We might wish for more clear texts in the New Testament that are addressed explicitly to the question of self-defense. But since we do not have such data without forcing texts to discuss matters they are not intended to address, a Christian perspective of the question of self-defense must be more indirect. Thus, we shift now from exegesis to an analysis of the social, theological, and ethical concerns.
Contemporary Social & Pragmatic Concerns
We will first address some of the concerns of contemporary American society and note implications of the American social setting. These issues are today discussed almost entirely in terms of defensive weapons, most commonly handguns, though any lethal weapons (knives, long guns, etc.) are relevant.
First, as Americans, we have inherited a legal protection to “keep and bear Arms” under the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Though frequently treated in modern discussions as if the reference were to the National Guard or the military, the intent of the amendment is individual (“the people”), the militia being best understood, not as a government entity, but as the collective citizenry who would take up arms in defense of the security of a free state. This perspective is not intuitive for 21st-century America, where there has been a standing army for many years and the pre-military days of the colonial militia have been long forgotten, but that does not change the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Second, there is no doubt that our culture is undergoing massive social change. Until the middle of the 20th century, social discourse in America assumed a Judeo-Christian ethos and values (though the United States was never a “Christian nation”). That consensus has disintegrated, and our culture continues to wander ethically, politically, and socially with no moral compass. As a result, violence has increased both internally and externally. Due to the mobility and increased technical sophistication of our society, along with increased population (particularly in urban areas), the opportunity for mass violence has increased considerably.
As far as I know, only two reactions are possible (other than wringing one’s hands and doing nothing). Either the people demand that government attempt to protect them from all possible calamities (and accept the resulting loss of liberty), or the people must take greater responsibility for their own protection. Unfortunately, government simply cannot protect the people from everything. It may administer justice after the fact, but it can rarely prevent tragedies.
Third, gun control legislation and regulations are often counterproductive. In an attempt to stem violence, politicians frequently move to ban particular weapons. The favorite targets in recent years have been handguns, large capacity magazines, and “assault weapons.” Unfortunately, passing such laws rarely has a positive impact on crime rates, since criminals do not abide by the laws. The only people significantly affected are law-abiding citizens who are denied access to the means of defending themselves against criminals.
Fourth, although the particulars differ somewhat by state, the United States has clear legal guidelines as to what constitutes lawful self-defense. American citizens are allowed to defend themselves against attempts to take their lives. This is not unique to the United States but is the continuation of a long legal history, which includes English Common Law, European and Reformation legal precedent, and, before that, Roman law in the Code of Justin and even earlier.
Theological & Ethical Concerns
Evil and violence are real. The ethical portrait of our world in Romans 1:18–32 is ugly. Despite the plainness and availability of God’s truth, humans have consistently disobeyed Him. That is the “natural” predisposition of a totally depraved sinner—it reflects fallen human nature, which is “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). As a result of this evil, there is violence in the world. There has been since Genesis 4, and there will be as long as there are sinful people. That said, it does appear that we are now living in one of the more violent periods in history. The scale of violence has increased geometrically due to modern technology. Humans are not more evil than before; they just have more convenient and effective means of demonstrating their malice.
The solution to violence is not “peace” or nonresistance, for that simply creates greater space for the evildoer to do evil. At times it is necessary to use violence to stop or prevent violence. This may be more obvious at the national and international levels, but it is also true at the personal level.
In certain circumstances, violence may be necessary to preserve life (either one’s own or others’). Failure to act violently to stop violent aggression will, in some cases, perpetuate greater violence as the aggressor is allowed to continue a violent killing spree. Though life should not be viewed as sacred (that places too high a value on it; it is not on the level of divine/sacred things), human beings have been created in the image of God and all life is precious. However, a human life may be forfeited if it is employed in evil and violence against others. The clearest Biblical teaching on this involves the judgment of capital punishment by government (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1–5; etc.), but in dire circumstances the individual is also permitted to take life. This was clearly encoded in the Mosaic law and implied in Jesus’ instructions to carry defensive weapons on at least some occasions.
We must accept the fact that we do not live in a perfect world and will not do so until Jesus returns and establishes His Kingdom. Meanwhile, we must live as God commands and be prepared to face the realities of an imperfect society. Though we may strive for an improved social and political environment—and may achieve some measures of success at times—our hope must not be in an earthly utopia brought about by our efforts. No political party will ever solve the world’s problems or right the injustices and violence that mar our world today. Postmillennialism is far too optimistic of human nature. Premillennialism, though not inherently negative toward social involvement, is the only view of history and eschatology that offers a realistic, ultimate hope of a perfect society within history, and that will come only when Jesus returns. Until then, while “evil men … grow worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3:13), we may well need to sell our cloak and buy a sword.
What Should I Do as an Individual?
If you come to the conviction that you should consider some form of self-defense for yourself, your family, or your ministry, what should you do? The first step is to study carefully the Biblical basis for this decision. You must be convinced that it is a Biblically authorized step. This is not an easy question, and explicit texts are not abundant. You may decide that my arguments are unpersuasive. I have tried to use only clear texts and have avoided a large number of others that have often been marshaled (especially on the Internet), but I do not claim a definitive conclusion.
Having reached a decision, you then need to choose what form of self-defense is most appropriate. Some will choose some form of manual combat, a baton, or pepper spray. Others will choose a firearm. Whatever your choice, it is essential that you receive high-quality training. An untrained or poorly trained person attempting to “do some good” can inadvertently make a dangerous situation much worse. (This is true even of the simplest self-defense tool, pepper spray. Good training courses are available for all self-defense methods. The further up the technology scale you go, the more important good training becomes.)
If you consider carrying a firearm, it is not only practically desirable but also legally essential that you undergo multiple training sessions at several levels. Much of this training needs to be hands-on and include extensive training on a firing range. It is not adequate to have a friend “teach you how to shoot” or even to read a good book. Reading is a good start, and if you read the right books, you will tremble at the legal implications of having to use deadly force. It is not a pretty picture. You should consider retaining a lawyer who specializes in self-defense issues and who will agree in advance to represent you in the event of a shooting. That will require a preliminary interview with the attorney (and perhaps a legal fee).
Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary, a member of Northmoreland Baptist Church, Tunkhannock, PA, and author of many books and articles. He went to be with the Lord in 2014.