The Theology of Self-Defense

It is somewhat ironic that I write this article on Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Martin Luther King, Jr. defended the rights of people of all races, but did so in a peaceful fashion. He did not seek to assault, but sought to defend. Self-defense in the Christian life has been somewhat controversial throughout the history of the church. Some have taken an extreme pacifist view even claiming that one could not defend oneself even when attacked. However, others like Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated a position called “just-war,” meaning that there were times when a person could defend oneself and that a nation had the right to defend itself against attack. This article will argue from a “just-war” perspective, indicating that times exist when a person can defend oneself, although that person should never be the aggressor. That is, one has the right to defend oneself, but not the right to cause fights, bully, and the like. To provide a perspective on the Christian’s right to defend oneself, several Scriptures must be considered.

Jesus proclaimed, “Take a sword.”

In Luke 22:36, Jesus said to His disciples, “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).[1] Jesus indicated that the disciples should buy a sword, the common weapon of the first-century. Robert Stein interprets the passage as saying, “The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night.”[2] While I believe that Stein is correct in his metaphorical interpretation, I also believe there was a sense of literalness to Jesus’ claim, not that Jesus desired an insurrection or anything of the sort. That mentality was in stark contrast to the message that Jesus delivered. However, knowing that the disciples would need to travel quite extensively, it seems that a sword would be necessary for personal defense and not national insurrection. Therefore, this writer believes it is entirely appropriate for a Christian to own a weapon to use only in the event of personal defense. But it must be remembered that “all who take the sword, shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). That is, violence breeds violence. Self-defense is one thing, being an aggressor is quite another.

Jesus’ instructions to leave towns that were unresponsive.

Some have thought that being a Christian indicates that one must be a doormat. Nothing further could be the case. In fact, something that the Christian defender, evangelist, and layman alike must remember is that one cannot force someone to believe. Jesus told the disciples that As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:12-15). Jesus’ instructions were that if someone addresses someone about the gospel and the hearer is unresponsive, do not take abuse. If a group of people are unresponsive, then move on to a place where people will be responsive. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you will constantly be riddled with persecution if you can help it. It may be that you cannot. But if you can, follow the Spirit’s direction.

The Call for National Warfare in times of defense (Old Testament edicts).

Militant atheists attack the Bible for the times that it calls for violence. However, one can easily rebut most of those attacks in asking the question, “Were the Allies justified in attacking the Nazis?” Obviously the answer is affirmative. Then, why is it a horrendous thing for a nation to defend itself against the onslaught of its adversaries? More could be said on this issue than we have time to cover in this article. Nevertheless, it is a person and nation’s right to defend itself against those who seek to harm them.

Care of family.

A person has not only the right, but the responsibility to care for one’s family. Paul writes, But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Consider what it would be like if one witnessed his or her family being assaulted and they had the means of protecting them, but they didn’t. Would that be good? Would that be right? Certainly not! That would be the evil. The antagonist might ask, “Well, didn’t God kill His Son?” Certainly not! God came and gave Himself to provide protection for His children. Thus, Christ’s atonement was God’s means of defending His children.

The Call to Defend the Faith

The role of “apologetics” is to defend the faith. It is in a sense a manner of self-defense. Does the Bible call for such a defense? Certainly! Peter writes that the Christian should “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

What about “Turning the other cheek?”

In Matthew 5:39, Jesus states, “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Concerning this passage of Scripture, Craig Blomberg writes in his commentary,

 “Again he formally abrogates an Old Testament command in order to intensify and internalize its application. This law originally prohibited the formal exaction of an overly severe punishment that did not fit a crime as well as informal, self-appointed vigilante action. Now Jesus teaches the principle that Christian kindness should transcend even straightforward tit-for-tat retribution. None of the commands of vv. 39–42 can easily be considered absolute; all must be read against the historical background of first-century Judaism. Nevertheless, in light of prevailing ethical thought Jesus contrasts radically with most others of his day in stressing the need to decisively break the natural chain of evil action and reaction that characterizes human relationships…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-just war debate.”[3]

 Thus, Jesus is stating that the Christian should avoid vengeance instead of insinuating that self-defense is not an option.

Conclusion

The core message of this article is not that one should seek aggression or anything of the like. Rather, this article has suggested that one has the right and duty to protect his own. Vengeance and grudges should never be accepted. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the parent to protect his or her children, the duty of a pastor to protect and defend his congregation, and the duty of a nation to protect its citizens.

Bibliography

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Blomberg, Craig. Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Stein, Robert H. Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Copyright. Brian Chilton. 2015.

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[1] All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).

[2] Robert H. Stein, Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 555.

[3] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 113.

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