Jul 10, 2012

Just War? Why John Stott changed his mind

John Stott as a young man was a pacifist even going so far as to join the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship during the second world war. Reflecting on that time he said:

I was sent to at least three clergymen to be sorted out, and looking back I am really horrified at how badly they dealt with me. Not one of them introduced my mind to the concept of the just war. I had never heard of the just war theory.

But as Timothy Dudley Smith records, The day would come when his own study of the Scriptures would carry him beyond any simplistic viewpoint and he would resign his membership [of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship].

What Stott discovered is that when it comes to what the Bible teaches  not all killing is forbidden. All death is a tragedy but not always a breach of the 6th commandment. Stott rooted this theology of just war in Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul teaches that God has given authority to the state to act as an agent of his justice in this world which extends to taking life.  In his Bible Speaks Today commentary Stott argues from Romans 13:1-7 that the state has an authority from God to act as his agent to take life. In summary form he argues;

The state has a God-given authority and a God-given role (v.1)

(remember than when Paul was writing there were NO Christian authorities)

To rebel against the state is to rebel against God (v.2)

Three times Paul tells us that the state is God’s servant (v.4a, 4c, 6)

That role includes rewarding those who do good (v.3, 4)

That role includes punishing those who do evil (v.4)

The punishment extends to taking of life (v.4)

Christians should submit to the authority of the state not only because of fear but conscience  (v.5)

Turn the other cheek?

What then should we do with passages of the Bible that seem to suggest that Christians are to turn the other cheek? Passages to which Stott himself appealed as a young man? In his book Issues facing Christians today Stott addresses the issue of just war and  focuses our attention on the fact that the very verses that preceed Romans 13:1-7, are a call for Christians to love their enemies, Romans 12:17-21. Clearly Paul is not seeking to contradict himself here.

Stott writes:

The reason why wrath, revenge and retribution are forbidden us is not because they are in themselves wrong reactions to evil, but because they are God’s prerogative, not ours…It is better, then, to see the end of Romans 12 and the beginning of Romans 13 as complementary to one another.

And here is his key conclusion:

Members of God’s new community can be both private individuals and state officials. In the former role we are never to take personal revenge or repay evil for evil, but rather we are to bless our persecutors(12:14),serve our enemies (12:20) and seek to overcome evil with good (12:21). In the latter role, however, if we are called by God to serve as police or prison officers or judges, we are God’s agents in the punishment of evil-doers. True, ‘vengence’ and ‘wrath’ belong to God, but one way in which he executes his judgement  on evil-doers today is through the state.

Stott then sees a natural extension of the same Scriptural principles when the disturber of the peace is not just an individual or group but another nation. The state’s God-given authority encompasses restraint and resistance of evildoers who are aggressors rather than criminals, and so the protection of its citizen’s rights when threatened from outside as well as from inside.

And so John Stott came to change his mind. We cannot say that war is wrong in itself. War has sometimes been, and maybe again, the weapon of God’s wrath and righteous judgment.




  • Neil,

    Everything you say is correct – but slightly one sided.

    It is worth noting that Stott remained strongly opposed to nuclear weapons in all their forms.

    Also I suspect he would not have thought many of the wars Britain fought in his lifetime qualified as just by the historical definition he embraced.

    So the questions remains to challenge today’s evangelicals: what are we doing about unjust wars?

  • I think it’s telling that you note that there were no Christian authorities when Paul wrote. Many Christians have then come to the conclusion that Paul was writing with a purely non-Christian view of those in sword-wielding authority (saying a view of the “state” is a bit anachronistic). I rarely see discussions of just war theory addressing Jesus’ clearest commandment on this issue, namely, the call to love our enemies. Do you know if Stott addresses that anywhere in his writings?

    It was nice to stumble upon your blog, by the way.

    • Thanks for the comment and compliment, Scott. Stott does talk about loving enemies and turning the other cheek especially in ‘Issues facing Christians today.’ His argument is that as individuals we are not to retaliate or take revenge on those who oppose or hate us but God has given authority to the state to punish evil-doers. So, for example, if you were a Christian police-officer as an private individual it would be necessary to turn the other cheek rather than say retaliate but as an officer of the State, employed to maintain law and order the same person acting in the official capacity would be failing in his or her duty not to arrest an offender. The same principle applies to a Christian soldier. As an individual it is wrong to kill an enemy attacking our nation but as a soldier in the army it would be perfectly appropriate according to the Just War theory. Hope that helps.

  • Hi Andrew,
    I think it’s less one sided more that it is incomplete. So I haven’t tried to demonstrate the conditions necessary in Stott’s thinking for a just war (that would certainly rule out in his thinking Nuclear war as you suggest) merely explain his change of thought from pacifism to advocate of some cases of just war.

    Point taken on what we’re doing about unjust wars. Any ideas?

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