War, whether internecine or international, is antithetical to the character and will of God. War ripped the atmosphere of heaven. It disrupted the ethos of eternity.
God’s garden gift, the Edenic enclave, became marred by sin. Humanity’s second generation was indelibly scarred by a murder instigated by insolence and defiance. Ensuing generations have been marred by the sins of avarice, greed, and contempt that always undergird warfare.
The nature of divinity is to love, create, and harmonize human diversity into an equitable symphony of brotherhood. War, on the other hand, is the divisive, destructive, and cacophonous amplification of the jangling discords of the fallen nature of humanity.
War is the ultimate expression of failed politics. Because war is antithetical to the character and will of God and because war is the fruit of failed civility and diplomacy, believers have navigated ethical conundrums about how to align their faith and their earthly allegiances.
War should be seen as the epitome of evil. How then do believers and righteous people relate to the prospect of war, whether at their country’s initiative or when violated by others? What is the Christian’s right response to conscription and deployment into combat?
Adventists have historically held that if called/forced to serve in the military of their countries, Adventists should opt, if possible, for non-combatant roles.
During the American Civil War Ellen White “was shown that God’s people . . . cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith.”1
An 1865 church statement regarding military service concluded as follows: “We are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.”2 Pursuant to this position, church members who served were disfellowshipped.3
Remarkably, though, Adventism’s first known professional chaplain was Civil War veteran Lycurgus McCoy, recommended to Dr. Kellogg by Ellen White as chaplain for the Battle Creek sanitarium.4
The 1865 posture persisted globally until, in World War I, a perspective of patriotism took hold. Perhaps for pragmatic, survival reasons, the church in Germany and Russia shifted to support of combatancy. The perspective persists in non-neutral nations of the European theater.
After the Korean War, in 1954, the church in General Conference session voted—with a patently American perspective, a reaffirmation of our earlier resistance to war, and our commitment to non-combatant service, if conscripted.5
This official position, contextually applied, saw European and Asian members maintaining a more patriotic perspective, given their recent history of mandatory service for males. Survival in a politically volatile world was the ethos of the era. A 1972 revision explained that the individual member remained “free to assess the situation for himself.”6 Arms bearing was a matter of individual conscience.
Adventism embraces the beatitude of peacemaking. But the imperative of peace must be multifaceted, multidisciplinary, and balanced, so that righteousness and guilt are not attributed inappropriately. Enlightened individuals are to make cogent, contextual application of the Bible, Ellen White commentary, and other objective factors. Ellen White’s exposition on Abraham’s military engagement (Gen. 14:13ff.) represents his fighters as “men trained in the fear of God, in the service of their master, and in the practice of arms.” She notes that in victory, “the worshiper of Jehovah had not only rendered a great service to the country, but had proved himself a man of valor. It was seen that righteousness is not cowardice and that Abraham’s religion made him courageous in maintaining the right and defending the oppressed. His heroic act gave him a widespread influence among the surrounding tribes.”7
Abraham demonstrates how a committed believer living in dynamic relationship with God can be a military warrior. Abraham loved peace; Abraham was mission-focused; but Abraham also had a standing army, 318 men valorous in combat because they were prepared physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Sometimes good, peace-preferring people have to forcefully stand for right. Indeed, the moniker of “infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8, KJV) may find appropriate ethical application to those who, in times of exigent peril, stand idly by as evil rampages around them. Parental obligation to provide for the family includes food, clothing, housing, identity and security. And the Spirit sternly admonishes that those who fail to provide, “especially for their own household” (verse 8, NIV), are worse than the unbeliever.
In Judges 4 the story of military triumph for God conspicuously involves two women: prophet Deborah and host Jael. First Deborah, under divine authority, summons the warrior Barak to lead God’s hosts to victory (Judges 4:6, 7). When he responds, she has to tell him that because of his cowardice, “he Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (verse 9, NIV).
Deborah, God’s oracle for that era, in clarion and specific tones pronounced the battle call of God’s judgment:. she tells Barak, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you” (verse 6, NIV). At the end a song of supernatural inspiration follows Jael’s assassination of the despotic general Sisera. “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (Judges 5:24, NIV).
God’s hero warriors may be male, female, or foreign: Syrian general Naaman becomes converted based upon a miraculous cure from leprosy. Before leaving Israel, the location, and Elisha, the agent of his healing, Naaman confesses a spiritual conundrum to the prophet. His portfolio includes accompanying the king as he worships. Recognizing the futility of idol worship, he asks Elisha for guidance and/or absolution. The prophet simply says, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:19)—no comment on either his military status or his idolatrous participation. Ellen White posits that the light of God’s grace shines even—maybe especially—upon people who, flawed religion notwithstanding, are sincere in their trust and reliance upon God: “Centuries after Naaman returned to his Syrian home, healed in body and converted in spirit, his wonderful faith was referred to and commended by the Savior as an object lesson for all who claim to serve God. . . . God passed over the many lepers in Israel because their unbelief closed the door of good to them. A heathen nobleman who had been true to his convictions of right, and who felt his need of help, was in the sight of God more worthy of His blessing than were the afflicted in Israel who had slighted and despised their God-given privileges. God works for those who appreciate His favors and respond to the light given them from heaven.”8 Naaman’s job did not detract from the divine approbation of his character and service. In God’s eyes, and Christ’s voice, we hear no condemnation for military service and those who judiciously bear arms. At least there is none here.
In my own military service, neither my years as a combatant nor those as a noncombatant chaplain compromised my faith or witness. In fact, the converse is true. There were many faith-filled believers with whom I served and for whom I ministered.
Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) is the departmental arm of the church, in every division and at the General Conference, that serves as advocate, supporter, and first responder for Adventists serving in the military. Bibles, other spiritual literature, availability to counsel, and occasionally supportive interventions in matters of religious liberty, is our stock in trade. ACM supports members at local bases where there is no Adventist chaplain, by endorsing lay leaders from local churches. These lay leaders can facilitate Adventist-specific worship services on bases and during field operations or deployments.
Currently there are about 120 Adventist chaplains serving in the U.S. military. The Department of Defense estimates that there are about 5,000 Adventists serving on active duty. All of them are valuable to the church. Most are serving admirably.
In 2021 one of ours was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the Army Chaplain Corps. Recently the Army selected an Adventist sergeant major to lead the cadre of chaplains’ assistants and promoted another Adventist to the rank of colonel. There are faithfully serving Adventist pilots, doctors, nurses, lawyers, mechanics, special operators, and administrators. In Malawi, Zambia, Australia, Israel, and many other countries, including Ukraine and Russia, Adventist members serve and lead. Military service may not be for all. But those who are called and anointed for it deserve the church’s solace and support.
As we move into the future, firmly focused on biblical eschatology, we can expect wars, rumors of wars, and military conflicts. Inevitably, Adventist young people will be included either volitionally or as conscripts. In Ukraine males between 16 and 60 have been conscripted for national defense. Adventists were also likely conscripted into the Russian army.
Our church, globally, in light of our beliefs, should act and invest proactively to establish centers of influence near major military installations and academic campuses. We can and should establish spiritual citadels where the bright hue of balanced Christian Adventism can shine. We need representative places where our army of youth, rightly trained, can continue to be properly encouraged and directed while they study and serve God and country according to the dictates of their well-informed consciences.
1 Ellen G. White, “The Rebellion,” Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 361.
2 Douglas Morgan, “The Beginnings of a Peace Church: Eschatology, Ethics, and Expedience in Seventh-day Adventist Responses to the Civil War,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 45, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 36.
3 Ron Graybill, “The Perplexing War: Why Adventists Avoided Military Service in the Civil War,” Insight, Oct. 10, 1978, pp. 4-8.
4 A. B. Olsen, Lycurgus McCoy obituary, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 6, 1925.
6 https://sabbathsermons.com/2010/07/23/the-adventist-church-and-war/, accessed Nov. 17, 2021.
7 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 135.
8 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), p. 252.
Paul Anderson recently retired from service as director of chaplaincy of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland.