The Problem with "Biblical" Opposition to John Piper's Pacifism
About a month ago, John Piper published an article called “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” in which he confronted the evangelical enthusiasm for carrying firearms. Personally, I rarely find myself on the same theological page as Piper, but as I read his piece, I found that he expressed many of the same ideas that I had come to believe. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was nodding in agreement as I read a Piper article - I was pleasantly surprised.
Not so surprisingly, his post unleashed a firestorm in evangelical circles. Pastors and writers across the country (several of whom I sincerely respect) took up their pens and responded with what they usually called a “biblical response” to Piper in which they detailed everything they thought he’d gotten wrong. Since I’m always looking to better understand viewpoints that oppose my own, I was genuinely curious to see how they could biblically refute the theological depth of John Piper’s article.
I was utterly disappointed at how unbiblical all of the responses I read were. The arguments against him seemed to fall into 3 main categories.
1. The Bible doesn’t actually forbid us from arming ourselves, so who are you to say we shouldn't?
The essence of this argument is that Scripture never explicitly says “Christians shouldn't carry weapons.” In fact, it’s often pointed out that Christ tells the apostles to take a sword with them as they go out into the world sharing the gospel (Luke 22:35-38).
I can only assume that the writers using this to rebut Piper didn’t actually read his article. Piper thoroughly covers the breadth of the scriptural case for pacifism, mankind his case using everything from specific verses to broad narratives.
He addresses verses that deal with responding to evil and adversity (Matthew 5, Luke 21:12-14), the perils of responding with violence (Matthew 26:52), and rejoicing in affliction (1 Peter 2-4), and he even addresses the passage in Luke that is often used to support the carrying of arms.
He discusses the sweeping themes of the gospel that demand our commitment to self-sacrifice, trusting in God for our protection, and holding loosely to the joys of this world. To be sure, there is no soundbyte of Jesus forbidding arming oneself, but Piper's point is that the entire narrative of the gospel compels us to reject the human desire for self-preservation.
Conclusion: The Bible does not contains a one-liner condemning firearms, but the entire focus of Piper’s article was on providing the biblical case to oppose a call to arms. Piper makes his case about as thoroughly as anyone can make a case for anything in Scripture.
2. The Bible tells us that government is God-ordained, and the government gives us the right to bear arms, so we have an obligation to do so.
First, let’s be clear that as Christians, our citizenship is first in the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:17-21). As we examine the narrative of Scripture, our aspiration should be to live as God calls us to live, whether that jibes perfectly with the Constitution or flies completely in the face of it.
This idea that the government is “an instrument of God’s justice, so we should embrace its laws” sounds great when the issue is one that we support, but how many times do we take that stance regarding other governmental regulations?
The government has legalized abortion, but when was the last time you saw evangelicals rallying behind that law? When the Supreme Court decided to federally allow same-sex marriage, how many evangelicals flocked to support gay rights? When Obamacare passed, how many evangelicals touted it as a Christ-reflecting effort to care for the sick and poor?
We seem to have a bad habit of supporting the government, even calling it "ordained of God," when it benefits our own agendas, but then decrying that same government when it creeps on our perceived rights. We cannot claim God’s providence over the government mandate on one of these issues and cry human depravity on another.
If our foundation is scriptural, it must be consistently applied.
Conclusion: If Scripture had absolutely nothing to say on the issue of self-preservation, this argument would carry some weight. With the amount of scriptural support Piper’s provided, though, this argument simply sounds to me like the writer opened his Bible hunting for anything to justify his desire to conceal-and-carry and, finding nothing, was forced to conjure up a weak, quasi-biblical link between American citizenship and theology.
3. Biblical justice demands that we be prepared to defend our families and neighbors (Good Samaritan and whatnot), and that means we must be armed.
The crux of this argument seems to be that is our duty as love-filled humans (or men, or Christians, or Americans) to use lethal force to prevent a crime against others. Let’s investigate this argument.
First, what we're not talking about: We’re not talking about vengeance. We all agree that seeking out a person who has wronged us in order to kill them is utterly wrong. We’re also not talking about war or law enforcement personnel (those are deep discussion that deserve their own place and time).
What we are talking about is self-defense (or defending our neighbors).
If you scour Scripture to find examples of God’s people using lethal force in self-defense, you will necessarily find yourself relegated to the Old Testament. And there you will find plenty of support for your position. One of the most-frequently used verses to support lethal defense is Exodus 22:2:
If the thief is caught breaking in and is beaten and dies, the one who killed him won’t be guilty of bloodshed.
This particular example isn’t a strong one (the verse doesn’t encourage a person to kill the thief, it only says that the one who kills him shouldn’t be punished), but the Old Testament is certainly filled with violence-laced scenarios. David, Samson, Gideon… there is almost no end to the list of men of God who killed to defend themselves, their home, or their families. If you want to debate the biblical case to bear arms, the Old Testament is where your argument lies.
As I’ve read through the New Testament, though, I have found no support for this argument after the birth of Christ. Christ himself refused to fight back against his attackers. Surely there is some meaning to be found in that fact.
Conclusion: This argument may actually be compelling. It is rooted in Old Testament values, but it can definitely be described as biblical. I'd be interested in hearing a further exploration of this idea.
But here’s where I personally fall in this discussion.
I intentionally try to live based on New Testament principles. Christians today live within a new covenant that exists to fulfill the death brought about by the Old Testament law. The new covenant is found in the life of Christ, so when I am looking for a model of how I should live, I look to the examples laid out in the New Testament.
And even though the Christians of the New Testament lived in a society that systematically hunted, tortured, and killed Christians, I see exactly zero examples of Christ (or the apostles) encouraging or condoning the use of violence in defense. Instead, I see them admonishing Christians to consider it pure joy when they are persecuted and to heap kindness upon their enemies. For the early Christians, these were not hypothetical scenarios - they were real situations that happened every day.
If the Christian life dictated the taking up of arms to protect oneself, wouldn’t Christ or the apostles have mentioned it at some point? Every time violence or suffering is discussed in the New Testament, Christians are being called to radically demonstrate the gospel of hope and grace by surrendering their right to self-preservation.
If they were called to live the gospel in such a way, shouldn’t I do the same?
- “A Biblical Response to "It's Not Christian" to Arm Yourself by Carrying a Concealed Weapon” (Wade Burleson)
- “A Bible Believer Responds to John Piper’s Call for Christians to Not Be Armed” (Geoffrey Grider)
- “A biblical response to John Piper’s denial of the Right to bear Arms” (Dr. Joel McDurmon)
- “A Response to John Piper: Why Gun Ownership is Biblical and Good” (JD Hall)
- "John Piper and Guns" by Douglas Wilson (Wilson deserves a hat tip here - I actually very much appreciated his thoughts)