Is holy war relevant to the church age? Many Christians simply relegate the category of holy war to the old dispensation. Little or no argument is ever offered beyond the invidious contrast between law and grace, or nationalism and evangelism.
Another popular objection is that, unlike the Jews, we have no direct divine command to wage holy war on our neighbors.
But all this is far too facile. So what are the pros and cons of this issue?
The first question is how we should broach the issue. A. A. Hodge offers one criterion:
“A careful examination of the reason of the law will afford us good ground of judgment as to its perpetuity. If the original reason for its enactment is universal and permanent, and the law has never been explicitly repealed, then the law abides in force” The Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth 1983), 255.
So what is the causus belli for holy war in the OT?
“They would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods…You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the people on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:4,6; ESV).
On the face of it, this causus belli would seem to be germane to the church age. Just as members of the OT covenant community were tempted by unbelievers to forsake the faith, this also happens in the life of the church.
In addition, just as the Jewish nation was consecrated to God, so is the church. V6 goes back to Exod 19:5-6, as a preamble to the Decalogue.
Perhaps, though, Deuteronomy has ritual purity or cultic holiness is view. If so, that would belong to the types and shadows of the ceremonial law. Yet this sort of language is reproduced in the NT (Rom 11:16; 1 Cor 7:14; 1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
Another possible objection is that holy war presupposes the land-promises (Deut 20:16-18). Yet the precise force of this objection depends, in part, on your eschatology. For a postmil, the land-promises are expanded and extended to the NT church.
But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the amil is right. This would not automatically abrogate the underlying reason for holy war. Rather, it would merely mean that, in adapting the law to our own time and circumstances, certain adjustments must be made. But recontextualizing the message is often necessary when we apply the Bible to our own situation.
In the minds of many, the hallmark of holy war is the “ban” (Heb.=”herem”), according to which all POWs were put to the sword—women and children included.
But the ban was a tactical means to a higher end, not an end in itself. It was simply one way of securing a strategic objective, and not the essence of holy war. The guiding principle is spiritual separation.
Even in Deuteronomy itself, provision is made for resident aliens (e.g., Deut 1:16; 5:14; 10:18-19; 14:21,29; 16:11,14; 23:7; 24:17-21; 26:11-13; 27:19; 28:43-44; 29:11; 31:12). So the separation was not absolute.
What we have here is similar to the Christian balance between consociation (1 Cor 5:10), which is allowed, and fellowship (2 Cor 6:14-7:1), which is disallowed.
The underlying principle was written into the Westminster Confession, when the following duties were assigned to the magistrate:
“That the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies are suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed” (WCF 23:3).
The methods by which his duties are discharged are left to the discretion of the magistrate. In addition, unbelievers are under no compulsion to act like believers. Rather, they are only restrained from openly opposing the religious establishment—just as citizens of one country residing in another land are subject to the laws of the host country.
Here, the force of law is proscriptive, not prescriptive. Unbelievers are not commanded to do certain things, but forbidden from doing certain things.
And this, I suggest, is the sense in which OT holy war is still applicable under the New Covenant. Those that resist should be deported—just as OT apostates were exiled from the community of faith.