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God, Guns, and Worship: A Biblical Response to Persecution

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On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, two terrorist bombs planted by Muslims rocked two Coptic churches in Egypt—one inside St. George’s Church in Tanta, and one just outside St. Mark’s in Alexandria where Pope Tawadros II was praying.  In all, 47 Christians were killed and nearly 100 were injured.  The following day Father Boules George delivered a message in St. Mark’s where he said the following:

"We thank you because you shortened for us the journey. When someone is headed home to a particular city, he keeps looking at the time. 'When will I get home? Are we there yet?' Can you imagine if in an instant he finds himself on a rocket ship straight to his destination? You shortened the journey! Thank you for shortening the journey."
 
"We thank you because you gave to us to fulfill what Christ said to us: 'Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves' (Luke 10:3). We were lambs; our only weapons: our faith and the church we pray in. I carry no weapon in my hand. We are so grateful that you helped us fulfill this saying of Christ."[i] [sic.]
 
Two years ago the United States experienced a similar tragedy when 21 year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Wednesday night prayer meeting and began shooting, killing nine Christians, including the zchurch’s pastor. 
 
While there are many differences between the three attacks, there are also some striking similarities.  First, Christians were the targets of all three attacks.  Second, all three attacks occurred during a worship service.  Third, all three attacks generated much chatter on social media outlets regarding whether or not churches should arm themselves in the face of increasing violence against Christians.  Particularly in America, the question is being raised as to whether or not Christians should carry guns to church or Bible studies or other formal worship gatherings, or hire armed security guards in order to defend themselves against those who seek to do them harm?  There are at least six biblical reasons why guns have no place in a worship gathering.
 
Called to Suffer
The book of 1 Peter was written to encourage Christians who are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and who are being persecuted for their faith.  There he says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (3:21-22).  Notice the wording: “to this you have been called…”  Peter wants his readers to understand that persecution of believers is not incidental to being a Christian--it is divinely appointed.  God wants Christians to suffer for their faith.  Why?  “[B]ecause Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”  To be called by God into a covenantal relationship with himself is to be called to be transformed into the image and character of Christ--to live as he lived and to suffer as he suffered.  Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).  Christians are not to be shocked by persecution, but should be shocked by the lack of it.
 
Peter then goes on to explain the kind of example Christ left for us.  “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”  Jesus entrusted himself and his life to God the Father.  He could have called upon legions of angels to come to his aid, but he did not because he knew it was the Father’s will that he suffer for who he was and who he claimed to be.  So also Christians should entrust themselves and their lives to God the Father knowing that it is his will that we suffer for who Christ is and who he claimed to be. 
 
Turn the Other Cheek
In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus teaches his disciples saying, “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (vv.38-39).  Jesus is not using hyperbole.  But quite literally, when someone punches us or slaps us or shoves us or spits on us, Christians are not to respond in kind.  How much more then, if someone shoots at us?  This is a particularly poignant question when one considers that Christ left us an example that we should follow in his steps.  Those who persecuted Christ sought to kill him and he knew it, and yet “he did not revile in return”.  If one makes the argument that Christ knew he had come for that very purpose, we only need be reminded that Christians “have been called” to suffer (1 Peter 3:21).  The believer’s call to suffer is no less authentic than Christ’s.
 
If Christians are not to revile in return when we are first attacked, then it stands to reason that we should not preemptively attack someone who is about to persecute us.  Hence, a person walks into a church and brandishes a weapon, the biblical response is not to shoot him first before he shoots you or anyone else.  Please understand, I am not here arguing for pacifism.  Christians who enlist in combat arms in the military are not violating scripture.  God’s word never condemns military service, but only commands that military personnel conduct themselves justly (Luke 3:14).  In this article I am specifically addressing persecution against believers because of their faith in Christ. 
 
The Second Great Commandment and the Golden Rule
Jesus said the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39), and in Matthew 7:12 Jesus taught his disciples that “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”  Jesus clearly intends for us to understand that believers are to love others to the same extent that we love and care for ourselves, and that we are to treat others in the way we would want to be treated.  If you were the unbelieving gunman, in bondage to your own sin, totally depraved in nature, and blind to the things of God, would you want someone to try and disarm you in the hopes of sharing the gospel with you or would you want someone to put a bullet through your chest and send you to hell?  Loving our neighbor as ourselves and doing unto others what we would have them do unto us is not just intended for those who mean us well, but also for those who mean us harm.  It is for this reason Jesus will go onto say in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.  An enemy--by definition—is someone who is intentionally trying to harm us or kill us.  Yet Jesus says we are to love them.  Specifically, we are to love them in the same manner and to the same degree that we love ourselves, and we are to do to them what we would want done to us if the roles were reversed.
 
To Live Is Christ and to Die Is Gain
As the apostle Paul languished in a Roman prison, suffering for his faith, not knowing if he would be released or beheaded in prison, he writes this: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two.  My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better [for me].  But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil 1:21-23).  Paul struggled between his desire to die and be with Christ and his desire to remain and continue ministering to the saints.  The point, however, is that the thought of dying brought joy to Paul’s heart because he knew what awaited him, but it also brought a certain level of concern to his heart because he knew the saints still needed ministering to and the unbelieving world still needed the gospel.  Paul’s life was driven by two pressing concerns--ministering to the saints and reaching the lost with the gospel.  Regarding the later, in 1 Corinthians 9:12b-23 Paul makes emphatically clear just how important reaching the lost with the gospel is to him.  He says “we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” (v.12b)  “For necessity is laid upon me.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (v.16b)  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (vv.22b-23)  In the end, what believers need to bear in mind, in the face of persecution, is that when an unbeliever kills one of us, he sends us to our reward and eternal bliss.  When we kill an unbeliever, we send him to hell and eternal torment.  Why should we defend ourselves against someone who is trying to send us to heaven?  Father Boules was right when he said to his Muslim attackers: “We thank you because you shortened for us the journey.”  Those who kill us send us to our reward.  But if we kill them, we send them to an eternity of torment and misery.  There is no greater “obstacle” to the gospel than to snuff out the life of an unbeliever before he has the chance to hear it.
 
All for God’s Glory
In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  In 1 Cor 10:31-32 Paul writes: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God…just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”  Paul did not seek his own advantage.  He did not seek to look out for his own interest, but rather sought to look out for the interests of others and to glorify God in all he did.  He sought to let his light shine before others so that they might see his good works and give glory to God.  Paul understood that the goal of the Christian life is the glory of God, not the preservation of self. 
 
One of the most beautiful and God-glorifying images to come out of the tragedy that occurred in Charleston, SC, were the countless videos that went viral across the internet of many church members taking turns in court, walking up to the podium, addressing their would be killer, and expressing the love of Christ to him—expressing their forgiveness for him because Christ had forgiven them.  Many church members shared the gospel with him in court and encouraged him to place his faith in Christ and receive forgiveness of sins.  However, had one of those church members shot and killed Dylaan Roof before he had a chance to harm anyone, those videos would have never come into existence.  He never would have heard the gospel, and those church members never would have had the opportunity to glorify God before a watching world by allowing God to communicate through them his love, grace, and mercy.  Had one of those church members stopped Dylaan Roof by ending his life, that church never would have had the opportunity to exemplify for the rest of us what it looks like to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”, what it looks like to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you”, and what it looks like to “love your neighbor as yourself.” 
 
The Crucible of Persecution
As we read through Hebrews 11--the Hall of Faith—we encounter many of the patriarchs and prophets who did things that made no sense to the watching world and were willing to suffer unspeakable things because of their faith in God--because they entrusted themselves to God.  “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.  And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (v.8).  “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (v.17).  “Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” (vv.36-37).  All of these were willing and able to endure such suffering and testing because of their faith.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).  Faith says ‘we know that what awaits us in the next life is unimaginable joy, complete satisfaction, and pleasures forevermore, that this world is a garbage can compared to what lays beyond the grave.’  Faith says ‘we know exactly where we will go if our life is snuffed out in the here and now, and that our best life is yet to come.’  However, if an attacker enters into a place of worship seeking to kill Christians, and those Christians resort to deadly force to snuff out the life of the attacker, thereby preserving their own lives, they send the message to the world that we really do not believe what we say we believe, that we do not want to give up our life in this world, that we do not want life on earth to end early for us because we really are not certain about what lies beyond the grave.  It would send the message to the world that we really believe that our best life is being lived now and not later, that life on this earth is worth holding on to, worth fighting for, worth killing for.  Faith is proven to be genuine in the crucible of persecution.  Jim Elliot, the missionary who was martyred in the Amazon jungle, once said: “He is no fool who gives up what he can never keep to obtain what he can never lose.”  Within the Church there are those who admire his words--and then there are those who truly believe them. 
 
Armed Sheep
Often Luke 22 is cited when dealing with the question of whether or not Christians should arm themselves against persecution.  There in vv.35-38 Jesus is preparing his disciples for what is about to happen.  The shepherd is about to be betrayed and the sheep will scatter.  Thus Jesus instructs them saying, “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.”  The pressing question, however, is why does Jesus tell them to buy a sword?  The text does not provide us with enough information to answer that question with certainty.  Even Peter’s response in v.38 and Jesus’ subsequent response do not clarify the exegetical quandary.  There Peter says, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”  To which Jesus replies, “It is enough.”  But what does that mean?  Why did Jesus tell the disciples to purchase swords in the first place?  Furthermore, what did he mean when he says to Peter “It is enough”?  Did Jesus tell them to purchase swords in order to protect themselves against the coming persecution?  Or, did he tell them to purchase swords knowing they would soon be sent throughout the Roman Empire as sojourners and would need a sword for protection against wild animals (bears and lions still roamed Palestine at that time), for hunting and gutting animals for food, and for bushwhacking?   Jesus likely intended the latter for the following reasons.
 
First, the disciples themselves seem to have misunderstood Jesus’ words.  Just eleven verses later when persecution does come they exclaim: “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (v.49)  Then one of the disciples unsheathes his sword and attempts to lop off the head of one of their persecutors.  Thankfully he was a poor swordsman and merely chopped off his ear.  However, Jesus responds by rebuking them, shouting “No more of this!”  Then “he touched his ear and healed him.”  Thus when persecution does come, Jesus puts a stop to the disciples’ armed resistance.  In response, it simply will not due to argue that Jesus knew he had to suffer and die, for Christians also know we have been called to suffer and be persecuted for the name of Christ. 
 
Second, there are too many verses in the Bible lauding those who suffer for Christ.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mat 5:10-12 ESV).  “Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20 ESV).  Then add to this list Acts 5:41; Rom 8:35-36; 2 Cor 11:21-29; Phil 1:12-18; 1 Pet 1:6-7; 2:20-23; Rev 2:10, and the overwhelming preponderance of scripture is that Christians are to endure persecution without resisting or defending themselves. 
 
Third, there is not a single example of a NT believer defending himself against persecution.  There are instances of believers avoiding persecution, but never defending against it.  Paul was let down in a basket over the Damascus wall in order to escape persecution, but during the five times he was flogged, the three times be was beaten, and the one time he was stoned (2 Cor 11:24) he never once attempted to defend himself.  This is also true of Stephen, Peter, Silas, and others (Acts 5:40; 7:58; 16:23).  This must mean they were either not armed with defensive weapons or they chose not to use their weapons to defend themselves.  Either way, they clearly did not understand Jesus’ words to mean ‘take a weapon with you in order to defend yourself against persecution.’  
 
Innocent as Doves and as Shrewd as Serpents
Are not Christians to be as innocent at doves and as shrewd as serpents?  In other words, are we not to be kind, loving, and merciful, while simultaneously not being naive, gullible or spineless?  We are to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.  However, does that mean if we have the ability to stop someone from taking many innocent lives—the ability to protect our loved ones—that we are not to use that ability?  Are we to simply stand there and do nothing?  What sense does that make?  We should trust God to protect us.  But surely God expects us to exercise wisdom and discernment and personal responsibility as well.  This type of faulty logic was used by many Old Testament kings to their detriment and that of the nation.  One notable example is Hezekiah and the nation of Judah.  In Isaiah 30:1-2 God condemns the nation of Judah, while under the rule of Hezekiah, for seeking an alliance with Egypt in order to defeat their mutual enemy, Assyria, rather than simply trust God.  Doubtless, in the mind of Hezekiah, he was trusting in God and using common sense at the same time.  Israel was simply not militarily capable of defeating the Assyrians who had been swallowing up the entire middle-east.  Hezekiah was responsible for the protection of the entire nation—men, women, children, and infants.  Was he really supposed to stand before the people of Judah and say, ‘We are going to do nothing to protect our children from the brutal onslaught of the Assyrians.  We will simply pray and trust God’?  Yes!  He should have. 
 
Some may be tempted to argue that the comparison of Judah’s persecution by Assyria with the persecution of Christians in America is one of apples and oranges.  The people of God in the OT had been promised by God that if they would simply trust him, he would protect them.  But those same promises of protection to God’s people then are the same promises of protection to God’s people today.  “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov 3:5-6 ESV).  Christians are not to trust in our own common sense or rationale or logic, but are to trust in God.  There are an abundance of promises in the OT wherein God makes clear to his people that if they will simply trust him, he will be their shield and defender.  This is not to say that if they trusted him, not a single Israelite would ever suffer any harm whatsoever.  Certainly some died during the invasion of the Promised Land.  It is to say, however, that they were to trust God with their lives and their future, unless God specifically directed them to act militarily.  When it comes to faith, this is where the rubber meets the road—when God calls us to act against our natural instincts, against logic, rationale, and all common sense.  Here Abraham’s offering of Isaac is a quintessential example.  Placed in Abraham’s position, most of us would have thought ‘This makes no sense.  First God promises to give me a son and to make me into a great nation through that son, and now he is telling me to murder my son.  Everything inside me screams this is wrong! It’s completely nonsensical and illogical.’  But Abraham obeyed anyway.  He trusted God when common sense would have dictated otherwise.  Jesus said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Paul says when we have been wronged or defrauded, instead of seeking justice, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1Co 6:7 ESV).  Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1Pe 3:9 ESV).  To the human instinct, none of these statements make any sense.  They go against all logic, rationale, and common sense.  But when it comes to true faith, when it comes to trusting God and taking him at his word, this is where the rubber meets the road--when God calls us to act against our natural human instincts.
 
Protecting the Children
What about protecting our children?  Do we not, as parents, have a biblical obligation to protect our children and keep them safe from harm?  We certainly do.  Thus, suffering persecution alongside our children places us on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, we are commanded to endure persecution and be willing to suffer for Christ.  On the other hand, we have a biblical duty to protect our children.  However, this dilemma is only apparent, and not insurmountable.  When dealing with an ethical dilemma one must take into consideration the panorama of Scripture which speaks to the situation and then ask the question: Which approach to the situation would be best in keeping with all that scripture commands?  When dealing with an armed assailant who enters a place of worship for the purpose of killing or maiming Christians, here are the commands which must minimally be considered: (1) when someone strikes you on the one cheek, turn the other that they may strike that one as well; (2) Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; (3) Do unto others what you would have them do unto you [applies to both your assailant and your children]; (4) Love your neighbor as yourself [applies to both your assailant and your children]; and (5) do not place a stumbling block before the gospel (1 Cor 9:12).  Certainly killing an unbeliever would present an obstacle to them being presented with the gospel.  Thus, in light of all these biblical exhortations, what should be the Christian response to an armed assailant entering a place of worship to kill or to harm believers?  ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for another’ (John 15:13 ESV).  Every believer who knows to live is Christ but to die is gain, who loves his children and friends, and who truly loves his enemy and would rather see his assailant saved than to see him perish, should be willing to rush toward the assailant in an effort to disarm him, in an effort to preserve his life in the hopes he might hear the gospel and believe, and in an effort to protect those whom we love.  If every believer in a crowded church were to do this, certainly some would be injured, some may even be killed, but they would certainly be able to overpower and disarm one assailant.  This would be the most biblical and God-honoring response to those who would seek to do us harm.  Love for our family and friends, and love for our enemy must both be preserved and held in balance.  We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The weightier matters of the law are—“justice, mercy, and faithfulness”—must be upheld.  We must take care not to swallow a camel while straining out a gnat (Matt 23:23-24).  ‘But who will care for my children if I die?’  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”  We must trust God not only with our own lives, but with the lives of those we hold dearest.
 
In the end, if we truly love our friends, our family, our children, and our enemy as ourselves, then we should be willing to lay down our lives for all of them.  For there is no greater love than this, that we be willing to lay down our lives for another.  And if we truly believe to live is Christ but to die is gain, then the thought of being expedited to heaven should bring joy to our hearts, not anxiety or concern.  Furthermore, if we truly believe Hell is a real place where real human souls are writhing in pain and agony for all eternity without any hope of relief or a second change, then we should be greatly hesitant to be the hand by which one of those souls is sent there. 

[i] George, Boules.  “A Message to Those Who Kill Us.”  Coptic Mom & Dad: Learning to Trust God and Serve Others in the Lands of Immigration. <http://www.copticdadandmom.com/fr-boules-george/> Accessed: April 14, 2017.
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