The Armed Christian
The shooting of an armed intruder at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement Texas last week has generated a tremendous amount of discussion in the Christian community. On one hand there are Believers who suggest the use of force under any circumstance is prohibited for the Christian while others say a Christian has every right to defend himself or herself at any time. The fact is, the truth is not so easily defined.
When we look to the word of God for answers we must be sure we embrace the whole counsel of God in order to arrive at an accurate conclusion. In other words, we cannot claim a sound biblical position simply by quoting Luke 22:35-38. Indeed, that particular passage has been used by people on both sides of the argument. In that section of Luke's Gospel Jesus is preparing his disciples for the new state of affairs they will encounter after his crucifixion and resurrection. In a nutshell, Jesus tells them the care and provision they experienced during his ministry will no longer be available. He tells them that once his crucifixion and resurrection has taken place, they will be subject to a much greater level of hostility. In order to emphasize this Jesus uses figurative language. He tells them to make financial sacrifices to provide for the new conditions and, metaphorically, instructs them to supply themselves with weapons. The disciples misunderstand Jesus words. When he tells them they should sell their cloak in order to buy a sword they respond by saying, "Look, Lord," they replied, "we have two swords among us." Jesus' response seems to betray irritation; "That's enough," he said (Luke 22:38).
It is to the credit of the disciples they did not seem to think Jesus was telling them to establish his kingdom by force. Two swords would have been inadequate for such a task. On the other hand, they did take his language literally and so, perhaps, believed that Jesus was telling them to be prepared for the type of violence common in Galilee at the time; foot-pads, highwaymen and other outlaws who preyed upon travelers. In any case, they did not understand Jesus was telling them the times were changing and they needed to be prepared for hardship and violent hostility. In exasperation Jesus replies "that's enough."
In reality, this interpretation of the passage actually provides support to both sides of the "armed Christian" argument. In the first place Jesus is not telling his disciples they should be armed and defend themselves with force as they exercise the gospel ministry. This presents us with a particular principle we will revisit in a moment but at this point we acknowledge that Jesus is not advocating violent self-defense on the part of the Christian. Nevertheless, it is significant that the disciples had two swords. Jesus would have known about the swords and it is clear he never told them to get rid of them. Again, ancient Palestine, Galilee in particular, was a dangerous place, especially for travelers. This is why most people traveled in large groups and it is why most groups had a number of armed men in the party. The hope was that the highwayman would avoid a large group, anticipating armed resistance. The point we want to see is that Jesus never told his disciples to get rid of the swords. The common behavior of travelers throughout the region was the common behavior of Jesus and his group. Hence we begin to see that in the question of armed self-defense, no single rule can be laid down as the only appropriate behavior for a follower of Jesus Christ.
Weapons in the Hands of God's People: The Old Testament
The older Testament is full of examples of people who used weapons to defend themselves or others from aggression. Abraham not only possessed weapons but had a cadre of over 300 armed and trained men at his disposal when he gathered local allies, chased after the confederacy of kings and rescued Lot and others who had been captured in battle (Genesis 14). The Bible says Jacob willed a portion of land to Joseph he had taken with his sword and bow (Genesis 48:22). We are not told Moses made use of a weapon but it is clear he was physically aggressive when he rescued the daughters of Reul from the shepherds at the well (Exodus 2:17). Once the Israelites had let Egypt, the Levites were commissioned to stand guard around the tabernacle and (bearing weapons) were to execute any one who came too near the sanctuary (Numbers 1:51-53).
When we turn to the Law we find it generally prohibits the taking of human life by private citizens. However, an exception is made in the case of an unknown threat. Specifically, If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder. But if it happens in daylight, the one who killed the thief is guilty of murder (Exodus 22:2-3a). When the homeowner is unsure of the intent of the intruder, he is justified in defending his home with whatever force necessary. However, if it is clear the intruder is a thief and not a murderer or molester, the homeowner can repel the intruder but must stop short of killing him.
The book of Judges is replete with instances of God's people making use of weapons either in self-defense or actual warfare. One example that stands out is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite who assassinated Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. This took place after Sisera's defeat and flight. He found himself outside the tent of Jael and, upon her invitation, entered her tent to hide from Barak, the commander of the Israelite forces (Judges 4:17-22). Jael was not an Israelite but was apparently a follower of Yahweh. At least it seems she was sympathetic to the situation of Israel.
In order to properly interpret Jael's behavior in killing Sisera we need to understand something of the culture of the day. In the first place, the action of Sisera in this vignette is appalling. "The very thought would startle the listener. They would freeze at the thought. That was unforgivable. His ally's wife's tent, a place he should never ever have considered entering, even in his last extremity. And yet it offered safety, for no one would imagine him entering such a place."1 In other words, the battle with Barak aside, Jael's position would have been interpreted as one under threat - regardless of her invitation. Indeed, it is possible her invitation to Sisera was an expression of hospitality not to be taken literally.2 There is reason to believe she would have been surprised that Sisera actually entered her tent. It simply was not done. A man who was not married to a woman would never enter her tent unless he was there to molest her.3 So, when Sissera unexpectedly entered the tent of Jael she reacted in a fashion understandable in that culture. At the same time, she was the instrument of God's wrath and the fulfillment of Debra's prediction.
Another relevant example from the era of judges is the story of Samson. During his tenure as judge, Israel was subject to Philistine rule and was not actively at war with Philistia. Of the several violent encounters Samson experienced with the Philistines, it is the slaughter of 1000 men of Philistia with the jawbone of a donkey that best informs the modern debate. In that situation, Sampson had just recently caught 300 foxes and used them to carry torches into the fields of the Philistines thereby destroying the grain, vineyards and olive groves. In response the Philistines burned his former fiance and father-in-law to death which prompted another reply from Sampson; he attacked the Philistines with great fury and killed many of them (Judges 15:8). Afterward he hid in a cave. Yet, the Philistines pursued him and he was eventually brought out by 3000 men of Judah to be delivered to the Philistines. The men of Judah reminded Sampson don't you realize the Philistines rule over us? What are you doing to us? (Judges 15:11). In any case, when the men of Judah brought Sampson out, bound and helpless, the spirit of the Lord came upon him as the Philistines came shouting in triumph. (Judges 15:14). Empowered by the Spirit of God, Sampson's snatched up a handy jaw-bone of a donkey and proceeded to kill 1000 of the Philistines.
As the biblical account progresses, examples of armed men doing great deeds in battle are presented in a positive light; For instance, David and his mighty men were renowned in the history of Israel. Interestingly among these mighty men was Benaiah, a Levite of Aaronic descent. Indeed, his father was Jehoiada, a chief-priest (2 Samuel 23:20-223, 1 Chronicles 27:5). For the most part these are examples of men using arms to defend the nation of Israel.
The book of Esther provides an example of God's people making use of a civil law enabling them to forcefully protect themselves against aggressors; The king's decree gave the Jews in every city authority to unite to defend their lives. They were allowed to kill, slaughter, and annihilate anyone of any nationality or province who might attack them or their children and wives, and to take the property of their enemies (Esther 8:11). The text informs us that they did so (Esther 9:1-2). This is another example of God's people using deadly force to protect themselves in a circumstance other than war.
After the exile, it is Nehemiah and his men who stand out as examples of armed followers of God. When opposition to the reconstruction of Jerusalem's wall increased, Nehemiah informs us that, those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked (Nehemiah 4:17-18). This was in addition to placing armed guards behind the low points in the wall, stationing the people to stand guard by families, armed with swords, spears, and bows (Nehemiah 4:13). Nehemiah encouraged the people in this behavior by reminding the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes" (Nehemiah 4:14).
Weapons in the Hands of God's People: The New Testament
Luke 22:38 and then 22:49-51 are the only times the New Testament provides a record of God's people possessing or using weapons. In the first selection the presence of weapons is incidental to the context. In other words, we discover the presence of the swords because of the disciples' lack of insight. The second passage from Luke 22 records the events leading up to Peter's attack on the servant of the high priest. Jesus responded to Peter's use of the sword with, "No more of this." And he touched the man's ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Clearly Jesus did not intend his disciples to use the two swords in their possession to "protect" him from his enemies. Outside of these instances, there is no specific record of a follower of Jesus having a weapon (we may assume that military mean who submitted to Jesus would have weapons). This is significant but it does not necessarily mean a Christian should never own a weapon or use it against a hostile person or persons.
Considering The Context
Most of the Old Testament examples cited above detail someone who possessed or made use a weapon to defend themselves or others in the face of danger. Exceptions include Jacob taking land by force and, depending upon how it is interpreted, the assassination of Sisera by Jael. In addition, the Levitical responsibility to guard the sanctuary with force if necessary is an example of protecting the place of worship rather than oneself or family. In any case, it is important to remember the cited examples take place within the context of the old dispensation. The old age was not characterized by missionary conquest but by the (occasional) use of arms to accomplish God's end. This does not negate the ministry of the prophets and other holy men (and women) who proclaimed the word of God in the expectation of a favorable response from their hearers. However, the context was different then that of today.
In the New Testament era (the age of the Son of Man), there has been a dramatic change of circumstance. This present age is characterized by what we might call missionary conquest. The followers of God in Jesus Christ have been tasked with the responsibility of taking the gospel into the entire world. In this context take place the life and ministry of Jesus, the missionary work recorded in the book of Acts and the substance reflected in the New Testament epistles. It is clear that in the Christian missionary conquest of the world, there is no room for the use of weapons, even in self-defense. The example of Jesus Christ, the record of Paul's missionary journeys and the tone and tenor of the epistles leaves no doubt; when the followers of Jesus Christ bring the gospel to their neighbor or the nations it must be done in the nonthreatening manner of the pacifist.
Nevertheless, that is only one aspect of this present age. There is nothing in the New Testament that nullifies the apparent responsibility of protecting and preserving life - especially of the weak and vulnerable. It may be argued that since the New Testament does not specifically allow for armed self-defense or armed defense of others, we should interpret that to mean it is not allowed. However, this is poor exegesis. For instance, the New Testament does not specifically prohibit bestiality but that does not mean it is allowed in this New Covenant age. The better approach is to understand that unless and Old Testament principle or precept has been specifically modified by New Testament teaching, it remains valid - always as viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ in his work. Therefore, unless armed self-defense is specifically prohibited by the New Testament we should understand that it remains a valid possibility. The exception is for those who are engaged in the proclamation of the gospel. Granted, each and every Christian has a responsibility to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, some followers of Christ are called to a specific gospel ministry and they are subject to different (additional) rules.
The witness of Scripture indicates that those who are specifically called to the gospel ministry do not have the option of armed self-defense while performing their work. the example of Jesus Christ and the apostles is one of trusting God in the midst of conflict and hostility. Thus the street preacher who is set upon by an unruly mob must be prepared to accept the hardship of persecution, even death. The missionary called to a foreign land cannot defend himself with deadly force even if attacked by the native population. Moreover, I personally believe a pastor standing in the pulpit does not have the option of bearing arms - even to protect the congregation. In short, the situation of New Covenant missionary conquest has created a category of God followers who are prohibited from taking up arms to protect themselves while employed in their calling.
On the other hand, the Bible informs us God does not frown upon self defense and the defense of others one has responsibility for in the everyday walk of life. The new covenant era has certainly created a new situation but perhaps it is best understood as an additional layer upon life - a new set of responsibilities that come into play at specific times. Therefore, Christians should feel free to follow their conscience (whatever is not done in faith is not pleasing to God), when confronted with armed aggression. A Christian homeowner is not prohibited from using deadly force to protect himself and his family from a nighttime invader. A follower of Jesus Christ may use deadly force to protect the lives of innocent bystanders during an active shooter event at the local mall. While I do not think a pastor should be armed while occupying the pulpit, there is no reason to prohibit the Levitical task of protecting the sanctuary by others. This would be performed by men of the congregation, exactly as was done by Jack Wilson and the security team at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement Texas.
In conclusion, the possession and proper use of firearms by Christians requires a measure of wisdom. There are times that a Christian does not have the option of armed self-defense. The follower of Jesus Christ called to the ministry of the gospel must understand he or she does not have the option of self-defense when fulfilling their ministry.
On the other hand, a Christian engaged in the everyday walk of life has the option to carry a firearm and use it in self-defense and - perhaps most importantly - in the defense of others. Even here Christians must remain charitable when discussing the issue. The Believer who rejects the possession and use of firearms and who does so in faith is no less a follower of Jesus then the Christian who takes an opposite stand in faith. In all of this we must be governed by the teaching of the Bible, both in our decisions concerning the issue and our behavior toward those we disagree with.
1. Peter Pett, Commentary Series On The Bible, 2013, as found in Rick Meyers, (2000-2019), e-Sword (version 11.2.2) [software], retrieved from https://www.e-sword.net/.
2. Another possible example of a polite expression not to be taken literally is found in Abraham's negotiation to purchase real estate to bury his dead. He offered "the full price" for a field and cave owned by Ephron son of Zohar (Genesis 23:8-9). Ephron replied, "No, my lord," he said to Abraham, "please listen to me. I will give you the field and the cave. Here in the presence of my people, I give it to you. Go and bury your dead" (Genesis 23:11). In the end Abraham paid 400 pieces of silver - a handsome sum. cf., James Orr, et al, eds., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 4 vols., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 2.964.
3. James Jordan, Judges: God's War Against Humanism, (Tyler Tx: Geneva Ministries, 1985), 85.
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