I recently made a statement in my sermon that I strongly believe that it is not our place to take matters into our own hands as Moses did by killing the Egyptian who was beating the Israelite slave. I referred to the scripture in Romans 12:17-19, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” I also emphasized how none of Christ’s true followers ever defended themselves but instead gave up their lives, such as the stoning of Stephen. One of my listeners that day confronted me after the sermon struggling with this concept. His defense was “what about an intruder in my house?” If my family is threatened I have a right to defend them and not stand idly by. I have trained my wife how to use a gun and it is loaded and ready if such a threat ever happens. So my question is, what does the Bible say, specifically the New Testament, on this matter? I am torn, as I understand where he is coming from but I find it hard to defend by looking at the scriptures. Thank you,
I am afraid I do not have a straightforward clear-cut, set-in-stone response to your question. On a personal level, I am very much in line with what is obviously your thinking/feeling on the question of Christians using violence to defend themselves. I believe that we will probably have to allow for a certain range of thinking on this personal issue and allow people to come to their own conviction. Having said that I believe this is a grey area, let me give you my thinking on this important area of Christian ethics.
First, let me deal with the Moses example. Some people have used this passage as justification for a Christian taking justice into their own hands and using violence on the enemies of God. This is both bad hermeneutics and bad theology. Clearly, what Moses did to the servant of Pharaoh is NOT used as a positive example for Jews to follow his example. As far as I know, no reputable Jew ever used this as a positive example! Besides, this is an Old Testament situation. There is no doubt that Jesus overturned the Mosaic standard, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. Whereas Jews were allowed to defend their territory, Christians are not ever admonished to set up a political state and to make war on their enemies. Our “kingdom is not of this world.” Rather we are told that if we are struck on one cheek, to present the other cheek to the one who strikes us. Jesus’ teaching was a radical pacifism. Using the violent act of Moses, which amounts to a murder, as a defense of a Christian doing the same under the New Testament is completely unjustified.
So let us put aside the Moses example. We are still left with a thorny question. Does Christian pacifism, which is clearly taught by Jesus, mean that a Christian should not even defend his own family if it is physically attacked? I believe that your use of Romans 12:17-19 is appropriate, but it does not apply to all possible situations. God, through Paul, is telling us to not use violence or intimidation to right a wrong already committed. If we are threatened by our enemies, we should not respond in kind by threatening our enemies, physically, economically, politically or otherwise. Clearly, a Christian is not to preemptively attack his potential persecutor or a person who will otherwise attack, even for reasons having nothing to do with religion, such as in a crime.
Really, though, the issue raised by your fellow church member is somewhat different from that raised by Romans 12:17-19. If a person attacks us or attacks our family with violence, then to defend ourselves is not identical to taking revenge after the fact. This is a more difficult area which I believe has some “grey” to it. About defending ourselves, personally, I believe that for us to kill someone defending our physical bodies is well beyond what a Christian ought to do. Even if Romans 12:17-19 does not apply to this directly, surely it has something to say, at least as a principle. I personally disagree with Christians keeping guns in their house with the intent of possibly killing an intruder (for hunting is another matter, of course). The way I see it, this is clearly going beyond what Jesus would do! However, if an intruder wants to rape a woman, should a Christian simply watch the act and do absolutely nothing? This seems to be going too far. Ought a Christian, at the very least, offer physical resistance to being raped or beaten? Should a Christian man not use (non-deadly) physical force to resist and defend his wife or daughter if being attacked by a physically stronger intruder? I believe that personal conviction comes into play here and there is no clear answer. I honor and praise Stephen for fearlessly allowing himself to be stoned in the name of God, but I would not call it a sin if a person held hands up to fend of stones being thrown at him or her. Paul willingly made himself vulnerable to physical attack, but he was not completely unwilling to defend himself. For example, when he was falsely and illegally accused by the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-5). When he was illegally put on trial, he was willing to invoke his privilege as a Roman citizen. Even Jesus pointed out when his accusers were breaking the law (John 18:23) in the way they accused him. I think that to impose a norm of radical passivism and complete unwillingness to defend even our basic civil rights is going too far. Pacifism is not the same as passivism.
So, what level of personal self-defense, either emotional or physical is appropriate to a Christian? I believe that you should not hesitate to preach what you preached. When Christians are attacked, they ought to principally put their trust in God, not in the government and certainly not in use of violent acts–especially lethal ones–to defend ourselves. However, to simply lie down and accept whatever evil the world throws at us is obviously going too far, and where in the continuum a Christian ought to be is something to be left to personal conviction. It is my conviction that for a Christian man to give his wife a gun and train her to use it, with the possible intent of killing intruders if “necessary” is moving significantly too far away from the standard set by Jesus. Some believers, including good friends of mine will disagree, but that is my feeling on this question. However, for a Christian to be prepared for self-defense, such as pushing away an attacker or preventing being overcome by an assailant is justifiable for a believer. Again, this is my thought on the matter and both you and your friend should reach their own conviction. Because it is literally impossible to define a clear dividing point between, on the one hand, trusting God and on the ohter hand the right to defend our physical selves, you ought to teach the biblical principle and let people make their own decisions. However, in the discussion you had with your Christian friend, I am with you.