By In Politics

Should Christians Carry in Church?

Guest post by G Shane Morris: 

Is it okay for Christians to bring weapons into church for self-defense? The shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs has renewed the urgency of this controversial question. Conservative writer Tom Nichols caught flak on Twitter for opposing the idea of parishioners packing in the pews. A colleague of mine suggested Saint Paul might have some stern words for those who armed themselves with more than the metaphorical sword of the Spirit in God’s house.

George-Henry-Boughton-Pilgrims-Going-To-ChurchBut objectively, guns were used to defend life as well as take it on Sunday. CNN reports that Stephen Willeford, a Sutherland Springs resident who lives next door to First Baptist used the very same rifle type as the shooter to exchange fire with and ultimately kill him. “He’s a hero,” said Wilson County Sherriff, Joe Tackitt Jr. “Had he not done that, we could have lost more people.”

The shooting, which left 26 people dead and at least 20 more injured, has convinced many Christians that the risk of worshiping unarmed has become too great. But the question of deadly force in the sanctuary, itself—while we are engaged in the most sacred of activities—is uniquely thorny.

Why? Because at first blush, it seems contrary to the example set in the New Testament. Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). He tells His disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40).  He rebukes Peter and tells him to put away his sword, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Paul tells us that the weapons of our warfare “are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:4), and that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world…” (Ephesians 6:12). More broadly speaking, the apostles endure imprisonment, beatings, torture, and martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, and never once lift a finger to defend themselves through violent means.

Some take this precedent as a requirement for pacifism—no violence, at any time, for any reason. You have, in other words, an obligation to be a victim. While most Christians outside the Anabaptist, Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish traditions wouldn’t go this far, we do have to ask ourselves: If these examples don’t prohibit Christians in the very act of worship from drawing the sword in defense of themselves and fellow worshipers, what do they prohibit?

A fuller reading of Scripture further complicates things. God prescribes death as the penalty for murder in Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”). Exodus 22:2 instructs that a homeowner who strikes a thief in the night and kills him “is not guilty of bloodshed,” in contrast with a homeowner who strikes and kills the thief during the day. This is because, as Swiss scholastic theologian Francis Turretin remarks, the master of the house cannot be expected to know whether a thief in the darkness is there to kill or merely to steal. Under the Law of Moses, self-defense was an appropriate grounds on which to kill. Property-defense was not.

In the closing chapters of Esther, Xerxes grants the Jews permission to violently defend themselves against the plot of Haman the Agagite, and God’s people come to celebrate this as a feast day. This legal, national self-defense is the implied reason for which Esther was brought into the palace “for such a time as this.”

Then there is the less well-known corollary to the “live by the sword, die by the sword,” passage—the reason Peter was armed at Gethsemane in the first place. Luke 22 records that Jesus gives the disciples new instructions about their traveling accouterments:

“…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.’”

The disciples respond, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”

Jesus, replies tersely: “It is enough.”

Both John Calvin and John Gill call the disciples “stupid” for taking Jesus’ instructions about swords here literally. Rather, “In metaphorical language,” writes Calvin, “[Jesus] threatens that they will soon meet with great troubles and fierce attacks…And yet he does not call them to an outward conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests.”

However (and this is the part where I stop raising new questions and start suggesting an answer) it’s important to note that even if Jesus was making a spiritual point by referring to “swords,” He nowhere condemns defensive violence as such. He never tells Peter to get rid of his sword, any more than He tells the Centurion in Matthew 8 to get rid of his. Rather, He tells Peter to “put it back in its place,” implying, as another commentator points out, that swords have a proper use.


Image: “Pilgrims Going To Church,” George Henry Boughton, 1867, Wikimedia Commons


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