Many Christians assume–incorrectly–that there is not a biblical right to self-defense or to the defense of one’s family or property. They justify this on the basis of a misreading of Jesus’s statements on turning the other check and an eye-for-an-eye. I will look at these two Scriptures in detail at the end of this post. However, in a recent article David French does such a wonderful job of explaining the general Scriptural teachings on self-defense that I have excerpted his words here:
First, it has always been clear that human life is precious — so precious, in fact, that throughout time God has mandated the ultimate penalty for unlawful killing …
In Mosaic law, God … specifically carved out an exception for the defense of one’s home: “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him . . .” (Exodus 22:2). There was bloodguilt if the thief was killed during the day, however. Note the grace that God gives the citizen in the midst of the fear and ambiguity of a nighttime invasion — even a “thief” … can be killed at night …
Second, the morality of self-defense is not only presumed, the act of self-defense is permitted and even mandated by key biblical figures … Nehemiah, when he was rebuilding Jerusalem in the face of hatred (not in wartime, but when tribal neighbors were seeking to carry out vigilante attacks on Jews) instructed his people: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14).
It’s often-forgotten that the climax of the Book of Esther involves the Jews gathering together in an act of self-defense, where a despotic king was persuaded to allow them to fight against their attackers: “The king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.” (Esther 8:11) …
While the New Testament certainly removes from the individual Christian any justification for vengeance … Jesus’s disciples carried swords, and Jesus even said in some contexts the unarmed should arm themselves. The sword’s use was only specifically forbidden when Peter used violence to block Christ’s specific purpose to lay down his life.
The idea that one is required to surrender his life … in the face of armed attack is alien to scripture. There are many examples of martyrs surrendering their lives in the face of evil, but such an act is highly contextual and in response to the individual call of God on a man (or woman’s) life. I know of no precedent for the idea that we are called to surrender the lives of others (such as our spouse, children, or neighbors) in response to deadly attack.
French goes on to talk about how the right to self-defense was considered a natural right of man by John Locke, and was thus very much part of the rights of man talked about by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
Going back to the Bible, there are certain rules of hermeneutics that must be followed if one wants to get a full understanding of a Scriptural passage. One rule is that we should never proof-text. Proof-texting is when one cherry-picks a Scripture to support his position, ignoring everything else the Bible says about a topic. Another rule is that a passage from the Bible must be considered in context. Finally, when interpreting the Bible, it is best to ask what the hearers thought a passage meant according to their culture and circumstances, before going off and trying to interpret it according to our personal lives.
People who claim that the Bible gives us no right to self-defense violate all three of the above hermeneutical principles.
To see why this is so, we need to look at more closely at what Jesus said in Matthew 5: 38-42:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus’s words in Matthew were widely understood in the context of seeking revenge by the people who heard them. One strong point that Scripture makes elsewhere is that we should forsake private vengeance:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
Romans 12: 19.
This is not the same as saying that we should forsake justice. If so, then it would overturn the need for all law, courts, and policemen, and we would forever condemn ourselves–needlessly–to being lead as lambs to the slaughter. Nowhere in Scripture can we find the idea that it is a good witness, or even wise, to hand the world over to the will of evil men, or to allow ourselves to be fed upon by them when there are avenues to legally restrain them. Rather, this Scripture prohibits the exacting of personal vengeance, and tells us that we cannot take the law into our own hands.
Getting back to what Jesus said, the words “eye for an eye” were used in the Mosaic Law to stress the need for having a punishment that fit the crime. This was an important innovation in the Mosaic Law that is still observed in legal codes today. However, in Jesus’s time, many people were using this Scripture in an attempt to justify taking revenge against others who had offended them. This revenge was extra-judicial–they were not calling the police or going before a judge so that the proper authorities would take care of the matter. Rather, they wanted the pleasure of taking that pound of flesh themselves.
In particular, this Scripture was being used to justify fighting against Roman rule. Judea was an occupied country at that time, and Roman legionnaires had a legal right to hit someone on the cheek if the person got in their way or caused them trouble, to take their cloak of they needed clothes, and to force them the carry their goods. These were all legal rights that the legionnaires did not hesitate to exercise. Many Jews were arguing, on the basis of the Scripture, “an eye for an eye”, that they had the right to resist these indignities. Jesus held otherwise.
This is not at all the same as saying that they did not have the right to self-defense, as in no way were their lives or even their livelihoods being threatened by Roman rule. So long as they obeyed Roman law and did not rebel against Roman rule, they were relatively safe from harm, though they might have to endure some indignities and hardship from time to time.
While Jesus explicitly stated that people had no right for personal revenge, do people have a biblical right to rebel? That is a difficult question. In the Old Testament, there are numerous cases where people rebelled against authority, and God was with them. However, there are also cases where people rebelled against authority, and God stood against them. When taken in context, the New Testament appears to give no absolute rule on the issue of rebellion, but gives wise counsel to people living under Roman authority in the 1st century. Indeed, as it was proven by events, rebellion against Rome in the 1st century was a lost cause. However, because of the existence of Pax Romana, the Gospel was freely transmitted to all of the known world at that time. Thus there are good reasons why God might have wanted to bless the Roman Empire, despite its evil, and use what was dedicated for evil as good.
Those who insist that there is never a biblical right to rebel against authority or to fight a war must explain what gave Moses the right to demand that the Pharaoh let his people go, the right of the Israelites to take the Promised Land by use of the sword, the God-ordained rebellion of Jehu, and any number of other rebellions against authority in the Bible. They must also necessarily be against the US War of Independence and the protests in Eastern Europe, led primarily by Christians, against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As is says in Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
It takes divine wisdom to know when these times are.
As for the right to self-defense, Jesus himself said, “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22: 36).