Can Christians Serve in the Military?
Christians are called to many different ways of life and methods of ministry. The modern military is one place where Christians serve their community. Some serve their state by joining the National Guard, while others serve their national community by going active duty or becoming a reservist. But it is important to understand what is being referred to. The question as it exists, “Can a Christian serve in the military” is very vague and there can be a lot of misunderstanding at this level of abstraction from reality.
For example, many Christians will recognize that “Christian” is rather nondescript and generic. The word may describe many people and groups between whom there is actually vast diversity (and even animosity at times). There are innumerable denominations even just within the United States of America, and there are even micro denominations that do not adhere to classical forms of polity that we associate with the word “denomination.” So the problem with this question is a lack of specificity.
Like “Christian,” “military” is a very broad term that cries out for specificity. Just in the United States alone, there are either four or five different branches, depending how you break it down (sometimes the Coast Guard is excluded, other times the Marines are folded into the Navy). According to the Department of Defense, the armed forces of our nation consist of;
- Air Force
- Coast Guard
Then you also have each branch’s reserve component (ten groups), and the Army and Air Force both have state-based National Guard units (twelve groups). Civilians do not always fully appreciate how protective service members are of the boundaries between these entities, but it is important for an abstract kind of conversation like this to respect the internal distinctions in place.
Not only does “the military” actually consist of ten distinct entities, different members of these ten groups perform very different duties. Although enlisted members of each will go through a branch-specific “basic training” (officers have their own, often less strenuous “officer’s basic”), from graduation onward there is no guarantee they will even handle a firearm. There are hundreds of different jobs they will perform, what many branches call a “Military Occupational Specialty” or MOS for short. Even in terms of an MOS, there are strict boundaries in place that makes each job unique, both socially and morally.
The moral equation is not the same for cooks as it is for infantry soldiers, and it is rarely helpful to think in such generic terms when facing such a profoundly moral concern.
Obviously, social norms are different if one is a light infantry soldier than if they were a cook or a radiology technician. In an Army infantry unit, for example, weapons training is common, as are “combatives,” an exercise similar to wrestling intended to familiarize soldiers with hand to hand combat. After all, their primary responsibility is to give the other guy a chance to “die for his country.” Every infantry soldier has secondary duties too, like manning a radio or maintaining a vehicle. But their primary duty has a kind of moral density that is unique to combat arms MOS fields like Cavalry, Artillery, Armor, and Special Operations. Their physical proximity to killing on the battlefield is very high, there is a lot of risk of committing necessary evil in the exercise of their primary duties.
Compare that to the primary or secondary duties of a cook or an aircraft mechanic. A cook many never touch a weapon again their entire term of service after they complete basic training. It’s important that they know how to use a firearm, but the likelihood of doing so is very low. The major difference between them and a civilian cook is, well… a uniform. Aircraft mechanics are somewhere between a cook and an infantry soldier. Their primary duties are to maintain the mechanical health of their aircraft, though they often man the weapons attached to the windows. The moral density of their occupation is higher than a cook, but lower than an infantry soldier. This distinction is important to Christians, who are called to love their enemy and bless those who curse them.
The question therefore must be more specific to make any meaningful moral sense. Whether a Christian can serve is dependent upon what each occupation expects of them. The moral equation is not the same for cooks as it is for infantry soldiers, and it is rarely helpful to think in such generic terms when facing such a profoundly moral concern. At the heart of it is the question of killing, of whether it is loving to kill an enemy. That is a question for another time, which we intend to tackle with due diligence. But for the time being, we need to ask more specific questions.