It’s one of the shortest of the Ten Commandments. It seems clear.
Desmond Doss said he got his conviction against killing because of a framed picture of the Ten Commandments that hung on a wall in his childhood home, with the sixth commandment illustrated by Cain and Abel, with a club in Cain’s hand over Abel’s lifeless body.
But today many people go to lengths to argue that the commandment doesn’t mean what it says. “Oh,” say some with a voice of authority, “the actual Hebrew word means ‘murder,’ it doesn’t mean other kinds of killing”–and this is most often said to justify killing in combat, or the death penalty, or killing an intruder in your home in self-defense.
Those following this interpretation then go on to argue that Jesus obviously couldn’t have meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. “If Jesus really meant that, then what about all those battles by Israel in the Old Testament? What about David and Goliath?” And so killing is excused by Christians, and even lauded as heroic, and those Christians who refuse to bear arms are seen as fanatics, or extremists, or, at best, naive (unless, of course, they receive the Medal of Honor).
What does the Hebrew word mean? Does it mean “murder,” in contrast to other forms of permitted killing of human beings? That’s the subject of a monograph by Wilma Ann Bailey, Minnie Vautrin Professor Emerita of Christian Witness and of Hebrew Bible and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible are from Vanderbilt University. Her book: “You Shall Not Kill” or “You Shall Not Murder”? The Assault On A Biblical Text (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005).
She summarizes her argument:
… the English word ‘murder’ is too limited and too varied a legal term to function adequately as the translation for the Hebrew word rtsḥ, that the use of rtsḥ in the biblical texts indicates that the word is meant to be translated more broadly, that the verbal form of rtsḥ often appears in a list or an ambiguous phrase that makes it impossible to determine a precise meaning, and that murder is too rare a crime to merit Ten Commandment status (p. 2).
For the popular distinction between “murder” and “killing” to work in the commandment, rtsḥ must always mean “murder” and must never speak more broadly or to other types of killing.
Bailey starts by looking (pp. 7-9) at lists where the meaning is ambiguous (Jeremiah 7:9-10, Hosea 4:2, Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17).
She then turns to the passages about the cities of refuge, which protected “only killers who were not murderers” (p. 11).
In the cities-of-refuge texts the noun rotseaḥ, “killer,” is used many times to describe a hypothetical person who kills accidentally. … In Numbers 35 the same word, rotseaḥ, is used to describe both a person who intentionally kills another and one who does so unintentionally. This word clearly has a broader semantic range than “murderer,” as most scholars admit (pp. 11-12)
In Numbers 35:29-30, rtsḥ is used to refer to a court ordered execution (p. 12).
In Proverbs 22:13, rtsḥ is used to refer to a lion killing. Can a lion be guilty of “murder”? (pp. 12-13)
Sometimes rtsḥ does mean murder (pp. 15ff). But even in some of the listed passages there are ambiguities.
So here is her concluding summary:
The definition of … (rotseaḥ) as a noun/participle has always allowed for a variety of translations. No one has disputed hat. However the word … (rtsḥ), the verbal form of the same word, is being translated “murder,” as is evident from a perusal of he late-twentieth-century Bible translations, nearly every time it appears in the Bible. A summary of the usages of the word … (rtsḥ) follows:
Ambiguous: four occurrences; appears in lists (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17; Jer 7:9; Hos 4:2)
Action of an animal: one occurrence: Prov 22:13
Court action: One occurrence: Num 35:29-30
Legal action by a … (go’el): one occurrence: Num 35:26-28
Unintentional killing: one occurrence: Deut 4:41-42
Charge made against a person who did no plan or commit a killing but benefited afterward: one occurrence: 1 Kings 21:19
Unclear: one occurrence: Ps 62:4
Murder: three occurrences: Hos 6:9 (as part of a phrase), Ps 94:6 (perhaps), Deut 22:26
… Because the semantic range of the word is broader than the English word murder, the weight of the evidence is clearly agains automatically translating … (rtsḥ) as murder in ambiguous verses in lists such as Exod 20:13 and Deut 5:17. (pp. 19-20)
Bailey goes on to discuss the nature of the Ten Commandments. They are broad categories. “Stealing” isn’t limited to certain kinds. “Adultery” doesn’t allow of exceptions. It isn’t the rare, exceptional act that’s prohibited, it is the encompassing one. It is the genus, not the species. “It is also behavior that is controllable” (pp. 23-24).
Let’s apply this to the Seventh-day Adventist context. Here, too, I’ve heard some use the argument that rtsḥ means “murder” and only “murder” as a way to legitimize killing in combat. They suppose early Adventists to be naive to think that the sixth commandment might prohibit killing in war.
In fact, Adventists did not base their argument entirely on the sixth commandment–though their broader understanding of Scripture led them to see it as a summary of Christian teaching. This from a WW2 era tract, Seventh-day Adventists and Civil Government, published by the National Service Organization under Clark Smith:
In harmony with their profession as followers of the Prince of Peace, can Seventh-day Adventists engage in the destruction of their fellow men? This is a question which has confronted the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church from its early history. From their study of the life and example of Christ and the teachings of the gospel, they have from the time of their organization been noncombatants. Their understanding of the gospel principle of noncombatancy may be set forth briefly as follows:
- Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Said Christ to Pilate, “If My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight.” John 18:36.
- We are commanded to love even our enemies. Declares the Saviour: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Mat. 5:44.
- “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Luke 9:56. We are to carry forward the work of the Master, and we are told: “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” Rom. 8:9.
- The Master taught further: “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matt. 5:29.
- When Peter was about to defend his Lord with the sword, Christ said to him, “Put up again thy sword in his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Matt. 26:52.
- The apostle Peter presents this picture of the character of Christ, our great Example: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, hat ye should follow His steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously.” 1 Peter 2:21-22.
This summary goes back to an article by George W. Amadon in the Review and Herald of March 7, 1865 (quoted in F. M. Wilcox, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War, pp. 37ff):
WHY SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS CANNOT ENGAGE IN WAR
- They could not keep the Lord’s holy Sabbath. “The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” Ex 20:10. Fighting, as military men tell us, is the hardest kind of work; and the seventh day of all days would be the least regarded in the camp and field.
- The sixth command of God’s moral law reads, “Thou shalt not kill.” To kill is to take life. The soldier by profession is a practical violator of this precept. But if we would enter into life, we must “keep the commandments.” Matt. 19:17.
- “God hath called us to peace;” and “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal.” 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 10:4. The gospel permits us to use no weapons but “the sword of the Spirit.”
- Our kingdom is not of this world. Said Christ to Pilate, “If My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight.” John 18 :36. This is most indisputable evidence that Christians have nothing to do with carnal instruments of war.
- We are commanded to love even our enemies. “But I say unto you,” says the Saviour, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” Matt. 5:44. Do we fulfill this command when we blow out their brains with revolvers, or sever their bodies with sabers? “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” Rom. 8:9.
- Our work is the same as our Master’s, who once said, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Luke 9:56. If God’s Spirit sends us to save men, does not some other spirit send us to destroy them? Let us know what manner of spirit we are of.
- The New Testament command is, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matt. 5 :39. That is, we had better turn the other cheek than to smite them back again. Could this scripture be obeyed on the battlefield?
- Christ said to Peter, as he struck the high priest’s servant, “Put up again thy sword.” Matt. 26:52. If the Saviour commanded the apostle to “put up” the sword, certainly His followers have no right to take it. Then let those who are of the world fight, but as for us, let us pray.
There have always been Adventists who have chosen to fight. The church has ministered to them, while encouraging its members to adopt a noncombatant position, and to serve in positions that would save life.
In 1934, the General Conference Committee offered this instruction (quoted in Seventh-day Adventists and Civil Government, pp. 11-12):
The Noncombatants.–While recognizing that warfare is unavoidable in maintaining civil government in a world of sin, noncombatants conscientiously object to taking human life. They believe that in this way they can render a greater service to their fellow men and be a greater influence for the cause of righteousness than by taking combatant part in the destruction of human life. They do not, however, condemn those who take part in war. On the other hand, noncombatants are willing to aid their government in every consistent way in time of warfare, except by taking human life. They will help to feed and clothe the Army; assist in caring for the sick and wounded; help to bury the dead; aid in the transportation of men, food, clothing, etc. They will build the camps; go into the fields, mines, and factories, at the direction of the government. They will help to fortify positions and otherwise protect human life. They will carry the wounded back from the front. The noncombatant is not a coward: he simply and conscientiously and courageously objects to taking human life, so far as his participation is concerned.
“Seventh-day Adventists of the United Sates are registered with our Government as noncombatants. They are always ready to serve without reservation, except bearing arms in combat and doing unnecessary work on the Sabbath day. As a mater of duty and loyalty to human government which is ordained of God, they stand loyally and patriotically with their Government.”
In thus declaring the teaching of the church, this action made it plain that the member’s own conviction must be the ultimate factor in this matter of conscience. The action further states:
“The church does not attempt to dictate to its members individually, but each person must stand upon his own conscientious convictions.”
The 1954 General Conference issued a new statement, which was tweaked at that year’s Annual Council:
Genuine Christianity manifests itself in good citizenship and loyalty to civil government. The breaking out of war among men in no way alters the Christian’s supreme allegiance and responsibility to God or modifies his obligation to practice his beliefs and put God first.
This partnership with God through Jesus Christ, who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives but to save them, causes Seventh-day Adventists to take a noncombatant position, following their Divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it. In their accepting the obligation of citizenship, as well as its benefits, their loyalty to government requires them to serve the state in any noncombatant capacity, civil or military, in war or peace, in uniform or out of it, which will contribute to saving life, asking only that they may serve in those capacities which do not violate their conscientious convictions.
In 1972, Annual Council again revised it, adding a conscience clause like that which had appeared in the 1934 statement. I’ve underlined the changes.
Genuine Christianity manifests itself in good citizenship and loyalty to civil government. The breaking out of war among men, however, in no way alters the Christian’s supreme allegiance and responsibility to God or modifies his obligation to practice his beliefs and put God first.
This partnership with God through Jesus Christ who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them, causes Seventh-day Adventists to advocate a noncombatant position, following their divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it. As they accept the obligation of citizenship as well as its benefits, their loyalty to government requires them willingly to serve the state in any noncombatant capacity, civil or military, in war or peace, in uniform or out of it, which will contribute to saving life, asking only that they may serve in those capacities which do not violate their conscientious convictions.
This statement is not a rigid position binding church members but gives guidance leaving the individual member free to assess the situation for himself.
This remains the official position of the Church.
The North American Division Committee on Administration, in a separate action during that 1972 Annual Council, added the following:
NOTE: The following clarification of issues does not appear in the general statement which is designed for world use, but is intended to only serve the unique problems found in the United States.)
“1. For members in the United States, the counsel of the church is that the above action is best reflected at present by the 1-A-O classification (military service as a noncombatant) under Selective Service System regulations, and
“2. A member in the United States making his personal decision on how to fulfill his obligated term of service to the country shall first consider the historic teaching or the church on noncombatancy which could lead him to choose the 1-A-O classification. If because of personal convictions he chooses to seek other than a 1-A-O classification his pastor, teacher, or other church worker should aid him in satisfying the legal requirements for securing the classification of his choice and should minister to his spiritual needs as follows:
“a. For those choosing the 1-O classification (civilian alternative service in lieu of military service), pastoral guidance and counsel should be provided when it is established that such a request is based on a consistent religious experience. Pastors, teachers, or other workers should provide statements of their personal knowledge of the man’s position on the following: (1) church membership, (2) attendance and participation in services of the church, (3) personal standards of conduct, (4) previous expressions of belief supporting his request for the I-0 classification. Those providing such statements should request the draft board to respect and honor the man’s personal convictions. Such statements will be placed in the registrant’s hand to be used at his discretion.
“b. For those who conscientiously choose the 1-A classification (military service as a combatant), pastoral guidance and counsel should be provided in ministering to their needs since the Church refrains from passing judgment on them.”
The conclusion of the matter: the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been consistently opposed to killing and combatant service. It gives many reasons for this opposition, including keeping the Ten Commandments. Critics of the position ignore the wider issues the church has raised, and focus on an untenable restriction of the commandment to only one type of killing.
The church has a “conscience clause”; it has had one since the 1930s. But the existence of this “conscience clause” does not nullify the church’s clear teaching. Nor does it absolve the church from seeking to form the conscience of individuals by teaching its position. The church’s position is thus parallel to it’s teaching about vegetarianism–it still thinks a vegetarian diet the best, though it does not make it a test of fellowship. It still teaches vegetarianism and other aspects of healthful and abundant living. Such abundant living includes a reverence for life, and worship of its author.