It Take Two to Fight: Analysis of a Common Proverb

A time for war, and a time for peace” (Eccl 3.8b).[1]

We live in a strange day. Take for example the “zero tolerance” policy on violence established in the public-school system. The policy states that any form of physical altercation is punishable by the powers that be. This law is justified by the popular cliché, “It takes two to fight.” (We will come back to that cliché in a bit).

Now I grew up in a different era. And the mindset that I was taught as a young child was this:

“It is wrong to start a fight. You are not to be the instigator. However, if another instigates and/or starts the fight with you, then you are permitted to defend yourself.”

Peaceniks find such logic deplorable. Rather than separate categories, making distinctions between the two—assailant and defender—the zero-tolerance policy pretends that both parties are equally guilty for the conflict.

Recently, I had a run in with someone who tried to assure me that “zero-tolerance” was the way to go; the only rational, justified, logical path of the enlightened thinker. My argument was that it was the polar opposite. Zero-tolerance for fighting (i.e., violence) is irrational, unjustified, and illogical when one realizes that self-defense should not be grouped into the same category of fighting as an assailant.

“It takes two to fight” (common proverb)

On the surface the statement seems legitimate. Mull over it for a moment. Think about the implications of the one who assumes it is true.

The first question we should think through is “how do we define the term fight?” For some, this will seem to be an utter waste of time— “everybody knows what a fight is!”—they will exclaim. A good rule of thumb when discussing topics is never to assume that you or your subject knows. You might. They might. But the thinking that says “everybody knows” is in itself a statement of ignorance. Primarily, because there is no way for you to know that “everybody knows” this or that, and so the comment is self-defeating anyway. Carefully defining the discussion material is always the wise choice. Even if you think you know, better to double check before you start flapping your gums.

The second (necessary) question to be asked is this: “What is being assumed by the claim?” Does it always take two to fight? Have you ever wrestled with yourself over a given subject, over a choice that has come before you?

“Yeah, but the cliché is talking about physical acts, not mental gymnastics,” quickly comes the retort of those in the know. Technically, the cliché is a bit vague. It speaks of generalities, not specifics. The individual in question is the one that offers application.

But, let’s assume that we are only speaking about physical acts. What else does the cliché presuppose? Guilt. “Guilt?” you ask, “How so?” In that the statement says “it takes two to fight”—i.e., both parties are equally guilty of fighting.

Definable difference between Self-defense and Fighting…

There are some notable differences between these two terms. To fight means “to contend in battle or physical combat; especially: to strive to overcome a person by blows or weapons,” but to self-defend means “the act of defending oneself, one’s property, or a close relative.”[2] One talks about an aggressor, the other a defender.

The person who fights another is seeking to dominate the other. Whereas, the person who self-defends is merely attempting to ward off the assailant. The former is an instigator, the latter a defender. They function differently because they fill two separate categories of thought/action. Naturally, this causes questions to simmer to the surface in our minds.

  • Which is right, which is wrong? Are they both equally deplorable? Or is it possible that one of them is honorable? Is it fair to offer a sweeping generalization and say that both the instigator and the defender are guilty of fighting? Or would we be wiser to notice that the one forced the others hand?

I can see why people want to make a hasty generalization and say that “all” fighting is wrong, but when pressed it is impossible for them to substantiate the claim. How so? Well, allow me to give you some examples to prove my position. I will start with nature, and then allow Scripture to have the final word.

Fighting/Self-Defense in Nature

For the first I will use one that I can personally relate to…my cat “Kitter’s.”

As a kitten resting on my shoulder.

Her real name is Princess, at least that is what PetSmart called her when we purchased her, but after almost seven years in our home, Kitter’s is the name that stuck. She is both an instigator and a defender.

Kitter’s is an inside/outside cat. During the warm months of the year she spends most of her time outdoors. But, when the weather snaps with a cold streak she eagerly announces her request to come into the warm. She is a bit of a talker, if you get my meaning—MEOW! Which comes in handy on several fronts. She’ll tell when she’s hungry or thirsty, when she’s ready for personal time on the lap (“Pet…ME, please!), and when she has to go to the bathroom—yes, she is potty trained. In short, she is unafraid to tell you how she feels or what she wants.  Truly a blessing in our home. (We are cat people, sorry if you’re not.)

As an Instigator…

Obviously, this predator needs her beauty sleep (taken today in my office).

Cats are natural predators, and our little Kitter’s is no different.  She has been known to take down birds, chipmunks, mice, and the occasional baby rabbit. She hunts her prey using her God-given attributes; namely, stealth, speed and strength. She is a tooth and claw type of gal that isn’t afraid of a little blood and fresh meat.

That being said, her prey does not laydown and take it. They attempt, to no avail, to defend themselves from this mighty predator. They don’t ask for the fight, but my cat instigates it and so they are left with little choice but to defend themselves—i.e., fight for their lives.


As a Defender…

No, I don’t have any awesome stories to share about my cat. She hasn’t saved one of my children from a burning building. She hasn’t taken on a dog in order to protect our younger children. I don’t have any of those stories. But I do have several instances where she has had to defend herself from others of her kind. And, I imagine some that were not. But I wasn’t witness to those encounters, so I cannot confirm or deny those realities.

Tomcats are territorial. They like to dominate other cats. They also like to steal their food. I suppose the same is true with females as well (I mean it’s true for humans, right?!?). In these instances, where another feline has thought the grass was greener on our side of the fence, my cat has got into some pretty heated fights in order to defend herself.

  • Question: Should my cat have lied down and just took it? Should she have let another harm her, steal from her? Would that have been a better course of action?

I know, I know we do not speak of moral culpability when we discuss matters in the animal kingdom. The chipmunk is not wrong for biting the ear of my cat, any more than my cat is wrong for clawing the eye out of the neighbor’s Tom. Nor, is my cat wrong in snuffing the life out of the field mouse that made the mistake of getting too close to my home, or the Tom that just wanted a bite to eat and saw my Kitter’s as a nuisance to an easy meal.

Animals act according to the nature that they have been given. They do not work through ethical matters of right versus wrong. They just do what animals do, and that is perfectly fine. But, what of human beings?

Fighting/Self-Defense in Scripture

Human beings are held to a different standard than the animal kingdom. Our actions have labels rightly assigned to them as either “right,” or “wrong.” Now, this is where things get a bit tricky. No, not for me. As a Christian, I have no problem with an unchanging standard of right vs. wrong; a static moral code. I also have no problem with fighting when it is warranted; particularly, in regards to self-defense.

Not all professing Christians will agree with my position. There are some that take a pacifistic stance to all forms of violence (fighting as an instigator or a defender). There are also those that do as much as they can to distance themselves from the Law-Word of God. Neither group can consistently stand upon those convictions, but my goal is not to argue for or against their position, nor to reveal any weaknesses in it; rather, just to say—not everyone who bears the name of Christ will agree. In fact, some will be found agreeing with the stance that the public school-system gives towards fighting.

Fighting as an Instigator…

I am not aware of any passage in Scripture that advocates the position of the instigator. God’s people are not to start the fight with their adversaries, we are to finish it.[3] Some might object. They might assert that God acts as an instigator several times in the Old Testament. For instance, the Canaanite conquest.[4]

Surely, the Canaanites were just living in their own land, minding their own business before the Lord God sent the Israelites into their territory to kill them, to take their homes and their wells and their vineyards, to make their walled cities their own (cf. Deut 6.10-11). “Seems rather obvious,” the person might opine “that God is the chief instigator in that case.”

The late R. J. Rushdoony made a very astute observation during his lifetime. During his lectures on the Institutes of Biblical Law, under the heading (Law) Partial and Impartial, said the following:

“Every law…is a declaration of war against something and someone.”[5]

With this knowledge we find that God was not the instigator against the Canaanites through Israel; rather, were the Canaanites the instigator against God’s Holy Name.[6] The inhabitants of Canaan (Exod 13.5), the children of Ham (Gen 10.6), suppressed the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom 1.18). They knew what was right versus wrong, because God the Creator had written it on their hearts (Rom 2.15). Instead of obeying what their consciences screamed at them (from time to time)[7], they refused to acknowledge God as God, choosing in preference created things (Rom 1.24-25). These imaginations of their own hearts were given voices through that which they chose as lawful (good) and unlawful (evil) (cf. Psa 115.8; 2Kgs 17.15). They had grown accustomed to calling “evil good and good evil” (Isa 5.20) and as a result, at the height of their sin (Gen 15.16), God sent in Israel as His sword of judgment against them.[8] Lest anyone complain that Israel took from them what was not theirs, the fact is that the whole earth is the Lords’ and all therein (Psa 24.1-2; 89.11), and God is free to give and take away from any whom He chooses (Dan 4.34-35; Isa 14.24, 27).

Of David and Goliath…[9]

Some might assume that David was the instigator in the battle between him and Goliath, the Philistinian champion. David is the one that ran forward and struck the first blow. He is the one who took Goliath’s sword and chopped off his head for all of Israel to see as he lifted it high in the air. But in this case David was a defender, not an instigator.

This may be hard for some to see. We have grown accustomed to looking at certain details in a particular light. However, it was Goliath that threw out the challenge. It was Goliath that dared anyone to come to him in battle that he might slay them. It was Goliath that cursed David as a dog, and so Goliath is the one who instigated the fight.

Striking the first blow is sometimes an act of Defense…

There comes a time when the challenger threatens, that the individual’s health or life is on the line, that striking the first blow is an act of defense. Recently, I am reminded of the news media blitz about Trump’s ordering the killing strike against Qassem Soleimani, after an attack on U. S. Embassy in Baghdad. Progressives believe that Trump acted as an instigator in that attack, rather than an act of self-defense.

I suppose that the four-kings (of the North) that were routed in battle with Abram (a.k.a. Abraham) would likewise claim that he was the aggressor (i.e., instigator) not them. They had fought with kings, not with Abram, and yet he pursued them with his own men trained in battle to defeat them (cf. Gen 14).[10] But Abram, like David (and I would argue that Trump in regards to Soleimani) were not the instigators, but the defenders who fought to protect what had been given to them (life, family, and land).

Similarly, the thief who dares to break into a home during the night has likewise became the instigator in the fight, when he is struck with a deathblow in the dark by the man of the house. Though the inhabitant might have thrown the first shot, so to speak, he is merely attempting to protect the life, health, and property that has been entrusted to him from above (see Exod 22.2-3).

The Problem as I see it…

The public school-system which is primarily driven by secular-humanism has deemed that all fighting is ethically wrong. But put to the test, their own standard is irrational, illogical, morally wrong, and glaringly inconsistent. If it takes two to fight and both fighters are wrong, then why do they give separate forms of punishment (one lesser, one greater) depending upon the circumstances of the fight? If it takes two to fight and both fighters are in the wrong, then why so many rules (laws) against bullying? Perhaps it would be better for the prey to just allow human predators to have their way with them?

Often times in ethical situations one of the ways to illustrate the folly of a position is to apply it to a worst case scenario. So, let’s take the logic of “it takes two to fight” and those that do are guilty of a wrong to the test.

  • A man aggressively seeks to dominate a woman in order to rape her. She is his prey. He uses physical violence to beat her into submission. Would it therefore be right or wrong for the woman to physically attack the man who is assailing her? Should she use any force necessary in order to stave this threat against her health, life, and property? Or would it be better for the woman, since violence is wrong and all fighting is morally bad, to succumb to her assailant?

Do we really have to think about what the appropriate response should be? Have we gotten so foolish in our society to assume that “all fighting” is wrong, and should be avoided at all costs? I think the answer should be rather obvious, don’t you? The woman should claw, bite, hit, kick with whatever she has or can get her hands on in that situation. In the same way, a child that is being pummeled by a bully ought to have the same right to defend themselves from their attacker. We need to do a better job of defining categories and consistently holding to them.

Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psa 144.1).


[1] All Scripture is of the English Standard Version (ESV), unless otherwise noted.

[2] Both definitions may be found in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary; “fight,” “self-defense,” s.v.

[3] As I write this, I think of the possible reaction in regards to Satan. Aren’t Christians commanded to take the fight to the devil and his minions? Aren’t we supposed to bear the light and in doing so, oppose the darkness on every front? Yes, we are called to bring the fight to the dark forces that seek to encroach upon the light bearers of God. We are told to be aggressive and wise in this fight. But if we look back through our history, we shall see that ultimately the fight was started in the garden. We didn’t begin the fight, but we are commanded to finish it. To unleash heaven’s fury upon every vain imagination or thought that supposes to usurp the authority of Christ in any area of life (cf. 2Cor 10.4-5). In this, though we may appear to strike the first blow often times by those enslaved to sin, the reality is that in such acts we are merely making a defense for our Father’s world.

[4] For the background on this conquest read Exodus-Deuteronomy. For the actual conquest in action read through Joshua (where the victorious fighting began), Judges (where the people’s resolve failed because of unfaithfulness), 1 and 2 Samuel (where the kings of Israel began waging this war).

[5] The timestamp for this statement is found at 23:40-50 on the podcast mentioned above available through iTunes.

[6] For the crimes of the Canaanites, see: Leviticus 18, 20; Deut 12.31.

[7] I say “from time to time” because our consciences on their own are perverted by the desires of sin entrenched with in our hearts, and the numbing effect that sin when practiced continually has on a person’s conscience in order that they feel justified by the position that they hold.

[8] It is interesting to note the similarities in the symbolic language used with sword and winnowing fork in the hand of God. Both were used in the sense of judgment to separate that which is dedicated for destruction or life. Just as the winnowing fork divides the wheat from the tares, so too does the sword divide the living from the dead (cf. Matt 10.34; comp Jer 12.12; 14.13).

[9] For the details of this battle read 1Sam 17.

[10] Abram (Abraham) did this to save Lot, his nephew, and his nephew’s family from slavery. But in doing so he saved others as well.