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.