Self Defense and the Church

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor {Leviticus 19:18} and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48  

And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even “sinners” lend to “sinners,” expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:33-37  

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; {37 Isaiah 53:12} and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”  The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

Luke 22:35-38

Last Sunday, 26 people were killed at a Baptist church in Texas by an active shooter. This shooter was eventually stopped by a citizen church-goer who killed him with a shotgun. Many difficult questions arise in the aftermath of tragic events such as this. What are we to make of this tragedy? And how are we to live in a world like this one? How should we, as Christians, respond to violence? And in what way should we anticipate violence? It is one thing not to take revenge, but are we supposed to defend ourselves? Or are there certain times where we might defend ourselves, while not at other times?

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Most Christians have not thought about this very deeply. Some recognize that the Bible says that we are to love our enemies. And if we are to love our enemies, how can we shoot them? Others might reason that loving our enemy does not override our responsibility to respect the image of God in ourselves or others, and so we must be willing to defend it when there are no other options. For example, if our enemy forces us to choose between loving our neighbor by protecting them and loving our enemy by not killing them, it is reasonable to kill our enemy to protect our neighbor. Theoretically, this is what love would demand in that broken set of circumstances. But, is one of these beliefs more correct?

What should we do as Christians in a situation like this? How should we think of self-defense? And how should we engage in self-defense in our churches, if at all? Or should we only look to people authorized by the government to wield the sword in cases of defense and judgment (Romans 13:1-7)?

These are difficult questions. However, if we believe in the authority of the Scriptures, we might look for a specific passage that directly relates to the exact question we are actually asking.

It is easy to be confused by the logic of larger questions, as I’ve discussed above. But there is a New Testament passage that specifically relates to the question of personal self-defense, which is Luke 22:35-38. Some theologians have rejected this as a demand that we engage in personal self-defense. They may think this because of other passages in the Bible teaching peace, like those quoted above. We are to love our enemies, and so this can’t say we might harm them—right? And yet, careful biblical interpretation requires that we say not what this passage doesn’t say, but to ask what it does say. (As an important side note: always be suspect of explanations that explain a text away without offering a more compelling and better explanation for what it does say—one that accounts for the text’s details and context even better.) If you do not believe this passage applies to self-defense, then what does it apply to? In reading through alternative interpretations, I have never found one that is at all persuasive.

Why does Jesus command his disciples to have personal armaments? We know that Jesus was not starting a military rebellion. In Matthew 26:51, Peter uses his sword to cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest when Jesus is being arrested. Jesus heals the man and rebukes the watching crowd saying, “Am I leading a rebellion?” (Matthew 26:55). This is a rhetorical question, and the answer is: of course not. Before that, Jesus rebukes Peter by saying, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” So you can see Jesus’ bias for peace. You can see that this bias is for reasons of truth, justice, goodness, and also wisdom. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. We should always be working for peace—for love.

But Luke 22:35-38 means something. So what does it mean? Why does someone who is fundamentally working for peace—not rebellion, not revolution—need a sword? If Jesus is not starting a rebellion or telling his disciples to become violent, then what is he commanding them?

The context of the passage is travel; Jesus is going to be sending out his disciples, and he will no longer be around to protect them. In his absence, the times will become inordinately dangerous. So much so that if they don’t have a sword, they are to sell their cloak in order to have enough money to buy one. They were more in danger of being attacked than of freezing in the cold, which is pretty intense. Generally speaking, humans are much more susceptible to being damaged by the elements of weather than by being attacked personally on the road. But still, this is what Jesus is saying. They don’t need two swords; they aren’t putting together armaments for a rebellion. They just need one sword to provide for their own self-defense while on the road.

As far as I can tell, this is the way this passage must be interpreted. We know that Jesus has a bias for peace. We know that he is against rebellion and revolution. He knows that people who live by the sword die by the sword. Those who seek out violence create a system and cycle of violence. But what about those who are at the immediate receiving end of violence someone else has begun? What if we just live in a very dangerous world? Can a man of peace bear a sword? Jesus’ answer is unequivocally: yes. But not only that—there’s more.

Jesus does not only tell them that they may provide for their self-defense if they wish; he actually commands them to do so at great personal cost to themselves. He says they must prepare to defend themselves. They are commanded to get a sword. They are also told to sell important personal goods to buy one if they don’t already have one. This would be a little like Jesus telling us, “If you have to sell your car to get a gun, then sell your car and get a gun. You need to be able to defend yourself. Times are going to be difficult, and you have the responsibility to defend yourself.”

Remember, the principle of interpretation here is that these verses mean something. Luke was one of the biblical authors most focused on peace. He was focused on justice and the needs of the poor. Luke was no warmonger in any sense of the term. And yet he included these verses. God saw to it that the Bible contained not only the acceptability of personal defense, but the command to personal defense as a specific virtuous responsibility.

I believe that Jesus has been clear about whether or not we have the right and duty to provide for our personal defense. I believe he has authorized it. I believe he has even commanded it. By extension, I believe that churches may provide for their personal defense. I do not believe we can wage wars or revolutions. I do not believe that we should attack anyone. And we should only defend ourselves in the direst need, and we should seek to love our enemy in every way possible.

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My view is outside what we might call “Christian essentials,” and so I do not believe that we should attack or badmouth anyone who disagrees. I would be happy serving in a church that disagreed with me about this. I also don’t believe that this means every Christian needs to have a gun and carry one. Some places are more dangerous than others, and the need for personal protection may be negligible in many places where we will live. It may be that you are not a man or woman of peace in your heart, and you fear that if you had a weapon you would misuse it. There may even be prudent reasons for people not engaging in preparing for personal defense.

However, I believe every Christian needs to take this command seriously. And even if you are not going to be trained and acquire implements of personal defense, no Christian should look down upon another Christian for doing so. It is certainly possible that this is an area of Christian conscience based on the convictions that come when we study the relevant passages in the Bible.

I understand that people have very complicated feelings about personal defense. And yet, these are my convictions, and I believe that these are our responsibilities. Further, I believe that much fear related to arms is unfounded and tends to fester in places where they are not used or understood. And so this is my theological argument for why we should provide for our common defense by means of a trained security team that has the capacity for deadly force. But, like anything in a life lived by faith, we must not do so as a response born out of fear, but out of the love and care for one another that comes from a deep trust in the God who has already conquered death and rescued us from it.

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