This post will close out the positive presentation of the Bible’s teachings on violence and mostly wrap up this series. We’ll probably have another post covering popular objections. If you have any you’ve heard or that occur to you while you’re reading, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
As mentioned in the last post, violence is a response to sin - either as a consequence for sin, or a defense against it. We elaborated on the first point in the last post; now we will turn our attention to the second.
The principle of defense in general is enshrined in Scripture, both the New and Old Testaments. We are told to defend the rights of the fatherless and widows (Proverbs 31:9). Paul defends himself in court on a few occasions (Acts 22, 26, etc.). Peter tells us to be ready to defend our faith (1 Peter 3:15). We’ve already recounted Abraham’s defense of his nephew Lot, and God’s blessing of it (Genesis 14). The Mosaic law provides specific regulations for self-defense (Exodus 22:2–3). In fact, the very first account of holy violence is a defense against sin - the flaming sword, set up to prevent mankind from defiling the sanctity of the Garden and stealing from the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).
So we see in Scripture examples of defense, both violent and non-violent. But what principles do we see governing the application of defense? When is defense appropriate, and to what degree?
A Biblical defense is a response to sin that aims at preventing sin with reasonable force.
It’s not a “pre-emptive strike,” an attack under the assumption that the other party is probably going to attack you soon. It’s a response to a realized situation - someone bringing you to court, breaking into your house, or in Lot’s case, attacking you and dragging you off to slavery. You have a good reason to believe that the offender is, presently, trying to sin against you (or someone else).
Further, it aims at preventing sin. No more, no less - an appropriate defense uses whatever means are permissible and necessary to prevent an offender from committing sin against someone else. It doesn’t aim to punish sin (which we discussed in the previous post).
(Note that this general definition goes for any kind of defense, not just a violent one. The appropriate defense will vary depending on the situation, but the principle is the same.)
So how do we determine what kind of defense is “appropriate”?
The Bible gives us case law to illustrate a general principle in Exodus 22:2–3. If a thief is caught breaking into a home at night, and the homeowner strikes him and kills him, the homeowner is not guilty - but if it happens during the day, the homeowner is guilty.
Why? During the day, the homeowner can see the thief and gauge his intentions. He’s just stealing his goods, not trying to kill him. At night, you’ve got someone creeping into your house - as far as you know, he could be there to kill you, or your family. A more violent response is therefore permitted.
The general principle, we deduce, is that the response to sin should be reasonable for the offense being committed. Killing to prevent a theft is not a reasonable response. Abraham’s response, mounting a rescue mission to save the lives of Lot and his family, was reasonable.
This distinction is preserved in the legal doctrine of “reasonable force.” 1 We have the right to defend ourselves with as much force as we believe is reasonably necessary to protect ourselves or our property.
We’ve taken our time working through the Biblical texts, trying to establish a reasonably complete picture of the Bible’s teachings on these important topics. Though we haven’t covered every single applicable passage, the tenor of the Bible’s teachings should be clear.
If you believe there are some passages that we haven’t sufficiently taken into account, or if you have other objections to our conclusions, please leave a comment. We’ll be happy to look at it and address it specifically.
Next post: Nonresistance: Objections