The Bible gives no all-encompassing statement on self-defense. Some passages seem to speak of God’s people being pacifistic (Proverbs 25:21–22; Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17). Yet there are other passages that approve of self-defense. Under what circumstances is personal self-defense appropriate?
The proper use of self-defense has to do with wisdom, understanding, and tact. In Luke 22:36, Jesus tells His remaining disciples, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” Jesus knew that now was the time when His followers would be threatened, and He upheld their right to self-defense. Just a short time later, Jesus is arrested, and Peter takes a sword and cuts off someone’s ear. Jesus rebukes Peter for that act (verses 49–51). Why? In his zeal to defend the Lord, Peter was standing in the way of God’s will. Jesus had told His disciples multiple times that He must be arrested, put on trial, and die (e.g., Matthew 17:22–23). In other words, Peter acted unwisely in that situation. We must have wisdom regarding when to fight and when not to.
Exodus 22 gives some clues about God’s attitude toward self-defense: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed” (Exodus 22:2–3). Two basic principles taught in this text are the right to own private property and the right to defend that property. The full exercise of the right to self-defense, however, depended on the situation. No one should be too quick to use deadly force against another, even someone who means to do him harm. If someone was set upon by a thief in the middle of the night and, in the confusion of the moment the would-be thief was killed, the Law did not charge the homeowner with murder. But, if the thief was caught in the house during the day, when the homeowner was unlikely to be awoken from sleep, then the Law forbade the killing of the thief. Essentially, the Law said that homeowners shouldn’t be quick to kill or attack thieves in their home. Both situations could be considered self-defense, but deadly force was expected to be a last resort, used only in the event of a panicked “surprise attack” scenario where the homeowner is likely to be confused and disoriented. In the case of a nighttime attack, the Law granted the homeowner the benefit of the doubt that, apart from the darkness and confusion of the attack, he would not intentionally use lethal force against a thief. Even in the case of self-defense against a thief, a godly person was expected to try to restrain the assailant rather than immediately resort to killing him.
Paul engaged in self-defense on occasion, although non-violently. When he was about to be flogged by the Romans in Jerusalem, Paul quietly informed the centurion with the scourge that he, Paul, was a Roman citizen. The authorities were immediately alarmed and began to treat Paul differently, knowing they had violated Roman law by even putting him in chains. Paul had used a similar defense in Philippi—after he was flogged—in order to secure an official apology from those who had violated his rights (Acts 16:37–39).
The persistent widow in Jesus’ parable kept pounding on the judge’s door with the repeated plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). This widow was not about to give up and let her enemy take advantage of her; through the proper channels, she pursued self-defense.
Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) has to do with our response to personal slights and offenses. Some situations may call for self-defense, but not retaliation in kind. The context of Jesus’ command is His teaching against the idea of “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (verse 38). Our self-defense is not a vengeful reaction to an offense. In fact, many offenses can simply be absorbed in forbearance and love.
The Bible never forbids self-defense, and believers are allowed to defend themselves and their families. But the fact that we are permitted to defend ourselves does not necessarily mean we must do so in every situation. Knowing God’s heart through reading His Word and relying on “the wisdom that comes from heaven” (James 3:17) will help us know how to best respond in situations that might call for self-defense.