The Most Commonly Slung Passages in This Debate
Let's start with one of the most often cited verses when this issue is brought up, Matthew 5:38-9: "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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." The problem with applying this verse to modern self-defense is that, while slapping someone in the face may count as physical assault in American culture, in Jewish culture at the time of the New Testament (and in many other cultures throughout history), slapping someone in the face was just an insult. Furthermore, if you read the entire passage for this verse as context, none of the examples have to do with physical danger; the theme that emerges is that even when someone does something unjust to you (in this passage, the examples are insulting you with that slap, suing you in court, and the Roman government demanding extra work from you [kind of like a physical tax]), you are not to retaliate. Now, if - and I mean IF - other Scripture established the notion that this principle also applied to someone trying to murder your or rape you or beat you to a bloody pulp so they could steal your wallet, this passage would be highly relevant. But since I don't believe Scripture does that (as I will demonstrate with Scripture throughout this post), this verse simply doesn't apply to the specific issue at hand: self-defense from a physical attack.
Another passage that pops up frequently in debates about this topic is Luke 22:35-38: "And He said to them, 'When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?' They said, 'No, nothing.' And He said to them, 'But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, "AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH THE TRANSGRESSORS"; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.' They said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords.' And He said to them, 'It is enough.'" [Notice that this is a reversal of Jesus's command to the disciples found in Matthew 10:5-14, Mark 6:7-13, and Luke 10:1-12 - because the situation had changed from Jesus's initial ministry to the Jews to worldwide evangelism in a world where Jesus had been crucified.] Proponents of both sides of this issue actually use this passage to support their polar-opposite positions! I'll simply say that this is what I see in it:
- This issue is all about BALANCE.
- We are given permission to provide for and defend ourselves because we are living in a very, very dangerous world (i.e. we are living among transgressors).
- But we are still, above all else, to go out among the world and preach the Gospel - the sword (weapon) is one tool to help us carry out that mission (by keeping us alive), but our focus, our purpose, and our intent is to serve Christ above all else - that's made explicit by what He's referring to in referencing His previous instructions upon sending them out. The sword is not the main point of this passage, so when examining that one facet, we must keep the main point in mind.
- From the entirety of Scripture, we find that we are to both act ourselves and depend on God fully. When you are unable to (in this case) take measures to defend yourself, trusting God to protect you demonstrates admirable faith - but if you refuse to because you "trust" God to protect you, that very well could be putting God to the test (see Matthew 4:5-7), and His plan might be to not protect someone who treats His providence so flippantly. Yes, God can protect anyone even if they are an unarmed cripple against an army of a million, but they way He chooses to protect someone in a given situation very well may be to use human beings, even that human being trained or armed or whatever, to bring about that protection. (Psalm 18:34)
- We are NOT to engage in "Holy War" (see John 18:36). Defending your own life or the life of another is totally different from going out and threatening to kill people if they don't "convert." Additionally, "Holy War" is pointless - you simply cannot force someone to come to genuine faith in a loving God by holding a gun to their head. It's stupid, it's pointless, and it's utterly evil.
- Finally, I want to address why Jesus said, "It is enough." My personal interpretation is that He was saying those two swords were enough for that specific situation they found themselves in at that moment (Gethsemane), because (1) obviously, they didn't exactly have time to go buy more right then, (2) evidenced by the fact that they yanked out swords the instant He said that, the disciples apparently got a bit freaked out and were preparing for a conflict right then, and (3) branching off of that, Jesus did not intend Gethsemane to turn into a battlefield because being crucified was His very purpose for coming to Earth.
More potentially applicable material can be found in Ephesians 5:25-33, which lists off how husbands should treat their wives, including "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and also gave Himself up for her...So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies." In this, it seems to say that husbands should be willing to die to protect their wives (and, given the culture in which that was written, it was not meaning in the context of joining the military). Consider that defending your family is an issue that pops up frequently in American discussions of self-defense.
In the Old Testament, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (in which the captive Israelites are rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple) provide examples of how, in a non-war context, men arm themselves to defend themselves and their families from persecutors.
This latter case is where I believe the common Biblical warning of "Live by the sword, die by the sword" comes into play: If you have a warrior mentality that prompts you to defend others, you won't necessarily receive supernatural protection - your calling, which you are willingly following, may be to give your life for others. It's Biblically identified as a noble sacrifice. So don't confuse the line "Live by the sword, die by the sword" (which is used in multiple contexts, as are other Biblical sayings) as always being a bad thing.
So What About Persecution?
There definitely needs to be made a distinction between fighting back against a murderer and a persecutor - i.e., why they're attacking you: because of your faith, or for some other reason.
Biblically, I don't see any reason at all why you can't defend yourself in a non-persecution situation (in fact, I see some indications that you are definitely allowed to). But, as for situations involving persecution, I can understand why there's a debate.
I mean, because the New Covenant changed the rules of how we are to relate to unbelievers, Old Testament examples don't hold much weight in this case. And there isn't a single New Testament example of a Christian fighting against persecutors (fleeing, yes, but not engaging in combat with a persecutor). And, we know that persecution is good for the Church because the examples of the saints (by willingly bearing persecution by loving the persecutors and not fearing death) are so powerful.
So, when it comes to persecution, I won't tell you that you can't defend yourself, but I won't tell you that you can, either. Study this issue out for yourself, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
What are your musings and insights on this issue? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.