Under OT law, it was expressly permitted to the inhabitant of a dwelling to defend hearth and home if necessary by lethal (death-causing) force against an intruder, without penalty: “If a thief is caught in the act of breaking in, and he is beaten to death, no one is guilty of bloodshed,” (HCSB, Exodus 22:2). But does the NT believer, under grace, have this same right? Some would affirm, and strongly, that we do not. Pacifism and non-resistance has been a professed doctrine of a number of Christian groups over the centuries. One thinks immediately of the Anabaptists, Amish, Mennonites, Grace Brethren, and Quakers. But are they correct in embracing this understanding of NT teaching?
James, a son of Mary and Joseph, was the leader of the congregation in Jerusalem, indeed a veritable “pillar” in the church (Galatians 2:9), and wrote what is by consensus the earliest book in the New Testament, the epistle of James, credibly assigned a date before 50 A.D. James 5:7 characterizes the victimized righteous man who suffers wrong at the hand of a wealthy man as one who “does not resist you.” Is this merely descriptive of how the individual acted in this specific case (that is, giving no cause for the violent man to act as he did), or is it exemplary, even prescriptive as a guide for our conduct, that is, presenting us with an example we are obliged to emulate?
Jesus Himself spoke directly to the issue of revenge and self-defense in His most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He addressed the subject of taking revenge for wrongs suffered in Matthew 5:38-42.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
The natural inclination of mankind is to “not get mad, but get even,” and much more than “even.” Taking revenge for actual and perceived wrongs is as old as fallen humanity. Examples could be easily multiplied: Cain feared suffering a revenge killing (Genesis 4:14-15) and his descendant Lamech argued that because his taking a human life was in self-defense he should be exempt from a revenge death (Genesis 4:23-24), suggesting that it was a common occurrence in that day. The famous 19th century American Hatfield and McCoy feud in which many people died began as a dispute over a pig. Today we have “road rage” which sometimes degenerates into murder because of some minor traffic infraction.
Matthew 5:38 is a partial quote by Jesus of Exodus 21:22-25 (see also Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21), which is called the lex talionis, or law of retaliation. That law was given by God, not to promote or command taking revenge for injuries suffered as some might suppose, but to strictly limit it (rather than inflicting the injury of two eyes for one, two teeth for one, etc., or an even greater number).
As part of the Law (Torah) given by God at Sinai, Exodus 21:22-25 was inspired, true and authoritative. Jesus does not reject it, but rather clarifies it, by indicating that that regulation, while allowing retribution for wrong done, does not require revenge, and in fact it is a higher principle of conduct to let minor wrongs go unacknowledged; indeed, we can “kill our enemies with kindness” and “heap coals of fire on their heads,” as Romans 12:20 (quoting Proverbs 25:21-22) affirms.
A slap was deemed highly personally insulting, but the physical pain and injury it may inflict are minor and temporary, and do not merit retaliation; far better to suffer it twice over than to seek revenge for this, says Jesus. Likewise with the giving of the coat in addition to the shirt for which one is sued (these are mere examples; be it noted that ordinary clothing was relatively much more expensive in those days than today).
And under Roman law, a Roman soldier could compel anyone to carry a burden for him for a mile. This would involve uncompensated hard work, and was both an imposition and an inconvenience. Jesus instructs us, literally, to “go the second mile,” showing that we, as His followers, are qualitatively different from the rest of mankind. This is overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21)
Minor Affront vs. Physical Assault
We are not to extrapolate the ignoring of the minor though insulting affront, such as a slap, to mean that we are therefore to ignore every kind of affront and injury and never defend ourselves against physical or potentially deadly assault.
For example, when Jesus was slapped by one of the officers of the high priest when on trial before the Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court, (John 18:19-24), Jesus did not “turn the other cheek,” but rebuked the man for his judicially illegal act. Of course, He did not take any physical revenge. The Gospels record numerous other slaps inflicted on Jesus during this night, to which He did not respond at all (Matthew 27:67-68, parallels in Mark and Luke).
It is true that Jesus did not resist the armed assailants who came to arrest Him in Gethsemane, and rebuked Peter for using violence to defend Jesus (Matthew 26:51-54, parallels). In that particular case, however, it was God’s perfect will for Jesus to submit, be tried and condemned as part of the plan of human redemption, so it does not serve as a universally applicable pattern for us. Furthermore, Jesus was merely being arrested at this point, and the disciples had no sure notion that Jesus faced execution. Killing a man merely to prevent arrest was an excessive reaction to the perceived danger.
Not only so, but from a human perspective, resistance by the poorly-armed band of eleven disciples against so large a body of well-armed soldiers was utterly futile, and vastly inferior to the superior force of angels Jesus could have summoned had He wanted to.
Jesus’ words, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) has a proverbial quality about it (as a general truism, but not an absolute declaration of universal truth), and seems to address specifically those who, as a matter of course, resort to violence to force their will on others (robbers, gangs, bandits, and the like). It does not seem to directly refer to those who would defend themselves against violence imposed on them.
Some pacifists and “non-resisters” would insist that Jesus’ words are plain: “Do not resist an evil person,” (Matthew 5:39), which they would take to mean at all times and under all circumstances, that is, we should never defend ourselves with physical force, weapons, etc. no matter what. However, if they really took literally and at face value the admonition (v. 39)—“Do not resist an evil person,” then they would never lock their houses or cars, remove their car keys from the ignition switch, or conceal their bank ATM password. And of course they do not do these things. They do “resist evil persons” in matters involving property crimes. And if one may legitimately resist evil in matters of property, how much more may one resist evil when threatened in one’s health, well-being, safety and life?
Before Pilate (John 18:36), Jesus explained why His followers did not engage in violence to protect Him (Peter excepted!)—His kingdom was not part of this present world-system. It was then a strictly spiritual kingdom, a rule over submissive human hearts. It is indeed wrong—and impossible—to spread Christ’s spiritual kingdom using physical weapons (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Rather, by the “sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” the kingdom is furthered (Ephesians 6:17).
Jesus does not expressly denounce warfare conducted by government, which does wield weapons to punish evil-doers (Romans 13:4); this can reasonably be understood to include national defense against foreign invaders and aggressors. It is noteworthy that nowhere does the Bible denounce the “profession of arms,” that is, serving in the military, as a thing inherently evil. In a very telling account, John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) gives ethical guidelines for soldiers to follow in the exercise of their professional responsibilities, but does not denounce wholesale the profession of arms as evil per se. Likewise Cornelius, a Roman military officer (Acts 10), is nowhere told to abandon his military career as being by its very nature in conflict with a Christian lifestyle.
Paul speaks to the matter of taking revenge in Romans 12:17-21. Verse 18’s exhortation to be at peace with all men has the significant qualifier, “as much as it depends on you.” There are times when threats and violence are imposed on us unprovoked, and in such cases we are not required to be “at peace with all men.”
We as followers of Jesus are to be peaceable individuals, not easily provoked, not inclined to personally revenging wrongs. However, we have the right to defend with appropriate and necessary means ourselves, our property and persons, against evil doers.
Note on resources regarding the issue of the Christian’s right to self-defense. In preparing this study, I found precious little written on this subject in the resources I had ready to hand. These included the following, in declining order of merit.
Dagg, J. L., A Practical View of Christian Ethics (Sprinkle Publications,2006; retitled reprint of 1859 edition titled The Elements of Moral Science), pp. 309-319. An adequate survey by a noted 19th century Baptist.
Dabney, Robert L, Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985 reprint of Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, second edition, 1878), pp. 401-404, in discussion of the 6th command in the Decalogue. Forceful and logical presentation by 19th century Southern Presbyterian professor.
Jackson, Samuel M., ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge ( Baker, 1964 reprint), “Self-defense,” by Karl Burger; vol. X, pp. 343-4. Meager.
McClintock, John, and Strong, James, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature (Baker, 1971 reprint), vol. IX, pp. 517-8. More meager still.
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.