What does the Bible say about self-defense?

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What does the Bible say about self-defense?

June 22, 2022 - Mark Legg

© Nathan Allred /stock.adobe.com

© Nathan Allred /stock.adobe.com

© Nathan Allred /stock.adobe.com

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Since the beginning of 2022, America has averaged around 1.5 shootings every day where four or more people were injured or killed. A recent study revealed that guns killed more young people than car accidents in 2020 and 2021. On the other hand, millions of Americans own guns responsibly. There are multiple reasons to own firearms (e.g., target shooting), but the most common justification is self-defense.

However, some Christians advocate for strict nonviolence, or pacifism. They interpret the teachings and example of Jesus to mean Christians should never engage in violence, even to defend themselves or others. That would mean Christians shouldn’t own guns for self-defense.

While a great deal of debate also surrounds whether Christians should serve in the military and whether war is ever justified, that is not the focus of this paper. For now, we’ll look at what the Bible says about self-defense and whether Christians can ever use force in that context. In another resource, we discuss gun control from a Christian point of view.

What does the Bible say about self-defense?

Let’s look at the most commonly used Bible passages in the debate over self-defense.

Luke 22:36–37: Sell your cloak to buy a sword

Jesus is meeting with his disciples in the “upper room,” and he’s about to go to his death on the cross. Before they leave the Passover dinner, he explains that a new season of ministry will arrive. Instead of wandering from town to town without any possessions, he tells the disciples to carry a knapsack and money bag and to “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35–38).

Many believe that he is urging his disciples to buy a sword for protection since traveling will become more perilous. On the other hand, some commentators say Jesus does not mean this command literally. Perhaps he’s referring to a “spiritual” sword of some kind, although it’s hard to see why Jesus would urge them to sell their cloak to buy a spiritual sword.

Alternatively, Malcolm O. Tolbert writes, “Jesus’ statement . . . must be a way of emphasizing that the disciples are about to enter a time of great peril—a point that apparently was lost on them.” It is as though Jesus is saying, “Boy, you’re going to wish you had a sword!” To me, this interpretation seems possible, although not the most likely.

Normally, looking at the context helps us understand the intention behind his words. However, in this case, it just makes his saying even more confusing. Jesus continues: “‘For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22:37–38)

The phrase “It is enough” is tricky to translate. Some scholars take it to mean Jesus is rebuking them—basically yelling “Enough!” Obviously, the two swords were not “enough” to fight off the mob about to arrest Jesus. And, in just a few verses he will discourage Peter from using the sword. (We’ll discuss that passage in a moment).

So, it doesn’t seem clear what Jesus is saying. Probably, he is suggesting in a general way that in the next season of ministry, the disciples will want to get swords for protection. Basically, they should return to more sustainable ways of doing ministry, and this includes owning a sword. And when Jesus says, “It is enough,” he probably means that the two swords are enough for him to be “numbered among the transgressor” when he is arrested.

The coming events would confirm Jesus’ use of Isaiah’s prophecy. Peter will “transgress” by cutting off the ear of Malchus, who was part of the mob that came to arrest Jesus, presumably using one of those two swords. This fact shows that Jesus is in complete control on the night of his death.

Regardless, because we could reasonably take his saying as metaphorical, let’s continue with other verses.

Matthew 26:51–56: Sheath your sword

After Peter cuts off the servant of the high priest’s ear, Jesus responds, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52–54). Jesus goes on to heal the man’s ear before the mob takes him away to face condemnation.

“For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is likely a paraphrase of Jeremiah 15:2. Christian pacifists use this verse to refer to “an absolutely universal principle,” arguing that this means Christians must never engage in violence. In their view, although it seems like using force can save lives, in the end, violence is never the correct response.

However, it’s better to interpret this saying as “simply [a general] observation that violence breeds violence.” In other words, it’s more proverbial than a moral absolute. Jesus saying this makes perfect sense given the situation.

Through his crucifixion, Jesus is about to show that suffering injustice and sacrificing yourself for your enemies is more admirable than responding with violence. At this moment, Jesus is in the profound, divinely planned act of laying down his life to pay for the sins of humanity. Peter’s rash attack against all odds will not stop God’s divine plan. Practically speaking, they could not have stopped the mob with only two swords anyway. If Jesus had wanted to lead a messianic revolt against the Roman army or protect himself from the mob, he could have called tens of thousands of angels to his aid.

However, Jesus’ general statement does not necessarily and universally ban using force to protect oneself or others. In this instance, Peter’s foolish violence would only have led to a worse outcome, so Jesus rebukes Peter. Jesus is also showing that his kingdom will not come through violent insurrection. That is the same for Christianity throughout time. We are not to bring God’s kingdom to earth through violence of any kind.

Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers”

In this verse of the beatitudes, Jesus encourages his followers to be “peace-makers.” Not only those who “keep the peace,” but those who actively “seek to bring men into harmony with each other.” Christians should be the kind of people who bring Jesus’ kingdom to earth by making peace wherever they can.

This kingdom of God will not be fully sealed until the Day of Judgment, but we can start bringing it to earth by living as citizens of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom will ultimately be one of peace, as described in Isaiah 9:6–7, 66:12–13, and Micah 4:3. It is the ultimate ideal for all Christians, and creating peace wherever we go is certainly one of our primary roles in this life.

However, this again does not seem to universally negate any use of force in every situation. For example, Jesus turns over tables in righteous anger in the Temple, divinely enraged at the extortion happening in his Father’s house (Matthew 21:12). Certainly, in that instance, Jesus wasn’t making peace. Yet, this was a rare, sinless display of righteous anger. So for us, the use of force should be basically unheard of in the midst of our radical sacrifices for peace, but defense remains a morally acceptable option.

Matthew 5:39: “Turn the other cheek”

Christian pacifists frequently appeal to Matthew 5:39. From it, they argue that we must suffer violence and never return it. Certainly, this verse is a core teaching of love and aligns with how Christ lived, so let’s unpack it more.

One commentator summarizes this section, “A righteous man would be characterized by humility and selflessness . . . he might go ‘the extra mile’ to maintain peace. When wronged . . . he would not strike back, demand repayment, or refuse to comply. Instead of retaliating he would do the opposite, and would also commit his case to the Lord who will one day set all things in order.”

But does this mean that, universally, we can never defend ourselves or others?

Instead of coming to destroy Rome, as most Jews thought the messiah would do, Jesus defeated the powers of darkness by dying and rising from the dead. That is certainly true. However, as Craig Blomberg writes, “Striking a person on the right cheek suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade such insults even if it means receiving more. In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it bear directly on the pacifism . . . debate.”

If we take it at the extreme to mean that Jesus commands all Christians to passively allow violence to be done to them, think of the abusive situations in which his people would be trapped. It’s also inconsistent with Jesus’ actions, who at one point used his divine power to escape violent crowds (Luke 4:29–30). Pacifists allow for running away from violence (and that seems to nearly always be the right option), but it seems to me that if we take Jesus’ statement as referring to violence, we would need to simply accept violence done to us.

This passage teaches us that we should de-escalate situations as much as possible, acting as peacemakers. And Jesus’ teaching certainly prohibits the use of force or insult in retaliation, anger, or revenge. However, these principles do not seem to prohibit using force to guard our safety and the safety of others. Although, Jesus’ teaching does make use of force acceptable only as a last resort and in cases unquestionably dealing with self-defense and not with punishment or retaliation.

Exodus 22:2–3: The killing of a “thief found breaking in”

In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites laws that showed his just character and desire for order. The first five books of the Bible are called “Torah,” which means “teaching,” or “instruction.” So, even though the Levitical laws don’t always apply to God’s people anymore, we should still learn from them.

In Exodus, one of the laws for Israel states, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him” (Exodus 22:2–3)

There are a couple of key ideas in this text. First, if there is a home invader at night who is presumably stealing from you and you kill them while defending your home, you are not guilty of murder. The second is harder to nail down: Why is it different in the daytime? It is equally important to realize that if you kill someone in the daytime, you are guilty of murder, even if it’s in defense of your property.

There are a few explanations. First, the thief could be more easily caught during the day. Another suggestion is that if the thief is stealing during the daytime, he is less likely to kill someone. At night, it seems more likely that someone entering your house is intruding and up to no good, whereas in the day, they might be doing something odd but not wrong. Or, maybe the difference is that a groggy person awoken at night may not reasonably be able to hold back how forceful they are.

In any case, the goal of the homeowner is clearly to deter the robber or have the authorities capture them and bring them to justice. In the next verse, the Bible lays out the just, corresponding punishment: The thief will either pay the amount back or be sold into slavery (v. 4).

The biblical laws give protection even to criminals. It protects thieves from being punished by death. “The law, in other words, did not allow unlimited freedom to the victim of a crime to defend or retaliate.” While capital punishment was sometimes mentioned in the Old Testament, it is notable that even thieves possess the image of God. Each person, even a criminal, is a human being with inherent worth.

This passage clearly means an individual cannot kill a criminal in revenge or in service of vigilante justice. It also suggests that even if you are defending your house, you shouldn’t intend to kill the thief. The passage in Exodus gives the impression that we should try to repel home invaders and bring them to justice through due process. If, in the confusion of the moment, we kill the invader in defense, we are not guilty of murder. But, if we kill them knowing there is no threat to us, we do commit murder, even if they’ve wronged us. Just because someone steals something from us does not give us reason enough to kill them.

This applies today. It certainly seems to support self-defense, and yet also gives strict limits on when to use it.

Luke 11:21 and Matthew 12:29: Parables including self-defense

In two parables, Jesus makes a broad spiritual application that assumes the effectiveness of self-defense. While these are clearly not about Jesus teaching on self-defense, it shows that defending one’s home from intruders was a common, understood idea. Jesus never addressed that as an explicit wrong, although his teachings did limit how Christians should defend themselves to last resort. We’re not placing too heavy a weight on these though, because Jesus does not necessarily speak to the issue of self-defense through these parables.

Romans 12:18–19: “If possible . . . live peaceably with all”

In the final passage we’ll look at within this paper, we’ll have a good conclusion to our discussion about self-defense: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18–19).

This has a wide range of applications. If a neighbor steals from you, use Spirit-inspired discretion, leaning on the side of love—answering evil with good. If at all possible, live peaceably with people, even criminals. However, Paul recognizes it’s not possible in this broken, fallen world to live peaceably with everyone. But that is still a tall order, and we should not neglect it: in every area of our lives, we must live peaceably with everyone, by every possible means.

In other places, Paul appeals to Roman law to protect himself (Acts 22:22–23;  25:10). Other times, he rejoices in his own suffering and persecution (Romans 5:3).

Theologian Robert H. Mounce summarizes this well: “The natural impulse is to return injury for injury. But retaliation for personal injury is not for those who claim to follow the one who told his disciples to turn the other cheek and go the second mile (Matt 5:39, 41; cf. Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9). Instead, believers are to be careful to do what is honorable in the sight of everyone.”

Using force to protect life

We should submit to the governing authorities unless they command us to do something against God’s will. In the same way, we are to show sacrificial love even to our enemies, unless we have no other choice but to protect others or ourselves. It is the last, last possible resort to use force in defending ourselves or our families. And even in that case, we must try to avoid killing the attacker or invader if at all possible. We must never use force in revenge or anger, vigilantism, or spite. God will hold all sins accountable: the sins of the criminal and our own sins as well.

In my view, that bar for when to use violence should be set even higher if you are only defending yourself. If it looks like an intruder intends to harm your family, that’s a time to use force. If only you are there, trying to defuse the situation through nonviolent means is the best route. Or even cooperating with the criminal. Of course, we are allowed to defend ourselves, but the ultimate goal is for everyone to leave the situation alive.

We should all long for the day when the kingdom of God is brought to earth in its fullest sense. When we will “beat [our] plowshares into swords, and [our] pruning hooks into spears” (Joel 3:10).

The position of pacifism is understandable. We long to be free from violence and hatred and even the potential need to defend ourselves. The biggest argument in favor of pacifism is certainly Jesus’ life on earth, in my opinion. He exercised nonviolence throughout his ministry in surprising ways.

And yet, though we long to be free from violence, sometimes in the interest of protecting life, we use force.

What do Christian leaders say about self-defense?

Although we’ve already referenced many commentators on the Bible, it’s helpful to get a grasp on what Christians throughout church history have thought about the issue. Christian leaders throughout history rarely denounce self-defense, and the church has remained consistent on the issue with a few exceptions. One of the main potential exceptions is the early church, although that fact is hotly debated.

The early church

It’s unclear whether the early church practiced pacifism. Theologians and historians debate it extensively. If early followers of Jesus interpreted Jesus’ words about buying swords literally, then they likely did not believe in pacifism. It is true that they were often killed for their faith. Of course, many Christians give up their lives for the faith even to this day. Throughout history, Christians have accepted persecution as part and parcel of their earthly lives. In fact, according to church tradition, every one of the original twelve disciples but John was killed for their beliefs. Apparently, the Romans tried to kill him as well. After being imprisoned and beaten many times in his ministry, Paul was beheaded.

It certainly seems as though early Christians despised the use of violence in any situation. Still, it’s difficult to say whether they believe they should never, under any circumstances, use force. Here is a survey of some early Christian writers that seem to favor strong pacifism.

Augustine

Augustine was a late Roman-period theologian and a thinker revered by both Protestants and Catholics. In his book On the Freedom of the Soul, Augustine discusses self-defense. He argues that laws permitting self-defense are just. He says that killing to protect oneself from rape, death, or in service to a government, if done with the right desire, is good (even if not ideal). Being overcome by “lust” (misplaced desire) and killing because of it cannot be good. In Augustine’s mind, then, killing is only justified in the case of right desire.

Thomas Aquinas

Medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas affirms that Christians can defend themselves. He responds to this question in the massive Summa Theologiae, Question 64, part 2 of part 2. According to him, we should not intend to kill whomever we defend ourselves from unless we’re a soldier or officer. He writes, “If a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful.” He bases this in part on Exodus 22:2–3, which we discussed earlier. Even when we defend ourselves, we should not use force with the intention of killing them.

C. S. Lewis

The beloved twentieth-century scholar, Christian apologist, and writer put his own views on pacifism forward in an address to a pacifist group in Britain. In that speech, he argued that pacifism is not really about moral conscience as pacifists claim. Instead, he says that anyone who chooses pacifism must make the judgment about its rightness because it’s not self-evident that we shouldn’t use force to defend ourselves. In fact, he argues that the overwhelming majority of great thinkers (ever “since Homer,” as he says) believe in the justified use of force. This is also true of self-defense, not just in war or serving in the military. Lewis argues that Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek means that we cannot retaliate against a neighbor who does us harm. He says that Jesus is speaking of the “frictions of daily life,” not life-and-death scenarios.

Should Christians defend themselves?

Pacifists mostly rest their case on the example of Jesus. I understand the draw of following Jesus in an entirely nonviolent way, always turning the other cheek, and especially in the case of persecution for our faith. In history, Christians escaped from persecution. Other times, they accepted violence done to them without resistance. Stephen, imitating Christ, looked up to heaven and, as his last act on earth, forgave those who were killing him (Acts 6:8–8:1). Paul (the man who approved Stephen’s execution) at another time after his conversion, escapes persecution through a window in the outer wall of a city (Acts 9:23–25).

So, we have examples to avoid persecution, either through the law or by fleeing. However, we don’t have any examples of self-defense in the case of persecution. It seems like Christians should not fight back with force if we are being persecuted explicitly because of our faith. We may also be able to defend our families from persecution with force, although that exception isn’t clear. The main thrust here is that Christianity itself should not become associated with violence.

So, while the Bible seems to permit using force in personal self-defense and to prevent further violence, I believe Christians should take a nonviolent stance when confronted by persecution.

If anything, the Bible clearly outlines that we must live peaceably. We must be known as bringers of peace. Using force is the rare exception. We should not “fetishize” guns or violence. We do not enforce Christian teaching with violence. And we do not convert people by threatening them. We point people to Jesus with our loving, unifying actions. But, in this broken world, when the need arises to protect ourselves or to deter further violence, we are permitted to use force.

While Christians will suffer persecution, we are permitted to defend ourselves and others when there is no other choice left in the case of crimes done against us that don’t deal with our faith. We are called to deter crimes and to avoid killing the offender when at all possible.

Practical application

Here are some rules we can draw out from what we’ve gleaned:

  • Remember that we can suffer persecution for our faith without defending ourselves.
  • Use force only to prevent further violence or harm done to innocent people.
  • Use force in self-defense if necessary, but know the primary goal is deterrence.
  • Do not use force in spite, vengeance, or even in service of vigilante justice.
  • Do not use force under the pretense of advancing Christianity.
  • Finally, we should be known as peacemakers who love their enemies.

Our ultimate weapon is love; it is spiritual warfare that we are engaged in. Our enemies are not people; they are the spiritual powers of darkness, for we were once in darkness ourselves (Ephesians 5:18, 6:12). We should always remember that, even as we protect ourselves and families.

In summary about the question of self-defense, I agree with what pastor Erik Raymond writes for Gospel Coalition: “The biblical narratives seem to assume the right of sober self-defense.”

 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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