“Self-Defense and the Christian”Categories: Sermons
Last week, I did something I’ve never done before. I bought a firearm. There were many reasons why I did this, but ultimately, it was because of my desire to protect my family if the need arose.
In making this decision, I had to reckon with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41. For centuries, people have understood this passage to mean that it is wrong for Christians to use violence, even if they are defending themselves. If that’s what the test requires, brethren, that’s what we have to do. We can’t pretend like this passage doesn’t exist and do what we want anyway. If we defend ourselves, and it’s against the will of Jesus, we are no different from anyone else who chooses to defy His will.
However, before we reach that point, we have to decide whether that is, in fact, what the text is saying. Just a few verses up in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to tear out our sinful eyes and cut off our sinful hands. We know that isn’t meant to be literal, and it may well be that turning the other cheek doesn’t mean what it appears to mean either. Let’s explore this issue as we consider self-defense and the Christian.
It’s appropriate to open this exploration by looking at some PROBLEMS WITH THE LITERAL READING. Why shouldn’t we understand this text as a general prohibition of self-defense? I see three issues with that reading, and the first of these is that it doesn’t correct the way that the Jews were misreading Scripture.
“An eye for an eye,” after all, is taken from the Law of Moses in Exodus 21:24, and in that context, it’s not about self-defense or even personal revenge at all. Instead, it’s a standard for determining the severity of judicial punishment. The Jews of Jesus’ time are taking this judicial standard and saying, “We have the right to dish out punishment ourselves.” If “Turn the other cheek” is about self-defense, it does not correct this misreading of Scripture. Instead, it is introducing an entirely new topic, and for Jesus, that would be extremely sloppy logic.
Second, this reading doesn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ answer. In Matthew 5, He spells out three ways that His disciples are not to resist evil: by turning the other cheek, by not fighting lawsuits, and by going the second mile. Of these three, the second two are about state action. Famously, Roman soldiers had the right to compel peasants to carry their gear for one mile. Similarly, lawsuits are part of the machinery of government, and just as they do today, rich people in Jesus’ time commonly used them to oppress the poor. If the last two parts of Jesus’ answer concern the government in some way, that should at least leave us open to the possibility that turning the other cheek is about the government too.
Third, much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching presumes that people will defend themselves. Look, for instance, at Luke 11:21-22. This parable, of course, is not about self-defense, but it does reflect a cultural assumption that a strong man will fight to protect his home. Jesus does not describe him negatively for doing this, as opposed to the unrighteous steward and the unjust judge in other parables. Instead, He takes the strong man’s action for granted.
If the obvious reading is untenable, we need to look for A STRONGER READING instead. A passage that will get us going in the right direction is Lamentations 3:25-30. In context, of course, Jeremiah is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the people being led off into captivity. In that situation, his inspired advice is to submit to the Babylonians and wait for God to have mercy. That’s what v. 27 is talking about when it says that it’s good for a man to bear the yoke. As part of that, Jeremiah says, the Jews need to give their cheeks to those who are smiting them—the same idea that Jesus is promoting in Matthew 5.
In fact, I believe that in Matthew 5, Jesus is quoting Lamentations 3. He’s telling the Jews of His day to submit to an unjust Roman government in the same way that Jeremiah told the Jews of his day to submit to the unjust Babylonians. “Turn the other cheek” is about submitting to the government.
This reading resolves all of the problems we identified earlier. First, under this reading, Jesus is correcting the Jewish misunderstanding of Exodus 21. He’s saying, “Don’t take the law into your own hands. Honor the government, even when it is oppressive.” Second, “Turn the other cheek,” now fits thematically with “Let them have your coat,” and “Go the second mile.” All three now concern the disciple’s responsibilities to the government. Finally, it does not call into question the accepted practice of defending one’s family and property from criminals.
Additionally, this ties into one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry. Among other reasons, God sent Jesus when He did as a last-ditch attempt to turn the Jews aside from a disastrous rebellion against Rome. Jesus warns them repeatedly to seek a heavenly, not an earthly, kingdom. If “Turn the other cheek,” is a warning against rebellion too, that fits perfectly.
This leaves us with THREE APPLICATIONS. First, just as the Jews were not allowed to take revenge into their own hands and justify it by misapplying the Law, we aren’t allowed to take revenge into our own hands either. Christians are supposed to be merciful and forgiving rather than vengeful. If we have opportunity, we are to do good even to those who have done evil to us. Punishing wrongdoing is God’s job and the government’s job, not ours.
Second, like God’s people in the first century, we are to submit to the government. We are to honor the laws and pay our taxes, even when we believe those laws are unjust and the taxes are oppressive. Certainly, our brethren 2000 years ago faced unjust laws and oppressive taxes to a degree we can hardly imagine, but they never took up arms against Roman tyranny.
Sometimes, I hear people arguing that in our country, the Constitution is the true government, so we have the right to rebel against a government that has gone beyond the bounds of the Constitution. Frankly, I think that’s sophistry. As Peter says in 1 Peter 2, we are not merely to honor the law. We are to honor the emperor. The godly obey the man in charge, even if he’s as crazy and evil as Nero. Of course, this is not true when the law directly contradicts the commandment of God. Then, our responsibility is to obey God rather than men.
Finally, we have to make up our own minds about gun ownership and self-defense. If Matthew 5 does not offer a clear command on the subject, we must be guided by our own conscience. There’s no reason to criticize the Christian who resolves that they can never take life, no matter what, nor is there reason to criticize the Christian who is willing to kill to protect the life of another. This is a decision that we must make thoughtfully and prayerfully, but if we do, whatever we choose will be to the glory of God.