The Israeli army regularly drops leaflets in Gaza with warnings in Arabic for civilians. (Flash90/Abed Rahim Khatib)
By Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President 

Most churches today struggle with the concept of a just war. Most Western countries have not had wars in recent decades and thus we have developed a type of pacifist attitude towards any war situation. But how should Christians approach war? This question is especially relevant in light of Israel’s current conflict with Hamas. 

Our friend Prof. Gerald McDermott recently stated at the Envision conference that “pacifism is the immoral privilege reserved for those who sit safely at home.” In a way, our theology around pacifism developed in countries that were living in peace over the last seven to eight decades. But if you go back in church history, probably the most profound voice on this topic was Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. He defined the idea of a “just war” as having three requirements. 

Number one, declaring a war is not the business of a private person, it needs a proper authority. Back then, you had little fiefdoms that were constantly at war. And he said you need a proper political structure to declare war. 

Secondly, it requires the need to right a grievous wrong. Someone has been an aggressor and deserves to be held to account. A just war seeks to correct a nation for refusing to make amends for wrongs it has inflicted, or to restore what has been unjustly seized. This certainly applies to Gaza, where Israel was brutally attacked, hostages were taken, and many moral standards were broken. 

Thirdly, the authority seeking to right the wrong must have upright intentions, to advance a moral code or remedy an injustice. We should reject wars waged for motives of aggrandizement or cruelty, and accept those undertaken to punish evil, secure peace, and uplift the common good. That is exactly what Israel is doing. 

Israel is being accused of committing genocide is Gaza. Yet the Israeli army is probably the most moral, humane army in history. They are going way above and beyond any normal measures to make sure there are a minimum of civilian casualties. 

At the same time, if you look at Hamas, and if you read through the Geneva conventions on warfare, then Hamas has broken every single rule in the book, every principle of warfare. They are using their own people as human shields, not protecting them but rather exposing them to harm. They are misusing humanitarian institutions, like hospitals and schools. They are torturing people, raping people, vandalizing, which can all be seen in the videos from October 7. It is scandalous and yet the international community is not holding Hamas accountable. 

So, what does the Bible actually say about war? In a way, the most powerful passage about war is Exodus 15:3, in the “Song of Moses.” It says, “the Lord is a man of war.” This is contrary to many of our religious assumptions about God as a peacemaker. Yet the Bible very clearly states He is a man of war. And in context, it is speaking of a real battle fought with real weapons, with real men being killed. God actually was fighting to annihilate an entire enemy army. 

Psalm 24 also says that “the Lord is mighty in battle.” This psalm of David is about a very real war experience. 

Then the Bible gives us the names of the Lord, and the most common is Adonai Tzva’ot, meaning the “Lord of Hosts” or armies. The Lord is called this 232 times in the Bible. Some might say this is all Old Testament, but the same word is used at least two or three times in the New Testament. And remember, in Hebrews 13:8, the Bible says Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forevermore. God always remains the same. 

If you are still thinking this is all Old Testament, read Revelation 19:11. “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war.” 

In addition, the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 13:1-7 that earthly government’s carry the sword as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” Thus, the New Testament does not shy away from government’s using military force in a just war, but rather supports it. 

Of course, as believers, we are not called to engage in physical battles, because the Church does not have a nation with an army. But is a different reality for the restored nation of Israel, which has no choice but to defend itself against evil aggression. 

This commentary is adapted from a presentation by Dr. Bühler at the ICEJ’s recent International Leadership Conference in Helsinki. 

Main photo: The Israeli army regularly drops leaflets in Gaza with warnings in Arabic for civilians to move to safe areas ahead of ground operations. (Flash90/Abed Rahim Khatib)