Grace and the Self-Defense Debate

by Matthew W. Bassford

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the West Freeway shooting, I put up a blog post (Self-Defense and Public Order) that argued that Christians have the right to defend themselves from murderous criminals. To my complete lack of surprise, this proved controversial. Everybody kept their comments civil, so I wasn’t bothered by that (though I did, as per my usual practice, refuse invitations to engage in prolonged exchanges).

I was more concerned, though, by the brethren who expressed their viewpoint so strongly that they revealed incomprehension of why anybody else might believe differently. I think this is a problematic way to handle a difficult subject.

There certainly are things in Scripture that are easy to understand. I can start with a dozen different passages and end up proving the necessity of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and anybody who disagrees inevitably finds themselves in the position of explaining away the Bible rather than explaining the Bible.

However, the legitimacy of self-defense isn’t like that. At first, the application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 appears straightforward, but I found that the more I studied, the less straightforward the issue became. The very thrust of Jesus’ ministry appeared to limit the scope of His words.

Certainly, historical views of the interaction between Christianity and violence are all over the map. Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers argued that it was wrong even for Christians to hold government office or serve in the military, while Augustine formulated a politico-religious doctrine for justifying war.

It’s hardly surprising, then, when brethren today find themselves disagreeing. Often, this disagreement is based as much on moral intuition as on Scriptural reasoning. Some brethren find the thought of a Christian preparing to kill someone else (even to defend the lives of others) repugnant, while others find the thought of passively watching the slaughter of innocents to be equally repugnant.

Frankly, both perspectives make a great deal of sense to me. My own convictions (which are still evolving) have ranged from my current position to out-and-out pacifism. Additionally, I think the whole debate reveals the power of sin in others to rob us of good choices. In a world that contains church shooters, we are compelled to take one troubling position or the other, but it would be much better to live in a world without church shooters.

These are complicated matters, and for as long as the world continues, I don’t expect God’s people to be able to come to a consensus. There are many other issues like this. Therefore, we must learn to judge for ourselves while respecting the legitimacy of the views of those who judge differently. It is not unthinkable for a Christian to be opposed to all violence, nor is it unthinkable for a Christian to resolve to defend innocents from mortal danger. The better we learn to understand and honor the views of our brethren, the more useful and peaceful our lives will be.

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