There are several sayings in the Bible, which when taken in isolation of balancing scriptures, seem to place Christians in untenable positions. The scripture says: Do not worry about what you will eat or wear. Does this mean that planning ahead for these things is worrying? It says: Do not let (women’s) beauty be of braided hair? Does this mean braids are a sin? There is a place saying: Go into all the nations…. Who is it talking to? Is everyone supposed to leave home? Another place says: Be free of the love of money. Does that make profit evil? And in the same pattern: All who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Does this mean that any use of violence is unChristian?
For each of these examples, there are key questions to be asked, such as:
- Who is being addressed?
- Is it meant to be extrapolated to every situation?
- Is it part of the story, as opposed to an absolute?
- What are the circumstances that it is being applied to?
- How well is the wording understood?
- How can we deal with apparent contradictions to the supposed rule?
When Jesus is talking to Peter about his sword, it is a very specific circumstance. Peter, as indicated even up until Jesus ascended, thinks that Jesus has come for an imminent governmental take-over. In other words, he isn’t really fighting for his freedom or in self-defense. He is fighting to preserve a leader that he wants. And, oh, by the way, he will get a good governmental position. I suppose one could argue that he acted in fear of the soldiers, but that does not seem to be the tone of the story.
This is similar to what was going on with soon-to-be King David, when he was fleeing from Saul. For David to take action against Saul would have been taking authority for himself. He would have been claiming the right to rule and exert force to be in charge of other peoples’ lives. His life is also a counter-example of the caution about “living by the sword,” as it is commonly interpreted. David was certainly directed by God to wage various battles, yet he did not “die by the sword.”
In other places, the idea of defending the widow and the fatherless is put forward. (i.e. Psalm 82:3, Isaiah 1:17) With this admonition is the strong suggestion that a man would already be defending his own family. Trying to make this statement to be simply a verbal defending is to take all real power from it. Jeremiah 22:3 speaks of delivering someone from the power of an oppressor. If this wouldn’t require force in many cases, I would be surprised. Taking care of widows and orphans is also mentioned by James in his letter.
If you have anyone who would benefit from your use of force in their defense, should you deprive them of it? You don’t have to worry about being God and knowing the state of every man’s heart who would do battle with you. He will give each person the chances they need to choose Him. But almost everyone of us has someone who counts on us in this life. The idea of sacrificing ourselves in the name of “turning the other cheek” or “loving your enemy” is to also sacrifice those around us when God says we should take care of them.
If you have attempted peaceful methods of dealing with trouble, you have done what is right. If you enter gleefully into retribution, you are probably going to make wrong decisions about how to approach conflict. While Christians are definitely not called to take up arms in order to convert people or rule over them, neither are they prohibited from taking up arms to save lives and defend themselves.
The concept of cooperating with governmental powers is a general concept, like honoring your parents or giving to the poor. But most people would not suggest that being respectful to your parents means giving them your whole paycheck if they demand it; or that a lazy poor person should be subsidized. There are other principles that come into play and balance the decisions. In the same vein, in the time of the early church, slaves are told “not worry about being slaves, but get free if you can.” In other words, there is no mandate to live in groveling submission to whomever claims worldly power over us.
Choosing when and how one might need to use force should probably be something that each of us allows the other to do without heaping guilt for being ungodly. There is at least room for discussion. Loving your enemy does not mean letting them do to you whatever they want to anymore than loving your children means giving them everything they want. Maybe a good fight is just what some people need to bring them face to face with their Maker. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go out looking for fights (see all of the above discussion), but it does mean that I am comfortable with the idea of fighting should the time come.