A few weeks ago, Jerry Falwell Jr. made headlines by encouraging the students of Liberty University to acquire permits to carry guns on campus so that they could, if necessary, “end those Muslims before they walked in.” This rather artless way of expressing himself led to immediate worries about religious hostility and even possible genocide, though Mr. Falwell later clarified (and the original context made clear) that he meant that students could kill Islamic terrorists in the event that attacks were made on the campus. This qualification is very important, though many Christians were still significantly, and perhaps understandably, bothered by the idea of college students carrying weapons on campus. Addressing complicated problems of security in locales populated by individuals of mixed maturity and ability will always be difficult. Yet even beneath these considerations, it seems the most basic question on many Christians’ minds is whether a believer has the right to use deadly force in the event of a life-threatening emergency. This is the question that is most-popularly asked among amateur political commentators, and it has an immense popular resonance. We also see its importance and relevance because it is the aspect of the question that John Piper chose to address yesterday. In doing so, he highlighted a number of basic areas of confusion which seem to persistently afflict American Evangelicals.
Before going into my own critique, I should state that I am much more sympathetic towards Pastor Piper’s larger theological outlook than I am Mr. Falwell’s. In general, I do not enjoy the idea of siding with Falwell over Piper. Even on this question of the use of force, I must confess to finding Pr. Piper’s tone and cautious manner of self-expression appealing. It was with eager anticipation that I read Pr. Piper’s article, and I was very hopeful that he would offer a strong corrective to Mr. Falwell’s rhetoric. As I began reading the article I was encouraged, but I was unable to finish it without running aground of serious confusions and grave errors. I believe that these are both theological and pastoral, making a seriously damaging combination that will not only fail to correct Mr. Falwell, but will simultaneously strengthen his error among most Evangelicals while creating an opposite error to reckon with as well.
John Piper’s Concern
We must be careful in framing this interaction with Pr. Piper. Most of his essay is commendable, and he claims at the beginning to limit his argument to the larger disposition of the Christian, specifically his feelings about violence. Pr. Piper says,
My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.
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. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.
This is a good way to approach the issue and a very important one for the average pastor to be able to consider. An eagerness to shed blood is anti-biblical and a real temptation in our contemporary culture. But Pr. Piper’s declaration that he is not “primarily” interested in self-defense falls flat when he goes on to directly address self-defense and tie it in to a larger theological framework of sacrifice and exile.
It should be acknowledged that Pr. Piper is not attempting to bind the conscience: he admits that some of his views are tentative and uncertain, and he allows for other good men to disagree with him. Still, he maintains that he would positively counsel against gun ownership, and his entire argument rests upon the fact that his prudence is informed by his understanding of the work of Christ. Thus, speaking as a respected pastor and theologian, Piper’s personal advice has moral weight, and it can reasonably help or hurt those who take it. It is also set forth as a ramification of the proper understanding of the atonement, and so it intentionally grounds itself in a basic element of the faith.
The matter of self-defense is most prominent in Piper’s 8th point, in which he fields the hypothetical of a home invasion; but he weaves in the rejection of self-defense into points 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9. So self-defense is not a mere side note at all, but rather a test case by which the larger edifice stands or falls. By the time of the most shocking statements in point 8, the reader feels compelled to accept the extreme scenario or see it as the ultimate reductio ad absurdum which disproves the whole essay. As such, it is an appropriate point of critique.
Piper’s Reluctance to Use Deadly Force to Defend His Family
The most shocking part of Pr. Piper’s essay is, as we have said, his 8th point. He offers up a common situational dilemma faced by Christians looking into the question of the appropriate use of force. He says, “A natural instinct is to boil this issue down to the question, ‘Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?’” He then goes on to give 7 aspects to an answer which amounts to an unclear and qualified negative. We won’t quote these answers in full (you should read them for yourself), but they amount to an argument that bearing witness to Jesus precludes the use of deadly force. Piper asserts that the New Testament intentionally complicates the answer to this question: “the New Testament resists this kind of ethical reduction” and “the New Testament does not aim to make this clear for us. Its aim is a radically transformed heart that lives with its treasure in another world, longs to show Jesus to be more satisfying than life, trusts in the help of God in every situation, and desires the salvation of our enemies.” So, while Piper wants to stop short of giving a biblical prohibition against self-defense, he clearly suggests that the New Testament militates against it.
Guns, in particular, fall under a special exclusion. Piper says, “I live in the inner city of Minneapolis, and I would personally counsel a Christian not to have a firearm available for such circumstances.” Given that this appears in a rebuttal to Falwell, it seems natural to assume that this is a climactic point of Piper’s presentation. Guns are the ultimate symbol of anti-gospel, and therefore mature Christians should consider forswearing them entirely.
Guns are the current point of visceral reaction, whether for or against, in our culture, and so one can easily read this section of Piper’s argument without asking basic questions. But in order to get a clear theory of violence as such, we need to dig deeper. Why are guns put in a unique category? Wouldn’t any weapon, or indeed, any use of force also need to come under scrutiny? Can one really read Pr. Piper’s essay and conclude that a Christian is justified in defending his family with a knife or a baseball bat, but not a gun? I cannot see how that logic would hold. After all, Piper has said that Christians must “expect and accept unjust treatment without retaliation” and that Christians should reject “armed defense.” In order to live lives in exile, we must be “freed from the love of this world and so satisfied with the hope of glory that we are able to love our enemies and not return evil for evil, even as we expect to be wronged in this world.” And all of these statements then go on to serve as the theological basis for discouraging the use of deadly force in defense of our family. This cannot be limited to guns. It must either prohibit all violent force, no matter the instrument, or it must be interpreted in a different fashion entirely, thus distinguishing between the use of force for the advancement of the kingdom and the more natural use of force to defend life. To put it rather simplistically, Pr. Piper’s casuistry rests upon Anabaptistic assumptions about the relationship between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of this world. The classic Reformation view is quite different, which is why it has always allowed for the civil use of force in the service of a just cause.
3 More Points of Critique
In addition to this overview, I would like to point out three more areas of serious weakness in Pr. Piper’s argument. I do this, not to pile on, but to show that the disagreement, while between brothers in Christ, is actually of a very serious nature. The points in which we disagree highlight deep and potentially irreconcilable theological outlooks.
First, Piper’s argument is biblicistic and dependent upon a specific understanding of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old. Notice this line under his 8th point:
There is, as I have tried to show, a pervasive thrust in the New Testament pushing us toward blessing and doing good to those who hate, curse, and abuse us (Luke 6:27–28). And there is no direct dealing with the situation of using lethal force to save family & friend.
His argument assumes at least two things. It assumes that we need a direct biblical teaching on a matter in order to know whether it is morally permissible or not. In the case of self-defense and the defense of those entrusted to our guardianship, it would seem that the natural law would answer this question sufficiently. Do the good and avoid the evil. Preserve the lives of those dependent upon you, especially if there are lawful means available to you. In America, citizens are constitutionally permitted to bear arms, and they are allowed to use deadly force in order to protect their lives, especially in their homes.
Beyond natural-law reasoning, however, the Old Testament would seem to supply ample teaching on this matter. Consider, for example, Exodus 22:2: “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed.” Moses himself killed an Egyptian in order to save the life of an oppressed Israelite (Ex. 2:12), and while this killing is often condemned by over-pious commentators, the proto-martyr Stephen justifies Moses and condemns faithless Israel (Acts 7:24–25). All of this reasoning is simply an application of the 6th Commandment, though, whose duties are faithfully explained by the Westminster Larger Catechism:
135A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labour, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent.
Notice how the catechism is able, unlike Piper, to admonish against intemperate passions while also allowing for just defense against violence.
Secondly, Pastor Piper confuses self-sacrifice with the protection of others. He says that “our primary aim in life is to show that Christ is more precious than life,” but in the context he’s speaking not only of one’s care of their own life, but also of how a person cares about the lives of others. Piper is answering a question about how a man should care for his wife, and by extension his children, by pointing the man towards self-sacrifice and martyrdom. But self-sacrifice is not the issue in question, and the man is not actually justified in sacrificing other people in the name of his own love for Christ. One does not love their neighbor by imposing martyrdom upon their neighbor during times of crisis.
Remember, the hypothetical question that Piper’s theological outlook is seeking to answer is, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?” This is a very different question from the question, “Should a missionary sacrifice himself in the face of angry tribesmen?” In the situation of a wife’s assailant, there is a pre-existing relationship of husband and wife, and the “assailant” is a generic attacker, a stand-in for any scenario of attack. Thus, the husband is not asking whether he should evangelize by the sword or advance the spiritual kingdom of Christ through force. The husband is instead asking the very basic question, “Can I save my wife if she is in immediate danger?” This question has nothing to do with temperament, revenge, or political strategies. It is a question of moral duty, specifically the moral duty of the head of the family towards those under his domestic jurisdiction.
Husbands stand in a very particular relationship with their wives. They have pledged to provide for them and to protect them, and they also, in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, have the duties of “superiors” towards “inferiors.” This is an implication of the 5th Commandment:
129A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.
While the husband or father is not a civil magistrate in proper terms, he does hold a sort of office and jurisdiction with regard to his family. The universal view of Christendom is that the family is the oldest of the three estates and indeed the source of both the state and the visible church. As such, it is pre-political, which is why just polities allow the family basic political recognition and rights, the chief of which is self-defense.
There is actually a parallel between a father not protecting his wife and children and a magistrate not protecting his citizenry. The parallel shows, again, that Pr. Piper’s logic is actually Anabaptistic, though he himself allows for the magistrate to use force. As he fails to recognize that the family has analogous, though limited, political authority, he misses this important parallel which would disprove his argument. His missing this point also illustrates the importance of rightly understanding the relation between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and the creational and temporal order. Classical Protestants would rightly recoil at the idea that Christ’s kingdom overturned the civil arena, but they have much more difficulty expanding this logic to all of the temporal order. The principles, however, are the same.
Thirdly, Pastor Piper’s essay is actually a very confusing piece of argument. Many commentators, in their eagerness to find a contrast to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s clumsy rhetoric, have praised Piper’s response as “careful” and “nuanced.” But it is actually neither. Nuance does not mean “hard to understand.” Nuance does not even mean that a person points out all of the difficulties and complications inherent in a question. It may begin by doing this, but nuance, properly understood, concludes with an explanation of these difficulties and complications which then adds clarity to the conversation. Pr. Piper’s answers do not do this, and he admits this: “We don’t like this kind of ambiguity, but I can’t escape it.” Earlier, he has also conceded that he does not understand what Jesus was teaching by the “two swords” in Luke 22:36. Instead of encouraging us to work carefully to find an answer, Piper wants us to believe that this is a problem text upon which we cannot have reasonable certainty and thus should exclude from consideration.1
Piper also adds to this confusion by tying the rejection of force, even self-defense, to a certain theology of the atonement. He says, “Jesus died to keep that assailant from sinning against my family.” Here again is an opaque rather than nuanced statement. What does it actually mean? Piper explains, “Jesus’ personal strategy for overcoming crimes was to overcome sinful inclinations by giving his life to pay debts and change hearts.” This is, however, a conflation of the forensic and the transformative effects of the Cross, and it assumes that the Cross is a “personal strategy” for “crimes.” But is there such a thing as a personal strategy for fighting crime? Wouldn’t this actually require that Jesus was giving us a new politics as such, again teaching an Anabaptist rather than Protestant view of Christian ethics? But Piper does not consistently affirm such a thing, and thus he leaves readers to create a consistency where there is none.
Piper then concludes that the New Testament is itself intentionally complicating questions of ethics and moral duties, making us choose between natural goods and higher, spiritual, goods. He grounds this claim, again, in a theology of exile, saying that the gospel calls us to live “as lambs in the midst of wolves.” He again doesn’t consider the various ways in which this verse may or may not apply to the question of defending one’s family from an attacker, preferring to rely on pacifistically loaded assumptions. But if being a “lamb” does not preclude a Christian from joining the military or the police—if it does not preclude politics as such—then why should it preclude home defense?
Having pointed out the philosophical, theological, and exegetical problems in Pastor Piper’s essay, we will conclude on the pastoral level. Quite simply, Piper’s argument is disastrous pastoral theology. Imagine the child in the above scenario. His father has had the option to save his mother’s life but declined to do so in the name of the gospel. Is the child likely to be inspired by the power and majesty of grace? Or is he more likely to be gravely wounded himself, believing his father to have failed to love him and his mother? Is he more likely to grow up and embrace Christianity or to walk away from the faith in moral disgust?
Following this, is Piper’s unclear trumpet call likely to persuade a general audience to reject Jerry Falwell Jr.’s bombastic rhetoric? It would seem very unlikely. Instead, Piper’s inability to answer a basic moral question will be taken as evidence that Falwell’s position, while perhaps in need of better expression, is therefore obviously right, and Piper’s desire to rein in the violent passions will fail in the face of his attempted application of his principles. In short, if Piper’s internal state leads him to such a confused and dangerous conclusion, then the natural assumption is that it must be very wrong.
I do not think that Pastor Piper is as bad as his argument would have many believe. I believe that he correctly understands the situation’s severity and the Christian’s call to abhor worldly thinking towards violence. But his logic is badly confused, as he fails to distinguish between the spiritual and temporal realms, misunderstands the civic role of the family, and conflates the question of preservation of life with vengeance and bloodlust in general. Thus, he is unable to offer any sort of corrective and may actually give a cure that is worse than the disease. It is our hope that this need not be the final word on Pastor Piper, and that he will see the inconsistencies in his own approach and abandon his approach’s more extreme aspects.
Much more should be said on the general question of the Christian’s relationship to guns, especially in our current culture. Terrorism and mass shootings are also extremely relevant, and Christians should work to build a coherent philosophy of civic duty. This is best done by building upon the jurisprudential work of the Protestant Reformers, especially the more sophisticated work of the 17th to 19th centuries. We cannot unpack this work now, but we hope that TCI’s historical resources help provide a guidepost to beginning this important task.
- This text does have a tortured history, of course, with the most fantastic interpretation coming from Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam, in which he claims that it teaches the subordination of the civil magistrate to the clergy. For all its history, however, the text is not grammatically ambiguous. The challenge comes precisely in that it contradicts a certain assumed theology of violence. But if the situation in view is simply self-defense in a civil, not spiritual, manner, then the difficulty vanishes.