For 500 years, Lutherans have answered “Yes.”
by Dr. Adam S. Francisco
It is hard to imagine a vocation more at odds with popular conceptions of Christian living than military service. The Christian life is supposed to be about peace and love for the neighbor, but the life of a Marine, Soldier, Sailor or Airman revolves around war. How then can a Christian support or volunteer for military service?
For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther (and for us as Lutherans), the answer is found in Scripture. Rom. 13:14 and 1 Peter 2:1315 are the primary sources. Both sanction secular government and its right to wield the sword. Luther referred to this as a “divine thing entirely” and concluded, “The very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish the evil, protect the good, and preserve peace is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing along with all the things that accompany wartime and martial law have been instituted by God.”
Luther wrote these words in 1526. During the previous two years, Germany had witnessed a tremendous amount of bloodshed during the Peasants War. The emperor of Germany, Charles V, had recently called for the forceful suppression of Lutheranism. And the Muslim Turks had ravaged regions east of Germany just a few months prior, effectively bringing Islamic civilization to the eastern gates of European Christendom.
At the time, there were a number of Protestant Christians (generally called Anabaptists) who believed Christians had no business being involved in any sort of civil service and certainly not of the military variety. The lives of true Christians, they said, were to be spent engaging in acts of charity and Christian love toward their neighbor. Secular government and military service was for secular people.
More than a few Christian soldiers were troubled by this claim, so they turned to Luther for advice, requesting that he address the issue in writing. He had already made his basic position on secular affairs known in a work entitled Temporal Authority (1523). But ever the pastoral theologian, he decided to draft a text addressing the specific issue of whether true Christians could in good conscience serve in military vocations. He titled it Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.
At the outset, Luther made one thing clear: A Christian is not a Christian by virtue of the vocation(s) he serves; a Christian is a Christian by virtue of his faith in Christ. A person’s identity as a Christian was accomplished apart from his vocation. It was accomplished in and through the person and work of Jesus, “granted and given us by the grace of God alone.”
With that matter clarified, Luther turned to the question of whether military vocations–even if they required acts of extreme violence–could be regarded as a profession fitting for a Christian. His answer was a resolute yes. He acknowledged that the work of a soldier at war “seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love.”
When one looked at the matter closely, however, he believed even killing in combat was “a work of love.” A soldier fighting in a just war is not fighting for personal or national gain but rather in defense of others. The soldier fights not to defend himself but the life and property of his fellow citizens, that is, his neighbors.
Luther also explained that military professions are absolutely essential for the preservation of peace and order. The world was in his day, and still is in ours, full of what he called “warmongers,” those who would use war as an extension of politics to acquire lands and wealth and those who simply reveled in bloodshed. The only way to stop such injustices is through force of arms. For the sake of peace, he wrote, militaries are required. Those who serve within them not only serve in legitimate professions, but “right and godly” vocations.
A Christian who serves in the military, therefore, did not and does not need to be troubled by the clamoring of Christian pacifists. Not only does a soldier’s vocation, presuming its duties are properly and legally executed, legitimately serve the neighbor, but it is also what Jesus identified as the greatest act of love (John 15:13), for every member of the military has committed to offer his life in defense of his fellow citizens. Every Christian Marine, Soldier, Sailor and Airman can serve with full confidence that, as Luther put it in his great hymn, “Our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.”
> Go to www.lcms.org/?pid=1178 for Ministry to the Amed Forces resources.
About the author: Dr. Adam S. Francisco is a United States Navy veteran and associate professor at Concordia University Irvine.