Thinking Biblically about Guns
America is experiencing a crisis. Only days after a 28-year-old young woman killed six, including three children, at a Christian elementary school in Nashville, a shooter in Louisville, Kentucky killed five co-workers at the bank where he worked. There have been more than 600 mass shootings in the U.S. for each of the past three years, double the annual number from less than a decade ago.
There is no consensus about the right response to this crisis. After each shooting, there are calls for “assault weapon” bans, licensing, training requirements, and buyback programs that would reduce the number of guns owned by the public. But wouldn’t those efforts only harm the ability of the law-abiding to defend themselves against the deranged who, in a country that has more guns than people, would be able to access guns anyway? There are no simple answers.
For Christians, the goal is not only to think constitutionally but to think biblically. What does it mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) when it comes to guns? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Guns are not inherently good or bad.
As with an axe or shovel, guns are morally neutral; they can be used for evil or good. As with homes, cars, boats, jewelry, or appliances, we are always to see ourselves as mere stewards of what God has entrusted to us (Matthew 25:14-30), so our job is to consider whether our possession or use of a thing is being done for God’s glory or for our glory. Does it help us fulfill the Great Commandment or distract us from doing so?
2. Self-defense is biblical.
A primary use of guns is self-defense, which is specifically sanctioned in the Old Testament. “If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder” (Exodus 22:2).
Self-defense and the defense of others is good because every person has inherent value and dignity. Because Satan is constantly seeking to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10) Christians are called to defend that which Satan attacks (Psalm 82:3-4; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:17; 1 Timothy 5:8).
It’s true that Jesus instructed his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:44), but the slap on the cheek Jesus was encouraging Christians not to retaliate against was essentially an insult. It would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to interpret it as a prohibition from ever defending or protecting yourself. Indeed, in the New Testament we often see the disciples and other first century Christians taking steps to avoid violent persecution (Luke 4:29-30; John 8:59, 10:39; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33).
3. The use of weapons for self-defense is also biblical.
Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus surrendered to the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. When he did this, He was accomplishing a greater purpose, not establishing the principle that Christians must meekly surrender to evil whenever we encounter it. Indeed, when Peter cut off a man’s ear in defense of Jesus, Jesus knew the swords were present (Luke 22:37-39) and condemned the use of the sword — not the fact that it existed. He told Peter, “Put the sword back in its place,” not “throw it away.” Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus spoke favorably of those who defended themselves (Luke 11:2, Matthew 12:29).
Likewise, the Old Testament speaks favorably of the use of weapons for self-defense. In Esther, the Jews were instructed to arm themselves as protection from a looming genocide, and the Jews in Nehemiah were instructed to arm themselves with spears as they built the wall in anticipation of violent threats.
It is also worth noting that both the Bible and American criminal law take the position that self-defense must be proportional (Exodus 22:2-3). You can’t shoot someone who threw a rock through your window.
4. Christians should obey the law.
The starting position for Christians is that we are to obey the governing authorities because God has put them there (Romans 13:1). This does not apply when the government tells us to disobey God (Acts 56:29), and arguably does not apply when government is operating outside the jurisdiction that God gave to government (e.g., Christians are not morally obligated to wear pink pajamas to bed each night because God did not create government to micromanage bedtime).
However, because matters of public safety are squarely within the proper jurisdiction of government, Christians should obey laws regulating the ownership and use of weapons — provided those laws do not prevent us from being able to protect ourselves should the need arise. There is no biblical reason that the specifications of your car can be regulated but the specifications of your gun cannot.
5. Christians are to put the interests of others above their own interests.
Guns have helped stop great evil both for individuals and civilizations, but the ability to stop evil also comes with the ability to do evil. Our personalities, experiences, and contexts lead us to think differently about the issue of guns, but thinking biblically about them requires us to “look out not only for your own interests, but also the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Christians are never allowed to do or think anything just because “I want it.”
For Christians, the best question is not “Am I allowed to do this?” but “Does God want me to do this?” The first instinct of a life surrendered to God is to find out what He wants, not to see if we can justify doing what we want. As Christians, everything we do should be viewed through the lens of honoring God. As Paul said, “[W]hatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
None of this will quickly resolve the debate over guns in America, but it may help. At a minimum, it should help us have more productive conversations.
Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council.