In Part 1 we looked at Jesus’ Third Way. In Part 2 how Paul understood it and how both Jesus and Stephen lived it. In Part 3 we examined Moses’ own teaching in Exodus 22 and his actions in Exodus 2 making a case that Scripture defines third party defense as vengeance (and no reason it wouldn’t also include self-defense as well). Now we cover all the leftovers that come to mind.
Jesus told His disciples to “go buy a sword,” didn’t He?
Luke 22:35-38 is the text in question. This is the very night Jesus would be betrayed and crucified. He gathers His disciples to prepare them for what comes next. Rather than examine this in detail, suffice it to state the obvious, Jesus was speaking metaphorically not literally as both the context and church history bear out. Jesus does tell the disciples, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (22:36). The disciples do take him literally, actually presenting two swords (v 38). He responds, “It is enough.” Read this way it simply does not make a whole lot of sense. How are two swords enough for 11 men about to embark on a journey? This has led some commentators to suggest that when Jesus says, “it is enough,” he is not talking about how many swords they have, but in fact, He is frustrated that they still cannot follow the discussion and essentially puts an end to the conversation by saying, “It’s enough.” As in, He’s done talking about it. Whatever the case, when Jesus is surrounded by a large crowd intent on an illegal kidnapping the disciples ask, only a few verses later, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (22:49). Peter does strike without waiting for an answer and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest (v 50; Jn 18:10). Jesus promptly rebukes them all for drawing the sword.
Obviously, if the church in Acts or in the first 300 years of Christianity actually thought individual Christians could and should take up the sword, the history of persecution would turn into the history of various armed rebellions. There would also be far fewer martyrs.
The fact of the matter is, whether they are missionaries, electricians, plumbers, or house moms, Christians are only called to wield one sword,the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).
Ah ha! But Can Government Delegate The Role Of Avenging To Its Citizens?
Here is a crafty way to maintain some sense of the sword for personal use. It is essentially a desire to return to the OT law and become avengers of blood ourselves. Obviously, police and military who are employed by governing officials exist as an arm of the government and under its authority. After all, “governing authorities” in Romans 13 are not some abstract entity, but are made up of people. The fact that Christians may serve in these capacities is at least implied in Luke 3 when John the Baptist is sent to prepare the hearts of the people for the Messiah. When some Roman soldiers asked him, “What should we do?” He did not tell them to leave the army instead he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (3:14). Whether that alone justifies Christians in these roles may be debatable, but that is another question for another time. Our question concerns the ability of the government to bequeath the right to avenge with the sword.
Answering that question is not hard at all. Does government have that right? Yes, they do. Can they delegate it to others? Yes, they can. Here is the real question we are after however, should the Christian exercise the right of the sword given to them by the governing officials?
In other words, just because the government grants a right to its citizens does not mean at all that this “right” is in step with Christian ethics. Prostitution is legal in Nevada, granted by governing officials, does that mean Christians can exercise those rights? Abortion is a legal right granted to all citizens of the United States, but should Christians exercise those rights? The right to marry a same sex partner was recently granted to all 50 states, but will born-again pastors actually marry homosexual couples just because they can? Should they just because those couples can claim a right?
Everything we have laid out so far would offer an unequivocal NO to this question. Jesus’ intention and Paul’s further explanation in Romans 12-13 indicate that the government and individual Christians have different calls. But some remain unconvinced.
Here the life of the Apostle Paul answers the question for us. As a Roman citizen he was granted various rights. According to the Corpus Iuris Civilis, all citizens of Rome had the legal right of self-defense (though the corpus was compiled later under Justinian it actually condensed 6 centuries of previous known laws). Specifically the right to “repel force by force” is cited by Cassius who existed before Christ was born. The later medieval Catholic Church would assimilate this into their religious culture so that many became arms-bearing clergy throughout the Middle Ages.
For our purposes, we only need to see that the Roman government had granted the right of personal self-defense to Roman citizens and therefore Paul had that right as well (Silas too and anyone else Roman). He also had a passion to see the Gospel go forth no matter the cost. When a belligerent mob attacked him, stoned him, and then dragged his limp body out of the city, he never physically defended himself (Acts 14:19). In fact, Paul faced more violence than most Christians will in their lifetime: five times scourged to near death, three times beaten with rods, once stoned, living in constant danger from robbers, etc. (2 Cor. 11:21-29), yet, he never uses the right he is given.
But he does exercise his rights sometimes. In Acts 16 Paul and Silas are brought before local officials for preaching the Gospel, especially for exorcising one profitable woman who had the demon of clairvoyance (vv 16-18). When an angry crowd seized them and dragged them away they put up no physical fight. When they were unjustly beaten with rods, they did not complain. Their response was to sing hymns to God all night long and entrust themselves to God (v 25). An earthquake shook the jail and all the doors blew open, but instead of running, or perhaps, killing the guard who took them hostage, they presented him the Gospel and he came to Christ. Notice what Paul does next, using Jesus’ Third Way:
35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
He confronts the magistrates with their own unjust actions by forcing them to escort him and Silas out of jail! How incredibly humiliating for the officials. Non-violent resistance is not non-action, it is in fact a very aggressive action to confront injustice whenever and however it happens to us.
In another incident where Paul employs his rights, he appealed to Caesar in hopes of furthering the Gospel (Acts 25). If Paul could use his personal citizenship rights to launch the Gospel farther and wider than he could on his own, he was going to do it. Imagine the counter-cultural Christian force that could exist today if those in the church leveraged their rights for Christ first, rather than themselves.
So, if he could use his rights in a non-violent way, or if he could further the Gospel, he would use whatever Rome gave him. But all the while he entrusted himself to God for personal physical protection.
“Only missionaries and Christians on the front line have to be ready to use non-violent resistance, like Jim Elliot who had a gun, but did not use it. That’s because they represent the Gospel and the cause of the Gospel. Regular people can’t be expected to trust God that much. We’re not like them.”
But Jesus gave his beatitudes to regular people. Paul wrote to everyday Christians in Rome. The book of Acts is filled with regular people doing extraordinary things because of their belief in God. Such amazing feats occur any time God’s people trust Him and seek to love their enemies.
Ashley Smith was a drug addict who was just returning to faith and church when she was taken hostage in her home in 2005 by a man who was later termed the Atlanta Courthouse killer. He was on trial for rape when he escaped murdering the judge who presided over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and later a federal agent. Under duress for seven hours he asked Smith to do a few lines of crystal meth, but she refused having already determined that God would want her to quit. She then began talking to him about his purpose in life, about God, about church. She opened up and read to him from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. At one point he wanted to ditch the stolen truck so Smith followed behind in her car, but did not take the opportunity to flee. She stayed with him because she wanted to convince the killer to turn himself in without hurting anyone else. Eventually, she was released and returned safely to her daughter as police arrested the killer. A movie was released in September of 2015 entitled Captive that depicts the horrifying ordeal and God’s gracious provision.
“This only applies to wide scale legalized persecution, not random acts of violence.”
It is true that we think of persecution as personal violence against someone because of their faith. But, when there is a mass shooting, how do you know whether faith is a factor or not? If an intruder breaks into your house, how can you be sure that faith is not a driving motive for wanting to do you harm? And if it is, are lethal defenders really going to lay down their arms and let it happen? In any case, persecution, whether legalized or not, is still persecution.
We might also ask, “Whether someone persecutes you for your faith, or seeks to do you harm with some random act of violence, is that person in both situations still understood to be your enemy?” If so, Jesus prescribes and Paul heartily concurs, that a clear way to handle your enemy is by using any variation of non-violent resistance at your disposal including prayer.
When it comes to home protection non-violent resistance may take the form of alarms that ring the police immediately, lights, security cameras, dogs on the premises, etc. Obviously, if someone broke into your house to rape your wife (the common illustration), you would push that person off and stand in-between you and the attacker while you or someone calls the police. Make no mistake; talking to your attacker about the Gospel is not an impotent move! Christians are not called to face situations with the confidence that they can avoid them, prevent them, or stop them, but with the confidence that whatever happens to them, no matter how tragic or horrible, God will redeem for His kingdom and heal them when Christ returns.
Writing in Today’s Christian Women, Diane Hudson-Burns reflects on her own experience in I Was Raped:
Eventually I worked up the nerve to share about my attack in a Bible study group of seven women. It was a big step to speak openly about it. To my amazement, two women called me to share their hidden stories of being sexually abused as children. I realized that if sharing my story could help others heal, then maybe revealing this part of my life could be a good thing. In the past several years, I’ve shared my story with hundreds of women at Bible studies, church meetings, and conferences. Women from all backgrounds who have never shared their story before have told me about the rape or sexual abuse they’ve suffered. I’m convinced that when a sufferer can speak about her pain and tell her story, the healing process can begin. God has granted me peace over what happened, and he’s opened the door for me to share my story.
Sometimes Christians come up with scenarios and apply the letter of the law to Jesus’ teaching instead of the spirit of the law. There is such a thing as non-lethal force, which while it is one step removed from Jesus’ non-violent resistance, nonetheless maintains the spirit of keeping the enemy alive to hear the Gospel. In this sense it is both “loving” and “doing good” to one’s enemy (the same cannot be said if you kill them!). Spanking, for example, is a form of non-lethal force to correct negative behavior. On a different level, tasers, pepper spray, submission holds, etc. could also act as deterrents for negative criminal behavior in extreme situations. This is not what Jesus is advocating mind you, but it is not as far away from his intent as taking an enemy’s life either.
Does Non-violent Resistance Actually Work?
- Jesus’ Third Way – Summary of Walter Wink (scroll down for modern examples)
- Non-Violent Action by Ron J. Sider – “What good would it do for three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber dinghy to paddle into the path of a Pakistani steamship? For a tiny fishing boat with unarmed, praying Americans aboard to sail toward an American battleship threatening Nicaragua? For an eighty-year-old woman in a wheelchair to stop in front of advancing Filipino tanks? Or for nonviolent protesters to defy the Communist rulers of the Soviet Empire?” Answer: “Soviet Communism collapsed. The tanks stopped, and a nonviolent revolution succeeded. The American battleship left, and the threat of invasion faded. And the US shipment of arms to Pakistan.”
In Conclusion – A Few Reflective Questions
How much do I love God? How much do I love my neighbor? How much do I love my enemy? How much do I love myself? Am I driven by fear of the unknown, the what-if situation that could occur, or does the future promise of Christ as my very great reward arrest my soul and keep me captive behind heaven’s bars? No matter the weapon (guns, knives, or nunchakus), is my intent to let the Gospel be my shield? Prayer my arrow? The Word my sword? Christ my king? Will I love my enemy enough to preserve their life, even when they are doing exactly what an enemy does, attacking with violence? Will I repel with equal force, or Spirit force? How strong are the roots of my faith? How wide are the branches of hope? How bright the leaves of love?
If I cannot demonstrate from Holy Scripture that personal vengeance in the form of lethal force self-defense or lethal third party defense exists, then what am I basing my view on? Am I willing to admit that if I do kill my enemy I cannot also use Scripture to justify my actions?
Fundamentally, how then shall I live? How will I give glory to Christ? How will I respond to His call?
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” – Matt. 5:9
Nope, I Don’t Like Jesus’ Third Way, Give Me An Alternative Interpretation