Just War and the Declaration of Independence

This is a paper that I presented last night at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. It was part of a Colloquium and the paper itself placed second. I was encouraged by someone to make this available to all and so that is what I am doing here. The bibliography is included for anyone who is interested in further study of this issue. 


The Declaration of Independence is one of the most significant documents in the history of the world, yet it can pose a challenge to modern Christians. One must question the justification of the Founding Fathers in taking up arms against their own government. Furthermore, were the colonial Christians following in the way of Christ by loading muskets and firing upon the British in the name of freedom? This paper will argue that the Founders and Christian colonials engaged in a just war (via armed rebellion), but that the act – as all acts of war – did not fit within God’s ideal for man.[1]

Of course, the issue of Christians and violence goes much further than the Revolutionary War. If the Founders were not justified in rebelling against their government, then one must ask if anyone is ever justified in such rebellion. If Christians were wrong to engage in warfare against their government, one must ask if it is always wrong for Christians to do so. The Declaration of Independence and the subsequent war provide a good test case to see if it is ever okay for Christians to take up armed rebellion against their government.

To answer the thesis and achieve the purpose of the paper, one must (1) establish that a just war exists, (2) that an armed revolution can constitute a just war, and (3) that the American colonials met the requirements for this just war.

The Conditions for a Just Rebellion

The claim that one can engage in a just war, but still contradict God’s ideal for humanity, seems like a prima facie contradiction, but this seeming contradiction hinges on how one views the word “justified.” For an action to be justified it merely need have good reason behind it. Many actions are justified, but still viewed as less than ideal by Christians. Examples would include divorcing an unfaithful spouse, lying to save the life of another human, causing disunity in a local church body over important theological issues, and so on.[2] One should see that when “justice” is delivered in a court by sentencing a criminal to prison, such an act is not in accord with God’s ideal; the criminal should never have to face prison because in God’s ideal the criminal would have never become a criminal. “Justice” becomes a necessary thing in a fallen world, and therefore is not ideal. Thus, to be “justified” is simply to have a “right reason” for an action in a given situation, not necessarily to follow the ideal set for humanity.

Under the above understanding of “justified,” one must ask what constitutes a “just war” and if the Colonists met the criteria for a just war. The three criteria for a just war are jus ad bellum (right action before a war), jus in bellum (right action during a war), and jus post bellum (right action after a war).[3] For the purposes of this paper and defending the Founders in their initial rebellion, it is best to look to the criteria of jus ad bellum. The criteria for jus ad bellum are: (1) the war is called by a legitimate authority, (2) the cause must be just, (3) the ultimate goal must be peace, (4) the motive must not be hatred or vengeance, (5) war is the last resort, (6) success must be probable[4], (7) the means must be justified, that is, the ends cannot justify the means, (8) the means must do their best to preserve life, both of the opponent and innocent civilians, and (9) the means must meet international law.[5] Note that rebellions could fall within the just war premise under certain conditions (namely if the government is leading the people into multiple unjust wars[6] or if the government is attempting to rob the people of all liberty[7]). Suffice it to say that in a rebellion, as in all wars, war ought to be the last resort after all civil and nonviolent means be exhausted in order to be justified.[8]

A rebellion can easily fall under all the parameters for jus ad bellum even in light of the first criterion. A government derives its authority to govern from the will of the people.[9] This is not some deep philosophical thought or an outdated version of the Enlightenment, but merely a practical observation; a government is only effective so long as people choose to follow the government. If the people refuse to pay taxes and the soldiers/police will not listen to the government, then the government has no way of exercising its authority.

Since a government derives its power from the people, should the people decide the government has abdicated its role as a worthy government, they can choose to put a new government in its place. The assembly for the revolution cannot simply be an ad hoc gathering of disgruntled citizens, but officials the populace has placed their trust in (via elections). The elected body becomes the de facto government as the consent to be governed has been given to them, but not the ruling government.

A Just War is not Ideal

While war and revolution may be justified, one must understand that Christians ought to look upon war as less than God’s ideal. The Eastern Christian distinction between ακριβεια (akribeia ­­– God’s ideal) and οἰκονομία (oikonomia ­– what God will allow) help to explain how one can view war as justified (or necessary) while also viewing participation in that war as less than God’s ideal.[10] St. Athanasius states,

“…[I]t is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honours, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible.”[11]

The quote demonstrates that even early Christians recognized that war was sometimes a necessity. Yet, one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Basil the Great, writing hardly a generation after St. Athanasius advised priests to refuse communion for three years to soldiers who had killed in combat as a way for them to repair their relationship with God and their fellow men.[12] The two contrasted sentiments – one that honors the soldiers and the other that recognizes the reality of their conditions – demonstrates that the early Church believed that there was an ultimate ideal for God’s people, but that due to human frailty certain things were permissible and that ideal could not always be realized.

The idea of there being a duality to the war is not limited to the Eastern Christian tradition either, but is found in the Western theory of a just-war. According to the Christian theologian John Howard Yoder, “…[T]he just-war tradition considers war an evil but claims that under specific circumstances it is justifiable as less evil than the execution of some threat which it wards off or the continuation of some system which it changes.”[13] Yoder’s analysis of the just war position – of choosing the lesser evil – has quite a bit of Scriptural support. One can think of Rahab lying to the Canaanites about the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2:5) yet being considered righteous (James 2:25). One can even make the argument that the Mosaic Law was less than ideal and even advocated actions that God was against, but willing to tolerate given the circumstances.[14] War, then, may go against God’s absolute ideal (ακριβεια), but still be permissible due to human frailty (οἰκονμία).

Finally, while war might be justifiable and necessary in certain situations (οἰκονμία), it is less than ideal because it fails to fit within God’s plan for humanity (ακριβεια). Certainly God did not create the world with the desire for men to rage against one another. One of the biggest problems with warfare is that it opens the door for a multitude of sinful actions.[15]  While not every soldier in every war commits atrocious acts, it is true that even in the most just wars, soldiers can sometimes give into their more base tendencies and harm innocent people. Though the consequences do not render just wars unjust, it should be understood that with war, even just wars, the propencity to sin and commit heinous acts drammatically increases.[16] The reason for this is that war goes against human nature. While war might be necessary, forcing humans to go against their nature inherently causes additional problems for some engaged in the act of war.

Even in cases where soldiers perform amicably and in virtue, they still must face the horrible reality of war, which can destroy their souls.[17] The violence that is inherent in warfare contradicts the imago Dei; violence goes against man’s telos. In some ways, warfare could be called a sin against the soul, in that even when a soldier is just and blameless in his actions, his soul is still tarnished by what he sees and does.[18] Thus, just because one holds to the idea of a just war theory, one should never consider war as a good thing, but always as an evil that goes against God’s ultimate desire for man.

Were the Colonial Americans Justified?

With the criteria in mind, one can now look to the American Colonists, specifically the Chrstians, and see if they were justified in their armed rebellion against the British government. It should be noted that the British government cracked down on peacable and nonviolent demonstrations and implicitly allowed their soldiers to kill the colonists on a whim. One can think of the Boston Massacre and how the main British instigators of the action escaped without consequences.[19] Another example is of a British sympathizer firing indiscriminately into a crowd of protestors, killing an eleven-year-old boy and subsequently being pardoned by the king for this act.[20] Such actions merely exacerbated the tensions between the Crown and the Colonists, to the point that these mock-trials for the murders were listed as one of the grievences in the Declaration of Independence.

The British government responded to nonviolent colonial protests with violence and even forced the Colonists into wars and to kill each other. As another grievance in the Declaration states, “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.” It must be understood that most of the fighting done in the year prior to 1776 was instigated by the British. By doing this, King George III implied ownership over the Colonists’ liberty, which then opened the case for a just war against the Crown.

The reality of the pre-revolution Colonies is that the British Empire had simply abdicated itself as a legitimate authority over the Colonies. At one point the Crown simply refused to even read the petitions from the Colonies.[21] If the people give consent to the government to rule then by necessity the government must listen to the people, as they are essentially the “rulers of the authorities.” Rather, the Crown and Parliament continued to pass authoritarian laws without considering how such laws might negatively impact the Colonists.[22]

It should be noted as well that the Declaration of Independence did not arise out of some long-held desire by the masses to be free from Great Britain. Rather, many Colonists were content to remain under British sovereignty, so long as the Crown (and more importantly, Parliament) addressed their concerns; it was the deafening silence of the British government that left the Colonists feeling they had no choice but to separate.[23] In fact, as Mary Otis Warren wrote,

“Independence was a plant of a later growth. Though the soil might be congenial, and the boundaries of nature pointed out the event, yet every one chose to view it at a distance, rather than wished to witness the convulsions that such a dismemberment of the empire must necessarily occasion.”[24]

The evidence seems to indicate that while hostilities began between the Colonists and the British Empire in 1775, it took a full year before the Colonists finally decided to enable a new government. The will of the people rejected the British government and gave their consent to their elected officials; at that point the British government, by practicality, lost all right to govern the American Colonies. It was not disorganized chaos or a rogue group of individuals attempting to overthrow the government without having a governing body already in place to whom they had given consent to govern; rather, the Colonists sought peace and when peace could not be found, did the only logical thing they could, which was to absolve themselves from the Crown.

Considering that the Colonists faced violence and arbitrary decrees from their government, coupled with tyrannical declarations and the refusal of the Crown to listen to the Colonial protests, the Colonists were subsequently left with no other choice but to rebel. They did not, however, simply take to the streets in anarchy, but instead formed another government, giving consent to a primitive governing body and therefore removing their consent from the British Empire. The Colonists, including the Christians, were justified in engaging in armed rebellion against the British government.

Pacifism Considered

Christian pacifists can argue from both a consequentialist view and an idealistic view; they can point to the potential consequences of warfare to reject war or they can point that, in its very nature, war is an evil that Christians cannot partake in. Howard Zinn makes the consequentialist argument (albeit secular) that the inherent problem with warfare is that war is “…[T]he indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain.”[25] The Christian, by engaging in warfare, may be fighting for what is believed to be a worthy goal, but must kill humans to achieve it, thus negating war as a worthy means to achieve a desirable end.

Wilhelm Wille points more to the ideal of pacifism and how even the best forms of the just war theory result in horrible results. This is not due to poor execution, but instead to the fact that Christians are not to engage in warfare.[26] Extrapolating on his idea, one could argue that since God’s ideal is for men not to fight that Christians are therefore called to uphold God’s ideal. This would explain why a true “just war” has never occurred, that one is impossible because war is more than violating God’s ideal, but is actually a sin.

Armed rebellion is therefore out of the question and the Founders are left without justification for their actions. By violating the telos of humanity, the Founders subsequently sinned by engaging in war. Under the pacifist view, therefore, Christians (and humans in general) are left without cause for war because (1) war uses human lives as means to an end and (2) war is simply wrong in its own right as it violates man’s telos.

Pacifism Rejected

In response to the objections, it must first be noted that just because war is less than God’s ideal for humanity, it is non sequitur to assume that this means war is sinful. As already explained, within the Christian tradition there is a view of God’s ideal and what God will allow (ακριβεια and οἰκονομία). One can think of God commanding the Hebrews to engage in war against the Canaanites both as a way for the Hebrews to take the Promised Land and for the Canaanites to be punished for their sins. Even the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom states that God desires the Canaanites to repent, yet allowed them to be killed because of their refusal to repent (Wisdom 12:1-22). In finding one selection where God displays His ideal, but then allows another action, one can see that God will allow actions that are less than ideal to occur, but these actions are not necessarily sinful.

On the issue pacifism as an ideal, the believer is left with the fact that sometimes nonintervention or pacifism allows evil to occur, which is the antithesis of “loving thy neighbor.”[27] It’s difficult to claim that a man loves his neighbor while allowing a brutal dictator to murder his neighbor. Even early Christian nations did not allow such atrocities.[28] The Christian Colonists saw that sometimes one must bloody a tyrant in order to love a neighbor.

The biggest problem for those who believe in pacifism as an ideal, however, is that God simply does not change. As noted, God allowed the Hebrews to war against the Canaanites (not only allowed, but ordered). It is not as though God would determine one day to change and forbid war. Rather, one should recognize that sometimes God allows war to occur because the war, while horrible in itself, will prevent a greater evil from occurring.[29]

The rejection of pacifism, however, is not a praise of war; God’s allowance of war (and sometimes ordering of war) does not mean that war fits within God’s ideal. In warfare, especially an armed revolution, the goal should be to bring a quick end to hostilities and achieve a stable society; this is best accomplished through nonviolent means.[30] However, as previously noted by LeMasters, nonviolent means are not always possible, thus even Christians must at times be prepared to take up arms in order to secure freedom and to display love towards one’s neighbor.


Ultimately, the Colonists (and Christians) were justified in rebelling against the British Crown. The government had shown that it was willing to rob the liberty of the colonists, which then opened the door for the colonials to wage war to preserve their lives. While the war (and all wars) was less than God’s ideal, it was a lesser evil than allowing tyranny to persist. Thus, while participation in the Revolution was unfortunate, it was necessary and justified.


American Friends Service Committee. In Place of War: An Inquiry Into Nonviolent National Defense. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1967.

Athanasius. “Letter XLVIII: Letter to Amun,” in Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Volume 4 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Kindle edition.

Coates, A.J. The Ethics of War. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.

Glover, Jonathan. Causing Death and Saving Lives: The Moral Problems of Abortion, Infanticide, Suicide, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment, War, and Other Life-or-Death Choices. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Heft, James. “Religion, World Order, and Peace: Christianity, War, and Peacemaking.” Cross Currents 60 (September 2010): 328-331.

Holmes, Authurt F. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Contours of Christian Philosophy. Series Edited by C. Stephen Evans. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

Lefkowitz, David. “Debate: Legitimate Authority, Following Orders, and Wars of Questionable Justice.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (2010): 218-227.

Leithart, Peter J. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

LeMasters, Philip. “Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,” Ecumenical Review 63 (March 2011): 54-61.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Edited C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980.

O’Callaghan, Father Paul. “Peace and War in the Eastern Orthodox Church,” Messenger 14 November 2003.

Schaeffer, Francis. A Christian Manifesto. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1982.

Seely, Robert A. Choosing Peace: A Handbook on War, Peace, and Your Conscience. Philadelphia and San Francisco: Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, 1994.

Warren, Mercy Otis. The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Volume 1. Edited Lester Cohen. Indianapolis: Liberty Funds, 1994.

Wille, Wilhelm. “Ambivalence in the Christian Attitude to War and Peace.” International Review of Psychiatry 19 (June 2007): 235-242.

Yoder, John Howard. When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.

Zinn, Howard. “The Untold Truths About the American Revolution.” The Progressive (July 2009). http://www.progressive.org/zinn070309.html (accessed March 28, 2012).

[1] The issue of Romans 14 and other passages dealing with submission to governmental authorities will be overlooked. The reasons for this are two-fold: (1) all exegesis is impacted by one’s philosophical disposition. Thus, if one’s philosophy is incorrect then one’s exegesis will invariably be incorrect, so it makes little sense to approach a passage exegetically if the disagreement is essentially concerning philosophy. (2) Almost all Christians believe submission to the government to be limited in some scope; no Christian would argue that one should deny Christ should the government demand it. Thus, the debate isn’t over whether or not Christians should disobey the government, rather the debate is over how much a Christian can disobey the government. For a good treatment on the criteria for disobeying one’s government, see Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton; Crossway Books, 1982), 89­–130

[2] There are Christians who would state that even these “exceptions” are quite contentious and not even exceptions. Without dealing with these issues too much, one could argue that such hardline positions are simply embracing too much of a Deontological approach to Christian ethics. One could argue that Christian ethics are not meant to necessarily be “rules based,” but are more a matter of disposition (via Thomistic Virtue Theory). See Authur F. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, Contours of Christian Philosophy, edited by C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 115–123.

[3] James Heft, “Religion, World Order, and Peace: Christianity, War, and Peacemaking,” Cross Currents 60 (September 2010); 330.

[4] Certainly there are egregious injustices that require an armed response irrespective of the outcome. The point behind the probability of the outcome is that in most cases, one should not engage in warfare unless victory is probable.

[5] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 18.

[6] David Lefkowitz, “Debate: Legitimate Authority, Following Orders, and Wars of Questionable Justice,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (2010); 218-227. The argument is simply that a government that willingly gives up its citizens’ lives in order to wage wars is one that has essentially robbed its citizens of their liberty.

[7] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), 14-15.

[8] A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 189.

[9] Locke, 52–65. Of special note is the opening of this section, which reads, “Men being…by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of his estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent” (52). Thus, governments only exist because individuals allow them to exist.

[10] Fr. Paul O’Callaghan, “Peace and War in the Eastern Orthodox Church,” Messenger 14 (November 2003); 5. It should be noted that in the Eastern Christian tradition, participation in war is typically looked upon as being a sin. However, there is evidence to suggest that few priests or bishops act as if killing in war is a sin (see Philip LeMasters, “Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,” Ecumenical Review 63 (March 2011); 55).

[11] St. Athanasius, “Letter XLVIII: Letter to Amun,” in Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, vol. 4 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), Kindle edition.

[12] LeMasters, “Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,” 55

[13] Yoder, When War is Unjust, 17.

[14] For a great defense of this position, see Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).

[15] LeMasters, “Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence,” 56.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Robert A. Seely, Choosing Peace: A Handbook on War, Peace, and Your Conscience (Philadelphia and San Francisco: Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, 1994), 63

[18] This is not to say that warfare itself is a sin; it is merely hyperbolic language to demonstrate that violence is tragic.

[19] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, vol. II, Oxford History of the United States, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 202.

[20] Ibid., 202

[21] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, ed. Lester Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994), 39.

[22] Ibid., 153

[23] Ibid., 20­–23

[24] Ibid., 32

[25] Howard Zinn, “Untold Truths About the American Revolution,” The Progressive. July 2009. http://www.progressive.org/zinn070309.html (accessed March 28, 2012).

[26] Wilhelm Wille, “Ambivalence in the Christian Attitude to War and Peace,” International Review of Psychiatry, 19 (June 2007); 237.

[27] Jonathan Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives: The Moral Problems of Abortion, Infanticide, Suicide, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment, War, and Other Life-or-Death Choices (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 260.

[28] For a litany of evidence detailing early Christians in warfare, see Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010).

[29] LeMasters, 61.

[30] American Friends Service Committee, In Place of War: An Inquiry Into Nonviolent National Defense. (New York; Grossman Publishers, 1967), 25.

3 thoughts on “Just War and the Declaration of Independence

    1. I’ll look into Wesley, but I think the best he could offer is perspective on the colonial protests. Beyond that, his opinion would be one among many.

      As for the second part, what you’re arguing is a logical fallacy. While it may be true that pacifism is obedience to Christ, that is what is being contended. Thus, you can’t take the conclusion and use it as a premise. You can’t say, “Well the other pacifist argument is that we’re being obedient to Christ.” That ends the debate right there and stops all further discussion. What is being debated is whether or not pacifism is obedience to Christ; I would make the argument that it is not.

Comments are closed.