A conscientious objector is a person who, on moral grounds, refuses to fight and kill in wartime. Conscientious objectors believe that all taking of human life is wrong, even in self-defense or in a just war. Conscientious objection is not cowardice or rebellion against governmental authority. While the levels of pacifism can vary from person to person, most conscientious objectors simply do not believe that they personally can or should take a life, even to defend themselves.
A person may be a conscientious objector and not be a Christian. Some objectors do so based on the belief that all people are good and therefore should be able to peacefully resolve conflicts. Some follow the teachings of a particular religion or of pacifist leaders such as Gandhi or Bertrand Russell. Still other conscientious objectors refuse to participate in war based on hatred for the government and its control over its citizens. For them, war is simply organized violence, and they want no part of it.
However, many conscientious objectors base their resistance on Scripture and their commitment to the teachings of Jesus. They have a strongly held conviction that in order to follow Jesus they must forsake any and all physical violence. They cite passages such as some found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27–31). Christian conscientious objectors take these words to mean it is wrong to kill anyone, even in wartime.
Christian conscientious objectors reject the prevailing view that a war is justified when it is to protect life and liberty. They disagree with the viewpoint of most Evangelicals that sometimes war is necessary and righteous. They point out that the Christian justification of righteous killing is based on Old Testament principles, not Jesus’ teachings. They cite Jesus’ many uses of the formula, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32) as proof that He changed the old way of doing things. In establishing a new covenant, Jesus did away with the old one and its allowances (Luke 22:20). He commanded His followers to “put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Conscientious objectors take the position that there will never again be justification for killing now that the New Covenant has been established.
While it is honorable and right to follow deeply held convictions based on our understanding of Scripture, we must be careful in our application. It is common to hear the Bible quoted as though Jesus were setting governmental policies. Many jump on the Bible bandwagon to insist that a nation function like a church and the President like a pastor. But establishing a government was never Jesus’ intent. He stated clearly, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Jesus came to establish a church made up of individuals whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). His commands were for individuals, not nations. His words about turning the other cheek had to do with taking personal vengeance, not defending the life and liberty of an innocent person or of fellow citizens in a sovereign nation.
God established authority, and even the New Testament commands us to live under its rule whenever possible (Romans 13:1–7). Verse 4, in particular, seems to condone physical violence by legitimate authorities when necessary: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The phrase bear the sword suggests killing. Without the threat of death, evil people will dominate, terrorize, and murder the innocent. One reason conscientious objectors have the freedom to follow their consciences is that others are defending that freedom. Police, border agents, bodyguards, and soldiers must have the legal authority to “bear the sword,” or there would be no life or liberty for anyone.
Taking up arms to defend one’s nation should never be an excuse to murder. Conscientious objectors are right to wrestle through the moral implications of taking a life, and it is wise to treat war with the gravity it deserves. But we must be careful not to misapply Scripture. We can take any Bible verse out of context and build a false doctrine around it. So, before building a case for conscientious objection based on some of Jesus’ words, it is vital that we study the context, the original audience, and the rest of Scripture. God does not change (Psalm 55:19). The God who commanded war in the Old Testament is the Jesus of the New (1 Samuel 15:3; Deuteronomy 20:1). If God does not find legitimate war morally wrong, then we shouldn’t, either.