Over the years, certain topics resurface and find popularity in arenas of debate. Christian faith is not exempt from such recycled discussions, with even well meaning, sincere Christians getting caught up in passionate appeals for a particular view. One such topic gaining popularity in the current religious environment is capital punishment with a close cousin being the question of whether or not a Christian should “bear the sword”, even in matters of personal defense, or in terms of military service. No doubt, this is a very emotional topic, making it difficult for individuals to wade through the emotion and allow Scriptural testimony and Apostolic model to establish precedent. Adding to the muddy waters is the trend of “emergence” and “relative truth” wafting through many congregations with ill equipped pulpits and lack of Biblical instruction on such matters further plaguing believers.
I do not profess to be an authority in Scriptural studies, nor do I submit this as an exhaustive handling of the topic. Rather, I submit the following for consideration in the midst of what I consider to be a dangerous trend of passivity overtaking the Church.
Please allow me to establish my position. I find no prohibition in Scripture of a Christian employing deadly force in personal defense or in defense and preservation of innocent life. Likewise, I am resolved in my belief the Scripture allows for, even commands, the use of capital punishment as proper response for a number of scenarios. Further, although I do not delight in the idea of having to use deadly force, I am not only proficient in the ability to use it, but am equipped on a daily basis should such a need ever arise. It is also necessary to point out the Bible does not mandate “taking up arms” as a means of evangelism, nor do I, although many objectors will continue to accuse me of doing so by my holding to this position. Such statements are purely based in emotion, and have no logical consideration as I reject the use of force as a method for evangelism, have never issued a weapon to a convert, nor would I ever assert Christians must own weapons.
A number of objections have been presented by well meaning believers in opposition to my position, some of which, at the very least, reveal ignorance of Scripture. I will list some of the more prominent objections now, and deal with them individually so as to provide proper instruction, and quell these voices.
Objection #1: “The Sixth Commandment prohibits killing.”
Nearly every conversation I have with folks who hold to passivity or non-resistance, involves their invoking this statement as though it were a trump card, all the while they fail to see the argument simply exposes their illiteracy of Scripture. Exodus 20:1-17 records the commandments for us. Commandment #6 is “You shall not murder.” (NASB’95, emphasis mine) This commandment has been improperly understood since the King James mistranslation of “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV, emphasis mine) as the word employed (ratsach/raw·tsakh) is not translated to mean killing in general, rather it is “to slay”, contextually used to communicate the idea of murder rather than general killing. This mistranslation lends itself to numerous misapplications and poor theology as one must, somehow, resolve OT killing and God’s command for utterly destroying regions… men, women and children… while maintaining God prohibits killing as a whole. The clear understanding of Scripture allows a distinction in types of killing, providing some types and circumstances as justified, while others are condemned by God. Under the proper application and translation of the word employed in the 6th command, no conflict exists in God’s character nor in Christian faith, with proper translation of the language solving the supposed conflict. As for personal defense, Exodus 22 answers the question by allowing personal defense. The Bible, simply put, does not condemn the use of deadly force except in malicious acts. Some might object by citing Romans 12:17-21 as support for non-resistance, which although it does provide a boundary of restriction for actions of personal vengeance, no restriction of personal defense is implied in the passage.
God is consistent throughout the Bible in condemning those who maliciously use force, who plot murder (as in the 6th commandment for not murdering) and who exercise vengeance of their own accord… however, none of these are the same as someone defending themselves or others. The account of the Samaritan is interesting to consider. If he were present when the robbers beat the man, would he have stepped in to stop them, or simply waited until they were finished and then play the role we read in Scripture? It is interesting to me that our culture has a “Good Samaritan” law which cites culpability upon a citizen witnessing a crime of violence and doing nothing to stop it. By my estimation, it is as dishonoring of life to allow a violent criminal to continue living as it is to commit the act of violence.
Objection #2: “Christians should have learned something from the Crusades, namely, violence does not work.”
First of all, I am not suggesting violence as a means of evangelism, nor of propelling the Gospel. Christianity is not Islam. Secondly, the Crusades simply prove my point. When men step outside of the Biblical model or its instruction, or are Biblically illiterate or rebellious, men will fill the void with traditions, practices and false teachings. To employ the Crusades as an argument against personal defense is laughable at best, as there is no resemblance of the two issues. The crusaders were so superstitious and walked so far outside Scriptural instruction, they only serve to evidence one cannot determine the teachings of any faith on the basis of the behavior alone of the professed adherents of said faith. Rather, one must understand the authoritative teaching of said faith. A similar mistake is made by those who argue Islam is a “peaceful religion” by appealing to the “friendly Muslim neighbor/friend/co-worker, etc” they know down the street. Violence is inherent in Islam, although some Muslims do not follow Islamic teaching as they ought… they may be “peaceful” and ignorant of Islamic teaching of waging violent aggression against non-believers. One cannot read the Koran without recognizing the violence inherent in its doctrines, so the behavior of Muslims is a secondary consideration at best. Likewise, numerous people profess Christian faith, yet they do not live according to the instruction provided in Scripture, therefore, the lives of many professing “Christians” as a model for faith and practice is equally invalid.
Objection #3: “Jesus commanded believers to turn the other cheek.”
True, and He also commanded His followers (moments before His arrest in the garden) to sell their coat and buy a sword to carry. (Luke 22) In likewise fashion, some protest by saying “Jesus condemned Peter when he pulled a sword and struck out by saying ‘he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword’, thus Christians cannot bear arms.” Actually, Christians have historically read into the text a chastisement, however, it is simply not recorded. There is no indication of Jesus raising His voice in condemnation of Peter ever using the sword, He simply prevented him from continuing to use it in that situation, citing the arrest had to be allowed in order to fulfill prophecy. (Jesus did not seem shocked at Peter carrying a sword, nor did Peter seem unfamiliar with it’s use, nor uncomfortable in showing it in the Lord’s presence.) Luke’s account indicates Jesus commanded Peter to “Stop!” saying “No more of this” in response to the current situation, not as an overall condemnation of force or resistance. It should also be noted, Jesus never commanded Peter to throw down his sword, rather, to “Put your sword back into it’s place.” (Matthew 26:52) If Jesus intended Peter to never use his sword again, wouldn’t He have commanded him to throw it down or away, rather than re-sheath it, which implies its future accessibility for use? Perhaps these same Christians are unaware of Jesus’ statement as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel… “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34, NASB’95) The text in Matthew 26 also establishes Jesus had twelve legions of angels at His availability, but His purpose for refraining from calling them into action was the fulfillment of prophecy.
The phrase “turn the other cheek” has been very poorly applied in our culture due to lack of maintaining context as established in the passage. First, we must look at the use of “eye for eye” as found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 21:19. The Exodus and Leviticus passages deal with personal injury or loss, but, ultimately, they underscore the value of human life. Keep in mind, the Hebrews were going in among nations which held no regard for human life and God is calling His people out to ensure they will maintain proper regard and reverence for life. Odd as it sounds, the only way of preserving the value of this life is by the taking of the lives of those who treat life with ill regard. As further impression, the text in Deuteronomy underscores certain social indicators for capital punishment which include malicious rebellion, and disregard for authority, among others. Each of these serve as a prime consideration when approaching the concept of personal use of defensive deadly force, deadly force in regard to preserving life, and capital punishment as a cultural form of maintaining civil authority and harmony. With this context, Jesus is not doing away with the Old Testament teaching, if anything, He is enforcing it by pointing out how the law had been misused in His day. Jesus’ points out the need for “turning the other cheek” in the sense of personal insult… not in terms of physical, bodily threat, nor as a prohibition against protecting others. The practice of “striking the cheek” in the Jewish culture was employed as a means of further insult and was not an all out brawl or fist fight, as some inflect upon the passage. The context of the Gospel passage is further qualified in the illustration of providing your shirt, in addition to the coat (Luke 6:29) as collateral demanded by another. This is speaking of a legal agreement, and the ultimate idea presented by the Lord is for believers to make their “Yes, Yes” and their “No, No” by being reliable and trustworthy. These passages do not provide credible grounds for opposing deadly force.
Another passage which seems troubling to non-resistance advocates is Luke 22:36-38, where Jesus instructed His followers to purchase a sword to carry. Incidentally, although this instruction was under the law, and given only moments before Jesus’ arrest, it is an instruction for things to come in the time from the Old Covenant forward. In fact, a consistency is shown in both Old and New Testament teaching. Both John the baptizer and Paul addressed this theme. John, encouraged soldiers to be honest, not to steal and to be content with their wages in his conversation as recorded in Luke 3. In 2 Timothy, Paul used a “good” soldier as an example or model for Christians to follow. I have yet to have a pacifist provide a sound answer when I ask why Paul (inspired of the Holy Spirit) used such an example if Christians were not to respond to some situations with force. It would seem to me, if Paul understood military service as inconsistent with Christian faith, he would have stated so. If, as pacifists state, a Christian cannot use force (something a “good” soldier must do) then, Paul’s example would be as invalid as if he had used a prostitute as an example.
In similar fashion, Jesus had conversations with soldiers and never once is He recorded as condemning their military service as sinful… although He knew they carried a sword. In fact, He commended the Centurion for having great faith. In Matthew 24, Jesus used the example of a thief breaking into a home as an allegory for His unannounced return. He said in vs. 43 that if the head of the house knew the hour the thief would break in, he would have been alert and not allowed the thief to enter. Certainly, being “alert” and “not allowing” the thief to enter would (at least) imply the ability of the man to protect his home..? Any number of illustrations could have been employed by Jesus, yet He chose the thief and home owner, placing the obvious wrong doing in the thief’s hands and, at least by implication, allowing for the home owner to use force to protect his home. Was Jesus acting outside acceptable means when He braided the whip, overturned the tables, and drove the money changers from the temple? Was He motivated only in anger, or with personal vengeance, or is it possible He was motivated by love? Someone once suggested the use of force is only allowed when it involves a place of worship, or stealing from God. (wow)
Objection #4: “Paul’s use of military figures of speech indicates we are in a spiritual battle, and is not a call to arms, rather an apt analogy. It does not imply anything either way about the use of physical violence.”
One pitfall of Scriptural interpretation suffered by many is the “spiritualization” of a passage when a common understanding is provided by the text. Paul’s writing does address spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10ff), however, it does not ignore the use of the illustration as a valid example for a Christian. Paul was not addressing spiritual warfare, per se, in 2 Timothy when he urges believers to “… suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ…” (2 Timothy 2:3-6) or when he speaks of becoming entangled in civilian affairs. The emphasis is upon pleasing the commanding officer, and the ethic and dedication of a soldier, as traits of commendation for the believer. Although the text says nothing about the use of force, one need not stretch the imagination to understand the business of a soldier, which Paul could have condemned, yet, he did not.
Objection #5: “Evidence from history indicates little or no military involvement by Christians from ‘the end of the New Testament period to 170-180AD'” (according to Yale historian Roland Bainton)
One fact is overlooked in citing this as evidence for Christian non-resistance or passivity… Christians were a persecuted sect within Rome in this period. For a Christian to enjoin military service would involve, at best, a hiding of faith, most likely a renouncement of Christian faith altogether. Further, since Christians were being persecuted by Rome it would be a violation of conscience and Christian ethic to participate in the death of brothers and sisters in Christ. Roman law exempted Jews from military service in the times of Christ. Certainly, given the number of traditions found difficult in the NT era for Jewish believers to abandon, it does not go without reason to see merit in the possibility of Christians not enjoining military service in a mistaken perception of a conflict of faith due to their Jewish heritage. Further, due to persecution and the urgency of the Gospel commission, Christians were scattered abroad and more concerned with survival and evangelism than a military career, given the first century expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. Since Rome, and, subsequently, Rome’s army, were pagan, there would have been a number of practices found within the army life which would have been unappealing to Christian life values. This is not to say it would have been impossible for a Christian to be in the military without violating matters of faith and conscience, rather, it is to note the great difficulty with which a Christian could maintain faith in such conditions. Without doubt, given our cultural dynamic, the same could be said of American military service, yet, many Christians serve with distinction while remaining untarnished by such immoral practices. I suggest a number of factors would have reduced the probability of Christians serving in the military in early Christian history, however, the use of deadly force would not have been a reason for their exclusion of service. Although it may be true there is little evidence, especially presented by historians, for Christian military service in early history, there is likewise little condemnation by early historians for such practices. And, again, early historians are non-inspired and non-authoritative in terms of faith and practice.
In a further appeal to history for passivity and non-resistance, an article by Don Murphy (Spirituality Today, Spring 1986) entitled “Can a Christian Be a Pacifist?”, cites several examples of early century historians. However, the careful reader notices flaws in such an appeal as a final basis for sound understanding of Christian practice. Murphy’s article is available for download as a pdf copy by clicking HERE. Although early practice of believers is good to know, we must be cautious not to place undue authority in their practice alone. Many well meaning believers were caught up in practices and traditions in early Christian history which are not to be perceived as an authoritative model for practice. The final authority is Scripture.
I find no prohibition in Scripture for the use of deadly force as means of protecting or preserving life. Silence in Scripture is not a prohibition, nor is it, necessarily, a license for participation. Sufficient Scripture in both Old and New Testament provide for the use of deadly force, especially in light of no prohibition being employed against such use. In fact, when Paul and Barnabas appealed to the Apostles on behalf of the Gentiles, the prohibitions placed upon the believers as “essential” (as provided by the Holy Spirit) were to “… abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29, NASB’95) Although this is not an exhaustive list of prohibitions, exclusions or acceptable practices for the believer, it is noted as yet another opportunity to condemn deadly force or military service as immoral… yet, no condemnation exists.
Corresponding to this topic is the question “What establishes the right of one person to take the life of another?” A more common way for this to be voiced is “Who gave you the right to play God?” Although it will make many squirm, the answer to this question is God Himself has given this right, and it is not to “play God” as some assert, rather, it is to cooperate with God in respecting life.
Consider the “10 Commandments” with me for a moment as they reflect this value of life and establish the God-given right to defend it. Each of the commandments (excepting the Sabbath observance) are a moral law or code of conduct, and, as such, are universal. To violate any of these commandments is first a violation against God, and secondly a violation against man. The New Testament agrees with this in that each commandment is repeated in form within the New Testament, excepting the Sabbath. Jesus Himself did not disagree with the commandments in any way, He further underscored their significance in man to man interaction and their direct impact upon an individual’s standing before God. In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus further emphasized the impact of responsible human interaction by stating “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it (or did not do it) to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.” Matthew 25:40, 45, NASB’95
So clear is this moral foundation, and so universal is its application that the founding fathers of America rightly recognized the commandments as the only structure for right government and the establishment of law.
Woven well throughout this universal moral law is the unmistakable value of humanity, such that to violate a fellow man in terms of covetousness, deceit, stealing, disrespect, false testimony or malicious violence is to invoke the wrath of God. Romans 13:1-5 rightly establishes government as bearing a sword which is designed to preserve the integrity of cultural moral fiber in respect to these matters. Additionally, the individual person is endowed with an ability to preserve and protect both person and property, as God established in the giving of His law. For any individual, or government, to cross these moral boundaries and violate anothers property or person is to violate God, and disrespect human life. Recompense is not only reasonably expected, it is demanded as a preservation of the balance of human dignity. In this we find one pitfall in the current American penal system… a lack of respect for law and a general disregard for human life because just penalty is not enforced upon the offender. To allow such disregard to continue is to expect further degradation of society.
This moral code is not only for the individual, it stands for kings and governments as well. God denounced the immoral actions of King Ahab in 1 Kings 21:15-19 for his committing murder and also taking possession of property which was not his. Ahab’s family suffered for his actions which further underscores the significant need for maintaining the law. When the law is disregarded, individual rights are repressed or human life is dishonored, God takes it personally and will respond accordingly. Our founding fathers understood the responsibility of each man to respect his fellow man, and further endowed American citizenry with the right to bear arms. This 2nd Amendment right is not for sake of shooting sports or hunting, as some today assert, but, rather, it is entirely to maintain a balance between the citizens and our government. The Constitution simply agrees with what God has already stated in His universal moral teaching with regard to human life. No one, not even government, has the right to violate the person or property of another. When such an offense exists there is an inherent, and God given right for the offended to protect themselves (and their property) even to the extent of ending the life of the offender.
So, who gives me (and you) the right to defend person and property with deadly force? God does. Anyone so violated by one who steps outside the moral law by aggressively violating them or their property, has the right to stop the perpetrator with any means at their availability. Exercising this God-given right, however, is under the sober discretion of the individual.