True Christians have always described themselves as " conscientious objectors" to military service. And so we always should be. Indeed, so we must be. But perhaps we need to think more deeply about what exactly we mean by this phrase. Following is the essence of a conversation with an intelligent and reflective Conscription Officer, which hopefully will provide food for thought:
C.O.: So, you want exemption for this man because you say he has a conscientious objection to military service? So, his conscience would be guilty if he served, and as a member of your church he wants to be in a situation where his conscience would not be infringed, yes?
D.H.: Yes, more or less, that's our case.
C.O.: So are you saying that when this man joined your church he got this conscience which forbad him to serve in the army?
D.H. [And I had to be careful here]: Not quite. We get our conscience from an individual study of the Bible, not from belonging to our group.
C.O.: So if conscience is an individual thing, which surely it is, then how can you say that your whole church has the same conscience? Is conscience really a personal thing, or imposed on people by your church?
D.H.['Good point', I felt like saying]: Conscience is a personal thing, and no, we don't impose a conscience on those who are baptized, but if God's word is believed by us, then on some basic issues our conscience will all be formed in the same way.
C.O.: But a conscience, if you really have one, also tells you to do something, e.g. some men feel their conscience compels them to fight; but it seems your emphasis is on what your conscience won't let you do. But that's very convenient for you; many young men would say that their conscience won't let them go into the army. But the proof of a conscience is surely that it tells you to do something positively.
D.H. ['Another good point', I felt like saying]: You're right, and I'm sorry that our emphasis has been on what our conscience isn't free to do. I'm sure that ***** really is compelled by his understanding of God's word to do good works, and I'd like to think that this positive way of life is what he finds incompatible with army service. I also believe that true Christians live by their conscience in whatever situation they are in, both men and women; for example, recently one of our sisters resigned from her job in a printing office because they were printing literature which she felt was wrong. She's a very positive person; someone who goes around trying to show the Truth of Christ just isn't involved in printing material which is against His way. So I can truthfully say that it's not only male Christian believers who start raising issues of conscience.
I don't feel I did too well in this discussion. Some of my emphasis was misplaced; conscience isn't a 'bought position', nor should we put all the emphasis on our inability to do certain things lest we get a guilty conscience. Of course, we must hold on to a good conscience; but I really feel we would be wrong to give the impression that we spend our lives running away from the possibility of a guilty conscience, driven on along the road of some endless possible-guilt trip. This isn't what the followers of the One who died to set men free ought to be like.
The possession of a good, cleansed conscience will mean that we will positively act in such a way that to bear arms will be an impossibility for us. We will be compelled to live the spiritual life by the sheer excellency of the knowledge and experience of God's grace, by the certainty of our Hope in His Kingdom, by our realization that we are on the way of God, and no other way can be travelled at the same time. We know we have passed out of darkness into His marvellous light, we are already citizens of His Kingdom, not that of this world (Col. 1:13). We have each, with unveiled face, beheld God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ. And so a light will shine from us, as it did from Moses, so that men will sense that there is something special about us, not only something different, but some small reflection of the Man to whom we have committed all.
There was something about Peter and his fellow fishermen which made even the most unsympathetic make a mental note (" took knowledge" ) that they had been with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 4:13). This was the fulfilment of Jn. 13:35, which using the same root word, teaches that the (Jewish) world would " know" the twelve as the Lord's men if they reflected His love. So there must have been something in the love that somehow shone between those men as they stood there before that court, which in a manner impossible to describe, revealed them as Christ's. This same, difficult-to-describe sense will exude from every one who is the Lord's, in whatever context we are in: factory, office, unbelieving family, prison, tribunal. The greatest tragedy is for the close associates of a Christian to have no such sense; to be surprised to be told by a third party that the man they work with is religious. To keep the candle-light under a bucket is in fact to have no light; for a candle goes out under a bucket. To be a secret candle in a dark world just isn't possible.
So, bearing arms is not for us; not only because we fear being in a situation where we might pick up some twinges of guilt by what we're doing, but because more positively we are compelled to live a life which of itself precludes aggression. Without wishing to de-emphasize the terrible traumas being experienced by those presently facing conscription, we are all marked men and women; we each must stand up and be counted in the small things of life, day by day. In this sense we are brothers-in-arms with our young brethren who face tribunals. We are all lights in a dark world, and none of us, if we are in the light, can be hid. None of us can be passive. It's not that we need look for opportunities to show our light; the very fact we are of God's Kingdom, not that of this world, will provide opportunity enough in itself to show this forth. The spirit of Christ within us, our experience of the matchless and surpassing love of the Lord Jesus Christ, will constrain us, compel us, to show forth the life and being of none less than the peerless Son of God.
" The walk and conduct of Jesus we regard as the rule for all true believers. if these desire to know what they should do in certain trying situations, let them seek to realize what He would do if so placed, and the answer found according to the word is the course for them to pursue without regard to consequences. Such a course as this, though, is condemned in toto by the flesh: but what of that? Our advice to the brethren is, Be not enrolled...fear not their threats. They can only go so far in their violence as God permits, who will doubtless overrule the times for the good of His people, and His own glory"
John Thomas, 1861, writing in the context of conscientious objection to military service in the American Civil War