Adventists and the military, one can trace, in history, how Adventists primarily wanted to be free to be obedient to the commandment "You whall not Kill" (leaving aside the fact that in Hebrew this is actually "You shall not Murder", Bible having different and consistently used expressions for Killing, Murder, Manslaughter etc.). Whether actually using force will defend the weak and diminish greater evil, was not so important.

I am not saying this is necessarily good or bad. But it is interesting to trace these approaches to ethical thinking, and to see how they play their influence in the adventist attitude towards the Military.

Shawn Brace said...


Thanks for your thoughts. They are stimulating.

I am not sure I agree with you on two accounts: I do not believe that God ever places us in a situation where we have to choose between the "lesser of two evils." God does not tempt us (James 1:13). Often, when we think there are only two options, there are actually a plethora of options. These "moral dilemma" scenarios that we all hear about are very artificial, and there is often more than one way out.

Secondly, although I'm sure that many of our ethical decisions are based on individualistic agendas, I do not believe that they necessarily have to be. If I was hiding a Jew in Nazi Germany, and the Gestapo asked me if I was, not wanting to lie and thereby saying "yes" doesn't necessarily mean I am being individualistic. Nor does it mean that the Jew I'm heading is doomed! Often times, when we take the easy way out and "lie," we are taking any possibility of intervention out of God's hand, and showing our lack of faith.

But that's just a quick reaction! Thanks for sharing.

Brandon said...

Hey Shawn, good stuff. I'm happy to come across your blog. Thanks for pointing me here.

Yea, I hear ya - I can't help but sense that all the wildness that happened in the OT had a lot to do with who those people were and what that culture is about. It is not usually a good excercise to take the biblical contexts and place them directly over our life and trace stuff out like we would on a piece of tracing paper. It just isn't that way. A more helpful exercise is to consider what God was doing in the lives of a people/person or in a certain context and then search for what God is doing now... we can only learn about what has happened from reading the Bible. As my buddy Aslan says in Prince Caspian - I never do things the same way.

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks for your thoughts Brandon!