“[God’s entire] word must be the standard by which we judge all things and the starting point of our thinking.”Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready
Starting points are important. This is what I teach my parishioners, my students, and my children, and it is what I emphasize to my friends and family. Where we start has a bearing on where we will finish. If we are not cognizant of our starting point—the foundation from whence we move (figuratively speaking of course)—then we might find that our desired destination is nowhere to be seen.
Years ago, before I was a teenager, I led my younger cousin into the woods for a daily hike. I loved the woods as a kid and would spend all my free time in them. Unfortunately, my time in the woods built in me a false sense of confidence. Evidenced in the phrase: “I know these woods like the back of my hand.” A response I gave to my cousin when he questioned whether or not I knew where we were at; where we are heading.
Did I know the section of woodland that we were currently traveling in? Yes. Had I ventured into them often? Yes. Was my confidence unfounded? Technically, no. But I had started a journey that I’d never been down before. We were heading into new territory. And I made a huge tactical error. I assumed that all we would need to do is head east from the creek bed, up the hill, and we’d end up in my grandfather’s cow field. When we reached the crest of the hill, I immediately realized my error. Rather than admit the obvious though, I dug in. We crawled low through some bramble bushes where it appeared that other smaller game regularly traveled. Rain began to pour on our heads as we looked across a field that was unknown to us. My cousin began to cry. At first, I tried to consul him, but when that didn’t work I told him to “dry it up.” Still, I led. The further I led us, the farther we got from my grandpa’s farm. Eventually, after about a 10-mile hike we ran into some fishermen who were kind enough to take us back home in the back of their pickup truck.
The point of the story is rather simple, my starting point led us down a wrong path. It continued to do so until we ran into someone else who knew the way back home. The starting point I’m referring to wasn’t my venturing into the woods, but my presupposed confidence. I had no justification to make the claim that I did, for I had ventured into territory unknown. In short, faulty presuppositions though honestly held caused me to make serious errors in thought. This often happens when attempting to deal with the various theological issues that we face.
Piper on Christians and Guns…
I went ahead and reread through John Piper’s lengthy article on why “Christians Should[n’t] Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves,”1 in light of current (2015) Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s comments to students on December 4, 2015. As I did, I was reminded that there were a few points that he and I agree upon. He is concerned about garnering the right attitude in Christians concerning their neighbors, not seeking vengeance, but rather, loving one’s enemies, being willing to suffer for Christ’s sake as faithful witnesses, for as Piper states near the end of his work,
“Our primary aim in life is to show that Christ is more precious than life” (pt. 8).2
However, while there is much I find agreement with from a sentimental point of view, I disagree with many of his conclusions. Conclusions that appear to me to be drawn from an incorrect starting point. This appears to be due to some theological convictions that we do not share. It is these that I want to address in this post.
Piper’s Starting Points3
What’s the issue?
At the beginning of his article, Piper attempts to brush aside the question of self-defense. He writes,
“The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question.”4
I find that odd since the reason for Falwell Jr.’s comments to his students was prefaced by a report of a mass shooting that took place in San Bernardino, CA.5 The goal then of Falwell Jr.’s speech one could argue was to encourage his students to take the issue of self-defense more seriously. I will grant that he may have argued his case more cogently from a biblical perspective, but the underlying sentiment is not wrong on its face. Take for example the historic narrative of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem during the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia.
“Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them by day and night…” (Neh 4.7-9; NASB).6
“Our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.’ When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, ‘They will come up against us from every place where you may turn,’ then I stationed men in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses” (Neh 4.11-14).
Here we see that the common people were armed, tradesmen, laborers, and families against a common threat that promised to use a guerrilla form of warfare sneaking in their midst, cloaking themselves as normal people, to strike a death blow against those whom they hated. This was Nehemiah’s response. He told the people to arm themselves. To be prepared to fight. And, to not fear their enemies, but if necessary to take their life.
Piper states that such an attitude is unbecoming of a believer. He writes,
- “When Paul says, ‘[the ruler]’ does not bear the sword in vain’ (Romans 13:4), he does not mean that Christian citizens should all carry swords so the enemy doesn’t get any bright ideas” (Pt.1).7
- “Peter’s aim for Christians as ‘sojourners and exiles’ on the earth is not that we put our hope in the self-protecting rights of the second amendment, but in the revelation of Jesus Christ in glory (1 Peter 1:7, 13; 2:11; 4:13; 5:1). His aim is that we suffer well and show that our treasure is in heaven, not in self-preservation.” (Pt. 2).8
- “What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how powerful and preemptive we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness—that we have a gun in our back pocket and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Jason Bourne, not Jesus and the Bible. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth. It is as common and easy as eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil…If we teach our students that they should carry guns, and then challenge them, ‘Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,’ do we really think what when the opportunity to lay down their lives comes, they will do what Jim Elliot and his friends did in Ecuador, and refuse to fire their pistols at their killers, while the spears plunge through their chests?” (Pt. 3).9
- “I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket” (Pt. 4).10
- “…exhorting [Christ’s] lambs to carry concealed weapons with which to shoot the wolves does not advance the countercultural, self-sacrificing, soul-saving cause of Christ” (Pt. 9).11
If John Piper is correct, if the pacifistic position that he espouses is correct, then Nehemiah was acting ungodly the moment he instructed the Jews to arm themselves with sword, spear, or bow. They were doing godly work in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, they were meant to be a light to the nations, what sort of witness were they giving to the unbelieving world at that time by arming themselves? The wolves were wanting to get into their midst to harm and to kill, shouldn’t they, as God’s sheep, the lambs of his pasture, have been a self-sacrificing lot willing to die for His namesake?
But that’s the Old Testament…
I highlighted this last time, but one of Piper’s key starting points is his emphasis on a New Testament ethic. He admits in this write-up that he doesn’t really want to address the issue of self-defense. And then, he argues with a New Testament bias throughout. By arguing in this fashion he avoids the various pitfall of his position (pacifism). How so? By ignoring the contrary testimony laid out in the Old Testament.
We are told in the Old Testament that God—our God—is a God of war12:
“Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name” (Exod 15.3; LEB; cf. Psa 24.8).
We are also told that He teaches His people to act in kind:
“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psa 144.1; ESV; cf. Jdg 2.23-3.2).
Piper highlights the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:4 to emphasize “spiritual” war. He is correct that in that passage of Scripture our weapons of warfare are not physical (v. 3), but are made of the tearing down of strongholds and every vain argument raised against the Lordship of Christ (v. 5). However, that is a different category of thought that being armed to protect against violent oppressors. To show how illogical such a stance is we might appeal to other biblical references that identify our food, drink, clothing, and wealth as likewise “spiritual,” but the reference to these in a spiritual sense does not mitigate against our use of them in a physical sense.
Jesus points out that mankind doesn’t truly live on “bread alone” (Deut 8.3; Matt 4.4), but physical bread is something we both need and are instructed to pray for (Luke 11.3). The Lord tells us to draw deeply from His well to drink (John 4.10; 7.38), but does not deny us physical water to preserve us (Jdg 15.18-19). He tells us not to focus all of our effort on earthly treasures but to be interested in building “treasures in heaven” (Matt 6.20); however, He is the one who gives us the means for acquiring wealth (Deut 8.18). Without His righteous garments clothing us we stand naked before God and are judged unworthy to be in His presence (Isa 61.10; Gal 3.27; Rev 7.9 comp. Matt 22.11-14); and yet, we are still dependent upon physical clothing to cover our nakedness (Gen 3.21). In the same way then, the Lord tells us to strap to our side “the Sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6.17), while likewise instructing us to arm ourselves with a physical sword to protect the life He has gifted (Luke 22.36).13
The Christian ethic is dependent upon the teaching of the entire Bible, not just the portions we prefer to suit our personal preferences. This is where Piper commits a significant error in reasoning, and his theological conclusions are thereby truncated. As Greg Bahnsen explains,
“Not one bit of the Old Testament has become ethically irrelevant, according to Paul. That is why we, as Christians, should speak of our moral viewpoint, not merely as ‘New Testament Ethics,’ but as ‘Biblical Ethics.’ The new Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17) requires that we take the Old Testament as ethically normative for us today. Not just selected portions of the Old Testament, mind you, but ‘every scripture.’ Failure to honor the whole duty of man as revealed in the Old Testament is nothing short of failure to be completely equipped for righteous living. It is to measure one’s ethical duty by a broken and incomplete yardstick.”14
Understanding Governmental Matters…
The final error in Piper’s reasoning is found in his understanding of government. He starts with the presupposition that the only person(s) authorized the use of the sword in Scripture is the government (i.e., civil government; e.g., cops, military, etc.). Therefore, he concludes that guns and their use—in terms of fighting off an adversary—is a governmental matter; an area where they alone are permitted to tread. To support this position he appeals to Paul’s argument laid out in Romans 12-13.
I agree that Paul rightly defines vengeance as the Lord’s (Rom 12.19), and thus forbids individuals from personally pursuing what we might term “vigilante justice.” We are not, to use Piper’s illustration, permitted to exercise a one-man war like Jason Bourne against those who’ve wronged us. God alone reserves that right, and He has assigned agents to carry out that task: “governing authorities” or “rulers” (Rom 13.1, 3).
But as with all things, instructive context is everything. In Romans 12:18 the apostle Paul tells us,
“If [it is] possible, so far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men” (emphasis added).
This means that it is our responsibility to avoid conflict at all costs. We are not the aggressors. Our position is to strive for peace, even with our enemies. We do not harbor bitterness against them. Rather than holding grudges, we offer them acts of kindness when the opportunity arises. In this way, we are not “…overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12.21). This is the meaning behind Jesus’ instruction for His disciples (followers) to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5.44).
However, Piper again commits a categorical error in failing to see our response in loving our enemies is not equated with the person who seeks to maim or kill, or beat a fellow neighbor. Persecution is a form of oppression to be sure, but it is one that we are commanded to live with. While persecution might often be associated with acts of violence, the two of them are not the same. If we’ve been wronged in this life, we are told to trust in God’s providential care. We are instructed to pray for those who’ve wronged us, and if it so happens that we see them in need to offer aid ultimately because we love God more than the cruelty they’ve shown us. Moreover, we do not know the purpose the Lord might have (for them or us) in such circumstances. Lashing out is forbidden in those cases. But we are not without aid or forms of justice in this life.
Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1-7 is often misunderstood and misapplied. Part of the problem is that we fail to delineate between the different spheres of governance that the Lord has provided us. Notice what Paul says in Romans 13:1,
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”
As I’ve already noted Piper sees the meaning of this verse in relation to “civil authorities.” But a question we ought to be asking is “What governing authorities are being referenced?” First notice, there is a plurality of authorities. This means that there are different spheres of authority. Second, pay attention to the fact that all authorities are derived not innate. Meaning that all spheres of authority receive their power as it is delegated to them. This then would include various institutions or governing bodies, such as the family, the Church, and the State.15
Take for example a husband and a father. He is according to Scripture the head of his household. He is required to live in obedience to the Lord’s instruction (Torah) and is charged with caring for both his wife and children. Accordingly, we are told in the Bible that a man who refuses to provide for the needs of his family “…has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5.8). Based on such teaching, what would we say of the man who spends ALL his earned wealth giving to the poor? He has failed his god-given obligation to his family. What about the man who stands by watching his child get molested or severely beaten, or does nothing as another man attempts to rape his wife? Would we agree that the man in EITHER scenario has failed to provide for the needs of his family and has denied the faith?
Could we then argue that the latter position was justified because he refused to strike the enemy in his midst for fear of maligning God’s name? Better to be pacifistic than to be charged with being violently aggressive? How do you think Jesus would judge such a fellow for failing to protect his family, by claiming that he intended to do good to his enemy? Do we suppose that the Lord would be pleased with our effort to love our enemy while failing to love our wife and children? Obviously not!
My assessment of Piper’s response to Christians arming themselves is that he is in error because of faulty presuppositions. His starting point is skewed, therefore, his theological conclusions are off base. He maligns the idea by attempting to label it as unbecoming and inconsistent with believing/Christian faith. This is in part because he ignores a large portion of the biblical witness in forming his ethical standard. He fails to see that there are different spheres of governance that God has ordained, and he misses that there are categorical distinctions (spiritual and material) throughout the Bible and life that help determine our proper course of action.
Theology plainly put, is the study of God. It is an analysis of the revealed mind of God given to us in His inscripturated Word. When we study the Bible we are studying God’s mind; His holiness code and ethical instruction for all of life. If we are to be theologically consistent, then we must weigh all of what the Bible says on a given matter, avoiding at all costs the temptation to cherry-pick our narratives.
In my next post, I want to develop the subjects here introduced further as we add to the discussion the various elements touched on by John Piper. Specifically, does our heavenly citizenship nullify our earthly citizenship? If it doesn’t, then how does this affect our witness in times of persecution in relation to being armed? In other words, does being an armed believer nullify my ability to be a faithful witness in the face of persecution? Moreover, what might be said from the silence we see in the New Testament in light of armed defense?
I realize that this post is a bit long for a blog, so I apologize in advance. I want to thank you for your patience and perseverance if you’ve made it to the end. I will attempt to be a bit more concise next time.
To be continued…
1The actual title of that work is, “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” My rewriting of the title illustrates the manner in which John Piper assumes his rhetorical question should be answered: “NO.” I would recommend the reader to read this article before delving too deeply into my critique: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/should-christians-be-encouraged-to-arm-themselves.
2Piper entitles this section, “A Natural Instinct is to boil this issue down to the question, ‘Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?’” (#2), but I have labeled it, “Deny Emotional Instinct” for what is the natural emotional (let alone logical) response to do when a perpetrator attacks a love one, no less than one’s wife! In his seven-fold response, he visits many of the ideas expressed throughout his paper.
3I have taken the 9 points that Piper makes in his article and rephrased them into what I call his Pillars of Thought. I will list them here, but I would recommend that you read my previous article on the subject 1st: Arguing For or Against Armed Defense: A Critique of John Piper’s Position on Armed Christians.
Piper’s Pillars of Thought: Here are the list of points along with their scriptural references: 1) Vengeance/Repaying Evil—Romans 12:17-13:4; 2) Suffering Injustice—1Peter (various texts); 3) Suffering Witnesses—Luke 21:12-13, 16-19; Matt 10:16-18, 21-22, 28; 4) Alien citizenship=no dominion—John 18:36; Matt 26:52; Phil 3:20; 5) Loving Enemies—Matthew (various texts); 6) Historic Church (Acts)/Argument from Silence—Acts 4:29-31; 5:40-41; 8:1-3; 16:37; 22:25; 7) Figurative/Metaphorical Argument—Luke 22:35-38; 8) Denying Emotional Instinct (a review of his former thoughts)—Luke 6.27-28; Acts 9:1-2; 9) Heavenly Reliance—Psa 46:1; Phil 4:19; Luke 10:3; 21:17-18; 2Cor 10:4.
4Ibid., par. 5.
5Brian Ross, et. al., “The Young Couple Accused in Massacre in San Bernardino,” December 3, 2015, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/young-couple-blamed-massacre-san-bernardino/story?id=35550251.
6All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
7Piper on: Vengeance/Repaying Evil—Romans 12:17-13:4, Pt. 1, par. 6.
8Piper on: Suffering Injustice—1Peter (various texts), Pt. 2, par. 12.
9Piper on: Suffering Witnesses—Luke 21:12-13, 16-19; Matt 10:16-18, 21-22, 28, Pt. 3, par. 4, 6.
10Piper on: Alien citizenship=no dominion—John 18:36; Matt 26:52; Phil 3:20, Pt. 4, par. 5.
11Piper on: Heavenly Reliance—Psa 46:1; Phil 4:19; Luke 10:3; 21:17-18; 2Cor 10:4, Pt. 9, final par.
12War in the sense I’m using it means, “a state of opposition or contest; an act of opposition; an inimical contest, act, or action; enmity; hostility.” War can be large scale: nation vs. nation, or small scale: person vs. person. War can be both material and immaterial. It is plainly the exercise of hostile forces in opposition to one another. The place where enmity rests (dwells).
13Check out my two articles dealing with Jesus’ command to get swords. John Piper denies the physical sense of the Lord’s instruction. Those two articles attempt to refute his claim, so I will not enjoin a discussion about it here or in what follows later. Here are the two links to those articles for those interested: Purchasing Swords to What End? An Article on Self-Defense in Light of Jesus’ Instruction to His Disciples, Part I ; Purchasing Swords to What End? The Second Half…
14Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 25, PDF E-book.
15For a more in-depth discussion on this, I would recommend to the reader Gary DeMar’s book: God and Government: A Biblical, Historical, and Constitutional Perspective (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2011). He lays out the argument for the multiplicity of governing spheres in chapter 1 entitled: Self-Government and Family Government.