Self Defense

Are Christians allowed to kill in self defense? I am having a debate with someone right now and believe that they are not, citing these passages:

Romans 12:19 ESV: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

Matthew 5:38-39 ESV: You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 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 26:52-54: Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?'

They are arguing these passages --

Matthew 10:16: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Luke 22:36: Sell your cloak to buy a sword.

How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements?

Asked By: 
One should not "kill" in self-defense.

It is very interesting the way in which you couched your question: “Are Christians allowed to kill in self-defense.” That assumes that you believe that even though Christians are not supposed to kill on purpose, “in self-defense” seems to introduce an exception, that is, that there are times when it may be justified to kill another human being. Let me give you my personal and very honest opinion and the reasons why. Christians are not allowed to kill, period. Not even in self-defense. Did Jesus encourage his disciples to defend him at Gethsemane? No. He told Peter to put away his sword “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Does that mean that when attacked one cannot defend himself/herself? No. It means that one should not “kill” in self-defense. When attacked, there are things one can do short of killing the other person.


When the concept of self -defense is taken from the individual to the collective realm, it allows for what is called the “just war” theory which, for me, goes also against the spirit of the gospel. War, in whichever form, is collective murder, and therefore, always wrong. In my opinion there is no justification for it whatsoever.

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
The ideal is not always an option.
It’s a complex question.
My own take is that being “shrewd as snakes” and having a sword don’t necessarily imply taking a life. It can be argued that a shrewd person will find a clever way to avoid the life-threatening confrontation in the first place and a sword can be a deterrent even if never used. A sword can also be used solely as a defensive weapon. Unlike a gun, you can block and parry another sword without running your assailant through.
The passages you’ve cited for your own position leave a bit of wiggle room for your opponent, but not much. It’s hard to argue that Jesus allows for violence in the passages you’ve listed. The clearest biblical example would be the Sixth Commandment, which just bluntly says, “Thou shalt not kill.” The Hebrew word isn’t just referring to murder in cold blood. That same word is used elsewhere for killing for all kinds of reasons, including capital punishment. Of course the ancient Israelites had laws requiring capital punishment (even for children who merely sassed their parents!), so it’s also clear that the actions of humans have been at odds with God’s laws from the first taste of the Garden fruit.
But if you pull out from contrasting individual passages of the Bible (which isn’t always helpful since the passages then lack context) the big picture becomes more instructive. Christians take on the name of Christ in baptism and are called to discipleship. A disciple is someone who is learning to be like the Master—in this case, Jesus. When we look to what Jesus did when attacked, he didn’t even hit his assailants with sharp words, let alone kill them. With all the divine wrath of God at his disposal, Jesus did not resist arrest and chastises Peter (in John 18:10-11) for drawing his sword and attacking those who came for Jesus. He keeps that composure through mocking, flogging, and ultimately death, using some of his last breath to ask God to forgive his executioners.
Following that example, the earliest Christians did not believe killing was warranted under any circumstances. They would not serve in the military and would not even take government positions where they would be required to order an execution. Some Christian traditions have maintained that strictly pacifist stance, including the Quakers and (earlier) the Anabaptists. It’s telling that those who refuse to kill are often killed themselves for that very reason. Governments tend to see pacifists as traitors, but if you look to the “What Would Jesus Do?” question, it’s hard to argue for taking a life. If you think about it, wars and the killing that happens in them, are self-defense on a national scale. So the questions are related.
In the big picture, Jesus also tells us that God is more than aware of the frailty of our humanity. If you remember when Jesus is questioned about divorce, he responds in Matthew 19:8, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” The big picture we see in the Bible is the story of a people trying to live up to a set of ideals followed by the many ways they fall short. And the response of God to that falling short, again and again, is the age-old cycle of sin, confession, forgiveness, and restoration.
It seems clear to me that God’s ideal would be that we never take a life—any life, for any reason. But sometimes our circumstances don’t give us the ideal as an option. Sometimes our choices are between bad and worse rather than good and bad. In those moments we can only make the best choice we know and ask God to help us pick up the pieces and work for a better set of choices the next time.
-- Rev. Anne Robertson - Executive Director - Massachusetts Bible Society


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