Thinking Through Self Defense

You may have heard of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian. They are the American missionaries that were killed while seeking to bring the Gospel to Huaorani tribe in Ecuador. These men went out to a tribe in the rain forest that was known for violence because they loved them and wanted them to know the Gospel. Due to a lie that was told about them, the tribe came to their makeshift camp and speared them to death in 1956. At the time, these murders were so big that the magazine Life did a spread on the story. What you might not know about this story is that these men were armed. I heard in a documentary about this event called Beyond the Gates of Splendor that these men had at least one gun with them when they were attacked. However, they had already decided that they were not going to use it because they knew that killing a Huaorani meant killing someone who did not know Christ and would therefore go to Hell. On the other hand, they knew if they were to die, they would instantly be with God. In the end, they were killed and therefore their families were left fatherless. Elisabeth Elliot (Jim’s wife) and a few others returned to that tribe and most of the Huaorani were saved.
The big question is: would the Bible have given them permission to defend themselves? Sure, things in the end worked out pretty well and a lot of people were saved, but what would Jesus have thought if they had defended themselves in one way or another?
Our mission agency, World Team, during our week of evaluation put us into scenarios that missionaries may face (i.e. kidnapping, etc.) and this got us thinking about what we would do in such situations.  So, I write this post because I genuinely would like the help of my fellow missionaries, friends, pastors, theologians, and lay Christians alike in thinking through the issue of self-defense. I am going to discuss some of it in this post, but please do respond to this and help us come to a full and biblical understanding of self-defense.
Just FYI – In this post, I do not want to deal with war, capital punishment, or the role of Christians in the army or as an arm of the government. I just want to deal with self-defense, or protecting oneself from the violence of others.
Up until the last few years I have been pretty second amendment about this issue. I believed that my life was valuable because I was created in the image of God and therefore I ought to defend my life with force if necessary, even up to killing an attacker. I did not, per se, believe in this because of the Bible, but probably because I am an American. However, recently I have become much more hesitant about this perspective. I think in part this is because I have been hanging around with a lot of Canadians ;), but mostly because of the words and example of Jesus. 
The Words of Jesus
First, here are some of Christ’s words on the subject:
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:39
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. ” Luke 6:27-31
“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” Matthew 26:51-52
Often I have found that Jesus’ words are quite direct and make it hard for me to hedge where I naturally want to hedge. Jesus actually said not to resist the evil one, to let people hit you, and to allow them to steal your stuff and not demand it back. I naturally want to qualify all of these things, but Christ did not. He just said them.
The Example of Jesus
Second, the example of Christ:
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” I Peter 2:21 
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7-9
When preparing his disciples for a future of persecution in which many of them would be killed, he called them to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. And then, when he himself was being attacked he did not fight back at all. Instead he went as a sheep before the slaughter. And it was a slaughter. What happened to Jesus was not the noose, the guillotine, or a firing squad. They brutally beat Jesus and condemned him to a slow death on a cross. And Jesus, the leader of the largest and most powerful army in the universe, allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. And most of his disciples followed suit, dying without a fight for the kingdom.
This is not to say that there are no passages that are questionable in the New Testament. Here is a passage that I do not know what to do with:
“And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” Luke 22:35-38
In this passage Christ calls his disciples to carry weapons. And I hardly think these were swords used for buttering bread. However, he does not tell them what to do with these weapons. So, at best this passage is vague whereas “do not resist the one who is evil” is not vague at all.  But still, what do we do with this passage?
Further Complications

Adding to the complication of this issue is the fact that I am married and I have four young children. So, I am not merely dealing with defense of myself, but defense of the family. It is clear that God does want us to defend the weak:

“Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:4
“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” Proverbs 24:11
If someone were to attack us, my children and wife would definitely fall into the category of weak and needy. However, I find these passages to be quite vague as to how they are worked out. In what ways should we rescue the weak and needy? Though there is very little influence of the Lord’s Resistance Army in our part of Africa, if these men were to come into my home and attack my family and desire to take away my children, how should I respond? Strong verbal persuasion? Non-lethal attack? Lethal attack? There is no doubt that I ought to love my enemies, but I must also love my children and rescue them. I struggle with the application. In what ways do I rescue? Particularly as a missionary coming into another country with a desire to show the love of Christ. Christ literally let them kill him, and then he sent out his disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves to die. And most of his disciples died in obedience to Christ. Scripture does not record any examples of Christ’s disciples fighting back (except Peter who Christ rebuked). And yet, when it comes to my family I want to defend them in anyway that I possibly can. This desire seems right and good, and biblically I think it is right and good. However, biblically I do not know to what extent I can righteously defend them.
What Are Your Thoughts?
So, there it is. I honestly am asking you all for help. I want to think biblically about self-defense and I feel the tension. I am taking my family to a more dangerous part of the world and I need to know how to respond. It seems to me that the New Testament pattern and example is to not fight back in the face of persecution and even robbery. Is that how we should respond? Should I teach my children not to fight back? If they are allowed to fight back, when, and to what degree? 
Please feel free to recommend articles or books or just leave comments. I am mostly interested in a biblical perspective, not a Constitutional one. I know that in America we are allowed to bear arms and it is legal to kill someone in self-defense. But what is legal and American is not always right and I want my cultural values to be challenged by the Word. So, please challenge me and point me to the Word! We are scheduled to leave America in less than a year so I am ready to figure this out!

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.

8 thoughts on “Thinking Through Self Defense

  1. At this point, this is just my opinion, so, maybe not really worth much.

    I think that persecution for ones faith in an exception to the rule of being permitted to use lethal force in order defend against violence. If you are being attacked because of the stand you are taking for serving and proclaiming Christ, then lay down your sword. If you are being attacked because a man is trying to kill you to take your possessions, assault your wife, or kidnap your children, then I think it's acceptable to use lethal force in order to protect your life or the life of your family members.

    I think you could also make a case for a further exception, namely whether or not using lethal force is going to have a negative impact on your communities view of the gospel. If killing someone in self defense is going to result in the community you are trying to reach becoming hardened to the message to the gospel, then I would think that would be another situation in which one should lay down their sword and trust their lives and safety to God.

  2. Well, although I was a co-editor to this blog post, I figure I'll think out-loud in response to what Dave wrote anyway.

    I have three responses:

    1. The Image of God in Man. Suicide is wrong because it is killing a person who is made in the image of God. Even though it deals with oneself, it is still wrong because the image of God in man ought to be reverenced. In the same way, I could see how biblically the image of God in man could be reverenced and protected through self defense.

    2. The Call to Die. And yet, Jesus calls his image bearers to suffer and die as they follow him. So the honor of sharing in the sufferings of Christ is more valuable to God than me defending his image in me.

    3. The Role of the Holy Spirit. Sitting back and talking about things in theory can be helpful, but ultimately, when we walk by the Spirit, he is the great counselor who will guide us in any and every circumstance. So yes, let's examine the Scriptures that are there in the Bible, and then live and walk asking the Spirit for day to day, moment by moment guidance. I'm not trying to use this one as a cop-out, I just don't think there is a bible verse for every scenario and that is why we need to rely on the Spirit to know what to do.

    Love you Dave!

  3. I like Stacey's answer a lot. It also helps some to have some kind of plan before hand.

    In the case of someone taking your life (not family members or possessions) Christ didn't stop those who killed him. And no one could have killed Christ until God wanted them too. The same is true for us. I think obedience in this case is to not harm our attackers and leave the rest to the Lord. Jesus modeled this and his death brought great glory for God and salvation for millions. God even used Paul's death for great glory to God and salvation for maybe even millions. And what an inspiration Jim Elliot and his faithful friends have been, in their deaths?

    I know we have responsibilities (family, mission work, etc.) that someone else would have to take if we died "prematurely" but God can handle that. Jim Elliot's wife and son went back to Jim's murderers and many were saved. Also God has taken care of Jim's family. Jim's son and wife are godly people blessed with great ministries.

    And these verses point to God's plan for martyrs and/or the death of his children:

    Greater love has no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

    Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15

    …Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. Rev. 20:4

    Even when you have a plan though you ultimately, like Stacey said, need to ask the Spirit for day to day, moment by moment guidance.

  4. So I did show my ignorance. Jim didn't have a son but Nate Saint did. Nate Saint was a martyr with Jim Elliot. Saint's son does have a great ministry. Steve Saint still works with the same people who killed his father and travels the world preaching the Gospel.

  5. Hi Hares,
    First, I love that you are looking for the Biblical answer to this. So many people I've talked to about it are content to end it with the cultural or legal answers.
    Second, Nathan (my Canadian husband! 😉 and I have spent a lot of time thinking this out. Our blog has a link to an article we wrote about the Christian's participation (or not) in warfare. I believe that the same Biblical arguments that to me seem to point to a position of Christian non-resistance also apply to the situation of personal defense. You have already mentioned many of the important verses dealing specifically with this issue. Many people hear the phrase "Christian non-resistance" and immediately think pacifism. The two are not the same. A Christian choosing to refrain from a violent response to violence is not "copping out" as some would say the pacifists are. It is much harder not to respond as we have been treated! But we are to treat others as we would want them to treat us, not as they have treated us. Nathan, as the male defender of the family unit, has especially struggled through understanding how the Bible instructs us to respond. His conclusion is that he must and will do anything in his power, including sacrificing himself, for us (or theoretically others) – except return that violence back onto the aggressor. The point is to resist evil, but not to use violence to do it. There are a myriad of precautions that can be taken in any situation, but when it comes right down to it, anything we would do will be seen as what the "christians" do and so we must make sure that we are representing Christ as best we understand.
    Believe me, this is and will continue to be something we struggle through too! As we are hoping to join y'all in Cameroon soon. 🙂 I have to say, when we first felt "called" it was to South Africa….and given the rape statistics there (something like 1 in every 3 women will be sexually assaulted at least once in her lifetme?!?), being redirected to Cameroon has been a big relief for us! 😛 Blessings as you work through this important ethical question.

  6. Dave, 1st time poster from Grace EFC in Afton, WI. Thanks for this post, as the subject is one I continue to examine (another 2nd "amendmenter")at the supposedly mature age of 60. Besides the arguments & interpretations already mentioned, it seems the more natural reaction (violence for violence) should be suspect BECAUSE it's more natural!

  7. Dave, I recommend you pick up Preston Sprinkle's new book, "Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence." He's a NT scholar who writes down to earth, while consistently adhering to the text of Scripture. He admits the temptation to default to his own emotional and cultural (American) baggage, but in every instance demands reevaluation of himself and his readers because of what the Bible actually says. It's really good!

    He has a chapter called "Attacker at the Door" which gives solid biblical reasons NOT to kill the hypothetical attacker who will "definitely" kill your family. He also offers solutions to the tough ethical questions of choosing the lesser of two evils. The whole book is excellent in the way that it presents the radical call of Jesus on His disciples, and how consistent God has been throughout redemptive history (OT and NT) in His efforts to bring the world back to shalom, or the Edenic ideal. You can get it here:

  8. David, one question that comes to mind after reading your reply is how a Christian could ever make a distinction between being attacked due to "the stand you are taking for serving and proclaiming Christ" and being attacked for the sake of mere murder and theft. The problem I see in making such a distinction is that it creates a false dichotomy between the so-called "spiritual" life and the normal everyday.

    But I don't see that same dichotomy presented anywhere in scripture. In fact, it seems that when Jesus lays down the kingdom ethics in Matt 5-7, there are no qualifiers; followers of Jesus act and do and allow themselves to be acted upon no matter if they are currently "employed" in gospel work or not. Would you be able to justify killing a man (or woman) who was busting down your door, threatening to kill you all, because you knew for absolute certain that they weren't attacking you for your witness to Christ? There simply isn't anyway to know. Regardless of the reason(s) why somebody is attacking us or our family, as Christians we are never given the ok in scripture to take a life. Other means of subduing an attacker are needed, and usually more effective, such as talking them down, calling the police, wrestling them to the ground, even offering to make them coffee (this actually happened!). Our aversion to killing is one of the main things that sets us apart as Christians from the rest of the world.

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