Self Defense and Christianity, Part 3: An Evaluation of Christian Pacifism

Please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series before reading this post.

While the evidence for Christian pacifism initially seems strong, further exploration of the biblical text shows that Christian pacifism has a difficult time understanding several significant texts in both Old and New Testament. It is true that Jesus taught His disciples to “turn the other cheek,” but many if not most evangelical scholars do not believe that pacifism or nonresistance is the central point of Jesus’ words.[1] Rather, to the point that Jesus is making here is continued reaching out in the face of insult. The Hebrew concept of the insult is contained in Job 16:10:

“They have gaped at me with their mouth,

They have slapped me on the cheek with contempt;

They have massed themselves against me. (Job 16:10)

Part of Job’s lament is that his adversary (v. 9) slaps him on the cheek with contempt. This was commonly associated with expulsion from the synagogue in Jesus’ day[2] and pictured far more of a social and personal insult than a physical assault. To a Jew in Jesus’ day being slapped in the face was a grave insult akin to someone spitting in our face today. Any physical damage is almost incidental to the insult. Jesus’ intent, then, is to command his disciples to continue to reach out to their enemies, even in the face of grave personal insult. In its historical and cultural context the command to “turn the other cheek” does not command nonresistance or pacifism in the face of criminal assault but rather continued outreach to enemies despite insult. When Christians are insulted or slandered we must continue to reach out to those who insult us. This ethic has no bearing upon our response to rapists or armed robbers, however.

Pacifism’s understanding of Isaiah 2:4 is also suspect. Certainly the text tells us that when the Lord reigns He will bring an unprecedented time of peace. However, that time of peace appears to be awaiting Christ’s Second Coming. We must keep verses like Luke 12:51 in mind when looking at descriptions of the reign of the King of Kings, which says, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division…”. The fault of the interpretation in pacifism can be called an “overly realized eschatology,” where the “already” of the kingdom of God is focused on so much that the “not yet” is completely obscured. Christ will bring amazing peace to the nations when He comes again, but in the interim between His comings we will not have peace between nations. Jesus says as much in Matthew 24:7, when He prophesies that “nation will rise against nation” before He comes again.

The command of Exodus 20:13 deserves careful consideration, but at the end of the day does not prohibit all taking of human life. The command “You shall not murder” is clearly a command designed to protect the sanctity of human life. However, by looking at its use throughout Scripture it becomes apparent that it is not a universal command with no limits. The verb translated “murder” is found twenty times in Numbers 35[3], and these uses prove helpful in understanding the limits of the command. Numbers 35 discusses the “cities of refuge” of the Levites and lays out appropriate punishments for those who take life without authorization. Particularly important are Numbers 35:27 and Numbers 35:30, which both make mention of the taking of human life without any guilt before God. Clearly, then, all taking of human life cannot be sin. These are not coordinated actions of a national army, but individuals taking the life of another person.

It is very instructive in Matthew 26:52 that Jesus did not command Peter to rid himself of his sword. Instead Jesus told Peter to put it away in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s plan. Christ’s nonresistance to His crucifixion is a manifestation of His unique mission to die for the sins of the world. Even with this in mind there are clearly instances in Scripture of Jesus using physical violence; in John 2:15 Jesus used a “scourge of cords” to drive the sellers and moneychangers out of the temple. All violence cannot be evil if Jesus used violence to protect the holiness of the temple.

It would seem, therefore, that though Christian pacifism is correct in upholding the sanctity of human life there is not a universally binding command to pacifism in Scripture. There are clearly times in Scripture that God allows the taking of life without guilt, and even times when He commands one person to take the life of another. Pacifism does not adequately address these issues in Scripture.

The Biblical Case for Self-Defense

The Bible does present evidence that self-defense is acceptable within the guidelines of wisdom. One of the titles of God in the Old Testament, “The LORD of hosts” (Exodus 12:41) pictures God as the omnipotent Warrior at the head of His army. The author of Hebrews commends many Old Testament saints for their military acts of faith in Hebrews 11:30-40. Gideon, Deborah, and others were anointed by God to lead others into battle and conduct war.

We are commanded not to murder (Exodus 20:13), which may be defined as the unauthorized taking of human life. Not all loss of life can be defined as murder, though, as evidenced by God’s command of the Israelites to go to war. (Numbers 21:1-3) That command against murder must be seen in light of some expansion on the topic of the taking of life given in Exodus 22:2-3:

2“If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. “3But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. (Exodus 22:2-3)

In context the Lord is authorizing the death of a thief that is caught in the act of thievery. However, if he gets away with his thievery only to be apprehended later then he cannot be killed without incurring guilt. The death of this thief is authorized, presumably because he represents a threat to the owner of the home and his family such that deadly force is justified. Once the thief leaves the threat is removed and therefore deadly force is not authorized.

Perhaps one of the most significant passage with respect to self-defense is Nehemiah 4:14:

When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the 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 houses.” (Nehemiah 4:14)

Nehemiah was authorized by Artaxerxes I to perform his work, but because of the criminal activity of Sanballat and Tobiah was in danger of assault and attack. His response is a rousing call to defense of the walls of Jerusalem. After the immediate attack was averted the men maintained their armed state (verses 16-18) and readiness to defend themselves if necessary.

In the New Testament we see examples of the same ethic.

36And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. 37“For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” 38They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36-38)

In Luke 22:36 Jesus commands his disciples who do not own a sword to go and sell their outer garment to buy one. Jesus is preparing His disciples here for ministry and evangelism after He has departed, and in verse 38 when they reply that they are armed Jesus approves of their ownership of the swords. The Greek word here for sword (μάχαιρα, machaira) referred to a relatively short sword that was used by the people of Palestine to defend themselves while travelling from robbers and wild animals. Jesus commanded His disciples to have such an implement for their own defense.

While Jesus commands the disciples to have some form of defense, we also see that wisdom and discernment are vital to the application of self-defense. In Matthew 26:52-54 Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest. In the context of Jesus’ fulfillment of His mission He is rebuking Peter for his failure to discern the true nature of the situation as necessary in God’s plan. Likewise, in Exodus 22:2-3 God tells us that discernment must be used; if the thief is caught in the act he may be considered hostile, but capture after the fact removes the threat of injury and thus the need for deadly force.

In the final post in this series we will consider applications of a biblical theology of self defense, including a discussion of the consequences of both acting and failing to act in defense of ourselves or others.


[1] See Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994), 592. See also Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke : A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New international Greek testament commentary. (Exeter [Eng.]: Paternoster Press, 1978), 260; Stein, Robert H. Luke. The New American Commentary. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 207; Nolland,: Luke 1:1-9:20. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 35a. (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 296.

[2] See 1 Esdras 4:30 and Didache 1:4

[3] For a more thorough analysis, see Keith Essex, “Euthenasia” in The Master’s Seminary Journal 11:2 (Fall 2000), 205.

2 thoughts on “Self Defense and Christianity, Part 3: An Evaluation of Christian Pacifism

  1. In regard to Luke 22:36-38 he tells his disciples to buy swords in order that He may be numbered with transgressors. Therefore, the sword fighting isn't looked upon as a good thing by Jesus here. Thought's?

  2. Anonymous, I don't see an “in order that” in verse 37. The “for” of the more literal translations carries the idea of “because.” So Jesus is telling His followers to make sure they are armed BECAUSE He is going to be arrested and abused. The concept is that they may face retaliatory abuse, and it appears that the ethic is that they should defend themselves against that.

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