Are Christians ever justified in taking up arms or using deadly force?
Something which comes with the territory for Elders and others who have leadership roles in the church is that you get asked some tough questions. I’m told that there are a number of folk in the congregation where I served who are deeply troubled by some of the trends in our society. They are frightened by the rise of evil and the lawlessness they see. The topic apparently came up in one of the study groups and some wondered if we ought to purchase weapons to defend ourselves. A lady who was there emailed the Elders to get our take on the subject. The questions she asked boil down to this: “Under what circumstances, if any, should Christians use deadly force to defend themselves? Shouldn’t Christians depend on God to protect them?”
These are emotionally charged questions. It’s all too easy to give a knee-jerk response which is conditioned more by our culture, our fears and our experiences than by Scripture. To complicate matters, self-defense is a broad topic and there isn’t any one passage of Scripture which spells everything out for us in black and white. Instead, we have to weigh and apply several principles. To answer the questions, I’m going to approach the subject a little obliquely.
By the way, the issue of war and whether Christians can or should serve in the armed forces is way beyond the scope of this essay. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish!
To get a handle on the subject of using deadly force I think we need to first ask whether God ever sanctions the taking of human life. Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows that the answer is, ‘Yes.’ He not only sanctioned it, He often commanded it.
But here we must use caution. We can’t indiscriminately transfer everything in the Old Testament to the present. Just because God sanctioned, and even required, the taking of life in the Law of Moses does not necessarily mean that He does so now. Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant. We live under the New. Is there, then, a principle which transcends the Law of Moses? Yes, I think there is. Genesis 9:5-6 says, “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (NIV)
From this I think it is pretty clear that God not only permits, but requires, the death of those who shed human blood. In other words, God commands capital punishment for murder or homicide. The capital punishment spelled out in the Mosaic Law for those who violated the command, “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13 NIV) is really just a practical application of the general principle. The principle is universal because God gave it to Noah right after the flood. Also, it was never fulfilled or revoked by the passing away of the Old Covenant because it predates the Old Covenant. It is still in force. It is likely that Jesus alluded to God’s mandate of capital punishment when He said to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place... for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52 NIV) From the context it’s quite possible that Jesus’ comment has a much broader application than capital punishment, but I think it is safe to say that He upheld and endorsed the principal of capital punishment which God gave to Noah.
This raises another question. If God sanctions capital punishment, who has the responsibility to carry it out? Speaking of a ruler or governing authority Paul writes, “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV) This teaching is echoed by Peter in 1st Peter 2:13.
From these passages I draw the conclusion that it is the state’s or government’s responsibility to carry out capital punishment. Some of the ramifications of this conclusion are:
1) Some would say that putting a murderer to death brings the government or state down to the same level as the murderer. Not so. On the contrary, the state or government is carrying out God’s command.
2) Some say that taking the life of a murderer violates the principle of the sanctity of life. Not at all. It is the murderer who has shown contempt for life. He is merely receiving the same value he has already placed upon it. Seeing the consequence for not placing a high value on life will encourage others to value it more.
3) No blood-guilt is incurred by obeying God’s directive to execute murderers. If asked by the state or governing authority a Christian could, in good conscience, take part in a firing squad or administer a lethal injection.
4) A Christian in law enforcement would be justified and would not incur blood-guilt by using deadly force, according to the guidelines given by the state or governing authority, against someone who has either killed or threatened the life of someone else.
If it is true that God sanctions capital punishment, and if it is true that the responsibility to carry it out lies with the state then, as already indicated, it follows that Christians acting on behalf of the state are acting within God’s will to take human life in those circumstances. But what does this have to do with the issue of self-defense?
A delegated authority
Though the state or government has the responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens and also has the responsibility of putting to death those who have violated the sanctity of life, the fact is that the state cannot be everywhere at all times. It is not capable of protecting everyone. In recognition of this fact, many governments have explicitly delegated part of their authority to individual persons. The state gives a person the right to use deadly force in defending himself against anyone trying (or whom the defender assumes may be trying) to take his life. Similarly, a person has the delegated authority to use deadly force while defending others who are under attack.
The rules governing self-defense or the defense of others vary from one jurisdiction to the next. For example, in the U.S. some states stipulate that a person under attack must first attempt to retreat or flee before using deadly force against his attacker. In recent years, several states have enacted laws which embody the so-called ‘Castle Doctrine.’ These laws acknowledge that someone who is under attack in his own home (metaphorically, his castle) does not have to retreat before defending himself. [Note: Those states which do not have the requirement to retreat already implicitly acknowledge the ‘Castle Doctrine’.]
Regardless of the specific guidelines, the important point is this: Governments have, within narrow bounds, delegated their God-given responsibility to requite the taking of life to ordinary people. Within those boundaries, a Christian may use deadly force without incurring guilt.
We need to remember, however, that what the government allows is not the ultimate standard. There are some other principles of Scripture which apply.
One scriptural principle which restricts the use of deadly force is that of proportion. The Old Covenant Law of “...life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NIV) makes this clear. Our response must not be more dire than the situation calls for. It is inappropriate for anyone to take life in a situation where life is not threatened. So, to make the point with an absurd and extreme example, it would be totally out of place to shoot a small child for tossing a snowball at you. The most you could possibly be justified in doing would be to toss back, with the same force, a snowball of the same size and hardness.
Jesus implicitly recognized the right of a householder to protect his own home (the ‘Castle Doctrine’) when He said, “...If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” (Luke 12:39 NIV) But even there, the principle of proportionate response still applies. Exodus 22:2 states: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed;” (NIV) Yet, the very next phrase says, “but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” (Exodus 22:3 NIV) In other words, under the Law a householder is not held responsible for killing an intruder at night, but is held responsible for killing him after the sun comes up. Presumably the reason is that in the dark it is more difficult, if not impossible, to judge the intent of someone and it is also harder to land blows accurately. When it is light, however, it is easier to judge intent and it is possible to see whether an intruder is armed. If I understand this passage properly, it seems to be saying that property is not worth taking life over. This agrees with the New Testament teaching that life is more important than possessions (See Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36-37, Luke 12:15).
Another principle of Scripture which applies to the use of deadly force is that revenge belongs to God. This principle is stated in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19). While a Christian has the right to use deadly force to defend himself or others from deadly peril, we do not have the right to revenge ourselves. The right to defend is precisely that, it is not a license to attack or exact retribution. Retribution is the Lord’s responsibility.
A related issue which vexes many Christians is whether it is appropriate to take up arms against a corrupt or oppressive government. There are many, for example, who hold the position that the American Revolution was ordained and blessed by God and that Christians were fully justified in taking up arms against Great Britain. These folk argue that the intent of the Founding Fathers was to establish a ‘Christian Nation’ for the purpose of taking the gospel to the far reaches of the world.
Now, a discussion about the concept of a ‘Christian Nation’ is far beyond the scope of this essay. I’ll just mention that I find the whole notion an oxymoron. And, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Founding Fathers derived their philosophy more from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau than they did the Bible. Be that as it may, I find it curious that the same people who extol the American Revolution will censure the French Revolution which took place just a few years later and drew from the same philosophical well. Those among them who hold the Historicist view of the book of Revelation identify the French Revolution with the “foul and loathsome sore” (NKJ) of Revelation 16:2. About the only positive thing they have to say about it is in regard to its role in bringing down the Papacy.
Why the difference in how the two revolutions are regarded? Presumably it is because the Americans purposefully enshrined many biblical principles in their laws and body politic while the French made a deliberate attempt to erase all vestiges of organized religion from their nation and even went to the extreme, at one point, of banning the Bible. But this is an ends-means argument. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul demolished the argument that evil means are justified in order to obtain a good result when he wrote, “...Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2 NIV. See also Romans 3:5-8.) Just because God brought much good out of the American Revolution does not, in any way, justify it or make it right for Christians to have participated in it.
If we leave the ends-means argument aside, is there a biblical mandate for participating in revolution? I can’t find any. Now, I freely admit that I am glad the American Revolution took place. I am, in my own fashion, a patriot. But I cannot justify the American Revolution from the Bible. Whenever someone tries to do so, I hear Samuel’s statement to King Saul start to play in my mind, “For rebellion is like the sin of divination (or witchcraft – NKJ), and arrogance like the evil of idolatry...” (1 Samuel 15:23 NIV)
One of the themes of 1st Peter is submission to governmental authorities. It’s worth noting that the government Peter instructed the people to whom he was writing to submit to, was far worse than the government against whom the Americans rebelled.
The Apostle Paul also instructs submission to the government. He goes so far as to say, “...he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:2 NIV) He goes on to instruct the Christians at Rome to pay their taxes. (See the whole section in Romans 13:1-7.)
Let’s explore that just a little more. Paul writes to the Philippians that because of his imprisonment, the gospel had become known throughout the imperial or praetorian guard. (See Philippians 1:12-13.) According to church tradition (and there is no reason to doubt it) Paul was executed in Rome for his faith in Christ. It was the praetorian guard which carried out political executions (which according to the Roman government, Paul’s would have been). Chances are that Paul personally knew, and had taught the gospel to, the man who beheaded him. In a sense, Paul instructed the Christians in Rome, through their taxes, to pay the salary of his executioner.
There is no getting around it. Both Peter and Paul instructed Christians to be loyal and submissive to the government – even if it is a bad or oppressive one. I just don’t see how anyone can use the Bible to justify fomenting or participating in revolution. The early Christians couldn’t either. When the Jewish people revolted against Rome (66-73 A.D.) the Christians among them obeyed Jesus’ command and withdrew from Jerusalem. The refusal of Christians to side with their fellow Jews against Rome was so strongly resented that the division it caused continues to this day.
Oh, and by the way, what about the justification for the American Revolution against the British that it was to create a nation to be a beacon which would shed the light of Christianity on a benighted world? Well, who was it that spearheaded the abolition of the slave trade? The Brits. Hmm. Who led the way in establishing the Bible Societies? The Brits. Double Hmm. Who was it that was largely responsible for the great missionary movements of the 18th and 19th Centuries? The Brits. Triple Hmm. Who were people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Mary Slessor and Roland Allen? Brits. Quadruple Hmm.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt that Americans have played a large role in the missionary movements and have made important contributions to world evangelism. But the missionary justification for the Revolution really loses its luster when viewed against actual history. There is nothing ‘Manifest’ about U.S. history, nor was it ‘Destined.’
Does being loyal and submissive to government mean obeying no matter what? No. A Christian’s first loyalty is always to God and Christ. There is a reason we call Christ, ‘Lord.’ If a government tells us to do something which is contrary to God’s will then, in order to be loyal to Christ, we will respectfully disobey the government. This, by the way, is why many, if not most, governments view Christians as potentially subversive. Our loyalty to the government is conditional upon the government not requiring us to do what is wrong. (For example, see Acts 4:18-20.)
We must be very careful, however, that our disobedience really is an expression of our obedience to Christ rather than a political protest. In this we must, as in all things, follow the example of our Lord. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (Isaiah 42:2 NIV) While Jesus exposed and strongly opposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, He avoided political controversy as much as possible. When His opponents tried to trap Him into making a seditious statement, He deftly turned the tables while upholding the authority of the state. “...Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 NIV) The teaching is clear: If we can give to Caesar without compromising what is God’s, then we are to comply with what Caesar wants.
What about situations which are not totally clear-cut, in the sense that there is no direct command in Scripture which seems to apply? In the case of abortion, at least in the U.S., there seem to be conflicting principles at work. On the one hand, from a biblical perspective, abortion is the unjustified taking of life. In other words, to put it bluntly, abortion is murder. Under the principles already discussed, a Christian has the right (some would say, has the obligation) to defend against murder. On the other hand, the government says that abortion is a right. Therefore, from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder and the defense rules do not apply.
So what is a Christian to do? Here are a few thoughts that might help clear the air.
1) In the U.S. at least, the decision to have an abortion is entirely voluntary. The question of whether to give asylum or grant sanctuary does not arise.
2) Under the principles of defense, it is the mother who ought to die for the intent or act of taking her child’s life. But, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that killing the mother will certainly not help or protect her unborn child. And, after the abortion has taken place, the penalty for taking life is no longer in our jurisdiction as individuals – if it ever was.
3) If a mother is truly ignorant that she is taking the life of her child, then she needs the same compassion and teaching that we would extend to anyone else who commits sin unwittingly.
4) Offing doctors who perform abortions or blowing up clinics won’t save the lives of any unborn children and only causes others to heap scorn on Christians and revile Christianity.
5) In most countries where abortion is allowed, Christians are just as much citizens as anyone else. We are free to use our rights as citizens to change the laws and peacefully remove ungodly, corrupt or immoral leaders, politicians and bureaucrats from office.
6) If we are so unfortunate as to live under regimes which force women to have abortions, we can offer help and asylum to those who are under threat.
7) Above all, we can set the world an example. First, by making sure our own home life demonstrates Christ’s love and compassion to each family member, born or unborn. Our homes should be islands of joy and peace in this violent and chaotic world. Secondly, by demonstrating that all life has value by caring for the unloved, despised or disadvantaged. This may include being willing to adopt unwanted children or giving so that others can take them in.
The issue of taking up arms is particularly pertinent in regard to another area. How should Christians respond to persecution? Is it appropriate for us to defend ourselves against persecutors? In many places around the world, these are not theoretical questions, but something which must be faced in real life.
I think it is appropriate to first ask why the persecution is taking place. There is a fascinating question in 1st Peter 3:13. “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (NIV) What makes this question fascinating is the textual variation which some other translations follow. For example the ESV says, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” But even that does not capture what Peter is asking. A more literal translation would be, “Who is going to harm you if you are Zealots in doing good?”
The Zealots were super-patriots, political extremists and radical terrorists. It was they who precipitated the Roman war against the Jews in A.D. 66. Is Peter implying that the reason some Christians were suffering was because they had gotten mixed up in sedition or rebellion? I think it’s possible.
So, the first question we need to ask when faced with persecution is whether it really is persecution because of our faith. Or, are we suffering merely because we’ve yanked the authority’s chain?
In the next verse, Peter addresses the other end of the pendulum – the tendency to see threats where none exist. He does this by quoting part of Isaiah 8:12. The first part of Isaiah 8:12 reads, “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy...” (NIV)
In other words, we need a sense of balance. On the one hand don’t call it persecution if we’re guilty of rebellion, and on the other don’t jump at every shadow. Make sure it’s a real case of persecution before reacting. Make sure it really is Christ in us that the opponents are objecting to. Once we have really made Christ our Lord, then whether we used to be toadies of the government, like Matthew the tax collector, or rabid terrorists like Simon the Zealot, we can face true persecution with the peace and confidence that Christ gives.
Okay, so what should we do when faced with genuine persecution? Peter’s answer is to follow the example of Christ. How did He respond to persecution? “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV) Our defense should be made with gentle and respectful words rather than with loaded weapons (1 Peter 3:15).
[Well, what about the situation in Esther? There the Jews defended themselves against persecution. Special case. For starters, the king was tricked into passing an irrevocable law against the Jewish people. Because the law could not be revoked, the Jews were later given authority by the state to defend themselves. It’s not parallel to the persecution which takes place against Christians today. It is worth noting that in the New Testament we never read of any Christian taking up weapons to defend against persecution.]
General principles of Christian conduct
Unfortunately, life rarely follows a script. If we’re going to try to find specific instructions in Scripture for every eventuality and circumstance, we going to be disappointed. There will always be a different situation or complicating factor. What should we do when faced with a situation for which we don’t have a clear example?
There are two general principles which should guide all of our behavior as Christians regardless of circumstance. Peter gives the general rules in 1st Peter 2:11-12.
Rule 1: Abstain from sinful desires.
Rule 2: Act honorably.
These two guidelines will help us do the right thing in every situation. If we follow them consistently, we will be able to live our lives with a clear conscience and no accusation against us will stick.
This man’s conclusions
When all is said and done, I can’t speak for anybody but myself. Even if I could, it would be inappropriate for me to try to legislate your behavior when faced with a life-threatening situation. You are going to have to decide for yourself what the Lord would have you do. As Paul said in another context, “...Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 NIV) Here’s where I am:
I don’t own a gun and have no intention of getting one. Though I have always been fascinated by firearms, one reason I don’t want one around is that, knowing my own nature, it could become a temptation to use it in situations where it isn’t warranted. It could become a temptation to put faith in the weapon instead of relying on Christ.
Having said that, I also think that it would destroy me emotionally to take another life. Yet, if someone were to break into my house – particularly if it was obvious they intended harm, I would do my utmost to defend my family. If it was a choice between my family and the intruder, there is no question I would use deadly force against the intruder even though I would find it incredibly hard to live with myself afterwards. Intellectually, and theoretically I am convinced that I would not be guilty in so defending my loved ones. But my nature is such that I would probably always wonder if there hadn’t been another alternative.
Similarly, if I were to witness a murder in progress and had the means to prevent it, I would like to think that I would have the guts to take action against the attacker. Having never actually been in that circumstance, I don’t know how I would react in real life.
On the other hand, saving property or material things is not worth the taking of life. If I could prevent the theft or damage without using deadly force, fine. But I think it would be far better to let the thief or vandal get away than to put a higher value on something material, which will eventually be destroyed anyway, than on his eternal soul.
I’ve decided that I’m not going to worry about the government. The powers that be are ordained by God and I reckon He is certainly capable of making sure that they and their actions fit into the divine plan. Yes, I pray for our leaders as instructed in 1 Timothy 2:1-4. Yes, I will continue to be a good citizen by voting for upright people and good legislation. As for getting involved in politics – you might be called to do so, but that’s not where the Lord would have me spend my time. My calling is to the church. And revolution or rebellion is simply not an option on my menu. Government is not where the war for the hearts and souls of people will be won anyway. That war will be won or lost at the grassroots level.
If faced with persecution, my opinion is that we Christians should just take it. What have we to lose if someone threatens us with eternity? As Paul said, “...to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 NIV) Brave words which I hope I never have to live up to! What is important is that Christ is glorified in us whether we live or die; that His Name is never sullied by any of our actions.