Last Sunday, a lone gunman walked into West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, and killing two church members before being shot and killed by a member of the church’s armed volunteer security team.
71-year-old Jack Wilson, the person credited with stopping the gunman, was one of several church members present who provided an armed response. The church’s response pointed to the fact that trained, armed citizenry saves lives when facing an active shooter.
In 2017, Texas passed a law allowing people with concealed carry permits to bring their weapons to church. The law was a response to the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left 26 dead before the shooter was shot and killed by a resident outside the church.
Sunday’s shooting launched an internal debate among Christians about whether Christians should kill in self-defense.
The following tweet is an example of the pushback:
The view is not a fringe one. One of the more recognizable evangelicals to hold such a view today would be John Piper.
It is also not a new position as Anabaptists have historically embraced nonviolence and pacifism.
Is it unChristlike to use lethal force in self-defense? I want to explore some of the arguments made for nonviolence.
Turn The Other Cheek?
Those who promote a nonviolent response will often point to the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ call to nonviolence.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matthew 5:38-39, ESV).
Jesus refers to lex talionis (eye for an eye), which is the rule for proportional justice provided in Mosaic law. It does not apply to self-defense. What Jesus is saying here is that individual Christians can not seek vengeance for wrongdoing, that is up to the state (Romans 13:4).
Also, Jesus gives an example of someone who slapped. Slapping someone on the right cheek (unless you are left-handed) means backhanding someone, which is an insult as much as it is an assault.
Christians are not to seek out retribution when wronged and endure insults without responding in kind.
Addressing this passage, 17th-century biblical commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury is such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge.”
Some Christians argue that we should embrace persecution that comes from those who are opposed to the faith.
Jesus does say we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). The Bible also instructs us to endure sorrow “while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19).
James exhorts us to “count it all joy” when we face various trials as they bring about a mature faith (James 1:2-4).
Not all violence is persecution. There are plenty of examples in scripture of Christians fleeing persecution.
Also, there is no biblical command to surrender one’s life or (especially) the life of their child, spouse, or innocent bystander in the response of a deadly attack.
Certainly, some are called to martyrdom, but that is an individual call of God that is contextual.
Does Jesus forbid the use of the sword?
Some will point to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s use of the sword in defense of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). His rebuke was specific; however, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Peter attempted to stop Christ’s ultimate purpose for coming to earth – to die for our sins.
Even in his rebuke, Jesus told Peter to sheath his sword, not to get rid of it altogether.
Jesus’ disciples carried weapons. Jesus even noted his disciples should arm themselves.
“But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one,” (Luke 22:36, ESV).
The verse above should not be interpreted as a positive command to arm ourselves, but Jesus refers to a time when the disciples will face great dangers.
That said, he did not forbid their carrying swords.
A biblical case for self-defense
The Mosaic Law permitted the use of lethal force in defense of one’s home.
“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 is risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him,” (Exodus 22:2-3a, ESV).
First, this verse talks about a thief, not an attacker. Second, it also addresses a reasonable use of force. At night, we are uncertain if an intruder is armed or not. If they can see, a homeowner could have the ability to give a warning first (though not always). An unarmed thief is likely to run away. The goal is to stop the threat, not to kill. If the danger can be stopped without pulling the trigger, all the better, but that is not always possible.
Also, Nehemiah instructed the Jews armed themselves as they rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem to defend themselves against their enemies (Nehemiah 4:15-16).
Then I refer back to what Jesus said to his disciples about arming themselves in Luke 22. Jesus also inferred a right to self-defense in his teaching (Luke 11:21; Matthew 12:29) though he was speaking to a larger truth in his parable.
Christians for ages have had divergent views on the matter of self-defense. The Westminister Larger Catechism answers the question of what are the duties required in the sixth commandment (“shall not murder”):
“The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.” (Westminister Larger Catechism, Q&A 135, emphasis mine)
Going on to question 136, when asked what the sins the sixth commandment forbids, in answering, one sin mentioned is the neglect or withdrawal of “the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life.”
Ultimately, the use of force, in particular, lethal force, in self-defense, is a matter of individual conscience. The taking of a life should be the last resort. In this recent church shooting, it was clear there were no other options. We also should never rejoice in the taking of a life, even in self-defense.
Life is precious, which means it should also be defended when possible.