I have read in some pacifist publications that it is impossible for a Christian to serve in the military. I’m not sure that is a useful way of phrasing it. I know that I am a Christian and I proudly wear an army uniform in my role as a chaplain in the Canadian Forces. I think what they mean is that serving in the military is inconsistent with their interpretation of the Bible. That is fair. But the question still stands, can Christians serve in the military without significantly compromising Christian values?
To be fair, the New Testament does not give clear teaching about military service. There is no “Thou shalt not be in the army.” It is true that there was a significant trend (but not universal) in the post-apostolic church of not serving in the army. While some of that may have been from pacifist beliefs, surely some of it was also because of the idolatry and pagan worship that was intertwined with military service in the Roman Empire. Also, if the Romans were gathering Christians for persecution, military service would be a conflict of interest.
From my reading, the main problem that some Christians have with military service is that of Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. This is interpreted as commands for a life of pacifism. The question is, was Jesus talking about the interactions of Christians with other individuals or was it a statement against such things as military service? Also, it must be asked if letting someone slap your other cheek means allowing another person have their cheek slapped? Is this a command to not intervene when someone or even a people are being attacked? I would suggest that Christian soldiers should take seriously the command to love our enemies. War crimes take place when people hate their enemies. Prisoners should be treated with respect and the object should always be to complete the mission and not kill as many “bad guys” as possible. I know that these arguments do not do much to dent pacifist beliefs.
For me, the biggest part is looking at the Bible as a whole. It seems very clear that in the Old Testament that God uses armies and he has very specific intentions for the armies of Israel. God is called LORD of Hosts, which means LORD of armies. There is much military imagery used of God. I have never seen good pacifist arguments against this. I have mainly heard pacifists say we just don’t know what the Old Testament really means or the Old Testament is just wrong. I am not ready to do that. If we take the Old Testament seriously and if pacifists are right about the New Testament, it looks like God was good with war for a long time and then a couple of thousand years ago he “found religion” and became all about peace. I believe the true picture is much more complicated than that. I believe that in both Testaments, God wanted peace but was willing to use war for specific purposes.
So can Christians serve in the military? I am a Christian serving in the military and so I would say yes. But I believe that Christians who serve in the military must serve as Christians in the military. Christian values should inform all that we do and that includes military service. I respect my pacifist friends and I believe that we need to hear their voice. But their interpretation is not the full story.