CRC Statements and Guidelines Regarding War

The “Testimony” adopted by Synod 1939 was initiated by an overture in 1936 from the council of the (then) Second Englewood CRC of Chicago. The gist of the overture was that synod should disapprove of “present-day pacifism” and “enunciate the principle that all wars of aggression are contrary to the Word of God and that [CRC] members are justified . . . not to bear arms” (Acts of Synod 1936, p. 29). The “testimony” eventually adopted spoke more extensively about the first aspect than it did the second. The “Testimony Regarding the Christian’s Attitude Toward War and Peace” (see Attachment A) is a strong condemnation of pacifism that allows for conscientious objection to military service in one very limited situation. The exception is as follows:

The only conscientious objector to military service whose claim the Church cannot repudiate is he who, recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country in response to its call to arms, has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the given war to which he is summoned is an unjust war. When he is absolutely certain in the light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause, he cannot morally justify his participation in the given war. War is killing people and for anyone to engage in such killing of fellowmen when he is convinced in his heart that the cause for which he is fighting is an unjust one, this procedure cannot be justified before the tribunal of God and His Word. The only course open to such a person is to resort to passive resistance and to refuse to bear arms in that given war.

In closing, Synod would urge upon all to pray for righteousness and peace in national and international affairs; to study the revealed Word for an understanding of the will of God for the guidance of the life of citizens and their government; to obey all lawfully constituted authorities for God’s sake; and, if a serious conflict of duty should occur, to obey God rather than men. (Acts of Synod 1939, p. 249)

A “just war” understanding is presupposed throughout the testimony even though it is never specifically argued for. The articulation of a “just war” theory didn’t seem necessary in 1939 because the Reformed confessions contained the foundational teaching with respect to government in these matters (see the Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 105 and Belgic Confession, Article 36). These two confessions are more succinct than, but clearly consistent with, Calvin’s teaching on a government’s use of force articulated in his Institutes, Book IV, XX, 10-11.

The “just war” tradition has been extensively held within the Christian church even though it may be understood and articulated in different ways within different communities. The following seven components are considered necessary for judging a war as just (jus ad bellum):

a. a just cause

b. right authority

c. right intention

d. proportionality (“not do more harm than good”)

e. last resort

f. achieve peace

g. reasonable hope of success

Some authors argue that each component is as weighty as the other, whereas others argue that a-c (the so-called deontological reasons) outweigh d-g (the so-called prudential reasons). In addition to the above there are two main principles to be followed during a war (jus in bello): (a) discrimination – re extent of harm permitted to non-combatants and (b) proportionality – use of restraint re appropriate weapons of war. This is what Calvin referred to as “restraint and humility in war” (Institutes, IV, XX, 12).

As I said above the CRC did not articulate a just war theory in 1936, but came closer in a report presented to Synod 1977. In that report (“Ethical Decisions about War”) the committee dealt with several basic concepts such as “the law of love and the sixth commandment,” “War,” “ the Christian’s dilemma,” “the state,” “ the conscience,” and “the church.” From its discussion of these various topics the committee developed fifteen guidelines as well as three introductory observations to assist the reader in using the guidelines. This indicates that we are dealing with an area of reality where the church knows it needs to speak, but seems to do so hesitantly and with nuanced speech. I have included for our review the Introduction to the Guidelines as well as Guidelines themselves (see Attachment B).

Synod 1982 adopted what it called “Guidelines for Justifiable Warfare” (see Acts of Synod 1982, pp. 103-5 and Attachment C). It is curious that the Guidelines adopted in 1982 where first put forth in 1964. Even though they were presented to the churches for review (1964), no subsequent synod considered them until 1982. In addition to the Guidelines, Synod 1982 adopted the following three recommendations:

2. That synod send these guidelines with an appropriate letter to the president of the United States, the prime minister of Canada, and the secretary general of the United Nations.

Ground: The guidelines adequately express the concerns regarding the use of nuclear weapons in the context of a comprehensive statement of the church’s views on warfare.

5. That synod urge the members of the Christian Reformed Church to evaluate the ongoing public discussion concerning nuclear weapons in light of the adopted guidelines.

6. That synod encourage the faculties of Christian colleges in North America as well as the staffs of Christian social justice agencies (e.g., the Association for Public Justice and the Committee for Justice and Liberty) to study these guidelines and to offer insight and leadership to aid the Christian community in understanding these issues and providing a Christian response to them. (Acts of Synod 1982, pp. 105-6)

By way of a personal appeal addressed to the Synod of 1984, the Christian Reformed Church in North America was asked to support tax resistance as a form of conscientious objection. The appellants had concluded that the United States government is engaged in “idolatrous militarism.” Acting according to their consciences, they had refused to pay that part of their income tax which, they believed, supports the military budget. Consequently, the Internal Revenue Service placed a levy on income which the Board of Publications owed to them. After careful consultation, the board decided to pay the IRS. They appealed the decision of the board to synod on the ground that it had failed to support them in their conscientious objection according to the guidelines of synod (“Guidelines for Ethical Decisions about War,” Acts of Synod 1977). The synod neither approved nor disapproved of the substance of the appellants’ conscientious objection. It did, however, approve CRC Publications’ decision to pay the IRS an amount owed by the appellants as legitimate tax on their income. Furthermore, the synod judged that the appellants were “worthy of fraternal, pastoral, and benevolent support by the Christian community.”

Synod 1985 received a report from a committee appointed in1984 and adopted yet another set of Guidelines, this one dealing with “Conscientious Objection and Tax Resistance:”

1. Pertaining to the Individual Christian

a. God establishes government. The Christian’s duty is to obey even when unsure of the morality of government action. This duty to obey pertains to taxes.

b. The Christian ought to object to specific government policy or decision that he finds incompatible with biblical teaching.

c. The means and strategy of the Christian objector must be compatible with biblical teaching on government. To bring change, the Christian should exhaust honorable, legal, and discreet means. He should consider civil disobedience as a last resort.

d. If his conscience leads him to the extremity of disobeying government, the Christian ought to submit to government’s authority by accepting the penalty for his disobedience.

e. The Christian may ask for and expect sympathetic concern from fellow Christians, members of the church as body or organism.

f. It is ordinarily inappropriate for the Christian conscientious objector to ask the church as institute to join him in his individual strategy. The instituted church cannot assume, as its own, individual methods of resistance; it has neither the competence nor the authority from the Lord to do so.

g. The Christian may, however, expect the church to give him what it does have the authority and competence to give: prophetic proclamation of the Word, pastoral care, and diaconal support. The nature of the church’s “necessary support” for him is to help him endure his hardship, not to join him in the individual methods of objection he chooses.

2. Pertaining to the church

a. As a community of believers, the church is called upon to give spiritual care and love to conscientious tax resisters and to assure them that they are fully honored as Christians in spite of differences of opinion with fellow church members.

b. As agent of proclamation, the church is called upon concerning the issues raised by our mandate:

(1) to expose the demonic influences in society and government

(2) to proclaim that our ultimate earthly protection is not to be found in any earthly power but in God’s almighty and loving care; and

(3) to challenge its members to exercise their responsibilities to oppose evil by appropriate means or strategy.

c. As provider of pastoral care, the church is called upon, through its elders and ministers, to give counsel and guidance to believers as they weigh specific methods of strategy seeking to follow dictates of a biblically informed conscience.

d. As instrument of diaconal care, the church is called upon to provide benevolent relief to conscientious tax resisters whose stand brings them material hardship. This is particularly the responsibility of the local congregation. (Acts of Synod 1985, pp. 715-16)

Summary of CRC’s Position on War and Peace

1. CRC members are exhorted to be peacemakers:

. . . we who claim his name must live peaceably ourselves, furnishing to the world conspicuous examples of peace-loving, harmonious living, and must also privately and publicly denounce war and strive to prevent it by prayer, by redressing the grievances of oppressed people, by prophetic calls to peace, by urging the faithful exercise of diplomacy, by entering the political arena ourselves, and by strong appeals to all in high places to resolve tensions by peaceful means. Christians must be reconcilers. (Acts of Synod 1977, p. 558)

2. CRC maintains that a “just war” is possible and permissible, i.e. that a legitimately constituted government may use appropriate force to achieve the ends of justice and freedom.

3. The CRC position is grounded in the view of the state and its bearing of the sword as found in Romans 13:4 and supported by the general analogy of scripture re the rightful use of force by duly constituted government in the pursuit of justice and freedom.

4. The CRC recognizes that even though there are occasions and reasons when war may be justified, it also recognizes that (“in the eyes of God”) there are no completely or purely just wars.

5. The CRC eschews both pacifism and militarism. Even though the 1977 report acknowledges that pacifism is attractive to many Christians, it judges that in the final analysis “pacifism is mistaken.” With respect to militarism, however, the report speaks even more strongly:

Finally because of the uniquely Christian love of peace and mission of reconciliation, Christians know that all national truculence, all inclination—surely all eagerness—to fight, all crusading spirit, every proud display of weaponry and glorying in military might, is thoroughly immoral and contrary both to the letter and spirit of everything our Lord teaches.

6. Selective conscientious objection is acceptable with respect to a specific war under very limited conditions.

7. Epistemic agnosticism is not sufficient ground for conscientious objection. When in doubt, one’s duty is to obey one’s government.

8. The imperative “to obey one’s government” is a generalization and not a universalization (“obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word” – Belgic Confession, Article 36).

9. The principle of proportionality leads the CRC to conclude that the widespread use of nuclear weapons in a war renders such a war as unjust.