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is self-defense permissible?

One of the singularly great things I get to do as an elder in Christ’s church is teach God’s people Scripture. Whether preaching through a book of the Bible or preaching the occasional topical series or answering a person’s emailed question or posting an article on our website, I have the incredible privilege to teach God’s word. There are times, however, that we must remember the warning of James, the Lord’s brother: teachers will be judged more strictly. We—I—must remember the rest of James’ warning, however!

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

James 3:1–2 ESV

Notice the connection with stumbling over words! James doesn’t mean a failure to enunciate. The warning is not about eloquence. One who would teach holy Scripture must be very careful to say what Scripture says and to not say what Scripture does not say. No wonder Paul declared that he determined to preach only Christ and him crucified! It would be much easier to stick to things Scripture directly addresses. The difficulty with this is Scripture does not directly address many things in our lives today, for the most recent portion of Scripture was written over 1,900 years ago. Scripture is silent on vaccines and internet technology and gun control. As the church’s primary preacher and teacher, being set apart by the church vocationally, I must address the issues facing our people.

Recently I was asked about self-defense via the Signal messenger app my City Group uses. This is the specific question: “@J-T If it was kill or be killed in a situation, what would be the right Christian thing to do?” When I first read the question I thought she was asking what to do if J-T were killed! The obvious thing would be to find my life insurance policy. But no. That’s not what she meant. She further explained what she and her co-workers had been discussing. Is it right to defend your own life? What does Scripture say about self defense?

In response many would point to Jesus’ words in Luke 11:21–22. There he uses the illustration of a strong man who, being fully armed, guards his palace and then his goods are safe. This doesn’t quite answer the question, however, because Jesus was observing what happens and not what should happen. His point there was not that each one of us should fully arm ourselves. Even more, the context was Jesus subduing Satan! Satan is the fully armed man who was bound by our Lord. If we use this illustration to justify personal self-defense, we’d be insisting on being like Satan, who was defeated by Jesus. I’m not sure that’s a good argument!

If we look to the law of Moses we see the principle of self defense. In the Ancient Near Eastern mind the concept of “law” was that of royal propaganda. The various commandments were really the revelation of the king and his character. The “law” Moses received at Mount Sinai was God’s self-revelation to his people. We learn what God is like through God’s good and just commandments. Murder is wrong but not because the sixth commandment says so; murder is wrong because God is not the sort to take life unjustly. How do we know? The sixth commandment says so. In other words, it’s less that the command is forbidding murder and more that the command is telling us to be like God, who would never take life unjustly. So what does the Lord reveal through the law of Moses?

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.

Exodus 22:1–4 ESV

There are a number of very interesting things to note here. First is the concept of private property. One cannot steal what is not owned by another. I’m not stealing air by breathing because no one owns the air. More accurately, we all own the air and so each one of us has the right to breathe it. If a man steals an ox or a sheep, he is taking what he does not have the right to take. If he kills the animal he must compensate the owner. The ox is more valuable for it was used to produce beyond its own flesh for meat; it was used to plow and haul burdens whereas the sheep was used for its flesh and its wool. Here we see the principle of compensation being directly tied to the relative value of the thing being harmed.

Then God says if a thief breaks into a home and the homeowner strikes him while defending his property, he is not guilty of murder. Keep in mind that murder is not merely killing, but killing a human unjustly. Notice closely that if the thief breaks in during the day and is killed the homeowner would be guilty of murder! The difference is one may not see all that well in the dark and so greater force may be applied. During the day, however, help would be more readily available as one’s neighbors would be around and one could see the intruder.

Again, if the law of Moses is God’s self revelation and the purpose of that law is to show us how to live in accordance with God’s character, rather than a list of rules, what does this teach us about self-defense? First of all, it shows us that self-defense is permissible. Self-defense includes protecting one’s property and goods. Second, it shows us that the use of force may be justified, and the force must be commensurate with the crime. Stealing a sheep does not justify killing the thief. In Exodus 22 the thief is inside where people are sleeping and where the homeowner cannot see if he has a weapon. This indicates a greater risk. If in the struggle the thief is struck so that he dies the owner is justified in protecting his property whereas if it takes place during daylight people are not sleeping and the risk to human life is greatly lessened.

These commandments are about the theft of farm animals, so what do they have to do with people? In the same law of Moses God required that when you put an ox to work treading out the grain, you must not put a muzzle on the ox. The ox had a right to some of the grain! While it was walking in circles over rocky ground, pulling a heavy sledge over the grain so as to break the hard outer shell of the grain, the ox must be allowed to participate in the fruit of its own labor. Again, this isn’t because the commandment said so; God is the sort who justly compensates those who work. As we saw in 1 Timothy, however, the law about oxen treading grain wasn’t really about oxen. Paul told Timothy it was about vocational elders earning a living by the gospel!

If we take his example and apply this principle to the commandments concerning the theft of farm animals, it clearly also applies to protecting human life, for a human is always and ever more valuable than a mere animal. What this means is that we have the right to defend ourselves with necessary force. Sometimes this may include deadly force, but merely being attacked is not justification for deadly force. We know this because God reveals his own character through the commands he gives.

What we need to see here is there is another type of defense that God reveals even more.

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 82:3–4 ESV

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8–9 ESV

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Isaiah 1:16–17 ESV

If we would insist on our right to personal defense and use Scripture to do so, we must recognize how much more Scripture has to say about defending the rights of others, and especially those who are powerless! So often those who have the loudest voices pleading for the right to self-defense are silent when speaking of the rights of the poor and needy, of widows and orphans, of immigrants and refugees. Given God’s greater emphasis on defending their rights, we should also place greater emphasis on doing so!

We must follow the example of the apostle Paul. In Acts 22 we read of Paul being arrested by the Romans and dragged into the barracks. They stretched him out in order to flog him. Then we read this:

But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”

Acts 22:25 ESV

Paul was a Roman citizen and insisted on his rights as a citizen! It was against Roman law to flog a citizen without a trial. Non-citizens did not have this right. Yet we also read this about Paul:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.

2 Corinthians 11:24 ESV

We read this in the middle of Paul’s recounting of all the ways he had suffered. While Romans could not lawfully whip a man who was a citizen without a trial, the Jews were allowed to discipline members of the synagogue as they saw fit, including whipping them. Paul endured this whipping on the part of the Jews on five separate occasions, yet when the Romans were about to do so he insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen. Why the different response? In the case of the Jews all he had to do was renounce his membership in the synagogue and they would have no legal right to touch him. Why did he refuse to insist on his rights in the synagogue?

It’s quite simple: Paul’s motivation was the gospel of Jesus. If he renounced his membership in the synagogue he would be renouncing his membership in all synagogues, which means he would not be allowed to enter them and preach the gospel of Jesus! With the Romans, by insisting on his rights as a citizen he would be given a public trial and we read in Acts that he used this public trial to preach the gospel of Jesus!

Here’s what this means: we must seek opportunities to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We have the right to defend ourselves and we should make use of this right, especially if it protects others who are vulnerable. We should also consider whether self-defense would serve to further the gospel of Jesus. If you’re killed, you can no longer preach the gospel, yet if you are being killed precisely because you preach the gospel your martyrdom will preach that same gospel loudly! The witness of martyrs—the word “martyr” means witness!—throughout history has been used powerfully by God to build his church.

Martyrs are those who are killed for proclaiming Jesus, not for their stuff. Like Paul, we should insist on our rights when it furthers the gospel and we should deny our rights when it furthers the gospel. If I were to try to boil it down to a single principle it would be this: love your neighbor as yourself. If loving your neighbor requires self-defense, then love your neighbor, but if loving your neighbor requires laying down your life, then love your neighbor. It is what Jesus would do.