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Violent Resistance

Question
Are there any circumstances in which violent resistance is justified for Christians? Clearly, the idea of kingdom-advancing warfare has been spiritualized during the inter-advent period. But what about self-defense? What about defending others who depend upon our care and provision, for example, our families?
Answer
As far as violence/non-violence in the current age goes, Christian scholarship is divided on the issue. Personally, I think violence is sometimes justified. First of all, Paul teaches clearly that the state has the right to commit violence, and that it does so with authority delegated from God (Rom. 13:1ff.). The American "state" does not "delegate" the right of self-defense. In America, The Bill of Rights recognizes the right to self-defense (in the 2nd Amendment) as a pre-existing natural right. It is important to understand that the Constitution does not grant or delegate this right, but it does recognize and guarantee it. This point is important as it is an inalienable right (rights which are not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of a particular society or polity) and thus cannot be taken away.

Comparing the Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest with an eye toward self-defense and defending others is rather interesting. Specifically, when Peter cut off Malchus' ear (John 18:10-11; Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49), only in one account does Jesus then proceed to speak of violence more generally (Matt. 26:52), and even in that account he gives as part of the explanation that: 1) it is necessary that he be arrested; and 2) he can take care of himself. In Luke's account, right before Jesus' arrest, Jesus tells his disciples to take swords with them (Luke 22:36). Whether or not the swords were defensive weapons is a bit irrelevant; even a defensive sword is a weapon, not a shield. Also, when Jesus speaks against violence in general in Matthew's account - "All those who take up the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52) - he is not quoting the Old Testament, and does not appear to be clearly referring to some sort of proverbial wisdom; he doesn't say, for example, "don't you know...?" It may be that Jesus simply recognized that the crowd was armed and that the disciples were terribly outnumbered (Matt. 26:47,55). He may just have been saying, "Put away that sword before you get yourself killed."

Turning the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-39) does not seem to be comparable to self-defense. There, Jesus seems to be referring to conflicts of a somewhat more civil nature. He is, after all, commenting on the traditional interpretation and application of the law "an eye for an eye," which was a legal application, not a rule of personal defense. In any case, Jesus' correction of this application had to do with a slap on the cheek, not with a lost eye or a lost tooth. A slap doesn't do any serious damage. It may have been that people had gotten rather petty about their demands for justice, to the point where they were demanding that every slap be repaid with vegeance. Jesus' point wasn't "do not enforce civil justice," but "make peace when it is within your power." Under no circumstance does "turn the other cheek if you get slapped" somehow become "don't hit the guy who is trying to rape you." Imagine how preposterous it would be to take Jesus' words "do not resist him who is evil" (Matt. 5:39) as the universal, normative stance toward evil. Not only would we never enforce any laws or ever bring any lawsuits, but depending on how we define "resist," we might even feel compelled to engage in every sin that an evil person used to tempt us (e.g. drug use, illicit sex, etc.).

In short, I think the New Testament does not disallow violence in self defense or in the protection of others during the current age, and I think that Jesus himself even advocated it (Luke 22:36).

Regarding military violence, the state also sanctions this, and I think it is fair to argue that at least some of these cases can fall under the scope of the delegated divine vengeance Paul talks about in Romans 13. Granted, great wisdom is required to determine whether or not one should participate in violence against others even in a military setting. The state is not always right, and God's law remains higher than man's. Nevertheless, there are instances in which military violence is sanctioned by God. Though the New Testament doesn't say anthing directly about Christians in secular military service, it refers in a positive manner to Christians who were also soldiers (Phil. 4:22). Also, Paul used the illustration of a secular soldier on more than one occassion (1 Cor. 9:7; 2 Tim. 2:4). Had soldiering and military violence been inappropriate for Christians, these illustrations would not have been very compelling. Imagine, for example, that in 1 Corinthians 9 he had argued in this way: "What assassin ever knocks off a victim without getting paid for the hit? What dealer gives away crack without charging for it?" These are not people and actions to which we appeal as examples for proper behavior. Paul, however, did feel comfortable appealing to soldiers as examples of properly imitateable behavior.

Now, the questions of violence against the state and violence that is not sanctioned by the state are somewhat different. In these cases, there may not be a clear delegation of divine authority or sanction. Calvin suggested that violence against the state could be proper if the cause were just and a magistrate (an agent of the state with some military authority) led/sanctioned the resistance. In such a case, there would exist a plausible argument for divine sanction and delegated authority. Also, it is worth noting that in Romans 13:3-4 Paul says that the state has its power in order to do good, not in order to do whatever it wants. When it is not doing good, I think it is safe to say that God does not delegate his divine authority or sanction to it. It may be that a resistance led entirely by civilians could have divine sanction if it is out to do what is truly good. Practically speaking, however, it is hard to imagine any situation sufficient to arouse people to military revolution that would not gain at least a few converts from the civil/military authorities.

Finally, there are some cases in which it may be advisable not to resist evil violence, but to submit to it. Specifically, when one suffers for the gospel or when one's wrongful death may become a martyrdom for a good cause, it might not be a bad idea to let them kill you. But even in these cases, great wisdom is required to know if non-resistance is actually the most effective witness, and even in these cases the right of self-defense still exists.

Answer by Joseph R. Nally

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).