A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense
Summary: An examination of Bible scriptures and principles relevant to self-defense.
The following is an excerpt from a book by Larry Fox, A Biblical Perspective of Self-Defense and Civil Disobedience (Copyright © 2009).
Self-defense obviously is a very controversial topic among Christians, with many godly people on different sides of the issue. It is a multi-faceted and complex issue, and there are Christians whose spiritual maturity I respect who take opposing stands. While Scripture shows that I should pattern my life after those who are more mature in the faith–the themes of discipleship and mentoring are strong in the New Testament–it is also clear that I am ultimately responsible for my own growth, maturity, attitudes and behavior. Because of this, it is understandable there are so many different Christian perspectives on self-defense. My conclusions are governed by my personality, my level of spiritual maturity and my interpretation of Scripture.
Many questions immediately come to mind that need to be addressed. Should I defend myself and my family? What forms of defense are appropriate? Do I defend passively or aggressively? With or without force? Should I defend or protect others? Should I prepare for possible emergencies, such as storms, civil unrest, economic turmoil and political instability? What is my responsibility toward others in these situations?
Several years ago I was pondering these questions myself. In my search for answers, I talked with Christian friends and read many online articles by Christians, only to discover two things: (1) most believers had more questions than answers, and (2) there was no consensus among those who thought they had answers. In fact, there was strong debate between those with opposing positions, including very strong accusations and caustic remarks about those who disagreed. Most of the articles based their conclusions on selected biblical principles or verses and, as a result, their conclusions had limited value. I also suspected that many people’s conclusions were based on their personalities and they seemed to refer only to Scriptures that supported their views. I was deeply disturbed at believers using Scripture to justify their personal views and expressing hostility toward other Christians who disagreed.
In an attempt to avoid polarizing arguments and be as objective as possible, let us conduct an in-depth Bible study. Our goal is to identify the scriptural position on self-defense so we will examine a broad range of relevant Scriptures. Because this issue is both complex and controversial, we must examine a few foundational topics that will affect our conclusions.
It is important to begin by looking at the Old Testament, though we are not under Old Testament law, because it contains the most specific language about self-defense and reveals a lot about God’s standards and perspective. The Old Testament very clearly states that God created man in His own image and intended for him to rule the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). Man’s ability to make judgments and govern derives from his godly image and delegated authority. As we will see, man’s God-like nature also leads to very strict standards regarding the treatment of people.
Is Killing a Person Always Murder?
This question seems to be at the root of many people’s opinions regarding self-defense. If one believes killing is synonymous with murder, then it is never appropriate to use deadly force, even defensively. This is a common argument against private gun ownership, for example.
God said to Noah, “from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:5-6). So God created a system of capital punishment to be implemented by mankind; man was to take the life of whoever sheds another man’s blood. Because God made man in His own image, murder becomes a crime against God and demands capital punishment. There is no provision in the Old Testament for rehabilitation of a murderer.
With God’s statement to Noah as background, we gain insight to the Old Testament law, including the Ten Commandments. The sixth commandment is a statement regarding the value of human life: “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). Some of the debate of whether killing and murder are synonymous is the result of which Bible translation a person uses. There are two Hebrew words most frequently translated “kill” or “murder”; one means primarily to destroy or kill and the other primarily refers to murder. The second word is the one used in the sixth commandment, so the more precise translation is “You shall not murder” rather than “You shall not kill.”
As we’ll see in the next section, God instituted capital punishment for specific crimes. Since murder is a capital offense and He requires people to put the murderer to death, God clearly does not equate killing with murder.
There are those who view every act that ends a human life as murder, including war and capital punishment. If this were true, then whoever executes a murderer would himself become a murderer who must be executed by someone else and so on until presumably there would only be one person left. This kind of argument is sometimes used to imply the fallacy of capital punishment, but in reality is based on an incorrect assumption: that every incident of taking a human life is murder. That assumption is not supported by Scripture.
God specified more than one form of capital punishment in the law of the Old Testament. Stoning was the most frequent mode and usually involved participation by members of the entire community, including the witnesses (Deut. 17:7). Such public execution probably served as a strong deterrent, because people not only viewed executions by stoning but participated in them.
Offenses punishable by stoning included sacrificing one’s infant to Molech, a false god (Lev. 20:1-5). This passage even includes a warning to those who knowingly permit someone to sacrifice their child. Death by stoning was the punishment for anyone who was a medium or spiritist (Lev. 20:27), who blasphemed the name of the Lord (Lev. 24:15-16), who performed manual labor on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36), who worshiped other gods (Deut. 13:1-11; 17:2-5), who was a stubborn and rebellious son (Deut. 21:18-21), or who committed adultery (Deut. 21:22-24).
The sword was also a common instrument in capital punishment. For example, at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, God directed Moses to have the Levites kill the guilty people by the sword (Exod. 32:26-28). After Israel occupied the Promised Land, if a community fell into idolatry, every person in that town was to be put to the sword (Deut. 13:12-15).
Death by burning was specified if a man married both a woman and her mother (Lev. 20:14) or if a daughter of a priest became a prostitute (Lev. 21:9).
There were many other situations in which people were to be put to death; for example, showing contempt for a judge or priest who stands ministering to the Lord (Deut. 17:12). If a person owned a bull that had a habit of goring people, but he did not keep it penned up and the bull gored someone to death, the owner must be put to death unless payment is demanded of him instead (Exod. 21:28-30). Death was warranted for anyone who intentionally killed someone (Exod. 21:12-14), who was a sorceress (Exod. 22:18), who had sexual relations with an animal (Exod. 22:19), who attacked his parents (Exod. 21:15), who kidnapped someone (Exod. 21:16), who cursed his parents (Exod. 21:17), who struck a pregnant woman causing her to lose the child (Exod. 21:22-25), who committed incest (Lev. 20:11), who committed homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), or who raped a woman (Deut. 22:25).
The Israelites were to have judges rule in cases involving bloodshed (Deut. 17:8). This suggests not all bloodshed was to be punished, because the judge was to rule whether capital punishment was appropriate. As evidenced by this list, God mandated capital punishment for a variety of offenses in the Old Testament, which demonstrates the severity of these offenses in God’s view.
Use of Deadly Force
Throughout most of Israel’s history, the nation has been surrounded by enemies. God pledged to give the Israelites victory against their enemies even if they were outnumbered (Lev. 26:8; Deut. 20:1-4). He even instructed Israel, when they entered the Promised Land, to annihilate the people who lived there (Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-18). So God clearly sanctioned the use of deadly force by the nation.
God also sanctioned the use of deadly force by an individual in certain circumstances. For example, if a thief was caught breaking into a home at night, the homeowner had the right to kill the intruder in protection of his family and property. But if the incident occurred during the day, presumably when the homeowner could properly judge the intruder’s intentions and the intruder could see the homeowner was present and willing to defend his household, the homeowner could not kill the intruder (Exod. 22:2-3).
When God gave instructions on allotment of the Promised Land, He included instructions for cities of refuge, which were to be safe locations for someone who accidentally killed another. In the descriptions of these cities, we find references to an “avenger” or “avenger of blood.” The avenger could not capture or kill the allegedly guilty person if the death was accidental, as long as he was in the city of refuge and before he stood trial (Josh. 20:5, 9). If the person was guilty of murder, however, the elders of the city of refuge were to hand him over to the avenger to die (Deut. 19:11-12). God clearly authorized the use of deadly force by the nation of Israel and by individuals under certain conditions.
New Testament: Different Purpose and Emphasis
We must realize that the Old and New Testaments are very different. The Old Testament is earth-based and focuses primarily on human needs for physical provision and protection and civil, religious and moral law. Its blessings and curses are physical and psychological in nature, relating to crops and herds, safety from enemies, physical health and so on. The Old Testament relates to man’s earthly existence in the period before Christ. The New Testament, on the other hand, focuses primarily on repentance and spiritual development rather than physical existence. It has been said the Old Testament blesses a person on earth, while the New Testament prepares a person to leave the earth.
The Old Testament defined sin and emphasized outward behavior, but had no power to change human nature. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes development of godly character. The Old Testament represented God as protecting people from hardships and difficulties, which it described as curses. The New Testament recognizes that God uses people’s hardships and difficulties to help them repent and develop godly attributes. In the Old Testament, material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. In the New, the poor are considered blessed because they recognize their dependence on God.
In the New Testament, we become members of God’s family, not just recipients of His blessings. We participate in God’s kingdom, not just observe His works. God lives within us, rather than just visit us occasionally.
Where the Old Testament promised God would defeat one’s enemies, the New Testament requires loving one’s enemies and blessing those who abuse you. The Old Testament promised wealth and prosperity in exchange for obedience; the New Testament examines our stewardship, how we use whatever God entrusts to our care.
(End of book excerpt)