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by David Low Dodge

◄Part 4

Part 5


12. We are commanded to be subject to civil rulers

Objection.  Christians are commanded to be in subjection to civil rulers, who are God’s ministers to execute wrath on the wicked and are ministers of good to the church.  Therefore, Christians are bound to take the sword at their command, for civil government is ordained of God, civil rulers are not to bear the sword in vain, and Christians may lawfully do what God ordains to be done.

Answer.  That civil government, so called in distinction from religious government, is ordained by God is fully admitted, and also that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass.  But there is a great difference between his decretive and his preceptive will.  The former is not a rule of duty for man without the latter; the latter is always a rule of duty.  This fact might be proved by a multitude of instances from Scripture.  Persons therefore may be very wicked in doing what God ordains to be done, if they act without his command.

That civil governments and civil rulers exist only by God’s decretive will, which is fulfilled by his providence and not by his preceptive will, is evident because God has never authorized the appointment of them or given any precepts or any commands as a code of laws to any denomination or class of people as such, distinct from his own covenant people or church.  I beg leave to submit this fact as conclusive evidence that civil governments and civil rulers exist only by God’s decretive will and not by his preceptive will.  Under the ancient dispensation, no laws or directions were given to any class of men, as such, other than God’s own covenant people or church, unless some special commands on singular occasions, or the general command to repent and turn to God, be excepted.

The king on the throne of Israel was as truly an officer in the church of God as the high priest who entered into the holy of holies.  Both were set apart and anointed with the holy oil, at the command of God, and both were types of the Son of God.  The king as much typified his kingly office as the priest did his priestly office.  Both were necessary parts of that complete shadow of good things then to come.

Under the gospel dispensation, no authority from God is to be found for appointing and setting apart civil rulers, nor are there any directions given to civil rulers, as such, how to conduct in their office, unless those who rule in the church are called civil rulers.  All the precepts and directions in the gospel, excepting such as were special (as those which related only to the apostles) or such as are universal (relating alike to all men), are given to the disciples as members of Christ’s kingdom, who are not of this world, even as he was not of this world.

The Son of God came into the world to set up the kingdom of heaven, which is a perfect and everlasting kingdom and distinct from all other kingdoms which are to be destroyed to give place to his divine and heavenly reign.  He came in the likeness of men, sin excepted, and laid down his life as a ransom for the world, and then rose a triumphant conqueror.  In the complex character of God and man, as Mediator, he took the universe, his purchased possession, into his hands as a lawgiver, judge, and rewarder.  He took the scepter when it departed from Judah, and is exalted far above all principality, power, might, and dominion, and has a name above every name, all executive power in heaven and earth being given to him as Mediator.  Thus, as Mediator, the kingdom of heaven is his kingdom.  He reigns not only as King of kings and Lord of lords but, seated on the throne of his father David, he is forever King in Zion and is head over all things to his church.  His kingdom is not of this world, neither are his subjects of this world, though some of them are in it.

He sent out his disciples to appear in a distinct character from the world and to be a light to it by imitating his example and by exhibiting his spirit and temper.  They ought not to say, as the Jews did, that they have no king but Caesar, for they have an everlasting King and kingdom and laws perfect and eternal.  They should, therefore, set their affections on things above and not on things beneath.

While the kingdoms of this world exist, Christians must remain in captivity to them and must obey all their laws that are not contrary to the laws of the gospel.  Otherwise, they cannot remain peaceful, harmless, and blameless in the midst of a wicked world before whom they must shine as lights.

Though the church is now in captivity, yet her redemption draws near, for God will soon “overthrow the throne of kingdoms,” the thrones will be cast down, and the princes of this world will come to naught.  The stone which was cut out of the mountain without hands will dash them to pieces, as the potter’s vessel is shivered, and will become a great mountain and fill the whole earth.  Then the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the most high God whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and of whose dominion there shall be no end.

Though God, by his decree, has ordained civil governments and established kingdoms, and will by his providence make them subservient to the good of his church and people, and notwithstanding it is the duty of Christians to be in subjection to them and pay tribute.  Yet, it does not follow that their genius and laws may not often be contrary to the genius and laws of the gospel, and, when they are so, Christians must not obey them nor count their lives dear to themselves.  It should be distinctly remembered that, when Christians were exhorted and commanded to be obedient to civil rulers, they were under heathen, idolatrous, civil governments, and those civil governments were by no means congenial with the spirit and precepts of the gospel.  Still, Christians were commanded to be in subjection to them – not, however, without limitation, for they utterly refused obedience in many instances and nobly suffered or died as martyrs.

Thus civil government may be an ordinance of God, may be subservient to the good of the church, may be an instrument in God’s hands for executing his wrath, and Christians may be bound to obey magistrates in all things not contrary to the gospel; and yet it will not follow that Christians may consistently with the gospel take up the sword or do anything to countenance war.

If it is the duty of Christians to take the sword and enter the field of battle at the command of their civil rulers, then there could be no impropriety in having armies wholly made up of real Christians, especially since it is the duty of every man to become a Christian; and as professing Christian nations are almost constantly fighting each other, it would be perfectly proper for hosts of pious saints to be daily engaged in shedding each other’s blood.  But how would it appear, how does it appear, for those who have drunk into the same peaceful and heavenly spirit, who are united together by the tender ties of the Redeemer’s blood, who are all members of the same family, and who hope through divine grace to dwell together in everlasting love and blessedness, to be fighting one another here with relentless fury?

Let us contemplate the subject, in this point of view, a little further.  Suppose an English and an American frigate in the time of war, both manned entirely with real Christians, should meet in a neutral port.  Ought they not then to treat each other as brethren of one common Lord?  As they are all members of the same family and have all been redeemed by the same blood, and sanctified by the same divine spirit, they surely must have the most tender affection for each other, and it would be highly proper for them to meet together for Christian fellowship, worship, and communion.  Suppose, then, that they occasionally go on board each other’s ships for religious worship; that their chaplains lead in their devotions, using such petitions as these – praying that they may be all of one heart and one mind in the knowledge of Christ, knit together in the bonds of Christian love; that they may have much of the wisdom from above which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated; that they may do good to all as they have opportunity, especially to the household of faith; that they may be meek and gentle as lambs and harmless as doves; that they may be kind and forgiving and that, like their Divine Master, they may return good for evil and have their affections on things above and not on things beneath; after which they together partake of the symbols of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, and then part with tender tokens of Christian fellowship and love.  They leave the port and meet again at sea.  It now becomes their duty, on the principles of war, instead of meeting as Christian brethren, to meet as raging tigers and discharge the flaming engines of death on each other; and in order to perform “their duty to their God and country,” they must exert all their power and skill to destroy one another.  The dreadful struggle and carnage must be continued by both parties as long as both can fight.  When half of their crews are wallowing in their blood and expiring in agonies, a violent effort must be made by one or both to board the other and end the contest, sword in hand.  Those hands which recently saluted each other with Christian love now plunge the envenomed steel into their brethren’s bosoms.  At length one is vanquished and yields to the other.  Those who remain alive after the conflict again unite in prayer and give thanks to God that he has given them courage and strength to fight so nobly, and that he has shielded their lives in the hour of battle.  Thus they again resume their Christian fellowship and communion.  This mutual fellowship, communion, and love are perfectly consistent with Christian character, and are required by it.  The conduct that has been supposed as enemies when fighting is also entirely consistent with the principles of war and with the character of warriors, and is such as would be highly applauded and admired by the world.  But is it not obviously and perfectly absurd and perfectly incompatible with the principles of the gospel for Christians to act in this twofold character?  If, however, it is the duty of Christians to obey the command of their rulers and engage in war, then it would be perfectly proper for what has been supposed to take place.  Christians may one day surround the table of the Lord together, and the next kill and destroy each other.

The god of this world, not being yet chained down to hell, deceives the nations and gathers them together to battle; but the children of peace, the citizens of Zion, ought not to mingle with them or listen to the deceiver.  They should take to themselves not carnal weapons but the whole armor of God, that they might be able to stand in an evil day and to quench all the fiery darts of Satan. 

13. Magistrates are called avengers who execute wrath

Objection.  To deny the right of the magistrate to call on his subjects to take the sword is to deny that he is an avenger to execute wrath, though the gospel expressly declares that he is.

Answer.  This conclusion does not follow unless it is a fact that God cannot and does not actually make him the instrument of doing it, by his providence, without his command; for, as we have already observed, men may fulfill the decrees of God under his providence, without his command, and be very criminal in the deed.  God raised up the king of Assyria and made him the rod of his anger, to chastise his people and to execute wrath upon the surrounding ungodly nations.  “Howbeit he meant not so, but it was in his heart to cut off nations not a few.”  And God declared, with reference to him, “that when he had performed his whole work he would punish the fruit of his stout heart and the glory of his high looks.”  It will not be contended that warlike nations are commanded by God to destroy and trample down the nations of the earth as the dust of their feet; yet, when they do so, they doubtless fulfill his high decree and are avengers to execute his wrath on a wicked world.

The beast represented in the Revelation with seven heads and ten horns has generally been considered as an emblem of nations.  These ten horns, or powers, are to hate the great harlot of Babylon – to eat her flesh and burn her with fire – and though they destroy the greatest enemy of the church, and in this way are ministers of good to her, yet they receive their power, their seat, and their authority from the old serpent, the dragon.  And a magistrate or king may be a minister of good to the church and an avenger to execute wrath, and still be very wicked in the deed and use very unlawful means to accomplish the end.  While he fulfills the decree of Heaven, he acts not in obedience to the command of God, but to the dictates of his own lusts and passions.

14. The enemies we are to love are our personal
enemies, not the enemies of the state

Objection.  The passages of Scripture which have been quoted against retaliation and which inculcate love to enemies and the returning of good for evil have reference to individuals in their conduct towards each other, but have no relation to civil government and are not intended as a rule of duty for one nation towards another.  They therefore have no bearing on the subject of war.

Answer.  Those precepts of the gospel appear to be binding universally without any limitation, and men have no right to limit that which God has not limited.  If the commands of the gospel are binding upon everyone in his individual capacity, then they must be binding upon everyone in any collective body, so that whatever is morally wrong for every individual must be equally wrong for a collective body.  A nation is only a large number of individuals united so as to act collectively as one person.  Therefore, if it is criminal for an individual to lie, steal, quarrel, and fight, it is also criminal for nations to lie, steal, quarrel, and fight.  If it is the duty of an individual to be kind and tenderhearted and to have a forgiving and merciful disposition, it is likewise the duty of nations to be kind, forgiving, and merciful.  If it is the duty of an individual to return good for evil, then it is the duty of nations to return good for evil.

It is self-evident that individuals cannot delegate power to communities if they do not possess it themselves.  Therefore, if every individual is bound to obey the precepts of the gospel and cannot as an individual be released from the obligation, then individuals have no power to release any collective body from that obligation.  To say that God has given to nations a right to return evil for evil is begging the question, for it does not appear and cannot be shown that God has restricted the precepts of the gospel to individuals, or that he has given any precepts to nations as such, or to any other community than his own covenant people or church.  This objection makes government an abstraction according with the common saying, “Government is without a soul.”

No practice has a more corrupt tendency than that of attempting to limit the Scriptures so as to make them trim with the corrupt practices of mankind.  Whoever, for the sake of supporting war, attempts to limit these precepts of the gospel to individuals and denies that they are binding upon nations destroys one of the main pillars by which the lawfulness of war is upheld.  The right of nations to defend themselves with the sword is argued on the supposed right of individual self-preservation.  Since it is said to be right for individuals to defend themselves with deadly weapons, so it is lawful for nations to have recourse to the sword for defense of their rights.  But if these passages are applicable to individuals and prohibit them from acts of retaliation, and if the rights of nations are founded on the rights of individuals, then nations have no right to retaliate injury.

15. Shall we condemn our pious forefathers?

Objection.  Christians, with comparatively few exceptions, have not doubted the lawfulness of war, and many have actually fought and bled on the field of battle and considered themselves in the way of their duty.  And shall all our pious forefathers be condemned for engaging in war?

Answer.  It is admitted that many pious people have engaged in war, but they might have been in error on this subject as well as on many other subjects.  Many of our pious forefathers engaged in the slavery of their fellow men, and thought themselves in the way of their duty, but does it follow that they were not in error?  The circumstance that multitudes defend a sentiment is no certain evidence of its truth.  Some of the reformers were objected to because the multitude was against them.  Popularity, however, ever has influenced and ever will influence mankind more than plain gospel duty, until the earth shall be filled with the abundance of peace.  But notwithstanding this, it is not right to follow the multitude to do evil.  All ought to remember that they have no right to follow the example of anyone any further than that example coincides with the example of Christ or the precepts of the gospel.  All other standards are fallible and dangerous.

If real Christians have, from mistaken zeal, prayed against each other, fought each other, and shed each other’s blood, this does not justify war.

16. We cannot survive as nonresistants

Objection.  If Christians generally should adopt these sentiments, it would be impossible for them to subsist in this world in its present state, and if they did continue it must be in abject slavery.  They would become hewers of wood and drawers of water to the tyrannical and oppressive, and would only encourage them in their deeds of wickedness.  The injustice of men must be restrained or the earth will again be filled with violence.  The necessity of the case is such that mankind would be warranted to take up arms to maintain its rights and repel oppressors, if the Scriptures were silent on the subject.[8]

Answer.  We have the history of the heathen world to teach us what mankind is without the light of revelation.  It is full of all unrighteousness, covetousness, and maliciousness; full of enmity, murder, debate, deceit, and malignity; people are proud, boasters, without natural affection, implacable, and unmerciful.  The very design of the gospel is to subdue and overcome these abominable passions and dispositions – not, however, by returning violence for violence, but by producing virtues directly contrary.  The great duty of Christians is to be a light to this wicked world by exhibiting in their conduct and conversation the spirit and temper of the gospel.  If such were the practice of Christians, we have reason to believe that wicked men would be overawed and deterred from their violence in a great measure.  Besides, if all real Christians should utterly refuse to bear arms for the destruction of their fellow men, it would greatly diminish the strength and boldness of warlike nations, so that it would be impracticable for them to prosecute war with the vigor and fury that they now do.

But if the gospel prohibits war, then to urge the necessity of the case against the commands of God is open rebellion against his government as well as total distrust of his word and providence.  On the other hand, if Christians live in habitual obedience to God’s commands, they have the promise that all things shall work together for their good, and they have no reason to fear those who kill the body and after that “have no more that they can do.”

It is strange that Christians should have so great a reluctance to suffer inconvenience in worldly things for the sake of the gospel.  The scoffs and persecutions of the world and the fear of the loss of worldly things are powerful barriers against Christian warfare.  The gospel teaches us that all who live godly lives in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution, and that through much tribulation the saints must enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Is it not plainly owing wholly to their conformity to the world that they now suffer so little persecution and practice so little self-denial?  If there is reserved for them an eternal weight of glory, so what if they, like their Divine Master, should not have a place to lay their heads?  If they are to inherit a crown of immortal glory, so what if they are called to suffer the loss of earthly things?  If they are hereafter to reign as kings and priests unto God, so what if they are not ranked among the great and honorable of the earth?  If they suffer with Christ, then will they also reign with him; but if they deny him, he also will deny them; and if they are ashamed of him, he will also be ashamed of them before his Father and the holy angels.  Let Christians then obey his commands and trust to his protection while they resolutely abstain from the wicked practices of the world.

17. It is our duty to preserve life and liberty

Objection.  It is the duty of mankind to use the necessary means for the preservation of life and liberty; we must till the ground, if we expect a crop.  It would be presumptuous for us to pray for and to expect our daily bread without using such means as God has put in our power to obtain it, and it would be equally presumptuous to expect the preservation of our lives and liberties without using such means to preserve and defend them as God has put into our hands.  We must act as well as pray.

Answer.  That using the necessary means is the duty of Christians, there can be no doubt; but they must be such as God has appointed, and not such as human wisdom may dictate.  There is no dispute as to the propriety of using necessary means, but only as to the kind of means that Christians ought to use.  The weapons of their warfare are not carnal, but spiritual, and they are mighty through God to the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan.  It is often said, “If you wish to put a stop to war, spread the gospel through the world.”  We would inquire, “If the gospel tolerates war, how will its universal diffusion put a stop to war?”

As has already been observed, it would be open rebellion to do what God has forbidden, and high-handed presumption to ask his aid in the things which he has prohibited.

18. Some early Christians did not refuse to bear arms

Objection.  Some ecclesiastical historians inform us that Christians in the early ages of the church, though they contended so firmly for the faith as to suffer martyrdom rather than submit to idolatry, yet did not refuse to bear arms in defense of their country, even when called upon by heathen magistrates, and their example ought to have weight with us.

Answer.  The testimony of the early Fathers is entitled to regard, but must not be considered as infallible authority, for they were men of like passions with others and cannot be followed safely any farther than they followed Christ.  But the weight of their testimony on the subject, I expect, will be found to stand directly against the lawfulness of war on Christian principles.

Erasmus, who was an eminent scholar, and who was probably as well acquainted with the sentiments of the primitive Fathers as any modern writer, in his Anti-polemos, or Plea against War, replies to the advocates of war as follows: “They further bring the argument of those opinions or decrees of the Fathers in which war seems to be approved.  Of this sort there are some, but they are only late writers, who appeared when the true spirit of Christianity began to languish, and they are very few.  On the other hand, there are innumerable ones among the writers of acknowledged sanctity that absolutely forbid war, and why should the few rather than the many intrude themselves into our minds?”

Barclay, who examined the writings of the Fathers on this subject, said, “It is as easy to obscure the sun at midday as to deny that the primitive Christians renounced all revenge and war.”  Clarkson, who also examined the Fathers, declared that “every Christian writer of the second century who notices the subject makes it unlawful for Christians to bear arms.”  Clarkson has made copious extracts from the writings of the Fathers against war, a few of which, as quoted by him and others, shall be inserted here.

Justin Martyr and Tatian both considered the devil the author of war.  Justin Martyr, while speaking of the prophecies relating to the days of peace, said, “That this prophecy is fulfilled you have good reason to believe, for we who in times past killed one another do not now fight with our enemies.”  Clarkson added, “It is observable that the word ‘fight’ does not mean to strike, beat, or give a blow, but to fight in war, and the word ‘enemy’ does not mean a common adversary who has injured us, but an enemy of the state.”

Irenaeus said that Christians in his day “had changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and that they knew not how to fight.”

Maximilian and a number of others in the second century actually suffered martyrdom for refusing, on gospel principles, to bear arms.

Celsus made it one of his charges against the Christians that they refused to bear arms for the Emperor.  Origen, in the following century, admitted the fact and justified the Christians on the ground of the unlawfulness of war itself.

Tertullian, in his discourse to Scapula, tells us “that no Christians were to be found in the Roman armies.”  In his declaration on the worship of idols he said, “Though the soldiers came to John and received a certain form to be observed, and though the Centurion believed, yet Jesus Christ, by disarming Peter disarmed every soldier afterwards; for custom can never sanction an illicit act.”  Again, in his Soldier’s Garland, he said, “Can a soldier’s life be lawful, when Christ has pronounced that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword?  Can one who professes the peaceable doctrine of the gospel be a soldier when it is his duty not so much as to go to law?  And shall he who is not to avenge his own wrongs be instrumental in bringing others into chains, imprisonment, torment, and death?”  He also wrote that the Christians in his day were sufficiently numerous to have defended themselves, if their religion had permitted them to have recourse to the sword.

There are some marvelous accounts of Christian soldiers related by Eusebius, but Valesius, in his annotations on these accounts, has abundantly proved them to be fictional, though he was not opposed to war and could have had no other object but to support the truth.  Eusebius, in his orations on Constantine, uses such extravagant adulation, which falls but little short of idolatry, that his account of Christian warriors ought to be received with great caution, especially when we remember that church and state were, in his day, united.

On the whole, it is very evident that the early Christians did refuse to bear arms, and although one of their objections was the idolatrous rites connected with military service, yet they did object on account of the unlawfulness of war itself.

We have no good evidence of Christians being found in the armies until we have evidence of great corruption in the church.  But admitting that we had good evidence that there were professing Christians in the army at an early period of the church, I expect that it would be of little importance, for the idolatrous rites and ceremonies of the heathen armies were of such a nature as to be totally inconsistent with Christian character, and the example of idolatrous Christians surely ought to have no weight.

Some objections of less importance might be stated which have from time to time been made against the sentiments here advocated, but to state and reply to everything that might be said is not necessary.  Specious objections have been and still are made to almost every doctrine of Christianity.  Mankind can generally find some plausible arguments to support whatever it wishes to believe.  The pleas in favor of war are very congenial with the natural feelings of the human heart, and unless men will examine them with a serious, candid, and prayerful disposition to ascertain the truth as it is in Jesus, they will be very likely to imbibe and defend error.[9]

The writer, though far from supposing that everything he has said on a subject that has been so little discussed is free from error, is conscious of having endeavored to examine it with seriousness and candor, and feels satisfied that the general sentiments he has advanced are according to godliness.  He sincerely hopes that everyone who may peruse these pages will do it in the meek and unbiased spirit of the gospel, and then judge whether war can be reconciled with the lamb-like example of Christ; whether it is really forgiving the trespasses of enemies, loving and doing them good, and returning good for evil; for if it is not, it is unquestionably inconsistent with the spirit and the precepts of Christianity.

All who earnestly desire and look for the millennial glory of the church should consider that it could never arrive until the spirit and practice of war are abolished.  All who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity cannot but ardently desire that wars may cease to the ends of the earth and that people should embrace each other as brethren.  If so, is it not their duty to do all in their power to promote so benevolent an object?  Ought not every individual Christian to act in such a manner that, if every other person imitated his example, it would be best for the whole?  If so, would they not immediately renounce everything that leads to wars and fighting and embrace everything that would promote that glorious reign of righteousness and peace for which they earnestly hope, long, and pray?  “The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness is quietness and assurance forever.”



Great Sun of glory, rise and shine,
Dispel the gloom of night;
Let the foul spirits stretch their wings,
And fly before thy light.

Rebuke the nations, stop their rage,
Destroy the warrior’s skill,
Hush all the tumults of the earth;
O speak!  Say, “Peace, be still.”

Break, break the cruel warrior’s sword,
Asunder cut his bow,
Command him by thy sovereign word
To let the captives go.

No more let heroes’ glory sound,
No more their triumphs tell,
Bring all the pride of nations down –
Let war return to hell.

Then let thy blessed kingdom come,
With all its heavenly train,
And pour thy peaceful spirit down,
Like gentle showers of rain.

Then shall the prowling beasts of prey,
Like lambs be meek and mild;
Vipers and asps shall harmless twine
Around the weaned child.

The happy sons of Zion sit
Secure beneath their vines;
Or, shadowed by their fig-tree’s tops,
Shall drink their cheering wines.

The nations to thy scepter bow,
And own “thy gentle sway”;
Then all the wandering tribes of men
To thee their tribute pay.

Angelic hosts shall view the scene,
Delighted, spread their wings;
Down to the earth again they fly,
And strike their lofty strings.

The listening nations catch the sound,
And join the heavenly choir,
To swell aloud the song of praise,
And vie with sacred fire.

“Glory to God on high!” they sound,
In strains of angels’ mirth;
“Good will and peace” to men, theysing,
Since heaven is brought to earth.

◄Part 4

Table of Contents


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[8] All these objections introduced are carefully selected from some of the ablest advocates for the lawfulness of war.

[9] The last point American Christians will give up is the justification of their fathers in the War of the Revolution.