Published April 6, 2016
By Rodney J. Decker
A foreign nation launches an unprovoked military attack on another country for the purpose of gaining control of valuable natural resources or to gain control of a strategic military position. This is not the threat of such an attack, but an actual invasion in which force is being used and people are being killed. Do the people of the nation under attack have the right to defend themselves with military force even if that means many of the invaders will be killed? May Christians serve in the military and participate in such deadly force? What if the Christian is a civilian? In which of the following situations, if any, would you consider it acceptable or appropriate for a Christian to exercise lethal force or to condone such force by a fellow Christian?
- A terrorist group not officially sponsored by any national entity is detected in the act of implementing an attack against unarmed civilians by means of large explosive devices, a nuclear device, and/or poison gas, any of which would result in the death of hundreds if not thousands of people.
- Unknown attackers invade a conference center where a large political rally is being held and kill hundreds of people with machine guns and grenades.
- A heavily armed gunman opens fire in a public setting, shooting people at random.
- An attacker invades a church’s building during a worship service and shoots the pastor as well as many congregants.
- Just as ushers finish collecting an offering, several people armed with knives enter a church service and demand all the money.
- An armed assailant breaks into a home during the night,holds the husband at gunpoint,and proceeds to rape his wife.
- Several husky teenagers surround an older man walking with a cane and demand his wallet.
- Gang members verbally attack a man and his wife on the street, using abusive and graphic language to describe the woman in an obvious attempt to provoke the man into a fight.
- Several men attack, for no obvious reason, another man who is physically fit and active. Using baseball bats, they beat him into the ground and appear intent on continuing the attack.
- A pastor who has had a lengthy and sometimes fruitful ministry to gangs in an inner-city setting encounters a particularly belligerent gang member who is either drunk or high. In the process of hearing the gospel, the gang member both assaults the pastor verbally, mocking Christianity and cursing Jesus, and deliberately insults the pastor with a backhanded slap across the face.
The list could go on nearly indefinitely. The examples cited here are all realistic situations, and all could be illustrated with news clippings from recent years. Such news reports raise the question of self-defense in a very palpable way. Most Christians’ discussions of self-defense focus on military attacks and relate to the validity of just war theory. That is not the focus of this article, though the questions are interrelated. Nor is my present concern with the question of the Christian’s defense against a tyrannical ruler. Rather, I am interested in the more personal question of an individual’s right to self-defense.
We are all sinners living among other sinners in a fallen world where evil is undeniable. One consequence of this is the inevitable violence committed by some people upon others. It has been this way from the beginning, when Cain murdered Abel. Modern technology enables violence on a much greater scale. It does no good to deny the existence of violence, nor is it responsible to avoid thinking about how one would respond to a direct, personal encounter with violence. Christians living in the United States are fortunate not to face routinely the sort of atrocities that are common in some other parts of the world. That security, however, does not excuse thoughtlessness, for even here, bad things do happen to God’s people.
To address these questions, I will first examine a series of Bible passages that are either relevant to the questions raised or have been claimed by some to be relevant. Relatively few texts address the question of self-defense directly. Following that examination, I will attempt to synthesize a coherent Christian view of the subject.
Old Testament Texts
In terms of the Old Testament texts discussed here, it is important to realize that many of these texts are part of or under the jurisdiction of the Old Covenant. Though they may establish general principles regarding God’s view of self-defense, they are not in themselves normative in governing the conduct of anyone who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the Mosaic law.
On the basis of Genesis 2:15, Patrick and John Henry have claimed, “The right of self-defense predates the fall of Adam and as such it is one of the universal rights of man.” The text states, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” To deduce the right of self-defense, they understand “to tend” in the sense of “guard,” and conclude that this authorizes guarding oneself from any and every possible threat. Yet this is found in a description of pre-Fall Eden. From what or whom is Adam guarding the Garden? The Henrys appeal to a defense against Satan and then extend that concept to any future aggressors post-Fall. The presumptions and conclusions seem rather dubious. How would one defend oneself against the attack of a spirit being? Certainly not by physical means. Nor is there any indication that this general statement can legitimately be transferred to other domains post-Fall. More likely, the verb should be understood in the sense of “to take care of,” as almost all English translations agree and as the parallel construction with “keep it” (lit., “work/farm it”) implies.
Genesis 14 has also been used to support personal self-defense. This is the account of Abraham rescuing Lot, who had been kidnapped by raiding parties. Though the principles involved might well be relevant at a national level (Abraham was essentially the head of a tribal group at this point), it is a stretch to apply the corporate actions of a tribe to an individual. There may be related principles here, but they should first be treated at the level of national just war theory before a tertiary application to individual self-defense is attempted.
With Exodus 22:2 and 3 we have a clear reference to self-defense under the Old Covenant: “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.” In this example the thief is said to “break in.” The law assumes an altercation in which the owner kills the invader. No statement discloses the details of the confrontation. It is enough that a home invasion has taken place and the aggressor has been killed—whether intentionally or accidentally is immaterial in this particular case.
In this situation the homicide is judged to be a case of justified self-defense, provided it occurred at night. No explanation is given as to the rationale for the verdict, only that the homeowner does not have bloodguilt. The assumption may be that at night the aggressor’s intentions are not clear.
The situation is different during the day. Though justified at night, there is no such provision “if the sun has risen on [the thief].” The specifics are somewhat ambiguous in this case. The limitations of verse 3 may simply forbid killing someone caught in burglary during daylight hours, or it may forbid revenge killing (tracking down the thief and killing him later that day), or it may assume that the night thief did make off with property but was later apprehended. In any case, this text provides a clear basis for justifiable homicide in self-defense in at least one situation.
New Testament Texts
Luke 22:35, 36, and 38 are the only direct New Testament statements about self-defense. Jesus had previously sent His followers on various missions with instructions regarding what provisions and equipment they were allowed to take with them. In sending out the Twelve, He permitted no staff, bag, bread, money, or extra shirt (Luke 9:3). When He sent out the Seventy, He disallowed purse, bag, and sandals (Luke 10:4). These were not, however, intended as permanent, normative commands for all believers for all time. That is clear since Jesus contrasts these earlier restrictions with what would be necessary after the Crucifixion. In Luke 22:35, 36, and 38 Jesus explicitly commands His followers to take the sort of provisions they were previously asked to leave at home: “He who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack” (v. 36a). But now a new item is added to the list. They are told to buy a sword (machaira), even if they have to sell their cloak to do so (v. 36b). This was not a butter knife for their bread or a paring knife for peeling apples. The machaira was, as BDAG (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) defines it, “a relatively short sword or other instrument, sword, dagger,” which is most commonly referenced in the New Testament as an instrument for killing (e.g., Mark 14:43; Luke 21:24; Acts 12:2; 16:27; Heb. 11:37; Rev. 13:10).
Although the specific purpose of the sword is not stated, the implication seems clear: the disciples should be prepared for their ministry as they are once again sent out following Jesus’ death and resurrection, whether with money (“money bag”), provisions (“knapsack”), or means of defense (“sword”). Though the book of Acts records no specific incidents in which they actually used swords in self-defense, they were to be prepared for such exigencies. As I. Howard Marshall comments, “The saying brings out the extreme plight of the disciples. A garment for wear at night was an utter necessity; to give it up for a sword implies that dire circumstances are at hand.”
Despite the force of the context and the parallel, non-metaphorical instructions to take money and provisions, many commentators insist that the statement regarding the sword must be taken metaphorically. This appears to be based not on the context, but on a prior commitment to a pacifist position. Among the major commentators who choose this option, none gives a substantive defense beyond a statement of pacifism.
At times the argument becomes a diatribe filled with loaded, emotional terms that take the place of evidence. David Garland is perhaps the most extreme example of this. He portrays the interpretation of Jesus’ statement about taking two swords to be a choice between a metaphorical statement that the disciples “will need every resource they have” (except, of course, a sword!) and those who would “live by the sword” and “become expert in war,” of whom “it is laughable to think Jesus pronounces them combat ready” with two swords, who are “armed to the teeth . . . in case God lets them down” as they are “engaged in an arms race and counterviolence . . . via strong-arm tactics . . . with brass knuckles.” Such purple prose will sway anyone who thinks the choice is between pacifism and militarism, but that is a false dichotomy.
Certainly Jesus is not advocating violence or a pugnacious approach to ministry. An alternate understanding fits the context and social setting and makes much better sense of the text: Jesus may well be preparing His followers to travel some dangerous roads as they carry the gospel message across the Roman Empire. In doing so, Christians have just as much right to defend themselves against highway robbers as anyone else. As John Nolland puts it, “The sword is thought of as part of the equipment required for self-sufficiency of any traveler in the Roman world. Nothing more than protection of one’s person is in view.” This is not a covert, violence-oriented mission, but one that assumes the right to protect oneself if violently assaulted.
The disciples apparently understood the need for these items, since they promptly produced two such weapons (v. 38) without the need first to go and sell a cloak to buy them. Carrying a defensive weapon was not a new concept to these men. Jesus does not rebuke them for having these swords, but He does indicate that two were apparently adequate for the group of twelve (“It is enough,” v. 38b); not everyone needs to be armed, but some should be.
It is sometimes objected that later that night when Jesus’ disciples offered to put their swords into play and Peter drew his sword and clipped off an ear, they were rebuked by Jesus (Luke 22:49–51). The conclusion is drawn that Jesus was now forbidding self-defense. The point is poorly taken.
First, interpreters should not assume that Jesus is so fickle as to have changed His mind about the utility of carrying a sword within the space of a few hours. He did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but to put it back in its place (i.e., keep it).
Second, the specific context is Jesus’ imminent substitutionary death in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and God’s plan—something that Jesus had just indicated to them during the earlier discussion about swords (Luke 22:37) and of which He subsequently reminded them (Matt. 26:53, 54). Jesus never intended that His disciples defend Him with swords from going to the cross. It was a necessary part of redemption. This particular case, however, says nothing about the original point of their being adequately prepared for their coming ministry.
Third, that Jesus’ destiny to die for the sins of the world involved passively accepting the awful events about to unfold says nothing about the experience of His followers, whose deaths would not be redemptive for others. Theoretically, were Jesus to have chosen to escape death, God’s salvific plan would have failed. The same cannot be said of the disciples. If they fled persecution (as they did in Acts 8), the gospel would be spread elsewhere. Were they to defend themselves against violent aggressors, they would be able to continue sharing the gospel.
Fourth, even the seemingly broad statement about drawing and dying by the sword does not relate to the purpose for which Jesus instructed them to obtain a sword. Yes, those who would live this way, drawing a sword unnecessarily, must be prepared to die by the sword. Peter had been unwise in this regard, thinking he was defending his Lord against aggression, yet all the while contravening God’s purpose. Initiating violence is not condoned. Those who do so risk the loss of their lives if they attack someone else similarly armed; that is the point of Jesus’ statement. Defending oneself against life-threatening aggression is not in view here.
Much of the discussion regarding the Christian and self-defense is couched in negative terms by those opposed to the use of force. That is, the positive argument for such action is countered by proposing general principles that are thought to oppose it. Several common objections are given along this line. Some appeal to the prohibition, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13, KJV). Were this a blanket prohibition of all killing, the argument would have force, but the intent is clearly to prohibit murder, since other killing is explicitly commanded by God (e.g., Gen. 9:6; Exod. 21:12–17, 28–32). The New Testament command to “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:36–40) is sometimes cited as if this precluded any form of self-defense. But which is the more loving act? To defend one’s family (or any group of people) by killing a depraved person intent on killing the entire group? Or by “loving” the aggressor and allowing him to kill unchecked, thus taking the lives of many others? No, in these cases the most loving thing to do is to stop the attack by any means possible or necessary, even if that means taking the perpetrator’s life.
In connection with His statement of the Golden Rule, Jesus commands His followers, “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). Though the particulars can be read one of two ways (this is either a backhanded slap or a left-handed slap, in either case a calculated insult), this is not a matter of self-defense. One’s life is not in danger. In such situations Jesus tells us not to retaliate. Interestingly, in the only instance of this recorded in the Gospels (John 18:22, 23), Jesus is slapped, and He rebukes the one who struck Him rather than turning the other cheek! That would seem to imply that this is not an all-inclusive statement that covers every possible scenario. Turning the cheek is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. No statement is made here as to the appropriate response to life-threatening aggression.
Romans 12:17–21 is also sometimes used to justify a pacifist position: “Repay no one evil for evil. . . . If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The assumption appears to be that self-defense is evil; thus if one is violently attacked and he defends himself, he has repaid the evildoer with evil. That assumes, however, that all self-defense is, indeed, evil. If, however, God allows the defense of life, the argument is facile. This passage does not address legitimate self-defense, but revenge and repayment. That is quite different from defending one’s life. God promises to handle the punishment end of such situations and has ordained human government as part of the means toward that end (Rom. 13:1–7). To live peaceably with others is certainly commanded “as much as depends on you,” but it does not always work that way. At times an aggressor intrudes his evil intent into another’s life in such a way that peace is not possible. It may at times be possible to minister to an “enemy” by feeding him or giving him a drink to show him the love of Christ, but that is not feasible when he has a knife at your throat—or the throat of your spouse.
In summary, the explicit Biblical warrant noted thus far includes one specific text in the law that allowed for self-defense against an intruder in a home invasion and a New Testament text that appears to justify believers carrying defensive weapons. The two texts together seem to warrant the conclusion that New Testament principles have not contravened the principle of self-defense found in the law, but have rather validated it for the post-law period. Other texts considered were either not relevant or taught principles quite different from pacifist concerns often based on them.
We might wish for more clear texts in the New Testament that are addressed explicitly to the question of self-defense. But since we do not have such data without forcing texts to discuss matters they are not intended to address, a Christian perspective of the question of self-defense must be more indirect. Thus, we shift now from exegesis to an analysis of the social, theological, and ethical concerns.
Contemporary, Social, and Pragmatic Concerns
We will first address some of the concerns of contemporary American society and note implications of the American social setting. These issues are today discussed almost entirely in terms of defensive weapons, most commonly handguns, though any lethal weapons (knives, long guns, etc.) are relevant.
First, as Americans, we have inherited a legal protection to “keep and bear Arms” under the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Though frequently treated in modern discussions as if the reference were to the National Guard or the military, the intent of the amendment is individual (“the people”), the militia being best understood, not as a government entity, but as the collective citizenry who would take up arms in defense of the security of a free state. This perspective is not intuitive for 21st-century America, where there has been a standing army for many years and the pre-military days of the colonial militia have been long forgotten, but that does not change the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Second, there is no doubt that our culture is undergoing massive social change. Until the middle of the 20th century, social discourse in America assumed a Judeo-Christian ethos and values (though the United States was never a “Christian nation”). That consensus has disintegrated, and our culture continues to wander ethically, politically, and socially with no moral compass. As a result, violence has increased both internally and externally. Due to the mobility and increased technical sophistication of our society, along with increased population (particularly in urban areas), the opportunity for mass violence has increased considerably. As far as I know, only two reactions are possible (other than wringing one’s hands and doing nothing). Either the people demand that government attempt to protect them from all possible calamities (and accept the resulting loss of liberty), or the people must take greater responsibility for their own protection. Unfortunately, government simply cannot protect the people from everything. It may administer justice after the fact, but it can rarely prevent tragedies.
Third, gun control legislation and regulations are often counterproductive. In an attempt to stem violence, politicians frequently move to ban particular weapons. The favorite targets in recent years have been handguns, large capacity magazines, and “assault weapons.” Unfortunately, passing such laws rarely has a positive impact on crime rates, since criminals do not abide by the laws. The only people significantly affected are law-abiding citizens who are denied access to the means of defending themselves against criminals.
Fourth, although the particulars differ somewhat by state, the United States has clear legal guidelines as to what constitutes lawful self-defense. American citizens are allowed to defend themselves against attempts to take their lives. This is not unique to the United States but is the continuation of a long legal history, which includes English Common Law, European and Reformation legal precedent, and, before that, Roman law in the Code of Justin and even earlier.
Theological and Ethical Concerns
Evil and violence are real. The ethical portrait of our world in Romans 1:18–32 is ugly. Despite the plainness and availability of God’s truth, humans have consistently disobeyed Him. That is the “natural” predisposition of a totally depraved sinner—it reflects fallen human nature, which is “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). As a result of this evil, there is violence in the world. There has been since Genesis 4, and there will be as long as there are sinful people. That said, it does appear that we are now living in one of the more violent periods in history. The scale of violence has increased geometrically due to modern technology. Humans are not more evil than before; they just have more convenient and effective means of demonstrating their malice.
The solution to violence is not “peace” or nonresistance, for that simply creates greater space for the evildoer to do evil. At times it is necessary to use violence to stop or prevent violence. This may be more obvious at the national and international levels, but it is also true at the personal level.
In certain circumstances, violence may be necessary to preserve life (either one’s own or others’). Failure to act violently to stop violent aggression will, in some cases, perpetuate greater violence as the aggressor is allowed to continue a violent killing spree. Though life should not be viewed as sacred (that places too high a value on it; it is not on the level of divine/sacred things), human beings have been created in the image of God and all life is precious. However, a human life may be forfeited if it is employed in evil and violence against others. The clearest Biblical teaching on this involves the judgment of capital punishment by government (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1–5; etc.), but in dire circumstances the individual is also permitted to take life. This was clearly encoded in the Mosaic law and implied in Jesus’ instructions to carry defensive weapons on at least some occasions.
We must accept the fact that we do not live in a perfect world and will not do so until Jesus returns and establishes His Kingdom. Meanwhile, we must live as God commands and be prepared to face the realities of an imperfect society. Though we may strive for an improved social and political environment—and may achieve some measures of success at times—our hope must not be in an earthly utopia brought about by our efforts. No political party will ever solve the world’s problems or right the injustices and violence that mar our world today. Postmillennialism is far too optimistic of human nature. Premillennialism, though not inherently negative toward social involvement, is the only view of history and eschatology that offers a realistic, ultimate hope of a perfect society within history, and that will come only when Jesus returns. Until then, while “evil men . . . grow worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13), we may well need to sell our cloak and buy a sword.
What Should I Do as an Individual?
If you come to the conviction that you should consider some form of self-defense for yourself, your family, or your ministry, what should you do? The first step is to study carefully the Biblical basis for this decision. You must be convinced that it is a Biblically authorized step. This is not an easy question, and explicit texts are not abundant. You may decide that my arguments are unpersuasive. I have tried to use only clear texts and have avoided a large number of others that have often been marshaled (especially on the Internet), but I do not claim a definitive conclusion.
Having reached a decision, you then need to choose what form of self-defense is most appropriate. Some will choose some form of manual combat, a baton, or pepper spray. Others will choose a firearm. Whatever your choice, it is essential that you receive high-quality training. An untrained or poorly trained person attempting to “do some good” can inadvertently make a dangerous situation much worse. (This is true even of the simplest self-defense tool, pepper spray. Good training courses are available for all self-defense methods. The further up the technology scale you go, the more important good training becomes.)
If you consider carrying a firearm, it is not only practically desirable but also legally essential that you undergo multiple training sessions at several levels. Much of this training needs to be hands-on and include extensive training on a firing range. It is not adequate to have a friend “teach you how to shoot” or even to read a good book. Reading is a good start, and if you read the right books, you will tremble at the legal implications of having to use deadly force. It is not a pretty picture. You should consider retaining a lawyer who specializes in self-defense issues and who will agree in advance to represent you in the event of a shooting. That will require a preliminary interview with the attorney (and perhaps a legal fee).
Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of Greek and New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary. Following a battle with cancer, he went Home to be with Jesus in May 2014.
This article first appeared in the Baptist Bulletin. © Regular Baptist Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Used by permission. Published April 6, 2016.
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