Much has been said and written lately regarding the Christian civilian and the use of deadly force (or any force at all, for that matter), with many pastors and Christian leaders weighing in on the subject. Some of these words have been rather rootin’ tootin’ in nature (Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s remarks on December 4, for instance), while some have landed squarely in the pacifist end zone (see Bethlehem College and Seminary Chancellor John Piper’s article of December 22). But the simple truth lies somewhere between these two poles, and I’d like to make the Biblical case for how this works.
Before proceeding, however, I’d like to disclose some of my background so that you may understand a little of my DNA on the issue. I am a pastor, and have been for sixteen years. But I am also a military brat, a Navy veteran (no combat training or experience), a reserve police academy top graduate, a current law enforcement chaplain and an unapologetic member of the NRA. I am an avid firearms enthusiast who owns several firearms and who reloads his own ammunition. I thoroughly enjoy shooting, and train at it whenever I’m able to do so, whether with civilian or law enforcement friends. At my church I lead the shooting group, with whom I enjoy great fellowship in the Word and also on the range (where we practice everything from close quarter engagements to sniping).
There are three important things to understand about the previous disclosure:
- There is no conviction against all of this by the Holy Spirit in my life
- I never want to harm or take the life of a fellow human being
- However, under certain circumstances as a Christian civilian, I am soberly prepared to harm or take the life of a fellow human being in order to protect my life from imminent death or great bodily injury, or to protect the lives of my family members and/or the lives of innocents from the same
So let’s get to the task at hand.
Despite the wonderful heart behind the argument, the defense of blanket pacifism today still falls short exactly where it has always fallen short: the passage in Luke 22 where Jesus highly recommends His disciples arm themselves with the basic weapon of the day. So it’s best if we take a look at that passage in its totality, for it’s one of two basic passages that define the playing field for armed Christian self-defense.
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’; 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 NIV)
This passage provides the green light for armed Christian self-defense, and essentially has been the fly in the ointment for those among Christendom who prefer us to be blanket pacifists. Without this passage (and especially verse 36b) there would be absolutely no arguing for violence of any sort by a follower of Christ. But the existence of this passage changes the argument drastically, and its detractors know this full well, and would seemingly wish it away if they could.
There is a second passage, however, that effectively provides the red light for armed Christian self-defense, and we must look at that passage as well. It occurs only a few hours after our previous passage, when Peter decided to use one of those swords to protect Jesus upon His arrest.
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:50b-52 NIV)
So here’s where we find ourselves: Jesus tells His followers that they should arm themselves, and then He immediately chastises them for using one of their weapons. Huh? So do we arm ourselves or do we not? Do we use our weapons or do we not? The answer to this conundrum is found back in Luke 22:35.
Before highly recommending that His disciples arm themselves, Jesus asked them a question, and that question began with a when. He wanted to know whether or not when He had sent them out before (most likely the sending of the Twelve in Matthew 10) without any extra purse, bag or sandals they had ever lacked anything. They answered that they had lacked absolutely nothing. Jesus then indicated a distinct change in verse 36 by saying but now. So He is clearly speaking of two distinct times: the way it was before, and the way it will be after this.
While He was with His disciples during His earthly ministry, Jesus supernaturally protected them from all harm – not just harm from the Enemy, but from all harm (John 17:12). Others were undoubtedly murdered in Galilee and Judea during that time, but His disciples were not. Others were undoubtedly robbed in Galilee and Judea during that time, but His disciples were not. Others were undoubtedly raped, brutalized and kidnapped in Galilee and Judea during that time, but His disciples were not. He protected them down to the sandals on their feet. But that was then.
Now, however, it would be a different story. In Luke 22:36, Jesus essentially released His followers back into experiencing the full, horrible reality of human existence on this fallen planet, meaning that (among other things) they would be just as susceptible to criminal activity as were all other human beings. And it must be so, for if Jesus shielded all of His followers from criminal activity, most people would become Christians just to be made safe in this fallen world. By highly recommending that they arm themselves, He was simply telling them that they had the right to defend themselves against criminal activity. Please understand that it wasn’t a requirement Jesus was laying on them, but it was a right afforded to people in the Roman Empire (as it has been to most people throughout history, regardless of kingdom, nation or empire).
So that’s how the green light works, and it’s easy enough to understand. Now we need to discuss the red light, and that too is very uncomplicated. Simply put, we are never to use violence to defend Jesus or to spread the Christian faith. Ever. Jesus can defend Himself, and His kingdom doesn’t need our swords, Glocks or M-16’s. Jesus permits us to be armed not because we’re His followers, but because we’re human beings who also happen to be His followers.
I’ll finish by dealing with two questions that may address some common problems with the theory I’ve put forward.
How will I know the difference between criminal activity and being persecuted for my faith?
There’s really no easy way to answer that one, short of asking the bad guy to fill out a Criminal Activity vs. Persecution Form. The reality is that things aren’t cut and dried here, and therefore many Christians find it easier to simply fail in the non-aggression direction in all things because of that. What is really needed, however, is for individuals, families and groups to put in the time to think through, pray over and seek wisdom regarding these things in advance, and then decide where they are likely to find themselves in the green light/red light scenario. For instance, if someone breaks into my house at night, it’s automatically considered criminal and life-threatening, and we’ll sort it out after the smoke clears. But our approach is entirely different during daylight hours. And I have a rule of thumb by which I operate in this fallen world: My failure mode is Hero unless otherwise directed by the Holy Spirit.
Shouldn’t I just turn the other cheek?
Not always. You certainly may, but all things in moderation (and context!). If some Christ-hating pagan is molesting a child in your church because he hates your faith, I wouldn’t expect you to hand him another child to molest. As for me, I’m gonna stop him from molesting the children in as violent a manner as is necessary to do the job. I’m a shepherd, after all, and shepherds protect their sheep. I have the right to turn only one cheek (should I choose to do so for the sake of the gospel), and that’s mine. Except by prior agreement with another follower of Christ, I don’t have the right to turn anyone else’s cheek – that’s where it’s Hero mode for me (as I hope it will be for most men).
See you at the gun show!
Till next time.