Can a Christian defend home and family with force?

This question is especially pertinent in the United States, where the Second Amendment to our nation’s constitution speaks directly to the matter, prohibiting the government from infringing upon the right of individual Americans to own and maintain (“keep”), and carry (“bear”) weapons (“arms”):

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Such a constitutional provision seems rare in the world, creating a possibly unique situation in the United States. How should Christians view this, in light of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 5:38-41? (This is the second-series Gospel lesson for tomorrow in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary.)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”

I was doing a little reading in a treatise Luther wrote on a closely-related subject called Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. It’s actually quite helpful. Luther highlights some important biblical distinctions, one being the distinction between the two kingdoms we find on earth. The spiritual kingdom is ruled through the Gospel and faith, and will last longer than this world. Temporal authority, on the other hand, rules through Law and the sword. The United States government is an example of the latter.

Hopefully, that’s enough context for you to read one of Luther’s points quite salient to our question. It’s quoted from LW-AE 45:95. (Please excuse any typos. I don’t have an electronic copy of Luther’s Works yet, because the Logos library software is confined to run in a Windows environment, which I stubbornly refuse to use. I’ve successfully run Logos under Wine, but would prefer to have full and native functionality in Linux.)

Sixth. You ask whether a Christian too may bear the temproal sword and punish the wicked, since Christ’s words, “Do not resist evil,” are so clear and definite that the sophists have had to make of them a “counsel.” Answer: You have now heard two propositions. One is that the sword can have no place among Christians; therefore you cannot bear it among Christians or hold it over them, for they do not need it. The question, therefore, must be referred to the other group, the non-Christians, whether you may bear it there in a Christian manner. Here the other proposition applies, that you are under obligation to serve and assist the sword by whatever means you can, with body, goods, honor, and soul. For it is something which you do not need, but which is very beneficial and essential for the whole world and for your neighbor. Therefore, if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position, that the essential governmental authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot and dare not dispense with it.

So it seems that Luther would advise American Christians to make use of the Second Amendment as they are able. If an armed Christian finds himself in a place where he can hinder or prevent an evil and unlawful deed, and the authorities cannot do so themselves (perhaps because it takes 10 or 15 minutes for them to respond to a 911 call), then the armed Christian is free to do what is necessary for the benefit of his neighbors. This would also apply in the home, where a Christian might have to defend his family and their well-being. But what if you are the only one whose life, health, property, or honor is at risk? Luther continues, referring to the previous quotation above:

Here is the reason why you should do this: In such a case you would be entering entirely into the service and work of others, which would be of advantage neither to yourself nor your property or honor, but only to your neighbor and to others. You would be doing it not with the purpose of avenging yourself or returning evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety and peace of others. For yourself, you would abide by the gospel and govern yourself according to Christ’s word [Matt. 5:39-40], gladly turning the other cheek and letting the cloak go with the coat when the matter concerned you and your cause.

Fair enough. Thanks, Dr. Luther. There is still room for us to discuss whether a Christian parent ought to defend his own life for the sake of his young children, when only his own life is threatened. I think he should, because it’s a tragic evil when young children are deprived of their father or mother.

If you have any differing thoughts on this subject, fire away.

10 thoughts on “Can a Christian defend home and family with force?

  1. Jesse, there are two theories on the 2nd Amendment. One is that the right to keep personal arms is guaranteed by the Constitution. The other theory is that the right to keep arms was guaranteed to the states to keep a militia.

    I won’t presume to be a constitutional history know-it-all. I think that thinking people can read up on this subject and come to their own opinions.

    The 2nd Amendment, has, I believe, a historical link with England’s 17th century history. There was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in that country and so the “right to bear individual arms” comes from the Protestant desire to bear arms and defend themselves against Catholics.

    Of course the Catholics weren’t as dangerous as the Protestants might have thought, but that is beside the point. The Protestants thought that they had to defend themselves.

    I see no reason for people to have automatic weapons or even semi-automatic weapons. Although I was in Viet-Nam, and trained on the M-14 and the M-16, I was fortunately spared the terrors of combat. Nonetheless I know what a combat rifle can do from my experiences at Fort Campbell and Long Binh and I do not want one.

    I have no quarrel with hunters who are perceived by me to be responsible consumers of guns.


    Norman Teigen

  2. The ruling power has the right to bear the sword against evil doers. In defending his home and family, the Christian acts as an agent of the ruling power. The ruling power (Constitution, 2nd Amendment) authorizes the Christian, as its agent to keep and bear arms against evil doers.

  3. Interesting post. I am not so sure that I read the Constitution through the same set of experiences that you do. I don’t see where the 2nd Amendment has anything at all to do with Christianity or the rights and privileges of individual Christians. Please enlighten me.

  4. Jesse Jacobsen opines, “There is still room for us to discuss whether a Christian parent ought to defend his own life for the sake of his young children, when only his own life is threatened. I think he should, because it’s a tragic evil when young children are deprived of their father or mother.”

    What about a bachelor having no living family? Should he defend his life against an evil-doer if no one will be adversely affected by his passing?

    *[J.J.: This is just the sort of question that Luther seems to answer with the words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Turn the other cheek,” etc. In such circumstances, then, Christians would have a higher calling, to bear this particular cross that Jesus assigns to them.]*

    Did the ruling power ordained by God not make the Christian its agent to bear the sword against evil-doers? The Christian citizen has a vocation to be passive when confronted by evil and, at the same time, a vocation to punish evil-doers.

    *[J.J.: Norman Teigen has responded to this with a comment of his own. The question is worth discussing.]*

    The Christian citizen has a corrupt mind and will. Can he choose the righteous path between apparently conflicting absolutes in an instant in time? Yes, to the extent he is guided by the Holy Spirit.

    *[J.J.: That guidance, then, is found in the Word of God — such as the Sermon on the Mount. Yet sometimes God lets us struggle a bit with the application.]*

  5. Romans 13:1 states that the individual Christian (every soul) is subject to higher powers. In the U.S., the higher powers are the Constitution and common law. Common law makes the Christian an agent of the state in the defense of himself and his property. The Constitution, 2nd Amendment, explicitly extends this agency to include the possession and use of firearms.

    Without Constitutional and common law agency, how can the individual Christian use deadly force to defend himself and his property against evil-doers (Romans 13:4)? What command of God gives the Christian the right to kill on his own behalf?

  6. Mr. Gorman (if you’re still out there),
    Your clear reasoning seems to have cut through the question rather neatly. No doubt you make a good and clear point.
    However, I wonder if your solution to the issue isn’t perhaps just a little TOO clear. Let me ask you this: to your way of thinking, are there any situations in which you would say that our Lord’s words still apply under our American arrangement of things, or does Paul’s command (combined with our Constitutional order) simply trump Him always and everywhere?
    ….you see where I’m going? If we think that Jesus has been trumped by Paul, then it must be that we’ve misunderstood one or the other of them, or both. Or, if our Constitutional arrangement has made Jesus irrelavent, then whom should we obey? And, if we choose wrongly in such a conflict of loyalties, then can we claim to be doing good whichever way we go?
    Many have tried to hide from Jesus’ difficult commands in a fog of interpretation. He no doubt anticipated that this would happen, which is why He, too, spoke very clearly, so that He could not be packed off as easily as that!
    Chesterton’s words seem to apply here: “Christianity has not been tried and found lacking. It has been found difficult and therefore left untried.”

  7. Paul has not trumped Jesus. However, due to the corruption of our mind, reason and will, the apparent conflict between Jesus’ command to “resist not evil” and Paul’s command to be “subject to higher powers” may lead us to disobey one or both commands.

    Whether we turn the other cheek as commanded by Jesus and/or punish the evil-doer as commanded by the ruling power, we sin in all our works. Only to the extent we are guided by the Holy Spirit can we obey both commands.

  8. Dan & Daniel,

    There is no conflict between Jesus (Matthew 5:38-41) and Paul (Romans 13:1), as far as I can tell. The American government does not *command* us as citizens to carry out justice in its place. Rather, the Constitution protects the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, since a “militia” of armed citizens is a benefit to the society and state.

    Now, if the government actually commanded us not to turn the other cheek, etc., then there might be a conflict of some kind, but I don’t see such a command. To the contrary, vigilantism is discouraged if not outlawed. That leaves only those situations where a citizen’s immediate neighbors are in grave peril of life, limb or property. Using force in such a situation accords well with Luther’s advice in the original post.

    I admit that I’m no expert in this area, particularly touching Common Law. But I’ve never heard of a person being prosecuted for failing to defend his own life, limb, or property. That leads me to suppose that it’s not really a legal requirement, and therefore does not contradict Jesus’ words. Jesus is calling His followers to bear a particular cross by living a righteousness greater than what is found in the world.

    Or am I missing something?


  9. Vigilantism would be bearing the sword (or the pistol) contrary to law. The Christian who kills in self-defense using legal weaponry is obeying the ruling powers (Constitution and common law).

    Although common law may not charge the Christian with a crime when he turns the other cheek in obedience to Christ, the ruling powers have deputized the Christian to punish the evil-doer when and where he is able (self-defense). The deputation is in essence a command to punish evil-doers.

    The Christian is not an independent agent when confronted by evil-doers who seek to kill him. The Christian immediately becomes an agent of the ruling powers. If the Christian kills the evil-doers, he does not kill on his own behalf but only as the agent of the ruling powers.

    *[J.J.: I think we are in agreement, though we may use different words and emphasize different points. I’ll give it another couple days to see if anyone else has something to say on the matter. If not, then yours will be the last word.]*

  10. I just don’t see the point. I just don’t see what Christianity has to do with the 2nd Amendment. Our law system comes from a number of sources: the common law, our own experiences as a nation, pragmatism. It’s a very complex question and worthy of serious study. By the way, I think of myself as an American first and a Lutheran second.

    *[J.J.: I can’t address the issue of whether the 2nd Amendment has any basis in Christianity. My interest is in figuring out how Christians should handle themselves when they happen to be Americans, governed under the 2nd Amendment (among other things). We seem to have plumbed that topic for now. Thanks to all commentors to this post!]*

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