Even though human beings, by in large, are not instinctual creatures, there are many practices and habits that are quite intuitive for us. We have many natural impulses and desires that drive us to act as we do.
Some of these intuitive impulses are very normal, natural, and without difficulty: we get hungry or thirsty, and we find and consume food or drink. Humans have sexual desires, and God has established the marital relationship to fulfill that desire (Hebrews 13:4).
Yet not every intuitive impulse and desire is commended by God in the Scriptures. In fact, Scriptures indicate that the Kingdom stands for the opposite of what is intuitive, “normal,” or expected. While it may be intuitive for men to show respect and women to show love, God commands men to love their wives and women to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). While it is normal or expected for those who are “great,” wealthy, and/or powerful to be highly esteemed and exalted, God says that such will be humbled, and it is the servant, the lowly one, the slave, and the humble who are greatest (Matthew 20:25-28). In the Kingdom, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart are blessed (Matthew 5:3-10), which is not what is normally expected.
One such intuitive impulse involves self-preservation and protection of one’s “possessions.” In any given situation, a human being will do whatever is necessary to preserve one’s own existence and/or to preserve the possession or existence of persons or objects dear to them. This intuition is especially built into men: throughout the world, men are expected to provide for the family and protect the family and its goods, even if it leads to violence.
These are very natural impulses. God designed men to work (cf. Genesis 2:15, 3:17-19), and expects them to provide for their households (1 Timothy 5:8). It is very intuitive for the man to do whatever it takes to protect his family, just as it is quite intuitive for a woman to do whatever it takes to protect her children. A image found often in the Old Testament involves a she-bear robbed of her cubs– she represents fierce anger, hostility, and violence (2 Samuel 17:8, Proverbs 17:12, Hosea 13:8). That same impulse is present in humans!
Yet the New Testament seems to show that God has established a standard for Christians that would stand against this intuition.
“For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).
“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy:’
but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).
“But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also. Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much. But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).
Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written,
“‘Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense,’ saith the Lord.”
But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
These messages are consistent, and they are quite counter-intuitive. It is intuitive to love your friends and hate your enemies; Jesus says to love both. It is natural to resist those who do evil to us; Jesus says to turn the other cheek. When we are wronged, we naturally seek revenge; Paul says to do no such thing, but instead show kindness and mercy.
When we see what Jesus and Paul have to say in these passages, and if we are to accept them at face value, the conclusion is hard to resist: Christians are not to respond with violence in any situation for any reason. If they are wronged, they must show love and kindness. If evil is committed against them, they are not to commit evil in return. If their physical lives are ended, so be it.
These are difficult teachings. Is this really what Jesus and Paul are after?
Some say that Jesus and Paul have persecution and matters of revenge in mind, and thus do not condemn using violence to protect against indiscriminate or non-religious aggression. No one denies that we should not be violent in the face of persecution or in terms of matters of revenge, but on what basis is the distinction being made? Jesus makes no statement in Matthew 5 or Luke 6 that limits enemies to “spiritual” enemies. Jesus has “everyone” in mind. “Any man” (Matthew 5:40). “Whosoever” (Matthew 5:41). Furthermore, Paul’s statement to not be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21), is unqualified. It is certainly true in terms of revenge, but it is just as true if one suffers indiscriminate evil.
Many believe that Jesus commands people to take up swords for self-defense because of what He says in Luke 22:36:
And he said unto them, “But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword” (Luke 22:36).
Is Jesus saying here that we must have swords for defense? It is important for us to consider what Jesus says as He continues:
“For I say unto you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors:’ for that which concerneth me hath fulfilment.”
And they said, “Lord, behold, here are two swords.”
And he said unto them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:37-38).
Jesus attaches the need to have purses, wallets, and a sword with the need to fulfill the prophecy found in Isaiah 53:12. When two swords are brought forth, He says that it is “enough.” Are we really to believe that two swords are sufficient for the self-defense of no fewer than thirteen people?
We should also consider what Jesus says when such a sword is used:
And when they that were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?”
And a certain one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his right ear.
But Jesus answered and said, “Suffer ye them thus far.”
And he touched his ear, and healed him (Luke 22:49-51).
Matthew’s description of the event is even more profound:
And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Or thinkest thou that I cannot beseech my Father, and he shall even now send me more than twelve legions of angels? How then should the scriptures be fulfilled that thus it must be?” (Matthew 26:51-54).
Peter uses the sword of which Jesus spoke previously and finds himself rebuked by the Lord! Jesus indicates that those who live by the sword die by it. If Jesus really wanted the disciples to have the swords for protection, why were two sufficient for all of them? And why would He not allow them to be used?
The interpretation most consistent with the events described in the Gospels establishes that Jesus’ statement about the disciples taking up swords in Luke 22:36 is said so that the prophecy can be fulfilled: the disciples are seen as insurrectionists following Jesus their leader, and thus Jesus is “numbered” with “transgressors.”
Many dispute this interpretation and point to Mark 15:27-28:
And with him they crucify two robbers; one on his right hand, and one on his left.
And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, “And he was reckoned with transgressors” (Mark 15:27-28).
This passage would seem to say that Jesus was numbered with the transgressors by being crucified between the thieves. Yet, if one notices in many of the modern versions, Mark 15:28 is italicized or has a note attached to it: the earliest and best manuscripts do not include the verse. It would seem that a later scribe interpolated the verse here from Luke 22:36, and/or he believed that Jesus being between the thieves fulfilled the prophecy. It would seem that Mark did not associate Jesus’ crucifixion with the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12.
Even if that possibility were granted, it does not explain how Jesus refers to the prophecy in Luke 22. He clearly associates His charge to the disciples with the fulfillment of this prophecy. If we were to imagine that He wants them to have the swords so that when the prophecy is fulfilled and they are on their own, we still have to come to terms with the idea that two swords would be “enough” for the purpose of protecting the disciples against a band of the Roman army. No other interpretation makes as much sense of the entire passage as the one that we put forth. It is also consistent with Jesus’ other commands in other places, along with the way that Peter, Paul, and others will conduct themselves after the death and resurrection of the Lord. We can see, therefore, that Luke 22:36 does not justify anyone having a weapon for self-defense; that is not what Jesus was after at all.
It is also claimed that part of “providing” for a family in 1 Timothy 5:8 involves protection of the family.
But if any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).
As we can see, the text speaks only about “providing,” and is placed in the context of discussion of the physical support of widows. There is no basis to assert that “protect” is part of “provide,” and it is not a necessary inference in the least, especially if there are Scriptures present that would go against that idea, as quoted above.
It makes as much sense to justify a man using violence to protect his family by saying that he is “providing” as it is to justify a man stealing bread to “provide” for his family. If it is not a justifiable practice to begin with, it cannot be justified here!
One can provide for one’s family while one is dying, as Jesus powerfully demonstrates on the cross:
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!”
Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold, thy mother!”
And from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).
If Jesus can thus provide for His mother, even in the midst of dying, we can “provide” without needing to assume that protection by violence is necessarily implied.
Another argument involves Jesus’ image in Matthew 12:29 and Luke 11:21-22:
“Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house.”
“When the strong man fully armed guardeth his own court, his goods are in peace: but when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him his whole armor wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.”
It is argued that since Jesus uses the image of a strong man guarding his things that this justifies a man engaging in self-defense to protect that which is his.
In context, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees’ accusation that He casts out demons by Beelzebub the prince of demons (cf. Luke 11:15). The purpose of the image is to show that while Satan is strong, One can come and bind him and “plunder his house,” or release souls from his bondage. Jesus is using an understandable image to convey a spiritual truth.
Just because the image is understandable does not make it a legitimate practice. After all, we would never dare to assert that on the basis of these images it is authorized for Christians to go and plunder strong men! If we recognize that the image would not authorize that action, we must understand that on the basis of this passage by itself, one cannot justify self-defense or defense of goods. It is being used as a means to understand a greater spiritual truth, and not a legitimization of the practice itself.
It is interesting to note that there are no commands in the New Testament for anyone to inflict violence on others for any reason. There are no authorized examples of Christians engaging in violence, either in aggression or for protection. In fact, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Jesus gave Himself up to the authorities and experienced terrible suffering at their hands, and yet He did not resist them (Isaiah 53, Matthew 26-27). Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, and when they stoned him, he did not do anything to protect himself (Acts 7). Paul suffered constant violence at the hands of unbelieving Jews and Gentile authorities, and yet there is no evidence that he ever hit anyone back or attempted to protect himself or others with violence (Acts 9-28, 2 Corinthians 11:24-33).
While it is understandable that the intuition to protect and defend, even with violence, is strong, the New Testament speaks strongly and counter-intuitively: be wronged. Do not wrong in return. Do not commit violence because violence is committed against you. Do not be overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
If we believe that an adversary hurting us would be an evil thing, if we likewise hurt them, are we not ourselves doing an evil thing? If we are doing the very thing to them that they would do to us, how are we overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21)?
Many seek to point out extreme circumstances and appeal to the heartstrings. It is understandable and natural to do so, but we must go on what the Scriptures teach. How many times are we going to experience attackers coming in to violate us, possibly kill us, and take our things? It is not very likely at all!
But even if we found ourselves in such a terrible circumstance, what is the best course of action? What are we holding onto so tenaciously that we are willing to risk sinning to injure or kill someone else? Why not be defrauded? Why not be wronged? Why not obtain the commendation that comes from suffering unjustly while doing good (1 Peter 2:19-20) if that is what the situation would require?
No one will say that this is easy. But is it worth sinning to protect ourselves or others? That is the question with which we must wrestle.
Something must also be said about the underlying assumption that pervades much of these types of discussion: in order to protect, we must use violent means. On what basis does this assumption exist? Experience? The view that if people intend to use force against us, then the only thing that will get them to not do so is to use force against them?
The Scriptures provide examples where people were able to avoid suffering violence through persuasion or other non-violent means. When Paul was facing scourging at the hands of the Romans, he informed them of his citizenship, and they did not scourge him (Acts 22:25-29). When Paul was informed of a plot on his life, the information was passed on to the Roman authority who safely transported him out of danger (Acts 23:12-31; it is also no justification to suppose that since the Roman soldiers might have used force to defend him if necessary, that such justifies self-defense– far too many inferences and assumptions concerning which the Scriptures say nothing).
There are ways, therefore, to avoid danger without using violence. In this circumstance, everyone wins: violence is not committed, and one’s person or materials are safe. We maintain our peace with all men, and return good for intended evil (Romans 12:18-21).
These are difficult things to consider. It is very natural and intuitive to seek to preserve one’s own existence, one’s possessions, and to protect the ones we love. Yet the Scriptures present many things that are counter-intuitive. There are many times when we are told to take a higher way, a way that is not as easy, and requires us to put down our natural inclinations (cf. Colossians 3:1-2). It was difficult for Jesus to suffer unjustly. It was no doubt difficult for Stephen, Peter, and Paul to suffer unjustly also. But they did it because they had a higher calling and were to follow a higher path, and their purpose was to glorify their Lord who died for them. It is hard to glorify the Lord by doing the very types of acts that led to His death. The way of Jesus is not the way of violence, but the way of love, mercy, and compassion. To follow that way may lead to being defrauded. It may lead to being injured. It may even lead to death for no seemingly good reason.
But we must remember what our Lord told us, no matter how difficult it may be.
“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).
Again– these are difficult things. I encourage you to consider them and study the Scriptures. I encourage you to consider where using violence for self-protection, the protection of others, or protection of property is authorized in Scripture with a positive commendation by command or example. I encourage you to consider Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, and see whether they only refer to “spiritual” matters or if there is no such limitation. Consider the full meaning of Matthew 26:52: those who live by the sword also die by it. That is not the way of Christ! No one says that this is easy, but in the end, let us be faithful servants of God!