Do Christians have the right to defend themselves? (Even from the state?)

This entry is part 18 of 44 in the series Christian Theology of Public Policy Course

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.


Do Christians have a right of self-defense? If so, under what circumstances may they defend themselves? May they only defend themselves against criminals or against civil authorities too? Are there any instances in which Christians must not defend themselves? These are tough questions that require more than just knee-jerk or cavalier responses. Indeed, a lot is riding on the doctrine of self-defense. For instance, if self-defense against other human beings were not justified under any circumstances, then women with tubal pregnancies would have to perish with their unborn children (on account of bleeding from a ruptured fallopian tube), criminals would have free course over the goods that believers have “stored up” (Proverbs 13:22; Ecclesiastes 11:1; Matthew 25:16-21), and revolution would always be wrong.

If self-defense is wrong then we ought all to be anarchists. I do not mean “anarchy” in the sense of chaos but rather in its scientific sense of a civilization without any central and organized civil government. The dictionary defines anarchy as: “Absence of any form of political authority.” The fundamental reason why government exists ultimately rests on the conviction that self-defense is right. Pure pacifists neither need nor want a government. They are apolitical and should be, logically, anarchists. Why then are Christians not anarchists? Only if the Bible supports the doctrine of self-defense would the principle of Christians using limited government for purposes of creating a common defense be justified. [Editor’s clarification: The official position of LCC is that Christianity and anarchy are not incompatible because anarchism does not immediately imply pacifism. Anarchism is the lack of a human ruler, not the lack of all means of self-defense. Nonetheless, Mr. Cobin’s original text has been preserved.]

In the same vein we may ask: “Why do Americans have (or even want) a political authority?” According to the doctrine of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are established among Men” to secure our rights of life, liberty, and property. The Constitution sets forth the role of civil government as well: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The third article of the (sadly) forgotten Articles of Confederation states: “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”

In other words, in the most fundamental sense, the Founders wanted a government (but not a state) in order to protect them from predators. Politically, Americans covenanted together for a “common defense” because at some level self-defense is not practicable. Civil government becomes an extension of our right of self-defense and our desire for self-preservation. Nevertheless, regardless of what American political philosophy may have been, should those who adhere to biblical Christianity adopt it today?

Several New Testament passages can be used to support the doctrine of self-defense for a Christian. First, John the Baptist did not condemn soldiers for doing their job, part of which included killing people, but only warned against abusing their office. “Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, ‘And what shall we do?’ So he said to them, ‘Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:14). Second, Christ directed that Christians take up arms useful in self-defense: “he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” (Luke 22:36).

Third, the Apostle Paul implies that Christian men ought to defend their families as part of their provision: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Note that Moses was not condemned for killing an Egyptian while defending one of his brethren (Acts 7:24, 28). Finally, although we cannot generate any conclusive argument from silence, it is notable—taking the preceding passages into account—that Christ did not condemn prudent planning for (and use of) warfare as a proper function of a wise king (Luke 14:31). Moreover, there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of God condoning warfare and men going to battle. And God does not change, even if the administration of His kingdom does.

Clearly there is a sense in which Christians are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), suffer, and show forth the glory of God in doing so rather than defending themselves. There is a time in which we must suffer and die (Matthew 5:11; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:3). Nevertheless, the New Testament does not indicate that Christians are called upon to be the world’s doormats. Thus, in the current administration of God’s kingdom, there seems to be room for Christians to pursue liberty and at times defend themselves against tyranny. In the final analysis, Christians can bring glory to God either by suffering or through promoting liberty.


Originally published in The Times Examiner on May 11, 2005.

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