The Dichotomy of an Armed Christian
“Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13, KJV) This verse is quite possibly the most famous verse in the Bible about killing, and one of the most often used against Christians carrying a firearm. Another verse often quoted is from Matthew 26:52 – “Then said Jesus unto him, ‘Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.’” (KJV) This verse is where we get the English saying, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword”.
Yet another verse that gets thrown about is Romans 12:19 – “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’” (KJV) The final passage is from Matthew 5:38-40 – “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” (KJV) As a follower of Christ who is supposed to “turn the other cheek”, how can I justify carrying a firearm, possibly using a firearm against another human being, or even carrying a firearm in a church? Wouldn’t that be against the Bible?
Short answer? I don’t believe so. In this article I’m going to explain why these particular verses don’t necessarily apply the way they are traditionally used, some passages I believe are also applicable to the discussion, and some thoughts on potentially spiritual issues surrounding Christians carrying firearms. No matter where your beliefs fall on the subject of armed Christians, by the end of this article I hope that you will understand why I believe that there is no dichotomy of being armed and being a Christian. To start off, let’s talk about the four passages I quoted.
“Thou shalt not kill.” Four simple words commanded by God Almighty to the Israelites as part of their original rules – the Ten Commandments. Except that those words were not originally in English. They were written in Hebrew, which has a very different meaning than the English words normally used. The “kill” part of this statement is the Hebrew word “ratsach”. This word, while translated to “kill” in the King James Version (KJV), would more appropriately be translated as “murder”. It is literally “unauthorized killing”, from a root of “dash into pieces”. This means that the English translation would more accurately, “You shall not murder.” Murder is very different from self defense, or even war. If we were to take “thou shalt not kill” as a blanket statement, then all killing, including self defense, war and even legal execution of criminals, would be forbidden by God. Even a cursory reading of the rest of the Bible would indicate that war and legal execution are not only allowed, but even commanded at times by God. Instead, we must take an arguably better view based on the more accurate translation. Murder is forbidden, and this verse does not say anything about law-abiding Christians.
In Matthew 26, Jesus was in Gethsemane and a large group of armed men approached to arrest Him. As they approached, one of His disciples (Peter, according to other gospels) drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the servants of the head priests. This is where Jesus tells the disciple to “Put up again thy sword in his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” In other words, “Put your sword away, those who use the sword will die because of the sword.” This is yet another problem with context. In this passage, Jesus has gone to Gethsemane to pray. He knew he was going to be sacrificed soon, brutally tortured and strung up on a cross. As He finished his prayers, He found his disciples asleep, and spent some time rebuking them. As Jesus finished this, His disciple, Judas, led a large armed crowd towards Him. They came to arrest Jesus, and one of his disciples decided to defend his Master. Peter’s attack on the servant was an attempt to defend his Rabbi, not an assault without purpose. When he did, Jesus strongly rebuked Peter and healed the servant’s ear. Jesus took the time to explain that Jesus knew He was going to die, and that He needed to go with the mob peacefully to fulfill His purpose.
So what about this statement? Actually, it is a pretty valid statement. If you take up arms to fight, you have a pretty good chance of dying violently. And yet, I do not believe this is a prohibition against carrying arms. Jesus himself did not forbid the use of the weapon, he said that he had to go meekly with the mob. Instead, I believe this passage is more of a caution. Carrying arms should never be taken lightly. It is a large responsibility, and it should be only done after careful consideration. Indeed, the rest of the Bible also has places where God’s people are actually commanded to carry weapons, in and out of battle. So I don’t believe that this particular verse actually prohibits the carrying of weapons. It is more of a precaution, and a warning to think carefully before doing so.
“Vengeance is mine… saith the Lord.” This verse in Romans is a reference to another passage in Deuteronomy, and frankly, is one of the least powerful in the argument against Christians carrying weapons. There is a common willful ignorance among those who do not like firearms and a belief that those civilians who carry guns are either “playing Rambo” or “itching for revenge”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most lawful firearm carriers honestly never want to use their gun to kill a human. Most of us enjoy shooting at the range and training with our firearm, but we never want to be forced to use it against another human being.
This verse, and the corresponding verse in Deuteronomy are not about lawful acts. They are not about war, law enforcement, or even self defense. They are about revenge. In these passages, and in others throughout the Bible, Christians are told to “forgive” those who harm them. We are admonished to be nice to those who hurt us. It is very clear that God is the sole arbiter of revenge. He gets to choose how vengeance is distributed, and we have no part of that domain. I need to make something very clear here: If a Christian uses a weapon to exact revenge on anyone, for any purpose, that vengeance is not in God’s will. Vengeance is God’s domain only, not ours. On the other hand, defending yourself from a current attack, defending your family, enforcing the laws are NOT motivated by revenge. War should never be motivated by revenge, that would not be a “just war”. Using a firearm in the defense of the innocent is not vengeance, it is simply defense.
We finally come to the passage that is often the most misunderstood and misused passage against Christians defending themselves or their loved ones. The concept of “turn the other cheek” comes from Matthew 5, commonly called “The Beatitudes”. In this passage, Jesus is addressing a large crowd, and talking about the Jewish law, and explaining that it is the spirit of the laws that are important, not just the letters of the law. Jesus talks about the laws saying that if someone is harmed, the criminal is to get harmed in the same way. Jesus says that we are not to resist the evil, and if someone strikes us on the right cheek, then we are to allow them to strike the other cheek. Also, if someone sues us for our shirt, we are to give them our coat as well. And finally, someone forces us to walk a mile for them, we should instead go two.
As with previous passages, context is the key to understanding what this passage means. As Jesus begins talking, He admonishes us not to resist “poneros” which is properly translated an “evildoer”, or even “the evil one” (the devil). He then modifies this statement with the three following conditions. First, if we are struck on the “right cheek”, we are to calmly offer the left. This is not about defense. The original greek term for the hitting or slapping is “rhapizo”, which means to slap (with an open hand). If you are “rhapizo” (slapped) on the right cheek, the person who slapped you did so with their LEFT hand. The left hand in that culture was the “unclean” hand, as it was the one used to wipe up after using the bathroom. In other words, this is not a violent attack, it is considered an insult. This verse tells us to ignore open insults, and not to react. Second, we are told that if we are sued for our shirt, we should simply give up our coat as well. This admonishment tells us to not worry about minor insults or lawsuits from non-believers. Finally, what about this “walk a mile” for someone? When Jesus lived, the Israelites were under Roman rule. There was a law on the books that said a Roman soldier could force a Jewish citizen work or carry a load for up to a mile at any time. Jesus tells us that Christians are supposed to respond to this insult by carrying the load for two miles without being asked.
Everyone of these conditional statements is reflected by the “do not resist the evildoer” statement. With a little digging and background, it is apparent that Jesus was talking about handling smaller insults graciously. It is be illogical, unethical, and illegal to respond to a mere insult with a weapon or a fight. It is wrong to respond to a simple, legal command with grumbling and bad attitude. This passage in Matthew is teaching Christians how to respond to minor insults. We are supposed to respond with grace and mercy. We are told to respond with character. This is even more important for those of us who choose to be legally armed.
As a legally armed citizen, I have to be even more careful about how I respond to insults, threats, and everyday annoyances. The simple act of wearing a firearm can turn any aggressive action or fight into an assault, and will quickly turn an over-reaction into jail time. When a firearm is introduced, road rage can turn into assault with a deadly weapon. Most armed citizens recognize this. When you add this passage from Matthew, as an armed Christian, the strong recommendation from a legal perspective turns into a command from God. We curb our temper. We ignore insults. We act graciously when we need to. As a responsibly armed Christian, I have to be extra careful and gracious when I’m insulted or mistreated. Other responsibly armed Christians have told me that they have found the same thing. In fact, I would wager that a large percentage of legally armed Christians are actually more gracious when dealing with insults than others simply because they know that they have more to lose than the average unarmed Christian. However, nothing in this passage deals with responding to criminals or defending yourself or your loved ones.
So what Biblical passages do Christians turn to when they want to consider being armed? Are there any that might suggest it is ok to defend the church? I would submit a couple of passages for your consideration: Nehemiah 4, Exodus 22:1-2, and Luke 22:35-38. And as above, context and the original language are the keys to deciphering these passages.
In Nehemiah 4, the Israelites are rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, and specifically the wall around the city. As they are building, they are being harassed by the surrounding cities and states. With negotiations failing, the prophet Nehemiah orders the workers to carry their weapons with them. When they heard that they were going to be attacked, Nehemiah placed all the armed families on the wall (v. 13). After their enemies slunk away without attacking, workers were divided up and armed. At any one time, half of the workers were armed, and half were working (v. 16). The passage then goes on to describe that the builders worked with one hand on their bricks and one hand on their swords (v. 17-18). Why is this important? It shows that armed defense, according to God’s will, can be a good thing. In fact, when the enemies found out that the families (men and women) were armed, they never even attacked. It seems to me that there may be a modern day parallel to the church there.
Exodus 22 is a passage concerning the property rights and the legal response to criminals. This passage gets a little complicated to unravel, but the context and principles are extremely relevant and appropriate today. Verses 2-3 state, “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” (KJV) So what does this mean? The NLT version speaks it a bit more plainly: “If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder. But if it happens in daylight, the one who killed the thief is guilty of murder. A thief who is caught must pay in full for everything he stole. If he cannot pay, he must be sold as a slave to pay for his theft.”
This text speaks to Jewish laws regarding bloodguilt. In Jewish society, if a person was murdered, or wrongfully killed, there was a bloodguilt, or blood debt placed on the killer, and the punishment was very often death. However, if there was no bloodguilt associated with taking the life, the person was innocent, and could not be forced to pay restitution. This passage talks about thieves breaking into the house (literally breaking through the wall of the houses). It was law that if you caught a thief breaking into your house at night, when it was dark, it was ok to kill them. If the homeowner did kill them, and they were merely a thief, the homeowner would not face bloodguilt because it was too dark to tell the difference between a thief and a murderer. However, if it was daylight, and the thief was discovered taking something, they were not to be killed. Instead, they were to be forced to pay restitution, and sold into slavery if they could not pay the restitution. Here, if the homeowner knew that it was a thief, and not a murderer, there was no justification to kill over the taking of “stuff”.
I want to make sure that you understand the nuances of this passage. The biblical concept is that if a person is attacking you or your family, it is okay to defend your family, even if it means killing the aggressor. However, if a person is merely taking your stuff, it is not okay to kill them. Capture them? Yes. Make them pay restitution? Absolutely. Kill them for taking stuff? Not according to God’s laws.
I believe that this passage applies even today. If someone is merely taking your stuff, and not really threatening you, it really is not ok, according to this passage, to respond with deadly force. However, if a person is attacking you, it is ok according to Biblical law, to defend your self and your family. What if you are unsure of the criminal’s motives? This begins to walk a fine line, and you will need to let your conscious and the Holy Spirit guide your response.
Finally, we look at another telling of Jesus at Gethsemane. In Luke 22:35-38 we read: “And he [Jesus] said unto them, ‘When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing?’ And they said, ‘Nothing.’ Then said he unto them, ‘But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.’ And they said, ‘Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.’” (KJV)
This discussion takes place just before Judas leads an angry mob to arrest Jesus. Here Jesus reminds the disciples that He had already sent them out with nothing so that they learned to rely on God for everything (v. 35). He then says to them, “Now is the time to gather your stuff. You will be scattered and traveling. Make sure you have money. And if you do not have a sword, sell your clothes to buy one.” (v. 36) A moment later, they produce two swords, and Jesus tells them that they have enough protection (v. 38).
I believe that there are a couple take-aways from this passage. In that time, the short sword, or common sword, was the basic defensive weapon of the day, much like our modern handgun. The fact that Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to be able to defend themselves is interesting, and spoke volumes about what was coming for His followers. Keep in mind, the timing of this conversation. In just a few moments, Judas is going to be leading an angry mob up the hill, and Peter is going to lop the ear off of one of the priests servants, earning a stunning rebuke in the process. Jesus just told his disciples to arm themselves, yet they are not supposed to use it to defend Jesus? No. Jesus knows that he has to be crucified to become the blood sacrifice for the whole world’s sin. He is going willingly. This means that the swords were there for the disciples defense while they are out on the road.
Another interesting fact is that a mere two swords satisfy Jesus’ command to buy swords. Only two of the eleven disciples will be armed, but Jesus calls that “enough”. What I find interesting in this passage is that only 18% of the population needed to be armed to have an adequate defense. Two out of eleven was “enough”. Modern studies have shown that not everyone has to be armed to see a lessening of violent crime. However, when people are armed, the overall rate of violent crime decreases. In fact, only a relatively small portion of society needs to actually be armed for this trend to appear. I believe the church as a whole does not need to have everyone armed, just a select few who are able, and willing, to defend the church against danger.
Finally, we might draw a conclusion that there is a time to fight and defend yourself, and there is a time to go gently and meekly to your grave. All of this depends on God’s will. Jesus knew that he had to fulfill the sacrifice and die on the cross. He went mildly with the mob, not offering offense, screaming curses, or even pleading for His life. He knew that his job was to go quietly. On the other hand, he sent His disciples out into the world armed for defense. This passage hints that it is okay to use a weapon sometimes, as long as you are following God’s will.
I believe the difference between carrying a firearm as a Christian, and not carrying one is the person’s definition of “Righteous Violence”. Is it ever ok to be violent? Christ himself got violent when he saw the mockery that the moneychangers had made of the temple courtyard. The Greek words used describe a very violent fit of rage, throwing tables and using whips on the vendors. I believe that there may be times when violence is righteous, and at even necessary. One of those times is in defense of the church itself.
I believe that the church has the Biblical authority, and possibly even a mandate to respond and defend themselves. I believe that we are called to defend the flock from predators. Sometimes this is a simple conversation. Sometimes it means putting the right safeguards in place. And sometimes it means responding to violent attacks with a tempered violent defense. As long as the defense is measured, appropriate, and under God’s Will, the church has the authority to defend the flock.
This begs the question – is it ever ok to kill someone while defending yourself, your family or your church? I believe I’ve shown the answer to be a qualified, “Yes”. As long as the defense is not revenge, and as long as the people of the church are threatened, I believe that it is ok to respond with deadly force. On the other hand, if the criminal is simply taking “stuff”, a violent response is neither called for, nor acceptable to defend the church.
By extension, I believe the same applies to families and individuals as well. Parents, fathers and mothers, are charged throughout the Bible to protect the family and raise the family correctly. That is our purpose. There are enough places in the Bible to explore the fact that sometimes the raising of children may also be in training them how to make war.
I would like to bring up one final question for those who believe that Christians should not carry a firearm, and especially not while in church. If it is not Biblical for a Christian to carry a firearm, then how do you look at those who serve in law enforcement or the military? A logical thought process would take any restrictions on Christians being armed to the next step that there should not be any Christian police officers or military personnel. After all, the scriptures that you might quote do not say “unless your job requires it.” If someone does not believe that Christians should be armed, then they cannot logically accept any Christian law enforcement or military personnel.
On the other hand, if it is ok for Christian law enforcement or military personnel to carry a firearm, and even to kill “enemies”, then why must a “citizen” Christian be disarmed. And remember, job description does not make a sin into a virtue. The argument that it is part of their “job” is not a valid SCRIPTURAL argument. I have met many thoughtful, caring, and I believe misguided, Christians who are terrified of firearms in church or being owned and carried by other Christians, yet have no problem with an armed Christian police officer or member of the military. While misguided, these people tend to have the best of intentions, but the logical fallacies compound with the scriptural fallacies and create an uneducated and unprotected church.
What about me? I have chosen to carry a firearm everywhere I legally can. While I sometimes carry the handgun openly in a holster on my hip, I most often carry my firearm concealed from the public. I long ago made a decision that it is my Christian duty to defend myself, my family, and even the church from the wolves that prowl in the world. This means that I train to be able and capable to defend my family’s life as necessary. The vast majority of people who meet me on the street, or know me casually, will never know that I am legally carrying a firearm. I carry it to defend myself, my family, and yes, even my church.
The definition of Dichotomy is: “A division into two parts or classifications, especially when they are sharply distinguished or opposed.” Most people would consider an armed Christian to be a dichotomy, at least on the surface. The church has a history of emphasizing the passivity and meekness of Christ, however, carrying a firearm is not associated with meekness and passivity. As we looked at the scripture references in this article, we have seen that being a Christian and being armed and able to defend your family and church are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe the Bible shows that being an armed Christian can actually be a calling as well.