Yesterday, I received a comment from a friend on my “What About ‘Old’ Testament Violence?” post. He wrote, “I would … like to know what your take is on the passage in Acts 10 on Cornelius, and the apparent conflict with his profession as a legionnaire and his role as a servant of God.”
This young friend of mine has undertaken a military career, and he is not the only such friend I have. So before I begin my response, I want to make the following message abundantly clear to him and to the other soldiers I know:
I do understand the direction your life has taken, and whatever disagreement I might have with the idea of Christian military service, I have nothing but the most profound love and respect for you. And insofar as you mean your choice of a military career to be a good thing, a righteous service to God and to people, I also have real appreciation for that.
Now to the Cornelius question—
I understand that some have pointed to the fact that, when Cornelius becomes a believer in Jesus under the ministry of Peter, the apostle does not say anything about his career as a soldier. The implication seems to be that there is nothing wrong with that career, or else Peter would have said so. This, I think, is something of an argument from silence. And it seems to be one that is only slightly better than the one that might be made from the opposite direction—namely, that Peter did not tell him to remain a soldier, therefore he shouldn’t. The fact is that the Scriptures do not tell us what kind of instruction in the Lord the centurion received in the days or weeks following his initial conversion, let alone what happened in the rest of his life.
It is no small or insignificant detail that it was a centurion of a well-known Roman battalion who goes down in the record of Holy Scripture as the person in whose life the gospel breaks forth into the Gentile world. And it seems to me that this is the question that the text is trying to get us to ask: Why is it this kind of man whom the sovereign Lord chooses as the beginning of the kingdom among the Gentiles? I do not have a ready answer at this point; but I would think a good starting place might be to get a view of the over all biblical theme of Gentile military men who interact with God’s people. Naaman is a classic example (II Kgs. 5:1-14). But even more helpful will be the other centurion in Lukan literature, the one who says he is unworthy for Jesus to enter in under his roof (Lk. 7:1-10).
For the moment then, let us say that Cornelius’ occupation is an important part of the story, but on the surface of the text, it is meant neither to legitimize nor to delegitimize Christian participation in military or war.
Again, the question that is often asked is something to the effect of, “if Christians should not serve in the military or participate in war, then why doesn’t that come out more clearly in this text?” If I were to point to any passage of Scripture and ask that question, I think it would be Luke 3:14, where some soldiers specifically ask John the Baptist what they should do. The query of these soldiers comes in the context of seeking baptism and making the appropriate life changes. In other words, theirs is an express request for ethical teaching from God’s prophet in connection with their line of work.
Here is a perfect opportunity for John to say, “Leave your soldiering behind, and get ready to follow the Messiah in the ways of peace.” But he does not say it. Instead, he merely says, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
It would seem, though, that this undercuts the very reason that these men would have chosen such a profession in the first place. In other words, their response to John’s instruction would have to be, “Well, why bother being a soldier at all?”
The parallel of the tax collectors makes this even more clear. When John tells them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to,” he is taking away the only motivation they have for being tax-collectors in the first place. The only reason it would be worth the social ignominy of collecting money from one’s fellow Jews and handing it over to the Romans is that one could make a significant profit from the practice of unrecorded mark-ups.
The Mormons, at least in times past, have pointed to the fact that many biblical heroes had multiple wives; then they point out that, if this is sinful—or even a bad idea—the Bible never says anything to correct it. In fact, the Torah gives tacit approval of polygamy when it forbids a man to favor one of his wives over another. But they miss the forest for the trees. The question is: How do you narratively condemn something like polygamy? And the answer the Scriptures provide is: You tell plenty of stories about people who practice it and show how it is a disaster every time.
Similarly, Christians in the American Antebellum South sought to justify the practice of slave-holding by pointing out that the Bible never says anything like, “thou shall not own slaves.” In fact, they would say, the Bible gives tacit approval to slave-holding by giving instructions to masters which tell them how to treat their slaves.
This seems ridiculous to us now. From our much more culturally advanced position here in the 21st century ( 😉 ), the idea of owning other human beings as slaves is utterly reprehensible. It seems obvious to us that slavery fails to recognize and uphold the dignity of the imago dei in every human being. And as Christians who live at this time and place, we sometimes find ourselves needing to explain to the world around us that, upon close inspection, the Bible does not approve of slavery but teaches against it. Slavery is, indeed, a terrible thing.
But rather than spell this out in detail, the apostles, far more cleverly, dismantle any possibility for slavery to survive in the kingdom of God. The Messiah has brought about a new community, a new society in which both the slave and his master are brothers and equals before Him who is the Lord of them both. Slavery among the people of God dies the death of laughable meaninglessness, rather than the much clearer but less powerful disallowance of prohibitive legislation.
A slow and simple reading of Paul’s letter to Philemon is sufficient to show this. Paul does not order Philemon to set Onesimus free; indeed, he appeals to him for love’s sake (v.9). Yet in describing the bond that Philemon has in Christ with Paul, Onesimus and other believers, the apostle leaves absolutely no room for anything less than a relationship of complete freedom and equality between the “master” and the “slave.”
Military service, I would argue, is like the ideas of polygamy or slavery. Following the way of Jesus and living out the kingdom of God is going to make it impossible for us to practice polygamy, or to own slaves, or to take up arms in the name of any earthly state.
Coming back to the question of why military men play such a major role in the story of God’s kingdom moving out into the Gentile world, let me offer a possible picture of what’s going on.
If we boil down all of the negative messages of the prophets, we find one major thrust in YHWH’s judgment toward His people, Israel/Judah, and a very different major thrust in His judgment toward the goyyim (nations/Gentiles). The central crime of Israel/Judah is breach of covenant. The central crime of the Gentile nations is violence. And yet the prophets are very clear in showing that YHWH’s great plan is to bring salvation to the world, making a faithful people for Himself, under a new covenant. If not so clear in the prophetic writings, the NT apostolic teaching is crystal clear in its teaching that this faithful people will be made of Jews and Gentiles woven into one new man as YHWH’s Messiah makes peace between them by laying down His own life in the face of violence. The new covenant is ratified in the Messiah’s own blood. (See Ephesians 2:11-22 for this beautiful truth.)
We people of earth have, from the very beginning, always assumed that it was the halls of power as we can see them with our mere eyes and conceive of them with our mere minds that really matter. To this day, we get so worked up and assume that it is kings and parliaments and presidents and senates and congresses and armies and navies that really lead the world wherever it goes. And so both Christians and non-Christians live under the assumption that it is vitally important that “we” (whoever that is) work very hard to see that “we” have the “right” leaders guiding these structures of power so that the world will go in the direction that we believe it should go. Meanwhile, the kingdom of God is being lived out among those who do not pin their hopes to these halls of power.
Our line of thinking, then, should be this: What is God doing by starting His kingdom’s movement into the Gentile world with a Roman military commander? Is He showing that He too believes that the way ya get things done in the world is through the world’s channels of power? Is His choosing of Cornelius a strategic evangelistic move? Or is He possibly showing that even the mighty Roman Empire, with its armies and banners is His to invade with His gospel of peace?
If anyone is interested in my take on Acts 10:1-11:18 as a whole—and if you’ve got time to kill, you can find an audio-file of a sermon I preached on that section a few months ago. It’s on our church website. Just click on “More Sermon Audio files” and scroll down through the dates to May 23rd.