Anthony D. Becker
Associate Professor
St. Olaf College
Northfield, Minnesota 55057

Office: Holland Hall 414-C
Phone: 507-646-3974

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Just War and Christian Civil Responsibility

Just War Theory
A Lutheran Understanding of Civil Responsibility
The Roman Catholic Understanding of Just War
Statement of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod on War
Statement of the American Lutheran Church on War
"Just War - or a Just War?" by President Jimmy Carter (not on this site)
"Can War Be Just?" The Lutheran Witness, January 2003 (Adobe PDF file not on this site)

Just War Theory

Just war theory derives from the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  It is integral to Lutheran and Roman Catholic understandings of Christian participation in civil society.

There are two aspects of a "just war:" (1) the just nature of the war itself and (2) the just nature of the war's conduct.  A war begun justly is not necessarily just in its conduct.  Likewise, an unjust war may be conducted justly.

The Justice of a War
(Jus ad Bellum)

The Just Conduct of a War
(Jus in Bello)

Just Cause – A war must be waged for a just cause such as self-defense or to pre-empt an anticipated attack. 

Proper Authority – A proper authority must declare a war.

Right Intention – A nation waging a just war should be doing so for the cause of justice and not for reasons of self-interest or aggrandizement.

Reasonable Chance of Success – Given just cause and right intention, the just war theory asserts that there must be a reasonable probability of success.

Goal Proportional to the Means – A policy of war requires a goal, and that goal must be proportional to the other principles of just cause.

Other Means Exhausted – All other means of ending the conflict must be exhausted or be shown to be ineffective.

Discrimination – The weapons and means used must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

Proportionality – The offensive power used must be proportional to the objective desired.

Responsibility – The agents of war are responsible for their actions.

Compiled from various sources including and

A Lutheran Understanding of Christian Participation in Civil Affairs

The Augsburg Confession - Article XVI: Of Civil Affairs.

Of Civil Affairs [the Lutheran Churches] teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry, to be given in marriage.

They condemn [those] who forbid these civil offices to Christians.

They condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such ordinances. Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than [civil authority].

On-Line Source:

A Roman Catholic Statement of Just War

The Catechism of the Catholic Church Section Two: The Ten Commandments 

The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

On-Line Source: 

Christian Citizenship

A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
May 26, 1968

The Lutheran Confessions operate with the concept of a just war (cf. The Augsburg Confession, Art. XVI, and the Apology, Art. IV, 191). Before a Lutheran can rightly become a conscientious objector, he will need to formulate answers to the following questions that have been developed in the course of the history of Christian theology as a way of determining whether a war is just or not: A. Is a war being fought under legitimate authority? B. Is it being conducted within the framework of international agreements? C. Is it being waged in the interest of vindicating some obvious right that has suffered outrage? D. Have all peaceful means of achieving a settlement been exhausted? E. Is the destruction incurred excessive in terms of the goals to be achieved? F. Is it being waged with good intentions, or has it been undertaken for purposes of aggression? G. Will the results achieved by engaging in hostilities provide greater opportunity for justice and freedom to prevail than if such a war had not been entered into?

On-Line Source:

War, Peace, and Freedom

A Statement of The American Lutheran Church

Excerpted from a resolution and statement adopted by the Third General Convention of The American Lutheran Church, October 19-25, 1966.

Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession … declares: "Christians may without sin . . . engage in just wars, serve as soldiers…" Christians of that day were ready to judge whether a particular war was a just war on the criteria of whether it (1) seemed to be fought for a just cause, (2) was motivated by a just intent, (3) was waged in accord with the spirit of justice and mercy, and (4) would result in the triumph and reign of justice and mercy for both victor and vanquished.

This thinking, which prompted Augsburg XVI, needs to be understood not as justifying war per se but as giving criteria by which to evaluate the justice or injustice of a particular war.

The conditions and assumptions which underlay Augsburg's guidance for Christians to "engage in just wars" rarely prevail today. Total war wipes out any meaningful distinctions between … combatants and noncombatants, between the fighting front and the home front, between military objectives and total victory.

It is the Christian's duty, therefore, as a loyal citizen to obey the demands of his government unless he feels conscience-bound to resist. Not knowing the subtleties of diplomacy and the intricacies of statecraft which brought his nation to the precipice of war, he must trust the soundness of judgment of its leaders. Should he lose confidence in their judgment, their integrity, or the rightness of their course, he must work for changes in his nation's policies, objectives, or leadership. If he is sufficiently convinced that his nation is on a course hostile to God's will, the Christian has the right and the duty to resist.

It is tragic and lamentable when antagonistic nations, in the sinfulness of mankind, are unable to resolve differences they consider fundamental and so turn to war to establish their mastery. War can be understood as a seemingly necessary last resort to which sinful men and nations turn in their desperation. War cannot, however, be called good, righteous, or holy.

Certainly no nation today should be completely autonomous, with unchecked power by force to impose its will upon other peoples. Its claims for the justice of its objectives and the rightness of its actions must be weighed against the higher imperative of God's will for the good of the entire world (John 3:16-21). The "governing authorities" of Rom. 13:1 are not limited to the nation-state as we know it. They include any and all local, national, and international structures effectively exercising governmental powers and which remain faithful to God's purposes for good government.

On-Line Source:


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