Friday, March 9, 2012

Legitimate Violence: Self Defense

The issue of self defense is a widely debated topic within the church.  Some say we should be pacifistic and “turn the other cheek”, others say we should be willing to put a bullet through anyone who comes to take something from us, whether that be  of monetary value or eternal value.  In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter what people argue.  What matters is what the Bible has to say on the subject, and the Bible isn’t silent on this topic.

After giving my views on self defense to a number of friends, I was encouraged to rewrite my post in a manner that would allow me to share those views with you all.  After some consideration I have taken their advice, and this post is the results.

Before we begin our exegetical journey, however, I would like to define what I mean when I say self defense.  Without this definition being established, we can make little headway.  When I speak of self defense, I am speaking of the act of "protecting oneself from injury at the hand of others." It has nothing to do with vengeance or punishing criminals. Self-defense is strictly the act of preserving one's own health and life when it is threatened by another being (animal or human).  So, this is what I am referring to when I talk about using lethal force/weapons to protect myself and others, even if the weapons used could kill the attacker.

Now, I think it is pretty irrefutable that the Bible clearly teaches we must preserve life— our own lives and the lives of other people. Some people think this could be a conflict of interest. From my studies though, there is no confliction.  Let’ look at some scripture verses, shall we? 

1 Corinthians 6:19 teaches that our bodies are not our own. Rather, our bodies belong to God. Our bodies are His property and so we are not permitted to treat or destroy them as we please:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God, and you are not your own; for you were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body. (1Co 6:19-20)

 So, not only are we to take care of our bodies and the life contained within, but we have an obligation to preserve the body and life of other people. Psalm 82:4 even cites an obligation to protect those who are in danger:

Psalm 82:4: Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.

 Consider also Proverbs 24:11, which indicates we have a duty to preserve the lives of those who are harming themselves:

Proverbs 24:11 Deliver those who are drawn toward death, And hold back those stumbling to the slaughter.

Ezekiel 33 is a well-known passage:

Ezekiel 33 "'But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman's hand.'

If you know danger is coming to others, and you deliberately fail to warn the others of the danger, you are guilty of harming the victims. This is not to say that you can make people heed your warning. The surrounding verses also say that if the people refuse to heed the warning of the watchmen, the watchman is not guilty if they are harmed.

So we see we have a Biblical obligation to protect life, however, this isn’t the only thing we have to look at when dealing with this subject.  Let's look at the Biblical view of bloodshed. When we talk about bloodshed, we enter an area that requires a certain extent of cultural re-calibration. As you read through the Old and New Testaments, it's very clear that real blood, from animals as well as humans, has a significance not recognized in our modern American culture. We must adjust our perception of blood to fit God's view of blood.

Let's look at some relevant passages and contrast them with what our culture thinks about bloodshed.

Genesis 9:5-6 And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; At the hand of every beast will I require it. And at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: For in the image of God made he man.

 We learn here that there is sanctity to spilled blood. Why? Two reasons:

1) Life is precious, and the life is in the blood. When blood is shed, something precious is lost. You might not think blood is precious. We tend to consider blood to be just a "bodily fluid". It is, however, precious to God.

2) An attack on man is an attack on the image of God. At a trivial level, you're messing with sculptures in God's art studio. In God's view of bloodshed, it is not merely a physiological event, but it is an assault on the divine image. Why is murder punishable by death? It says, "For in the image of God man was made."

Killing someone is not a light thing. Our culture casually depicts killing. In television, movies, and video games, killing, whether it is legitimate or illegitimate killing, is portrayed with such a frequency that most people are relatively desensitized to it.  In fact, we have become so desensitized that our entertainment has to become more and more graphic in order for something to have shock value (makes you wonder how far away our world is from the entertainment depicted in The Hunger Games). 

 But here is the bottom line: Shedding blood, taking the life of another, is a big deal. Your life is forfeit if you wrongfully take the life of another. Bloodshed must have the same significance to us. It is never a light thing, even if you are in the right, even if you do it righteously.
So, let’s look at Old Testament passages on lethal force and self defense. We start in the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 20:13 You shall not murder.

Murder is wrong. This means the premeditated killing of others is wrong. Killing in a fit of emotion is also wrong and is prohibited here. Having stated this prohibition, let's look at some of the qualifiers to this prohibition.

Leviticus 24:16-17 'And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death. ' Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.

From verse 17, we see that "killing" was a crime requiring capital punishment. "Killing" here is defined above. But note that not all killing is wrong. In verse 16 there were times (such as in civil judgments) in which "killing" was commanded and sanctioned. Blasphemers were to be killed. So we already see two qualifiers to the command "thou shalt not kill." Killing a man in capital punishment for murder or blasphemy was permissible.

Exodus 22:2-3 2 "If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. 3 If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.”

There are two cases here. In the first case, if someone breaks into your home at night, and you kill him, you are not held guilty of murder. You are not deserving of capital punishment. You do not need to flee to a city of refuge to preserve your life. The understanding is that at night, it is dark, and if someone has invaded your house, they do not announce if they are there merely to steal jewelry and tools. In the dark, you have no way of knowing if someone is coming to kidnap, to rape, or to murder. You are thus blameless if the criminal is killed in that situation. The passage does make it clear that if a man is breaking in at night with the intent of theft or worse (rape, murder, kidnapping, etc.), the defendant can righteously defend himself with lethal force to prevent the commission of the crime.

In the second case, it says "if the sun has risen on him", and you kill the intruder, you are guilty of his bloodshed. The understanding is that in daytime, there is light, and you can discern the intentions of the home invader. The crime in question here is theft ("if the thief"). From what I can see, the Bible says it is not legitimate to kill someone who is merely stealing your property. We see here that not all crimes are worthy of death.
In the daytime, it is assumed that the intention of the intruder can be discerned. If he is a thief, he may not be killed by the defendant. However, if the intruder is there to commit a different crime—assault, murder, kidnapping, rape, etc.—different laws/rules would apply. Though the crime of theft is not worthy of death, kidnapping was worthy of death (Exodus 21:16, Deut. 24:7), as was murder.

 Matthew Henry writes: "...if it was in the day-time that the thief was killed, he that killed him must be accountable for it, unless it was in the necessary defense of his own life. ... We ought to be tender of the lives even of bad men; the magistrate must afford us redress, and we must not avenge ourselves."

Now let's look at two examples of defending your own life against murderers.

In Nehemiah 4, Israelites have been sent back from captivity to rebuild Jerusalem. They were rebuilding their lives with the sanction of the civil ruler, King Artaxerxes. This was not a wartime scenario. It was closer to a racial integration scenario where racists wanted to kill them. Think of the KKK threatening black homeowners and students. They are surrounded by people who hate them and want to kill them.

These were citizens, not soldiers. Nehemiah 4:13 says that people stationed "people by families" around the city. These were not trained soldiers or law enforcement officers. They were merely concerned residents and settlers—citizens, not professional soldiers or law enforcement agents.

 Note that these families were armed, with "their swords, their spears, and their bows." This is a situation where they are willing to apply lethal force to defend themselves.  Also note that they are carrying these weapons for personal defense and civil defense, and that these are "assault weapons", namely, the same types of weapons that armies would use for offensive purposes. And why wouldn't they want assault weapons?

Against what are they defending themselves? The crime of unlawful, racist murder. Hate crimes. They are defending their lives and their homes. Nehemiah 4:14 specifically says, "...fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses." It is good and right to defend your family, even using lethal force weapons.

One final observation: In self-defense, these citizens did not merely own weapons. Rather, where they perceived a risk of harm to their persons, they carried their weapons with them, as many people legally carry weapons with them today, for the purpose of self-protection:

Nehemiah 4 17 Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. 18 As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me. ... 21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. .... 23 So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water.

 If you live somewhere where you have reason to be concerned about crime, this would be similar to legally carrying a weapon to defend your family, even when running daily errands to the store. HOWEVER!  As a side note, you should be licensed to conceal and carry, thus being a responsible gun user.

 The final Old Testament passage we will examine is in the book of Esther. Here we have a historical example arranged by Divine Providence. In this account, the Jews are under threat of racial violence. The civil authority, King Ahasuerus, grants them legal permission to use lethal force in self-defense:

 Esther 8:11-12 11 By these letters the king permitted the Jews who were in every city to gather together and protect their lives -- to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the forces of any people or province that would assault them, both little children and women, and to plunder their possessions...

So they have legal sanction to "protect their lives" using ultimate force, much as we do in most parts of this country. They are allowed to "kill and annihilate" in order to "protect their lives." Now, as people under obligation to obey God, not just stay within the civil laws of Ahasuerus, what do the Jews do with this legal freedom?

Esther 9:1-5 ...the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them. 2 The Jews gathered together in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could withstand them, because fear of them fell upon all people.... 5 Thus the Jews defeated all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, with slaughter and destruction,

 We see that given legal sanction to defend their lives with lethal force, they do not choose non-violence. Rather, as it says in verse 11, to "protect their lives", they use the "sword" (verse 5). Here is another example of widespread use of weapons in self-defense—a non-wartime, non-law enforcement scenario.
At this point, you may be thinking this is all relegated to Old Testament principles and thinking. Let's turn to some passages in the New Testament dealing with lethal force and self-defense.

So, how about buying and carrying a sword?

Luke 22:35-39 And He said to them, "When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?" So they said, "Nothing." 36Then He said to them, "But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. 37 "For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: 'And He was numbered with the transgressors.' For the things concerning Me have an end." 38 So they said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." And He said to them, "It is enough." 39 Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him.

 If you read commentaries on this passage, there are a number of questions which are not clearly answered. There are questions about the applicability of this passage, of the intent of Jesus, of the meaning of His response.

 Whatever your interpretation of this passage, there are a couple broad-stroke observations we can make about this passage.

1. Jesus expected them to carry the swords on their person as they traveled from the city to the garden prayer meeting.

2. Among eleven disciples, they did have two swords--in almost a 1:5 ratio.

It is difficult to make absolute claims beyond these observations, but the observations themselves have significance. Namely, among those closest to Jesus, some carried personal weapons in His presence with His consent to communion and to prayer meetings. We cannot make absolute claims as to the reasons, right or, wrong, for the carriage of these weapons. Perhaps it was in anticipation of trouble from the Jewish leadership. Perhaps it was protection against mere robbers. Paul in 2 Cor. 11:26 cites the "perils of robbers". Though there are questions we can't answer, we do know they possessed these weapons— that they carried these weapons— and that Jesus knew and consented.

 The next passage we come to follows this event. Jesus and the disciples are in the garden, and the men come to arrest Jesus. At least two of the disciples are armed, with the knowledge and consent of Jesus. Here is the question: Will they use the sword against the armed multitude which has come against Him? Let's look at the three passages which recount this event.

 Luke 22:49-53 49 When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus answered and said, "Permit even this." And He touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 "When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me.But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."

Matthew 26:51-56 51 And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear. 52 But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 "Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? 54 "How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?" 55 In that hour Jesus said to the multitudes, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I sat daily with you, teaching in the temple, and you did not seize Me. 56 "But all this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled."
John 18:10-11 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. 11 So Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?"

 Why does Christ tells Peter to put up the sword, if he is allowing them to carry the swords?

1. Christ is willingly laying down His life, though He has the right to use sword and angelic legions to deliver Himself from this unjust arrest (Luke 22:51, John 18:11).

2. Those who are quick to resort to violence will die by violence (Matt 26:52). The Lord hates the one who "loves violence" (Psalm 11:5).

The sword is not always the appropriate response, especially in persecution for Christ. There is greater protection than swords.

Having looked at a number of passages that deal with weapons and self-defense, let's spend a little time discussing Scripture's view of owning weapons and being skilled in their use. The imagery of weapon use and skill at weapons use is often employed in Scripture, and it is often portrayed as a positive or desirable thing. The Lord's might is something good, and it is often depicted using martial terms (Zec. 9:14, Psa. 7:13, 18:14, 21:12, 64:7, Hab. 3:11, Deu 32:42, 2 Sam 22:15). The Scriptures are a sword (Eph. 6:17; Heb 4:12). A sword comes out of the mouth of Christ (Rev. 1:16, 2:16, 19:15).

 Possession of weapons is never discouraged in Scripture. In fact, in 1Sam 13:19ff, it is negatively reported that no spears or swords were found in Israel because of the Philistines:

1 Samuel 13:19-22 9 Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, "Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears."... 22 So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan. But they were found with Saul and Jonathan his son.

Let's look at two verses from the Psalms:

Psalm 144:1 Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:
 Psalm 18:34 He teaches my hands to make war, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze

Skill and ability to use weapons here, whether literal and/or metaphorical, is positively portrayed in these verses.

Further, we have accounts of David, not a soldier, not a law enforcement officer, but a youth, employing ranged weapons skillfully (with God's help) against bears and lions. This is domestic use of lethal weaponry, non-military use, with non-military training. The weapons used by young David are not "kiddie" slingshots. They are powerful enough to kill a bear and lion--in today's market, we're talking about a .44 magnum, not a .22, in the hands of someone too young to be in the army.

 We might be tempted to think that was just for dealing with animals that could threaten sheep. But aren't humans worth even more protection than sheep?


Now, I want to wrap up with some warnings.  While I don’t think an argument can be made that self defense is wrong or prohibited in scripture, I do think we as sinful human being have to be very careful when implementing self defense.    

First of all, it would be a mistake to leave this post saying “let’s trust in the sword/guns/knives/weapons”... these are mere tools, and none of these things can guarantee protection, any more than owning a fire extinguisher guarantees that your house won't burn down.

Psalm 44:6-7 For I will not trust in my bow, nor shall my sword save me.  But You have saved us from our enemies, And have put to shame those who hated us.

We see in Nehemiah 4:14 that the people were armed and willing to use their weapons, but they were also trusting in the Lord:

"Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.... 20 "At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us."

 Do not put your trust in weapons. They are tools that are useful, but they are only dead, inanimate tools, at the end of the day.

"...the LORD does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the LORD's." (1Sa 17:47)

Secondly, beware of improperly resorting to the sword. I would hope the passages dealing with the shedding of blood impressed on you the narrow limitations for when it is proper to employ lethal force. It is never to be in hatred, never in revenge, never in jealously. David in his pride nearly murdered Nabal, but Abigail restrained him. David would have killed Nabal...and regretted it.

1 Samuel 25:32 And David said to Abigail, Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, who sent thee this day to meet me: 33 and blessed be thy discretion, and blessed be thou, that hast kept me this day from bloodguiltiness, and from avenging myself with mine own hand.

Employing potentially lethal force out of anger, hatred, jealously, or revenge is always wrong and is condemned by Scripture.

In fact, if you find that you have anger or self-control problems, owning weapons is unwise. The believer is to be "not easily angered" (Titus 1:7).

When you are insulted or cursed, when your wife or your mother is insulted or cursed, you are not to resort to violence. After all, the Bible says bless them that curse you, do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6:27-30)

There are a lot of great virtues depicted in the classic westerns. However, the propensity to break into fistfights or gunfights when honor is insulted is not a virtue. The Lord, not you, is to take vengeance and set things right. An insulting slap in the face is something you can suffer as a Christian.

But what if you are badly wronged? What if your wife or daughter is badly wronged? Well, though it iss a difficult thing, I do not believe vigilantism is appropriate.  You are called to stop an attack that is in progress, but afterwards you must not seek revenge.

Rom 12:19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord.

 Thirdly, do not admire the "man of violence". 

Proverbs 3:31-32 Do not envy a man of violence, And do not choose any of his ways. 32 For the crooked man is an abomination to the LORD; But He is intimate with the upright.

Those who resort to violence rather than Godliness are not to be admired. There are similarities between David and Joab. Both were skilled at killing men, and both had killed many men. Were they both men of violence? Here is the difference: David, first and foremost, sought the Lord, trusted the Lord, and loved the Lord. Why didn't he do violence against Saul? It wasn't because Saul was his father-in-law. Rather, it was because Saul was the Lord's anointed. It was because of David's regard first for the Lord that he would not resort to violence.  On the other hand, Joab, over and over, resorted to the sword to deal with problems. Joab was a man of violence.

Proverbs 1:16 For their feet run to evil, And they make haste to shed blood.
 Romans 3:15: Their feet are swift to shed blood;

Finally, I challenge people to keep the right perspective on this. Though we see sanction and even a qualified directive from Christ to possess personal weapons, we must remember the emphasis of scripture is decidedly not geared toward the issues of physical self-defense or righteous use of lethal force. Rather, we see more emphasis on Godly living, suffering affliction and persecution for Christ, and grasping the precious doctrines of Christ and the Gospel. This does not mean possession of weapons and acquiring the skill to use them in self-defense is wrong.

The tendency in some circles is to make the topic of self-defense of primary importance. Though heavenly beings do battle and render judgments with the sword, in the perfection pictured in both the Garden of Eden and in the Heavenly city, the primary activities are fellowship with God, fellowship with His people, singing in worship, and living in peace.

That is our destination.  That is our focus.  That being said, I believe the scriptures do not teach that it is wrong for me to resist a man who would wrong me.  Nor do I believe I should let a serial killer murder me, rather than fight for my own life.  God calls us to a high standard: He calls us to preserve life.  


  1. It's nice to see one of your most popular monster posts from HW on your blog. :) Now everyone else can find out what your monster posts are like. ;)

  2. *laughs * thanks, Jonathan, though no one outside of HW probably knows what a Monster post is. ;) Ya'll finally convinced me though, and you see the results. :D

    1. Hopefully this will at least give them an idea of what your monster posts are like, since this is a perfect example. ;)

  3. Wow...this looks even longer on your blog than it did on HW! (Imagine that!)

    On a more serious note, thanks so much for bestowing your wisdom and Biblical knowledge on us, both through the blog and on HW. I know I've definitely grown in my own understanding from reading through/puzzling out your posts :)

    God bless

  4. *smiles * thanks, Sienna, your comment was a tremendous blessing.

    Oh, and it is longer on here than the forum. I added to it. ;)


I love to read comments, hear feedback, and interact with my readers, so if you have something you want to say, please feel free to share. Ask questions, challenge my ideas, or even say you disagree with me. I don’t bite, so don’t be shy!

You can even say you liked the post, if you want. I really won’t mind. ;)