Every time there is a shooting anywhere in America, the political left calls for more gun laws and the political right calls for more gun ownership. While it is easy to fall into either the conservative or liberal mindsets of worldly politics, are these the only two options? Does Jesus call his followers to another way?
For generations raised on romanticized stories in Hollywood films of “cowboys and indians” and soldiers fighting in World War 2, carrying around a gun seems like a noble and heroic thing to do. Many Christians bring their weapons into church buildings, hoping that if something bad goes down they can make a positive difference. Many large churches in America have volunteer security teams that are carrying concealed weapons. This means that priests and pastors have made a conscious decision to have guns in their churches.
How should Christians respond to violence in their own buildings? It is with immense sadness that a question like this even needs to be asked… should we have guns in our churches?
Starting With Jesus
The center of the Christian faith is Jesus. Early Christians were originally called “followers of The Way” in reference to the way of Jesus. This wasn’t in reference to the way of Joshua, or David, or Solomon. Followers of The Way eventually began to be called “Christians,” meaning “little Christ,” because of how they dedicated their lives to imitating Jesus. Therefore, it is important to remember that Christians must, above all else, model their thoughts, motives, and actions after their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Prince of Peace had a lot to say about how his followers should respond to violence in a violent world. Not only are Christ’s teachings a guide on how to respond to violence but his life was an example as well. Other writers of the New Testament give us further in-depth teachings on the topic. But even more importantly we can look at how the apostles and the Early Church lived since they were so close to the time of Jesus.
Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church all had to wrestle with the Scriptures, just like we do today, and chose how to respond to violence. Thankfully, we have written-record of how all three responded.
The Christian Response to Violence: a Primer
The Jews had an idea, based on Biblical prophesy, of how their future coming Messiah would come and liberate them from violent oppressors. Many messiahs came and they all died while fighting for freedom until one came named Jesus of Nazareth who died as well, but not while fighting. The Jews rejected Jesus and asked for his death because he did not take up arms and fight for them. Jesus refused violence because he taught that violence should be refused at every turn, even when facing death.
Christ’s teachings and example of nonviolence had a deep impact on the apostles. Every apostle of Jesus faced persecution and nearly all eventually faced a violent death but none of them ever carried a weapon to defend themselves or defend anyone else. They went out into the world and continued the Jesus movement that resulted in a Church that also refused violence at all costs.
The Early Church, being the first 400 years of Christian people, was divided on a great many topics except one: nonviolence. Without exception, every written record we have from the Church, before Constantine, showed a total repudiation of violence, weapon ownership, participation in the military, and killing under any circumstance. These were a persecuted people, often put to death, ripped apart by animals in the colosseum and yet the Bible verse they quoted most was “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44-45). Nonviolence was the defining characteristic of the Early Church. For them to refuse to fight to protect the innocent by using violence was an extremely radical departure from what we would view as common sense. Why would they do this?
Not of This World
What the Early Church, the Apostles, and Jesus understood—that the American church doesn’t today—is that we are not of this world. Christians are to consider themselves strangers, aliens, and foreigners in the country they live in. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God alone. The Kingdom of God, Christ’s nation, is the real, physical reality of the ‘dome’ under which Jesus is King and ruler. Christians are living in God’s Kingdom when they submit to the Lordship of Jesus and his ways. This has absolutely radical implications.
Jesus told Pilate his Kingdom was “not of this world,” and he appealed to the fact that his followers were not fighting in his defense as proof of his claim (John 18:36). This is consistent with everything else Jesus taught his disciples. We are never to respond to violence with violence (Matthew 5:39) but are rather to love and do good to our enemies despite our natural inclinations telling us to do otherwise (Luke 6:27-35, Romans 12:17-21).
The way followers of Jesus show that they belong to a Kingdom that is “not of this world” is by refusing to act according to the common sense of the world and by refusing to use violence when it seems justified to do so. The central call of the Kingdom is to follow Jesus’ example in all things, especially in our willingness to suffer instead of using violence in self-defense (1 Corinthians 4:6; 11:1; Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7; Colossians 2:6; 1 Peter 2:21). So, while we can grant that gun-carriers could be considered brave and even “heroic” by ordinary standards, we cannot grant that such people are heroic in a Kingdom sense of the term. The criteria for heroism in the Kingdom is not how brave one is in using violence, but how brave one is in imitating Jesus’ refusal to use violence.
Do Good Guys Carry Guns?
Surely the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have good guys with guns. Despite the fact that Jesus did not grant us any exceptions to his prohibition of using weapons and acting violently (much less killing people), Christians in America still look for a way out. In light of how American culture romanticizes the “heroic” use of weaponry, it’s easy to understand why some American Christians choose to carry a gun. But as practically expedient as it may seem, it is simply antithetical to the Kingdom. Because by arming people in the church we are saying we have no intention of following Jesus’ teaching and example if and when we’re threatened. Jesus doesn’t say “love and do good to your enemies except when common sense tells you that you need to kill them.”
Christians who carry a gun into church buildings are not following Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 to “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Christians who fire their weapons have not loved their enemy. Christians who brandish weapons of death are not acting any differently than any other 2nd Amendment loving American would have. How does their allegiance to Jesus Christ in any way inform their decision to fire upon and kill the intruder? It doesn’t.
When we as Christians find ourselves indistinguishable from the world around us in what we fear and how we act when threatened, our witness is tarnished and our message loses any value. The decisions to conceal and carry a weapon into churches and shoot an image-bearer of God are always decisions made months or years in advance, not in the heat of the moment. These are decisions made in rejection of Christ’s teachings and example. These decisions are pre-meditated murder, in most cases made much farther in advance than the decisions of any potential ‘armed intruder.’ (Any time a Christian kills another person it is murder. Read more here.)
American Christians in Bible Times
Imagine what our Bible’s New Testament would look like if Christians in the Early Church had acted like many American Christians act. Christians had every justification in the world, apart from Christ, to act violently towards their Roman oppressors in order to stop the murder of innocent people. Not only did Christians face the threat of murder from the Romans but also from the Jews.
The person who wrote a major portion of the New Testament, Paul the Apostle, used to go around killing Christians. Called Saul at the time, Paul was eager to kill as many Christians as he could (Acts 9:1-2). While Stephen was preaching Christ, Paul and others opened fire on him and just before dying, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:54-8:2). You’ll notice in reading this story that no other Christians rushed to Stephen’s aid by killing Paul first before he could kill Stephen. Can you imagine if the Early Church had acted like the American Church and killed Paul? If they had, we would be missing nearly 25% of the New Testament.
What would cause the Early Church to resist the urge to kill those who were trying to kill them? It wasn’t their commitment to follow a set of rules. It was that their heart posture had radically changed. Christ’s teachings are descriptions of what life in God’s Kingdom looks like and prescriptions for how we are to cultivate this alternative form of life (Matthew 5-7). Jesus isn’t saying “act loving toward your enemy even though you want to kill them.” He’s rather saying, “cultivate the kind of life where loving your enemy becomes natural for you.” So while killing an armed intruder in our church buildings may seem like the practical thing to do, that pragmatism comes from the satanic deception of ‘redemptive violence’, not Jesus.
The Christian Response
A normal American would instinctively resort to violence to protect themselves and others. But how might a person who has cultivated a nonviolent, Kingdom of God mindset respond? Such a person who has devoted themselves to Christ would have cultivated a kind of character and wisdom that wouldn’t automatically default to violence. Instead, this person would see nonviolent alternatives. This person’s discipleship to the way of Christ’s love would give them wisdom that a person whose mind was conformed to the pattern of America would not have (Romans 12:2).
A follower of Christ’s daily surrender to God would cultivate a sensitivity to God’s Spirit that would enable them to discern Jesus’ leading in a life-threatening situation, something a “normal” kingdom of the world person would be oblivious to. This Christlike person might be divinely led to say something or do something that would disarm the attacker emotionally, spiritually, or even physically. Not only that, a Kingdom person would have developed the capacity to assess situations from an eternal perspective, embracing the truth that living in love is more important than life itself.
If we accept having guns in the church as a legitimate means of loving people, we deny the King we claim to follow. We must never acquiesce to the American narrative by rationalizing away Christ’s clear Kingdom prescriptions. By accepting armed protection, we accept a false worldly narrative that says protecting lives, even at the expense of taking life, is compatible, justifiable, and reasonable with enemy love. This goes against everything Jesus taught and lived. We deny the very story that has changed the world, and we live as if the new has not come and as if the old is not already passing away. Christians carrying weapons of the world is a repudiation of Christ’s Lordship.