Here Are Two Swords


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 that Paul might have some stern words for those who armed themselves with more than the metaphorical sword of the Spirit in God’s house.

But 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 as the shooter to exchange fire with and wound 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). And we cannot forget that the apostles endured imprisonment, beatings, torture, and martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, and never once lifted 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 defend themselves violently 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 accoutrements:

“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. Presumably, Peter and at least one other disciple had these swords on hand for the defense of their little band during the sometimes dangerous travels from Galilee to Judea. We have no record that Jesus was ever bothered by this.

All of these passages come into sharper focus when we recall a foundational truth of Christian worldview thinking: All believers, even Christ Himself during His earthly life, occupy what Augustine called the two cities.

“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” Jesus famously said in Matthew 22, setting up a distinction that would inform Christian theology for the next two millennia.

We live simultaneously in the city of man and in the City of God—in society and in the Church—in creation and New Creation. We have duties and roles in each, and where they don’t conflict, we must carry out both. In fact, being a good citizen of God’s City usually means being a good citizen in man’s, insofar as it depends on us.

“There is in man,” wrote Calvin, “two worlds, over which two different kings and different laws have authority.”

Christ Himself occupied these different kingdoms during His earthly life and ministry. He was a son under the authority of Joseph and Mary. At the same time, He was their Creator. He was a rabbi with authority over a band of disciples, who paid the Temple tax and observed the Jewish festivals. At the same time, He was the true High Priest and true Temple, who came to fulfill and dismiss the types and shadows of Sinai. He was a subject of Caesar who paid tribute, obeyed the law, and recognized the authority given to the Roman procurator. At the same time, He was the King of creation, before whom every knee was destined to bow.

Christ bade Peter put away his sword, not because self-defense is wrong, but because on the road to Calvary, the duties of man’s kingdom conflicted with the duties of God’s. The Good Shepherd came to lay down His life for the sheep. He didn’t need the sheep to take up arms in His defense.

Likewise, the apostles, imprisoned for their witness and facing an empire which they could never practically resist through violent means, rightly chose martyrdom over insurrection. They had no God-ordained earthly government en route in squad cars, coming to take up arms in their defense, as the churchgoers in Sutherland Springs did. Their witness for the City of God would have died in obscurity had they chosen to resist Caesar with literal swords. They chose to demolish spiritual strongholds, instead.

But we’re not called to make such a choice, at least not right now. We’re not called to stand and suffer martyrdom at the hands of a crazed and lone gunman. Quite the opposite: Guarding human life against imminent and unjust violence, as Augustine would argue with his principles of Just War, is a created duty. It is part of loving your neighbor. And while Paul teaches in Romans 13 that the governing authorities “do not bear the sword for nothing,” the governing authorities are not always on hand when the wicked strike.

That’s why for us, if no conflict exists between our spiritual and temporal duties—if the warfare in which our weapons are spiritual does not call us to lay down our physical arms—then we are permitted to use those arms, even as Christians, and even in church. At least, as far as I can tell.

Image courtesy of skhoward.

G. Shane Morris is a senior writer for BreakPoint. 

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  • Roger Spendlove

    Correction — there were 27 killed, including the unborn child in its mother’s womb.

  • Jason Taylor

    Francis Turretin does not go far enough. The home possesses a sanctity of it’s own not just because a burglar might hypothetically be their to kill but because it is where women and children and the most precious of possessions are and where a person sleeps at night. If the home is not a refuge from barbarism there is no civilization. If the King of England cannot enter even a woodman’s cot, how much less a mere thief?

  • Jason Taylor

    Perhaps the original meaning could be looked up. “Take up” could be interpreted as “seize presumptuously”.

    As far as not taking any weapon but the Bible I regularly take a Victorinox in and hang it on my messenger bag(it is a sapphire, Climber model and looks quite well as bling). Of course only an invertate hoplophobe would consider that a weapon and I would not dream of trying to fight with it.

  • Joyce Walker Boss

    Thank you for writing about this. I was just asked about this Las Tuesday in my Bible Study which I facilitate. There was much discussion about this subject as you can imagine. However, living in North Idaho, the majority of the women felt we have a right and a duty to protect love ones, children, and the church family if a crazed gunman decides to bring harm to the church members or a perpetrator tries to kill you or your family in your home or else where. And I had to agree.
    As a former self-defense instructor for women, I’m somewhat one sided in this debate. However, after our discussion Tuesday, I felt I needed to be as sure as I possibly could be Scripturally that I was correct once again. I went through this same questioning a few years back when a Pastor was shot and nearly killed in his church’s parking lot, in our small town. It made national news at that time and since then, numerous churches in the areal have armed members.
    Your article brought out many of the same passages that I had researched. It was very comforting to know that others, far more knowledgeable in Scriptures than I could possibly be, came to the same deduction. I have prayed so many times about this subject–especially when the Sheriff’s Department encourage my husband and myself to be armed always, after my son’s life was treated when we lived in the suburbs of Seattle. So today, after pondering on this topic with the Lord again over the past few days, I find your article on my phone. Once again thank you. And for those who do not agree, I understand your reasoning; however, if your child’s life been threatened by some gang members because of something he saw, and they were hunting him down, I believe you may think differently. I praise the Lord I never had to use deadly force to protect my son, but I was prepared to. You see, God gave me my child as a gift, to raise to love the Lord and to protect. I took both of those duties very seriously. I’miss sure you would to if you had been in my shoes.

  • Randy

    Generally, the confusion is between advancing the Kingdom and personal, physical attacks. The two are radically different, hence passages that convey the two different sets of messages. The problem comes from misapplying scriptures speaking of one and applying them to the other. We are not to advance the Kingdom by the forceful means of the world, but there is absolutely no biblical conflict with fending off personal, physical attacks. To say that one has to simply take a violent home invasion–or church invasion–without lifting a finger are taking selected scriptures out of context while ignoring others.

    But mostly I wanted to chime in on the Luke 22 passage, something I hoped would be discussed as soon as I saw the headline. As much as I respect Calvin, he was neither Christ nor Paul and so was neither perfect nor writing inspired scripture. I have heard this interpretation before but didn’t know it was attributed to him (and Gill whom I only know by name). Unfortunately that interpretation requires one to read into scripture their own presuppositions.

    In Luke 9, Jesus sent out the twelve telling them to take no staff, bag, bread, or money, nor to carry two tunics. They traveled to towns, stayed in homes, and shook dust from their feet. This was no metaphor. These were instructions for real, physical stuff.

    Later, in 22:35-38, Jesus is preparing them for his earthly departure. The full context is necessary:

    35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?”
    They said, “Nothing.”
    36 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. 37 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.”
    38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

    First, it should be obvious that Jesus didn’t intend for them to never carry clothes, food or money again. They had done what he asked, the mission was accomplished and they learned what they needed to learn: that he is Lord of all and can be trusted completely.

    Now Jesus tells them to take money, a bag, and if they don’t have a sword to get one. These are direct commands just as when he sent them out. They are said all in the same breath. There is no break in thought. It’s an unbroken list. Do we think he is speaking metaphorically of the money and bag? Of course not. Then on what grounds do we suddenly shift Jesus’s very next words into some spiritualized metaphor? We can’t. There’s nothing in the text that suggests such a thing. We must take Jesus’s words as he spoke them.

    When they produce two swords, Jesus says “It is enough.” I’ve heard two pastors re-imagine Jesus’s words as, “That’s enough of that!” But that would contradict his own direct command. He just told them to get them! If they produced money or two bags, would they be rebuked? More importantly, “that’s enough” just happens to be an English expression for “cut it out.” But the Greek here is clear. The word translated ‘enough’ means ‘sufficient.’ When they produced two swords Jesus said, “That’s sufficient.”

    Sufficient for what? It’s certainly not enough for an armed revolution. Thus, Jesus is discouraging any such ideas and is in harmony with the other biblical teaching for not waging war as the world does and with not advancing the gospel as one would advance an earthly regime. (This is also why the apostles would later allow themselves to be imprisoned for preaching the gospel rather than draw their swords.)

    On the other hand, two swords are sufficient to fend off potentially violent attacks once they were called to carry the good news and thus traveling from town to town along stretches of desolate and dangerous roads. Jesus is preparing them. And his command here is perfectly in line with Exodus 22:2 and the fact that he wasn’t bothered with Peter’s possession of a sword, but only his misuse of it.

    There is no conflict between being peacemakers in life as we advance the gospel on the one hand, and protecting ourselves or others from violent attacks on the other.

  • Mark

    By your logic, the United States should not have stopped Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, thus allowing them to continue to murder and destroy millions more people.

    God used the ancient Israelites to bring judgment on the Canaanites in part because of their sacrifice of children to their deities. When Israel and Judah committed the same sins, the Assyrians and Babylonians were used to bring judgment on them.

    The point is, someone must act to stop the taking of innocent life. Who better than Christians who will temper their actions in the fear of God?

  • kc_chiefsfan

    I’ve been on our church security team for couple of years. We are there to be a deterrent but also protect the flock and our families. None of us want to have to make that decision but are trained and prepared to do so if it is required. It’s a great responsibility but something that has to be done in the society in which we live.