After every mass shooting we are immediately reminded by media personalities, politicians and even pastors that NOW is not the time to talk about guns. We need to pray, listen, empathize, and eulogize the victims and the first responders.
Let’s do all of those things but then please – PLEASE – after that can this be the time when Christians finally get around to having our long overdue conversation about guns? A lot of people are dying while we try very hard to avoid this particular responsibility.
If this is going to be the tragedy that finally awakens us to our calling to serve as salt and light in this culture and on this issue then here are a few verses from Holy Scripture that I would like to sow into the conversation.
In the context of a discussion about his impending betrayal and arrest Jesus speaks ominously about the dangers and sacrifices that lie ahead. In stark contrast to their earlier reception in the Jewish villages he tells the disciples to prepare for hostility and resistance:
“But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36–38 ESV)
This passage is often submitted as evidence that Jesus permitted violent self-defense if the situation so warranted. However, the vast majority of commentators think that Jesus was speaking metaphorically here and that the disciples misunderstood the point he was trying to make. John Calvin for example said:
“It was truly shameful and stupid ignorance, that the disciples, after having been so often informed about bearing the cross, imagine that they must fight with swords of iron.”
Indeed, had the disciples’ understanding been accurate, it would be hard to understand why just a few hours later Jesus would rebuke Peter for drawing a sword in self defence.
Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52 ESV)
Either Jesus had a very short memory or the disciples were guilty of gross misinterpretation of his teaching.
I’m not aware of a single commentator who thinks that Jesus was telling the disciples to stock up on actual swords.
Matthew Henry for example says:
“This is intended only to show that the times would be very perilous, so that no man would think himself safe if he had not a sword by his side. But the sword of the Spirit is the sword which the disciples of Christ must furnish themselves with.”
Therefore to use this verse to argue for unfettered access to military grade assault rifles is to be guilty of a greater interpretive error than even the one committed by the disciples. It is further to miss the fact that when the disciples misunderstood Jesus and immediately began to gather swords – Jesus told them to stop! He said:
“It is enough.” (Luke 22:38 ESV)
‘Enough of this kind of talk!’ He dismisses a subject in which the disciples were so hopelessly astray.
Jesus did not advocate for violent self-defense – far from it. He said to his disciples:
“I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:39–40 HCSB)
If the only verse supporting your position on gun control is the one where the disciples badly misunderstood Jesus and where subsequently rebuked and dismissed for being hopelessly astray on the topic, then you have taken a wrong turn.
Luke 22:36-38 is not an argument against gun control.
Most readers of the New Testament are keenly aware of the limitations of the law. The Bible makes it clear that law is powerless to solve the problem of evil and human sin. The ultimate solution to our human brokenness is not better laws, better government, better public programs or better education. The ultimate solution is for people to repent of their sins, put their faith in Jesus Christ so as to receive the indwelling Holy Spirit.
A thousand times YES!
And yet, that is not to say that there is no further role for government and the rule of law. To say that something isn’t the ultimate solution is not to say that the thing has no value at all. The New Testament speaks very favourably about the on-going benefit of government and law. The Apostle Paul says:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1–4 ESV)
According to the Bible, the role of the government is not to resolve the issue of evil but to resist and restrain its spread. This fact has obvious implications for the conversation about guns.
Many Christians will rightly argue that: “The only solution to evil in our culture is the cross of Jesus Christ”.
That is true.
However they will go on from there to make a faulty application. They will say: “Therefore, we don’t need gun laws, we need Gospel preaching!”
But that is to deny the role of government in restricting and restraining evil. Seatbelts and speed limits do not solve the problem of traffic accidents – they do however serve to limit the frequency and severity of traffic accidents. The same basic logic applies to gun control. The government can and should have a role in limiting how much damage one angry person can do.
Yes we would still see acts of violence even if there were better gun laws but there would be fewer acts of violence and those acts would claim far fewer innocent victims. That isn’t a total victory, but neither is it something to be discounted, particularly if your loved one was one of the 22 innocent people killed by a machine gun wielding maniac in El Paso.
Or the 9 innocent people killed in Dayton, Ohio.
The first fatality in both cases may have been unavoidable.
The last 29 however almost certainly were not.
If people refuse to permit their government the right to restrain and restrict wickedness then they share a measure of responsibility for the anarchy and chaos that is sure to result.
The king does not bear the sword in vain. God gives the government extraordinary rights and powers in order to restrain wickedness and evil.
Thanks be to God!
1 Peter 2:13-17
Every Christian has to wrestle with the extent to which their cultural presuppositions have intermingled with their theological and biblical convictions. Every Christian has to ask why they believe the things that they do. Is it because of where and when I live? Or is it because of what God has said and caused to be written in his Word? It can be painful to discover how much of our theology is culturally rather than textually rooted. Many Christians are having that experience in the aftermath of this tragic shooting.
Why do so many Christians believe that they can and should own military grade weapons?
If the disciples were not to accumulate swords, why do we feel that we should accumulate guns?
When pressed on this question it is absolutely shocking to discover how many Christians will appeal to the potential need for them to rise up in armed insurrection and rebellion against their own government.
Where in the world does that belief come from? Because it most certainly does not come from the text of Scripture.
The Apostle Paul and Peter were both murdered by the greatest tyrant in Roman history. If any tyrant deserved to be violently put down it was Nero. And yet Paul said:
“whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
(Romans 13:2 ESV)
And Peter said:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good…. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13–17 ESV)
Christians are citizens of a coming kingdom and we are commanded to live peaceably under the oversight of our imperfect human leaders. We are not instructed to rebel. We are not instructed to rise up. We are not instructed to dishonor. And we are certainly not instructed to store up weapons in our basement in case we need to assassinate our head of government! If that is your rational for owning a military grade firearm you need to read your Bible.
The Bible says, ‘be subject for the Lord’s sake’.
The Bible says, ‘Honor the emperor’.
Like it or not, this is the Word of the Lord.
The Book of Daniel provides two examples of how God’s people may resist an evil government. In chapter 3 Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego refuse (politely) to do what God forbids. In chapter 6 Daniel refuses (again politely) to not do what God requires.
The story of Daniel in Daniel 6 is particularly instructive. When Daniel heard about the King’s edict requiring everyone to pray to the King as a god, the Bible says:
“he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” (Daniel 6:10 ESV)
Daniel resisted a tyrannical government by doing as he had done previously. He quietly and respectfully communicated that he was subject to a higher power.
Tremper Longman III puts it this way:
“When Daniel heard about the law forbidding his prayer, he did not rally the troops for a strike or armed resistance, he prepared himself for death… Christians do not fight for their beliefs by assaulting or killing, but by dying.”
Jesus does not say, “Take up your AK47 and change the government!”; he says: “Take up your cross and follow me!”
The disciples of Jesus once again appear dangerously astray on this conversation. We need to go back to the Bible. We need to go back to Jesus. We need to seek again the things that make for peace.
Even still, come Lord Jesus.
N.B. This is now the third time that this article has been updated in light of a particularly awful tragedy. I pray it will be the last. Come Lord Jesus!