The question is really asking whether they can kill in the name of the law or the Constitution.
The reply is fivefold.
First, the easy answer – too easy, in fact – is to teach that Christians should withdraw from any “messy” involvement in the state. However, it is a form of ingratitude when the church asks the state to do the “dirty work” of protecting Christians, but they do not pull their fair share. If Christians have an extra-sensitive conscience about harming anyone in any circumstance, but they still want to serve in law enforcement and the military, then it is sound advice for them to work behind the scenes.
However, when an enemy mortally threatens citizens, and the Christian police officers or soldiers have no other choice than to use lethal force, then they should not feel an ounce of guilt about it, provided they follow the law. There is nothing wrong if Bible-educated Christians – who therefore do not have to suffer from an extra-sensitive conscience in these matters – fight on the frontlines with all the risks that entails. No one has to be poisoned with hatred in his heart as he pulls the trigger.
Second, in Scriptural context, the command to love our enemies requires doing good to them (Luke 6:27-31). It is not merely a feeling. There are true stories about soldiers who have done good to an enemy immediately after he threatened them with mortal danger. As soon as he dropped his weapon, the soldiers treated his wounds so he would not die. That is goodness in action; that is “love your enemy” in practice. True stories like that abound, but they rarely make the news in the mainstream media.
Third, Jesus and the apostles Peter and Paul endorsed weapon-carrying soldiers and officers who did not have to leave their careers, after they encountered the kingdom of God, two of them converting (Luke 3:14; Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; Acts 10:1-4; Acts 16:27-34). There is no Scriptural evidence that they stayed only and always behind the frontlines. This may be, strictly speaking, an argument from silence, but the logic of history requires us to assume that Roman soldiers may have to kill an enemy. It is completely certain that Jesus and the New Testament authors assumed this about the Roman military. They lived in the empire, and Jesus predicted his own death by those authorities. And God chose to help and call military men and a law enforcement officer, and as new-born Christians they may have had to kill an enemy. So we must balance parts of Scripture with all of Scripture.
Fourth, other themes besides love are found in the four Gospels, such as justice (Matt. 12:18, 20; 23:23; Luke 18:7-8). In fact, Jesus explicitly juxtaposes the justice and the love of God. Pronouncing woes on certain self-righteous Pharisees, he says: “But you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 12:42). He says love and justice complement, not oppose each other. And sometimes justice is hard; in extreme circumstances it includes using physical force on lawbreakers and perpetrators of violence, domestic or foreign. Such protection expresses the justice of God and the love of God to peaceful citizens. Jesus helped a military officer. And the first gentile convert to Christianity was a military officer, not a civilian. Jesus assumed that the military was part of life in this world (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). And Christians may join that part, if they feel called.
Therefore, it is misguided to impose one verse or theme (“love your enemy”) on everyone who protects us, even by force, as if that one verse or theme represents the only one in the Bible. Utopian and unbalanced idealism can lead to absurd conclusions, in at least a few difficult circumstances. Paradoxically, these idealists appeal to Jesus, but they go way beyond all of his teachings. These verses discuss the judgment of God on his enemies: Luke 11:50-51; 12:20, 51-53, 57-59; 13:1-9, 22-30; 16:19-31; 17:26-37.
Fifth and finally, if a Christian becomes a soldier or a police officer, then he officially and publicly serves the State (Rom. 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-14). But his private faith and religion will make him a better servant because he strives to act with integrity. Ultimately, the Christian soldier or officer serves a just and loving God, so he follows and obeys justice and love (not one without the other). All of this depends on fluctuating circumstances. The soldier or officer must exercise wisdom as to when and how to apply love and justice. This is why he must stay in Christian fellowship, so he can ask for counsel from the body of believers. He must also know the law, which provides a lot of guidance in difficult situations.
A soldier or police officer who is also a Christian works for the government, not the church. He must follow orders from the government’s lawful agents, not his pastor or priest or his own interpretation of the Bible. He is not fighting a holy war, but he works for the government.
An objector could ask, what about the Christian witness? Doesn’t killing take away from it?
The answer is simple enough.
Ideally, Christians should witness about God to everyone.In America, the message of the gospel is everywhere: on television, radio, and the street corner. Even church buildings bring an awareness of the gospel. Nothing stops a criminal from repenting of his sins in one of them. In fact, through advanced media technology the gospel is penetrating into the remotest corners of the globe. Witnessing takes many forms. So who is to say that a criminal or enemy soldier against whom deadly force is used never had his chance to hear the gospel? He may have heard and rejected it. Further, even in times of peace, average Christian citizens who do not carry weapons may never reach some people. Not everyone will convert, as the Scripture affirms everywhere.
Therefore, if not everyone will convert in times of peace, then how much more will no conversions be a possibility in times of conflict? Conversely, maybe in hard times people are more open to hear the gospel. In that case, doors may open to share one’s faith. Whatever the circumstance, Christians do not know (or rarely know) in advance who is open to conversion. Often the potential converts are model citizens, but sometimes they are violent criminals and enemies.
When they threaten citizens and agents of the state with immediate and mortal danger, the Christian soldier or policeman may have to use deadly force, for he does not have time to ask whether such violent suspects and enemies have heard the gospel. So, it is shortsighted to impose only one theme (e.g. love) in the Bible on Christian soldiers and officers who are God-ordained to exercise justice that requires lethal force. The Scriptures teach the love of God and the justice of God.
Once again it is important to distinguish between the state or public sphere and religion or the private sphere. In public or in the government, Christian soldiers and police officers have a higher responsibility, due to their receiving more legal power than their fellow Christians who work at ordinary jobs. That is, they do not leave their faith (private or religious sphere) outside the military base or the police station (public sphere), but they carry and use their firearm in the name of the state (public sphere), not in the name of the Lord (private sphere). They must not yell, “I arrest you or shoot my firearm in the name of Christ!” Rather, they do these actions in the name of the law (the state).
How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
Of course Christians serving in the military or law enforcement may share their faith while on the job in public, but this must be done in a wise and timely and private way. They must first earn the right to be heard by consistent and right work habits. And they must follow the law on this matter, realizing that mixing – however discreetly and gently – their faith (private) with their job (public) may place their careers at risk in today’s political climate.
This is why the soldier or police officer who is a Christian must go to church regularly, so he or she can receive prayer and wise counsel, and no confusion clouds the picture. If pacifists believe that Christians using lethal force according to the law is a bad witness to the gospel, then the pacifists do not understand the full teaching of the New Testament.
So yes, Christians can join the military or police force and kill if they have to. They should not feel an ounce of guilt if they pull the trigger in the name of the law.
If readers would like to read the Bible online, they can go to biblegateway.com.
ARTICLES IN SERIES
1. The Kingdom of God: Was Jesus a Pacifist?
2. The Gospels: Was Jesus a Pacifist?
3. Were the Early Christians Pacifists?
4. Can Christians Join the Military or Police Force?