Should Christians defend themselves?
When we hear this question our minds are immediately drawn to the use of guns or other weapons. However, before considering the implications of the answer, a fundamental consideration must be given to the general question of self-defense. Is it permissible for Christians to defend themselves?
We might consider Jesus’s words in Matthew’s Gospel, where followers of Christ are taught not to resist the one who is evil, but, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other also” (5:39). Most Bible commentators see this slapping as personal insult rather than an act of physical violence. (Notice the right cheek is emphasized, demonstrating that a backhanded slap is most likely in view.) Instead of returning an insult or another blow, the believer is to be content to endure the stinging slap.
On the other hand we do see examples of believers offering self-defense. In fact, Jesus foretold that his disciples would need to defend themselves against accusations, even noting that the Holy Spirit would aid them in their defense (Lk. 12:11-12). And the apostle Paul found himself regularly defending himself (Acts 22:1; 24:10).
The more controversial question has to do with whether or not Christians may defend themselves with use of force (even lethal force) when in danger. In particular, can a Christian carry (and use a gun), use force, or otherwise act to stop an attack upon themselves or others?
Some Christians say “no” because we should embrace persecution from those who are ardently opposed to the faith. It is true that Christians are to pray for those who persecute them (Mt. 5:44) and patiently endure persecution (1 Pet. 2:19). However, not all violence is persecution. And the Bible does not forbid us from fleeing from violent persecution (cf. Lk. 4:29-30; Jn. 8:59, 10:39; 2 Cor. 11:32-33).
Others may claim that while the government has the power to use the sword to protect its citizens (Rom. 13:1-7), we as ordinary citizens do not. Most people who would hold this view would support the police and military’s right to use force (even lethal force) as an application of a passage like Romans 13. However, the Bible does not specify police or military; it simply refers to the government. The state has given the police and military the right to defend its citizens by use of force. In the case of the United States, the government has also given its citizens the right to arm and protect themselves and others in the face of imminent danger. If Christians have no biblical issue with the police and military defending its citizens against attack, then there would not seem to be a biblical case to oppose individual citizens doing the same.
In conclusion, I believe that self-defense is biblically permissible for Christians.
Here are two reasons why:
As Christians we are called to value the image of God in the lives of others even as we protect the weak and vulnerable (Ps. 82:3-4; Prov. 31:8-9; Isa. 1:17; 1 Tim. 5:8). In some cases the defense of the weak may require intervention with an attacker. Though undesirable, this action could prevent further loss of life.
In both testaments we see example of believers taking steps to defend themselves, even arming themselves, in the face of potential danger. In Exodus 22:2-3 we see God speak to the acceptability of defending one’s home against a thief. In Nehemiah 4:16-18 when the city was being rebuilt the men divided the labor in such a way that some took up spears, shields, and bows while others worked. Those who carried the loads or built the wall did so with their weapon readily available. Jesus himself instructed his disciples to sell their cloak and buy swords (Lk. 27:36). Furthermore, Jesus regularly used word pictures and stories about self-defense in order to make a broader spiritual point (Lk. 11:21; Mt. 12:29). The biblical narratives seem to assume the right of sober self-defense.
We recognize that this is a sensitive issue of conscience for many, and that grace and love must characterize this conversation. We also are convinced that any such self-defense must be considered as a last resort and in response to a reasonable threat. The same principle of valuing the image of God in others that drives us to protect the weak among us also compels us to a careful and measured response.