Christians and the Just War

Other than pacifism, the Just War is the idea most associated with the Christian in discussions of war. The word just has a wide range of meanings but, in this context, the word is often interpreted to mean right as describing the righteousness of the war. This, of course, leads to endless debate about the propriety of Christian engagement in war that is declared either right or wrong. The fallacy inherent in this type of discussion is that it centers on the righteousness of a campaign when the idea of just war has nothing to do with this. We will explore in the rest of this post what the just war theory is, and it is just that, a theory or principle upon which decision making can be rested.

The Just War Theory is an ethical framework intended to be normative for all peoples regardless of religion, culture, or racial-ethnic identification that one might assume. As is obvious from any cursory reading of history, just war is not a description of how people have acted nor of how they will act in future conflict. It is rather, a tool by which moral decisions can be made about a war. As the Christian applies it to their thinking and actions, the expectation is that their enemy will also apply the same framework to their planning and action. This expectation is rooted in the biblical notion that all people are held accountable to God (Romans 1-3) for the adherence to moral standards.

The standards established within the Just War framework pre-date Christian thinking and application of the idea lending credence to their universal application. As far back as the 6th century B.C. we find the founder of Taoism, the philosopher Lao Tzu propounding on balancing the knowledge that conflict and war are inevitable realities of the human condition and the realization that total destruction of the enemy and their territory is counter-productive in the long run. Sun Tzu, probably the most read ancient thinker on war, held to similar conclusions, seeing war as a regrettable necessity but one of vital importance to the state and therefore deserving of much thought. 

Since the earliest days of Christendom, believers struggled with understanding the scope of their responsibilities to society in light of their membership in the Kingdom of God. Many served as soldiers while trying to remain faithful to their Lord and comprehending the ethics of their situation. Philosophical thinking on peace was highly developed among the Greeks and the Romans within which Christianity was developing. The Greek notion of peace built upon the Hebrew concept of shalom, a general well being, and added a greater component of prosperity. The Roman ideal described in the word pax was more oriented toward the absence of war. It was from the Greeks however that the framework which would later be defined as Just War would come. Viewing peace as the object of any battle, Greek ethicists and generals began to look at war and ways in which it could be avoided if possible and be less terrible if it could not. They were willing to subject disagreements with enemies to mediation prior to battle and avoid the total destruction of the enemy and their holdings if war should come about. Violence was limited, governed by this reasoning and the justice of a confrontation measured by the vague concept of natural law.

The Christian ethic of war appears to have first been formulated by St. Ambrose (340-396 A.D.) and passed on to his converted Augustine (354-430 A.D.). An important change that his ethic introduced to the Christian sphere was to relegate pacifism to the clerical and private arenas. Duty to one’s state remains an obligation of Christians who enjoy the benefit of the protection offered thereof. Augustine took Ambrose’s rough sketch and shaped it into the foundation that we discuss today.  The Sermon on the Mount had burned itself into Augustine’s heart and deeply affected his view on violence, tempered as it was by the reality of conflict. Peace with justice for all involved is the most succinct statement of his overall ethic that we can make in a short space.

Justice and War

The Just War framework extends far beyond a simple summary statement. It is a highly complex and nuanced  ethic with numerous conditions and presuppositions. In order to maintain this piece at a readable length, I am going to present these in very short form, perhaps to return to them individually as this study continues. Four suppositions frame the moral statements:

1. Not all evil can be avoided. Evil is a pervasive condition brought about by the fallen human condition and a reality with which we must contend.

2. The Just War Theory is an ideal that is normative for all peoples. It is obviously not a historical fact nor a prediction of how humans are likely to behave in the future but rather, it is a standard by which actions and plans can be judged.

3. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding and misapplication of the Just War Theory by those who are unfamiliar with the details is that it is an attempt to justify war; it is not. Correctly interpreted, it attempts to bring war under the control of justice so that, if consistently practiced by all of the parties to a dispute, it can eliminate war altogether.

4. Finally, the Just War framework insists that private individuals have no license to utilize force and engage in war on their own. War is the prerogative of states alone in their duty to preserve the order of their society.

That stated, we can examine the rules by which justice is applied to the consideration of war:

1. Just Cause. All aggression is condemned and only defensive actions are legitimate.

2. Just intention. The only intention for war is the securing of a just peace for all involved. Revenge, conquest, economic gain, or ideological supremacy are never justified.

3. Last Resort. Only when all negotiations and compromise have been exhausted can war be entered upon.

4. Formal Declaration. War must be declared by the highest authority of a state.

5. Limited Objectives. If the purpose of a war is peace then the complete destruction of a nation’s economic or political institution or an unconditional surrender are disallowed objectives.

6. Proportional Means. The force and weapons brought to bear in a war must be limited only to what is needed to repel aggression and deter future attacks. This rules out Total or unlimited war.

7. Noncombatant Immunity. Only those agents of the government authorized to fight may engage in the war. Civilians and those not actively participating in the fight are to be protected from the violence.


Due to the ongoing reality of conflict in the fallen world in which Christians lives, the Just War theory and its application has often been deemed to be unrealistic. Because it assumes that all parties to a conflict will apply it equally, it has found little use for those who would be themselves aggressors with economic or ideological objectives stated as the basis for war. The equal application of justice to both sides of the conflict rarely exists for example when the objective of a war is the subjugation of one’s enemy or the imposition of a government which restricts the loser’s liberty. The Just War theory provides an excellent framework through which Christian’s can discuss the morality of their involvement in conflict but ultimately we discover that the notion of justice has many definitions upon people do not agree.

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