Bible Q&A: Does Jesus Condemn Self-Defense?

Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Does this mean that Christians are not ever to defend themselves?

Contextually, Jesus was correcting the misinterpretation of Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 that had been commonly taught to the Jews by the scribes and Pharisees of that time (Matt. 5:38-41).  They were teaching that “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” gave license for private vengeance.  In reality, those statements were in Old Testament passages that contextually were directed to authorities responsible for official judgments concerning proven wrongdoing.  Indeed, the purpose behind these statements was to limit the punishment being given for the crime to what would be appropriate instead of unfair.  Promoting personal vengeance against wrongs done to you by someone else was not what those passages were meant to teach.

Thus, Jesus corrected that erroneous teaching by teaching his followers to not seek personal revenge for wrongs done to them.  If someone “slaps you on the right cheek” (a common form of insulting someone back then), instead of retaliating in kind, “turn the other cheek.”  If someone is unjustly suing you for your tunic, give them more!  “Let him have your cloak as well.”  If a Roman soldier exercised his tyrannical legal right to force you to stop what you were doing and carry his belongings for one mile, “go with him two miles.”  To the one who does wrong to you, instead of trying to retaliate or seek vengeance (“Take my eye, and I will take yours!  Take my tooth, and I will take yours!”) – the mindset condemned in the command, “Do not resist the one who is evil” – show them love instead.

Does this mean that self-defense is condemned by God?  Not necessarily.  Total nonresistance to evil would only encourage wrongdoing.  Furthermore, we see Paul seeking to defend himself against those who tried to assassinate him instead of passively offering no resistance to their murderous efforts (Acts 23:12-31).  Jesus on one occasion encouraged his disciples to buy swords, weapons that are designed to wound or kill (Lk. 22:36-38).  While Jesus certainly would not want them to use those swords for aggressive violence or personal vengeance, the only reason left as to why he would condone their purchase is self-defense.  Christians are told to provide for their families (1 Tim. 5:8), and certainly protection is included in what they are to provide for their loved ones.

There is a difference between self-defense that is done out of a desire to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from harm, and violence done out of hate and vengeance.  Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” was made in the context of condemning the latter, not the former.

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