Recently, two significant evangelical leaders have weighed in on guns and the Christian. Both of them have been wrong.
Last week, a reader sent us a link to an article John Piper wrote, entitled “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” and wanted to know our thoughts. The article in question was itself a response, written following some statements by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., in which he encouraged students to carry firearms. Speaking primarily of terrorists, he said “I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. And let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” Piper goes on to offer a very different perspective, concluding that “exhorting the lambs to carry concealed weapons with which to shoot the wolves does not advance the counter-cultural, self-sacrificing, soul-saving cause of Christ.”
While I cannot speak for the other writers at A Clear Lens, I take issue with the approaches of both men, and hope to illustrate clearly in this article why both approaches are taking an unbiblical approach, either in attitude or in exegesis. I do want to make clear as I do this that I respect both of these men and believe that they are both doing what they believe is best in their service to God. I have no reason at all to doubt the sincerity of either one of them. I also want to note that I do not own a gun, and therefore, I “have no dog in this fight,” as much as that can be true about any topic that is this controversial.
Can a Christian Use Lethal Force?
This question is really the heart of the matter. We can start with the greatest argument against a Christian ever using lethal force, which is that it violates clear commands of Jesus, including the golden rule (Matthew 7:12), to not resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39), and to endure persecution (Matthew 5:9-10). Piper combines passages such as these with the case that the early Christians, particularly in the book of Acts, never used violence to combat persecution, even when that persecution resulted in death. Does this mean that a Christian must never use lethal force?
This is a strong case, but it is missing some nuance when it comes to God’s approach historically when it comes to morality and lethal force. First, the use of lethal force was not considered sinful under the Old Law. There is, in fact, a very direct correlation to the types of discussions that surround this issue today. In Exodus 21:12, the Mosaic law states quite simply that “whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” But just one chapter later, in Exodus 22, the Law states that if a thief breaks in during the night, and the homeowner strikes him and kills him, the homeowner is innocent of any wrongdoing (this exception only applies while it is night, the indication being that he should spare the man’s life if he can, but if he cannot, he is justified in killing the intruder to save himself and his family).
Secondly, using the aforementioned passages, particular the passages in Acts, deal primarily, if not exclusively, with persecution from government entities, not individual entities. To rebel against government entities when it is not necessary to fulfill commandments of God is very clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine (Romans 13:1). For the early Christians, this included religious persecution (1 Peter 2:20). But such passages have little bearing when it comes to the aforementioned example, when someone has broken into your home and is threatening you and your family. Do passages pertaining to religious persecution prohibit you from protecting your family against a home invasion? I don’t believe that follows.
But What About ‘Do Not Resist An Evil Person’?
It is first of all important to point out that the examples Jesus uses in the following verses are not ones that require you to do nothing to defend yourself if your life is in imminent danger. Instead, they are examples of you giving up some sort of right to property or good treatment, so that you may show arguably undeserved kindness to the other person. It’s also of note that these are also examples of government persecution as well. Any Roman soldier could compel any individual in the Empire to carry his armor for one mile, which is what verse 41 is referring to.
But even more importantly, such a blanket and extreme interpretation of Jesus’s command would place us in conflict with other Christian obligations. For example, as a husband and father, I am obligated to provide for my family. If I happen by accident to work for a corrupt employer who continually extorts money from me such that I cannot provide for my family, and does so at the threat of physical harm to me, am I prohibited from contacting the police because of the command to “not resist an evil person?” Even more poignantly, if I am living in Nazi Germany in the 1940s and am told not to harbor Jews, am I to refuse to harbor Jews because of Jesus’s command to “not resist an evil person?” Christians would likely be unanimous in answering in the negative to both scenarios, and rightly so. The first because we recognize that God has given governments authority for precisely these types of scenarios (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14), and the second because when there is a conflict between obeying God and man, we ought to obey God, a situation which has direct biblical precedent (Acts 5:28-29).
But Would a Christian Obligation Ever Require Us to Take a Life?
The truth is, it could—or at the very least, it could by certain interpretations of Christian obligations. It is very easy to see how a man’s call to provide for his family (1 Timothy 5:8) could place him in a position which he must take the life of an intruder in order to ensure their safety—a situation which, as previously mentioned, has a justified moral precedent in the Mosaic Law. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Jesus’s command to the twelve to arm themselves, presumably for self-defense, as they went out preaching (Luke 22:36). If, given the Mosaic precedent, a life can justifiably be taken in the absence of a viable alternative in defense of innocent life, it certainly follows that a Christian could consistently take a life, for example in an active shooter situation, in accordance with Christian virtue. Admittedly, this last instance is not as clear-cut as cases of self-defense and protection of one’s family, but these first two instances have clear, biblical precedent for the use of force.
What Then Should Our Attitude Be About It?
I’ve spent a lot of space here detailing why I disagree with John Piper. Now I must explain why I have a disagreement with Jerry Falwell, Jr., as well. There is biblical precedent to take a life in the presence of pressing Christian obligations, but only when there is no other alternative, and certainly it is not to be done gleefully. To say something like “let’s teach them a lesson” is much more likely to be found in a Die Hard movie than a sermon of Jesus. While I don’t believe it was the intention of Jerry Falwell to propagate this kind of attitude, I do believe it is an approach that has been heavily influenced by western culture and a certain political climate, much to the detriment of the biblical approach to these issues.
This is not to say we ought to have a cavalier or apathetic attitude toward terrorism. But terrorists are nothing if they are not our enemies, and Jesus’s statement on our enemies is very clear: love them and pray for them (Matthew 5:43-48). This does not mean we let them kill other people without resisting them, as we have an obligation to the victims of our enemies as well, but to bask in their deaths is not in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.
So What Exactly Are You Saying?
I am saying that a Christian can use a firearm in defense of himself and his family. I think that there is a much stronger biblical case for the defense of one’s family or other innocent people than for self-defense (which is why that has been the primary focus of this article), but I believe a case for the use of violence in self-defense can also be made. I also affirm that a Christian ought to submit to the governing authorities, which is the subject of many of the passages John Piper uses in defense of his view. Finally, a Christian should never, under any circumstances, long for the opportunity to kill anyone, including terrorists, as this very clearly violates the commands of Jesus with regards to our enemies.
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on the intersection of Christianity and culture. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Christian Entertainment Reviews, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, parenting, and Batman.