Thinking Through Self Defense

You may have heard of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian. They are the American missionaries that were killed while seeking to bring the Gospel to Huaorani tribe in Ecuador. These men went out to a tribe in the rain forest that was known for violence because they loved them and wanted them to know the Gospel. Due to a lie that was told about them, the tribe came to their makeshift camp and speared them to death in 1956. At the time, these murders were so big that the magazine Life did a spread on the story. What you might not know about this story is that these men were armed. I heard in a documentary about this event called Beyond the Gates of Splendor that these men had at least one gun with them when they were attacked. However, they had already decided that they were not going to use it because they knew that killing a Huaorani meant killing someone who did not know Christ and would therefore go to Hell. On the other hand, they knew if they were to die, they would instantly be with God. In the end, they were killed and therefore their families were left fatherless. Elisabeth Elliot (Jim’s wife) and a few others returned to that tribe and most of the Huaorani were saved.
The big question is: would the Bible have given them permission to defend themselves? Sure, things in the end worked out pretty well and a lot of people were saved, but what would Jesus have thought if they had defended themselves in one way or another?
Our mission agency, World Team, during our week of evaluation put us into scenarios that missionaries may face (i.e. kidnapping, etc.) and this got us thinking about what we would do in such situations.  So, I write this post because I genuinely would like the help of my fellow missionaries, friends, pastors, theologians, and lay Christians alike in thinking through the issue of self-defense. I am going to discuss some of it in this post, but please do respond to this and help us come to a full and biblical understanding of self-defense.
Just FYI – In this post, I do not want to deal with war, capital punishment, or the role of Christians in the army or as an arm of the government. I just want to deal with self-defense, or protecting oneself from the violence of others.
Up until the last few years I have been pretty second amendment about this issue. I believed that my life was valuable because I was created in the image of God and therefore I ought to defend my life with force if necessary, even up to killing an attacker. I did not, per se, believe in this because of the Bible, but probably because I am an American. However, recently I have become much more hesitant about this perspective. I think in part this is because I have been hanging around with a lot of Canadians ;), but mostly because of the words and example of Jesus. 
The Words of Jesus
First, here are some of Christ’s words on the subject:
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:39
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. ” Luke 6:27-31
“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” Matthew 26:51-52
Often I have found that Jesus’ words are quite direct and make it hard for me to hedge where I naturally want to hedge. Jesus actually said not to resist the evil one, to let people hit you, and to allow them to steal your stuff and not demand it back. I naturally want to qualify all of these things, but Christ did not. He just said them.
The Example of Jesus
Second, the example of Christ:
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” I Peter 2:21 
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7-9
When preparing his disciples for a future of persecution in which many of them would be killed, he called them to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. And then, when he himself was being attacked he did not fight back at all. Instead he went as a sheep before the slaughter. And it was a slaughter. What happened to Jesus was not the noose, the guillotine, or a firing squad. They brutally beat Jesus and condemned him to a slow death on a cross. And Jesus, the leader of the largest and most powerful army in the universe, allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. And most of his disciples followed suit, dying without a fight for the kingdom.
This is not to say that there are no passages that are questionable in the New Testament. Here is a passage that I do not know what to do with:
“And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And 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.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” Luke 22:35-38
In this passage Christ calls his disciples to carry weapons. And I hardly think these were swords used for buttering bread. However, he does not tell them what to do with these weapons. So, at best this passage is vague whereas “do not resist the one who is evil” is not vague at all.  But still, what do we do with this passage?
Further Complications

Adding to the complication of this issue is the fact that I am married and I have four young children. So, I am not merely dealing with defense of myself, but defense of the family. It is clear that God does want us to defend the weak:

“Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:4
“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” Proverbs 24:11
If someone were to attack us, my children and wife would definitely fall into the category of weak and needy. However, I find these passages to be quite vague as to how they are worked out. In what ways should we rescue the weak and needy? Though there is very little influence of the Lord’s Resistance Army in our part of Africa, if these men were to come into my home and attack my family and desire to take away my children, how should I respond? Strong verbal persuasion? Non-lethal attack? Lethal attack? There is no doubt that I ought to love my enemies, but I must also love my children and rescue them. I struggle with the application. In what ways do I rescue? Particularly as a missionary coming into another country with a desire to show the love of Christ. Christ literally let them kill him, and then he sent out his disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves to die. And most of his disciples died in obedience to Christ. Scripture does not record any examples of Christ’s disciples fighting back (except Peter who Christ rebuked). And yet, when it comes to my family I want to defend them in anyway that I possibly can. This desire seems right and good, and biblically I think it is right and good. However, biblically I do not know to what extent I can righteously defend them.
What Are Your Thoughts?
So, there it is. I honestly am asking you all for help. I want to think biblically about self-defense and I feel the tension. I am taking my family to a more dangerous part of the world and I need to know how to respond. It seems to me that the New Testament pattern and example is to not fight back in the face of persecution and even robbery. Is that how we should respond? Should I teach my children not to fight back? If they are allowed to fight back, when, and to what degree? 
Please feel free to recommend articles or books or just leave comments. I am mostly interested in a biblical perspective, not a Constitutional one. I know that in America we are allowed to bear arms and it is legal to kill someone in self-defense. But what is legal and American is not always right and I want my cultural values to be challenged by the Word. So, please challenge me and point me to the Word! We are scheduled to leave America in less than a year so I am ready to figure this out!

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.