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Conscientious Objection

Recent World War II movie and multiple Oscar nominee Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of a combat medic, Desmond Doss, who earned the Medal of Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa. Of the 472 Medals of Honor awarded in WWII, Doss' recognition was unique because he was a conscientious objector (CO), and was the only CO to receive the Medal of Honor during WWII. His story and his status help us distinguish between cranky, but negligible complaints on the one hand, and substantial, conscientious complaints on the other hand.

Desmond Doss

A Seventh-Day Adventist raised to believe in nonviolence, Doss refused to take up arms against the enemy. Refusing to abandon his deeply-held religious beliefs even during widely-popular WWII, Doss became an Army medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, he saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen and thus received America's highest honor for courage under fire. Doss' heroism is recognized as even more exceptional because of his conscientious objector status.

Conscientious Objector (CO) Status

Two small minorities characterize the extremes of citizen-soldiers. Of the millions of Americans who have served in the armed forces, only a small minority are stone-cold killers. The vast majority are average citizens who do not want to go to war, who do not want to be killed, and who do not want to kill. What allows another small minority of those who do not want to kill, the other extreme, to avoid armed service?

A conscientious objector is one who claims a special right to refuse armed military service based on religious training or belief, or because of moral or ethical convictions. The two main criteria for classification as a CO are that (i) the objector must be opposed to war in any form, and that (ii) the objection must be sincere. Those claiming CO status are required to appear before a board to explain their beliefs and to present evidence.

Reasons for not wanting to take up arms cannot be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. A person's lifestyle prior to making a claim should reflect moral or religious-based opposition to violence and war. Not everyone who claims CO status receives the exemption. There is a multi-level appeals process to further evaluate claims.

Conscientious Objections or Cranky Objections among Christians?

The difference between the many who do not want to take up arms and the few who qualify as COs helps us understand the difference between fussy, cranky complaints and sincere objections based on religious conviction. Conscience is a critical component in I Corinthians 8 (see also Rom. 14) as Paul considers matters of judgment. "Be Sensitive To Conscience," for instance, is the non-inspired but thought-provoking heading above I Corinthians 8 in the New King James Version.

Eating meat offered to idols was the matter of concern in these chapters. Although a mature understanding of the rule of faith allowed Christians to eat any meat, not every Christian conscience could bear eating meat that had been offered to idols. Out of respect for conscientious objections, Paul warned against ignoring deeply-held scruples and wounding the conscience of objectors.

Respecting a conscientious objection is one thing. Knuckling-under to a cranky, nit-picky church member is another. Chin whiskers on a preacher are a useful case in point. While not appreciated by everyone, no one thinks that a touch or bearded gray is a religious issue. A matter of a man's preference, a beard is not a matter of moral principle.

Objections not based on religious reasons do not rise to the level of conscientious objections. As easy as these words are to craft into a sentence, making real-world distinctions is devilishly difficult. Objectors should search their thoughts and intents as critically as the search for evidence in support of a claim for CO status. "Acceptors" should search their hearts for compassion and sacrificial love. All should eliminate unnecessary objections, unnecessary demands, and unnecessary conflicts.


When brethren voice objections based on conscientious religious oppositions, they must be respected, but when brethren grunt objections based on personal 'druthers, they must be respectful as others continue on their way. This distinction is critical to Christian unity. In the presence of conscientious objection, unity is ensured by respecting conscience. In the absence of deeply-held religious objection, unity is ensured by respecting freedom.