Is Personal Self Defence Morally Right?

Written on: May 1, 2022

Article by: Kevin Cleary

Pinehill Ad for Evangelist

Part 1

‘Gun control’ is one of the hottest issues debated today. This article is not about that, but asks a related question: is it morally right to defend oneself? And if so, might self defence include the use of violence? The application of force might include the use of a gun or any other means at hand at the moment. But the means that one uses is not at the heart of the question. The question is, is it ever right or permitted for a Christian to use force in self-defence, or the defence of one’s family?

The use of force to achieve a peaceful outcome extends to the broader scope of daily life and even international affairs. And when it does, our question becomes: can a Christian serve in law enforcement and/or in the military? Each of these is related by common elements to our original question and we will consider them in turn. None of these questions are new to the church or to those who seek to please the Lord.

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Consider this writers personal experience.

A few years ago a friend decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. It was not long before a concerned acquaintance asked me if being a police officer was consistent with Christian morality. I was well aware that some Christians consider the use of any violence and especially violence causing death, to be wrong. But I was surprised to hear it again firsthand since that view seems – no longer in the majority. Yet in that connection, I have had brethren tell me about a family member or a friend who refused to go to war as a conscientious objector. It was something that they were proud of as were their families. They were respected for taking a stand and refusing to participate in war.

The congregation that I serve is in the small town Meaford Ontario which is located near a military base. In July of 1942, the federal government expropriated more than 17,000 acres of land from over 150 landowners. also affecting four schools and three churches. Considerable ill will was created in the community and some of those feelings persist today. But all in all, military personnel now make up a good part of the population, adding many young families to our town. This was the setting in which the questions about self defence, law enforcement and military service were raised.

While preparing for a Bible Study class to consider these matters, a friend gave me a copy of H. Leo Boles book “The New Testament Teaching On War.” The thought was, that perhaps this volume might guide my thinking. I did read a good portion of the book back then and have taken a look at it again in preparation for this paper. Boles and before him David Lipscomb and earlier still Alexander Campbell popularized the pacifist position within the restoration movement. Both Lipscomb and Boles served as editor of the Gospel Advocate, with Lipscomb serving longer and having arguably the most influence of the two (Casey, 1999). It is not my goal to outline the history of this question in the church but the case that has been made for pacifism is well stated by brethren in the past. Pacifism is a far less popular position in the present day but as my story illustrates it is not unknown.

The change may have to do with an equally influential preacher, writer and later editor of the gospel advocate Foy E Wallace Jr. He was a strong advocate for the Christians right to bear arms for his country (Lambert, 2021). No doubt secular influences such as Pearl Harbour and the Allied success in World War 2 had an influence and continue to shape sentiment around the issue. In current discussions a new dimension of the subject, namely personal self defence has taken center stage, again likely influenced by the secular discussion of gun control.

Now it is important to point out, that it is with good reason that many Christians are pacifists. A cursory reading of the New Testament does indeed reveal a number of passages that encourage an attitude of love, patience, and forgiveness. These seem to favour the pacifist position. Given this, it makes sense that pacifism strikes a chord with many Christians, who are drawn to the Mercy and Grace of God. This is as it should be. At the same time, it is important to base our beliefs on the clear teachings within scripture rather than just a general impression that we get from scripture. For example, I had a lady tell me recently that Jesus was very non-judgmental. When I asked her to explain, she was unable to do so. When she stopped and thought for a few minutes, she amended her position saying that actually Jesus passed many judgments but he did it in a way that was attractive and compelling.

So lets examine the teaching of scripture starting with those passages often cited in support of pacifism.

Many restoration leaders and others when teaching on this subject started with the sermon on the mount (Boles, 1923, p. 17) (Guin, 2009). We will start there as well.

  • Jesus in the beatitudes taught: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called son of God” (Mat 5:9) (scripture citations will be from the English Standard Version Unless otherwise noted). How can we pursue peace if we resort to violence?
  • Later in Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus addresses the command “you shall not murder”. He amplified this teaching to say “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” This passage not only condemns murder, but the attitude or state of mind which leads to it.
  • Based on this the pacifist would say, killing entails a feeling toward your fellow man that is condemned by Jesus. If even the state of mind is wrong how much more the act itself.

There is more to discuss in regards to the Sermon on the mount. First, however, we should establish a Biblical principal that pacifist’s rightly emphasize. It’s also a principal we heartily agree with. Human life is sacred. Unlike the animals we read that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). We go on to read Genesis 2:7 where God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature.” The wise man tells us “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Eccl 12:7). Human life is given by God and the pacifist is right to value it highly. In fact while we may disagree with certain aspects of the pacifist position, whatever conclusion we draw must value and respect life as given by God.

Carrying on through the sermon on the mount, we shortly come to Jesus’ teaching on retaliation (Mat 5:38-42).

  • Here Jesus says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek turn to him the other also.” Again, the pacifist would point out that we are not to resist the one who is doing evil. Rather the Christian is to share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
  • This passage leads right into Jesus next admonition, which will often be the first one raised to support the pacifist position; “You have heard that it was said, You hall love your neighbour and hate you enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who in heaven heaven” (Mat 5:43-48). Alexander Campbell said “The central principle of Christ’s kingdom was love: “Philosophy as well as religion teaches us that to conquer enemies is not the work of swords, nor lances, nor bows of steel. To conquer an enemy is to convert him into a friend To do this all arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” (Casey, 1999).
  • We could add to these passages Romans 12:17-21, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
  • Leaving the sermon on the mount we must add Matthew 22:39 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Which raises the question – how loving is it to respond with violence? How can you claim to love someone while using physical force against them? Then to top off the whole discussion, one might point out that when Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane, he was scolded for doing so. Matthew 26:51-52 reads “And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Based on this passage the pacifist will once again insist that even in the face of an unjust arrest Jesus did not allow Peter to use force. If it’s not acceptable in this dire situation then what situation would justify the use of physical force?

Having made a brief survey of the pacifist argument and having acknowledged that there is much to recommend it, we need to look further. There is more that the Bible has to say on this topic. Before that however, it’s important to once again, qualify our discussion by emphasizing our shared belief in certain Christian principals. There is no question that the Christian is called to behave differently and to live by a higher standard than the world. Part of this includes how we respond to people who are difficult or mean or hurtful.

Jesus himself calls us to do all that we can to seek resolution and forgiveness, even if it means that we endure suffering. It is because of this important truth that pacifism seems so in keeping with the teaching of scripture and with the kind of life Christians are to live. It’s easy as a human to simply accept the thought forms of the world and to justify or even glorify death and violence. That is not the purpose of this article, nor should it ever be the goal of any Christian. While we may not accept the full pacifist position, we must embrace the scriptural teaching to love our enemies and genuinely desire that which is in their best interest.

“He Could Have Called 10,000 Angels” is a favourite hymn for many. Ray Overholt wrote the song after reading Matthew 26:53 “. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” No doubt there were many present on the day of Pentecost who were also present at Jesus crucifixion (Acts 2:22 and 36). Jesus had the capacity to defend himself and chose not to, for the benefit of the very people who killed him. We must give careful thought to defending ourselves, even if we have the capacity to do so, because other priorities may take precedence.

With these important concepts in mind let’s examine the case made by the other side.

Both sides in this discussion often start with Exodus 20:13. In this passage, God condemns murder. It is important to distinguish this from a general prohibition of killing as reflected by the being the sheer number of translations that render the Hebrew word “ratsakh” (Notes, 1996)murder. Twenty One of the Twenty Five translations I referenced translate this word “murder” (Hub, 2021). Murder, is the intentional or unauthorized taking of human life (Gen Ed. Chad Brand, 2003, p. 1158). Strong’s and Brown Driver Briggs define the word “ratsakh” (H7523) as murder (bible, n.d.).

This translation of the word is supported by the immediate context of the book of Exodus. Immediately after giving the ten commandments, Moses outlined a series of laws, the violation of which was punishable by death. Capitol punishment had to be carried out by men and their actions were not included in the prohibition of Exodus 20:13. The rest of the book of Exodus tells the story of how Israel engaged in battle (Ex 17:6-16), without violating of the sixth commandment. We must also consider the more remote context of the whole Old Testament. In Genesis 9:6 mankind is commanded to kill anyone who is guilty of murder.

It is clear then that Exodus 20:13 pertains to murder and not to all forms of killing. This is an important distinction but by itself does not prove that killing in self defence is morally right. Yet the distinction is important as we seek to answer our original question. It is more damaging to the pacifist case, when the argument includes the assertion that all killing is condemned.

When carried out by the state, capital punishment does not violate God’s law. Nor does it seem that when a nation defends itself in war, that killing in war is morally wrong. There were even times when God sent his people into war, and it would have been morally wrong for them to refuse to go…which raises the matter or concept of agency.

I have worked in the past as a sales representative for various companies mostly in the construction industry. I was not making personal arrangements to supply or install some product or to offer a service. I was representing the company that I worked for and was empowered to act on their behalf. Similarly when I respond to an emergency as a fire fighter I do so as an agent of the Ontario Fire Marshal. I can do things that are illegal for a private citizen. I may destroy property or stop traffic or use resources that I could not legally use as a civilian.

A police officer or a soldier is in a similar position. They are working as an agent of the state, and as such the activities that they engage in are done on behalf of the state which is acting through them.

The scriptures recognize this principal and demonstrate it in various ways.

  • Prophets for example represented God when they are sharing inspired utterances (II Pet 1:20-21, I Thess 2:13).
  • The high priest represented the people to God (Heb 5:1).
  • David and Goliath represented their respective nations (I Sam 17).

We could give other examples but this is enough to establish the concept. When individual soldiers of Israel went to war, they represented their nation and sometimes also represented God. The apostle Paul appears to apply that same principle in Romans 13:1-4 to those who keep the peace within nations and even between nations. They represent the state in a way mandated by God (Rom 13:1-4).

Having said that, we also recognize certain limitations. John the baptist made it clear that tax collectors were not allowed to overcharge and soldiers were forbidden to extort money. Each was not allowed to take personal advantage of their position as agents of the government (Luke 3:12-14). Today, soldiers are expected to exercise some autonomy and not just blindly follow orders. Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities, could not escape prosecution by claiming that they were just following orders. So if an agent of the state is asked to do something immoral or cruel or wicked there is an expectation that they will refuse. Police officers are expected to use personal judgment as well. What the law permits and that which constitutes a proportional response in individual circumstances is a matter of judgment.

Norman Giesler identifies this position on war as selectivism and describes it as follows: “Selectivism therefore correctly points to the need to put God over government and to encourage obedience to government but preserve the right of conscience to dissent from oppressive commands” (Geisler, 1989, p. 237). This is somewhat of an aside, but it stresses the importance of maintaining composure, and making rational rather than emotional decisions. This is especially important when there is a potential for violent action. We will consider some tools for managing stress response later.

This brings us finally to the matter of self-defence. We do find one in Exodus 22:2 that is helpful. If a thief breaks into someone’s house at night and dies as a result of being struck, the person who struck him (presumably the homeowner) is not guilty of murder. This does seem to be a clear case of self defence. It should be noted that this law only applies at night. There are a number of possible reasons for this: At night, there is a greater risk to a family at home. In the dark, those broken into have a compromised ability to measure the degree of danger and to apply less lethal force, all the while feeling trapped with no way out. All of that changed for a daytime break-in when others were about and help might be had. The point for our discussion is, that in at least some circumstances, the Law of Moses allowed for defence of self and property, even when it resulted in an offender’s death.

Turning to the new Testament, a number of related scriptures should also be considered.

First consider Romans 13:1-4, where Paul explains that government is authorized by God and has a role in maintaining safety in society. Agents of government are authorized to use violence to do their job. As in the Old Testament, human life might be taken without committing an immoral act.

Some have argued that while this authority is assigned by God to the government, a Christian cannot serve as an agent of the state for these purposes. In effect, God has one set of standards for people outside of the church and another for his own people.

Yet this is not reflected in scripture. Consider Acts 17:30 which indicates that all mankind is held accountable to God’s moral imperatives. There seems to be just one standard. This is reinforced by the fact that when soldiers came to John the Baptist in Luke 3:14, he did not tell them that they had to quit being soldiers, only that they could not take advantage of their position. There is also no indication that Cornelius a Roman centurion, was required to leave the military (Acts 10:34-11:18). His freedom to do ought not be confused with a requirement to resign.

The scriptures do not indicate any necessary conflict between a Christian serving as an agent of the state, even if that role potentially involves violence which may result in death. No one may abdicate personal responsibility for their actions as a police officer or a solider. Their actions must be guided both by that which is lawful/legal and morally right in the eyes of God. When the state is carrying out its God given role, a Christian may take part.

Meaford ON

Works Cited

Bible, B. l. (n.d.). Blue letter Bible. Retrieved from Blueletterbible.org: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?strongs=H7523

Boles, H. L. (1923). New Testament Teaching on War. Retrieved from digitalcommons.acu.edu: https://digitalcommons.acu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1442&context=crs_books

Casey, M. W. (1999). digitalcomons.peperdine.edu. Retrieved from The Ethics of War: Pacifism and Militarism in the American Restoration: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1625&context=leaven

Geisler, N. L. (1989). Christian Ethics Options and Issues. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books.

Gen Ed. Chad Brand, G. E. (2003). Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

Grudem, W. (2018). Christian Ethics. Wheaton IL: Crossway.

Guin, J. F. (2009, October 20). Pacifism: David Lipscomb and Civil Government. Retrieved from One In Jesus: https://oneinjesus.info/2009/10/pacifism-david-lipscomb-and-civil-government/

Hub, B. (2021). Exodus 20:13. Retrieved from BibleHub.com: https://biblehub.com/exodus/20-13.htm

Lambert, G. (2021). history of the restoration movement Foy Esco Wallace. Retrieved from therestorationmovement.com: https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/texas/wallace,fe,jr.htm

Notes, N. T. (1996). NET Bible Full Notes Edition. Thomas Nelson.

World Video Bible School, D. B. (2015, Jan 21). The Christian and Self Defence. Retrieved from YouTube.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdrvgOso1Q4