By George Crocker
There seems to be a lot of confusion in Christian circles regarding our Lord's statement in Matthew 5:39: "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (New King James Version. Emphasis mine). Many take this verse and claim that it is not right nor lawful for a Christian to defend himself or herself but, rather, one ought to be passive at that time. At first appearance it seems that they may be right. This sure seems like Christ is teaching pacifism. Yet, is this really so?
It's the Context
The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount where our Lord is teaching proper Christian conduct amidst an unbelieving world and hypocritical religious leaders. The scribes and the Pharisees were taking passages of Scripture in the Old Testament (that was all the Scriptures they had at the time) out of context That is why Christ constantly began His words with: "You have heard that it was said...". He was correcting the errors of their teaching and thinking. The scribes and Pharisees were famous for saying "do and do not" ( Matt. 23:3).
In the context of Matthew 5:38-39 (as well as Luke 6:29) our Lord is correcting yet another error by these religious leaders. In verse 38 He says: "You have heard that it was said: 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'." The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, were taking what God had instructed in His law (Ex. 21:24; Deut. 19:21; Lev. 24:20) for the civil government and made it a private and individual matter. The Lord God had instructed the judges and magistrates to punish those who had done injuries by making them suffer the way they made their victims suffer. The scribes and Pharisees taught that this meant private or individual revenge. This was not correct. The individual has not been given the right of revenge. That is in the hands of God (see Deut. 32:35; Romans 12:19) and His "means" of punishment = the civil magistrates ( Rom. 13:4). Christ challenges this contrary teaching, by those who ought to have known better, in saying "But I tell you..."
In verse 39 of Matthew 5 Christ now instructs them that it is the duty of every man to bear patiently the injuries that he receives (Calvin) and not to seek revenge. It is my conviction that the Lord is NOT referring to the matter of "self defense" in this context. He is NOT saying that it is sinful for one to defend himself and/or his family when being threatened. If He were then this would be a contradiction to what Scripture says elsewhere (see below and also Larry Pratt's article: " What Does the Bible Say about Gun Control? "). This is where I part with some conservative and Reformed commentators (such as Ridderbos) who imply that one must resist "even defending himself." If they mean that in all instances this ought to be the case then they are wrong. Again, the Lord does not allow for "revengence" by the individual. However, defending himself or his family is certainly not forbidden.
If this text is not speaking about self defense, what does the Lord mean when He says "not to resist an evil person" and then adds "But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also"? Admittedly this appears to be a pacifist text. H.N. Ridderbos does help us out in this area when he says:
"Jesus specifically mentions the right here , even though a blow from a right-handed person would normally fall on the left cheek. This probably means that the blow is delivered with the back of the hand, since then it would indeed fall on the right cheek. We know for certain that such a blow was considered particularly insulting. The injustice that is willingly accepted here is therefore not so much a matter of body injury as of shame." (H.N. Ridderbos. "Matthew": Bible Students Commentary. Zondervan. p. 113)
Therefore, this is not a passage dealing with what one must do when being physically attacked and/or having one's life threatened. It is, however, one that teaches that "revenge" is not to be left in the hands of the individual victim. Personal revenge or even "lynch-law" is certainly out of the question. The Lord has already set up the means to deal with punishing the offender by the sword of the state. Also, it is a passage that teaches patience when one is wronged. As the great Reformer John Calvin says:
"When wrong has been done them (believers) in a single instance, he (Christ) wishes them to be trained by this example to meek submission, that by suffering they may learn to be patient." (John Calvin. "Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke" Calvin's Commentaries. Baker. p. 299)
Do these passages, then, in Matthew 5 forbid self-defense? They do not deal with it and, furthermore, they do not forbid it either. Let us, then, turn the other cheek (pun intended)…and briefly look at some passages that do deal with self-defense.
It's the Concept of Self-Defense
As I wrote above our Lord would be contradicting Himself or Scripture by saying that one must never defend himself or his family in any circumstance. The Word of God does allow and encourage self-defense. In the Scriptures we do not find God encouraging His people to be either "hawks" or "doves" when dealing with self-defense matters. They are just to be reasonable.
In the early part of redemptive history we see the patriarch Abraham mustering one of the first armed militias (without the approval of any state or federal government, I would note) to rescue his kidnapped nephew, Lot (Gen. 14:12ff). This was not revenge but was purely defending and protecting (here rescuing) a family member and retrieving property. This can be labeled as a biblical example of self-defense. It is interesting to note that later "[t]he Israelite army was a militia army which came to battle with each man bearing his own weapons - from the time of Moses, through the Judges, and beyond." (Pratt; ibid.)
In Exodus 20:13, the 6th of the Ten Commandments, we read "Thou shalt not kill" (KJV) The accurate English translation would be "You shall not murder." This commandment does NOT forbid the taking of life, under certain circumstances. A good interpretation what this commandment does mean (requires of us) is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism:
What Are the Duties Required In the Sixth Commandment?
Answer: 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 defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physical, 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. (Q. &A. 135; emphasis added).
Note that the Catechism says to "preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting…" (emphasis added). The writers of this fine document understood the necessity, at times, to use defensive measures to aid others when necessary. They also say "by just defense thereof against violence." This is a call for the legitimate use of self-defense. The Scriptures they use to defend (no pun intended) this statement are Ps. 82:4; Prov. 24:11-12; 1 Sam. 14:45. Another passage of Scripture in Exodus tells us that protecting your family and possessions by using physical force when an intruder enters your home at night is legitimate: " If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft." ( Ex. 22:2-3). This passage simply means that one can defend his home and life and that of his family if a thief or intruder comes in at night and threatens them. If it is during the daylight hours and the situation is not life threatening then lethal force can NOT be used if he sees that the intruder is unarmed. The inturder is to pay for his crime either by restitution (make a hefty payment to the victim) or (if he has no money) to "work it off" (even sold in slavery in order to do so).
In 1 Samuel 13:19,22 we see what happens when individuals of a nation no longer have the equipment to make and bear arms and defend themselves, their families and their nation. It is an open invitation to be attacked and plundered. Is this not, in reality, what the anti-self-defense people are setting us up for? Take away the guns out of the hands of the common folk and you will have a nation run by tyrants and criminals (often the one and the same).
In Nehemiah 4 we see that the returning Jews were instructed to defend themselves and the wall they were building from those who wanted to use any means to keep it from being built. " They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me." (Neh. 4:17, 18; KJV). They were ready to use self-defense not only to protect themselves and their covenant families but also their rightful property (homes and the wall of Jerusalem) given to them by their Lord. Are we any less obligated, as the covenant people of God, to use defensive measures (the use of firearms for example) to protect ourselves, our families and our property? I don't think so.
There are other Old Testament passages which could be given but these ought to suffice. In the New Testament we have such passages as Luke 22:36, which says: "Then said he unto them, 'But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it,and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one..' "(KJV). Our Lord encouraged His disciples to get protection for use in self-defense. Elsewhere in the NT we have Paul saying that one must take care of his own family ( 1 Tim. 5:18) and, as I said elsewhere (seeibid), this also implies defending them as well. The New Testament does not contradict the Old Testament instruction on self-defense in saying "turn the other cheek".
This short article is not meant to be the last answer on the issue nor do I expect to necessarily change the pacifists' minds. However I hope that I have shown that "turning the other cheek" does not forbid one to use self-defense when one's life and/or family is facing life threatening situations. Referring to the Matt. 5:38-39passage to prove pacifism is misleading and wrong.
I am thoroughly convinced that the Scriptures allow us to defend ourselves. That means that I have God-given rights to "bear arms" in order to do so. Only God can take away those rights. I conclude with a quote from the late Dr. A. T. Robertson, a Greek language scholar, on the Matthew passage:
"Jesus protested when smitten on the cheek ( John 18:22-23). And Jesus denounced the Pharisees ( Matt 23:1ff) and fought the devil always. The language of Jesus is bold and picturesque and is not to be pressed too literally (he is speaking here of the passage Matthew 5:38-39 in question, GC). Paradoxes startle and make us think. We are expected to fill in the other side of the picture…. Aggressive or offensive war by nations is also condemned, but not necessarily defensive war or defense against robbery and murder. Professional pacifism may be mere cowardice." (A.T. Robertson. "Word Pictures in the New Testament", Vol. I, p. 48).