Grudem, Piper, and Self-Defense

In his recent essay, “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?“, John Piper writes that he would “personally counsel a Christian not to have a firearm available for such circumstances” as shooting the assailant of one’s wife.

Wayne Grudem would probably disagree. In 2013 he gave a lecture, “Self-defense and the use of firearms” (MP3, PDF outline), arguing for the legitimacy of self-defense and a generally positive view of gun ownership. It is probably material that will end up in his book on ethics, which Grudem aims to finish before Parkinson’s disease incapacitates him.

Piper favors Darrell Bock’s view of Luke 22:36-38, where the sword is “only a symbol of preparation for pressure.” For Grudem, “metaphorical interpretations do not seem persuasive.”

In Piper’s 1979 doctrinal dissertation, Love Your Enemies, one can perhaps see from his section on non-resistance (pp. 89-91, 2012 edition) the interpretation that led to his present thinking. Piper’s approach to non-resistance reminds us of his now-published approach to divorce: as Jesus laid aside concessions for divorce, he also laid aside concessions for resistance and retaliation.

Yet concerning enemy-love commands from the Sermon on the Mount, Grudem quotes from Piper’s dissertation:

“The commands … are not absolute prescriptions with no exceptions but rather are pointed, concrete illustrations of how enemy love may and should often look in the life of a disciple.” (p. 99, 2012 edition)

Would Piper today affirm any clear exceptions to the call to non-resistance? Are there any scenarios where he sees violent defense as not only justified, but obligatory? His essay stopped short of strict pacifism, but left many of us wondering.

Since John Piper and Wayne Grudem are good friends and have worked together on projects, I can only assume that they have had a hearty conversation about self-defense. On this issue Piper writes, “I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me.” I look to them as good role models for public disagreement between Christians.

Addendum: Piper writes that “passive compliance in situations of injustice” can sometimes be a “form of cowardice”:

In [Matthew] 38-42 the note of compliance is struck (don’t resist, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile). But in verses 43-48 Jesus strikes the note of positive actions for the good of your enemies with a view to their blessing.

Now this raises the question whether the non-resistance and compliance of verses 38-42 is always the best way to love others and do them good as in verses 43-48. One focuses on passivity—don’t retaliate, be willing to suffer unjustly. The other focuses on activity—seek to do good for your enemy. Is passivity always the best way to do good?

The answer becomes more clear when we realize that in most situations of injustice or persecution we are not the only person being hurt. For example, how do you love two other people if one the criminal and the other is the victim—if one is hurting and the other is being hurt? Is love passive when it is not just your cheek that is being smacked but someone else’s—and repeatedly?

Or what about the command to give to the one who asks. Is it love to give your coat to a person who will use it to strangle an infant? And how do you go the extra mile (lovingly!) with a person who is taking you along to support his bloodshed? Do you go the extra mile with a person who is making you an active accomplice to his evil?

The point of these questions is this: In these verses Jesus is giving us a description of love that cuts to the depth of our selfishness and fear. If selfishness and fear keep us from giving and going the extra mile, then we need to be broken by these words. But Jesus is not saying that passive compliance in situations of injustice is the only form of love. It can be a form of cowardice.

When love weighs the claims of justice and mercy among all the people involved, there can come a moment, a flash point, when love may go beyond passive, compliant non-resistance…

Piper writes, “I believe that fathers should protect their children, even using force”:

Somebody wrote and asked me, “Would you protect your daughter if you had a gun?” I wrote back a one-word answer, “Probably,” and what I meant by it was that the circumstances are so unpredictable. What would you do? Shoot the guy in the head? Or shoot him in the chest? How about the leg? Or just throw the gun at him, or hit him over the head with it? Of course I’m going to protect my daughter! But I’m not aiming to kill anybody, especially an intruder who doesn’t know Christ and would go straight to hell, probably. Why would I want to do that if I could avoid it?

So no, I’m not a pacifist. I believe there should be a militia, and I believe in policemen with billy clubs and guns who should take out guys who are killing people. And I believe in a military to protect a land from aggression. And I believe that fathers should protect their children, even using force. But if they can avoid killing somebody, of course they should avoid killing somebody. And having a gun is a good way not to avoid killing somebody.

We don’t need guns in our houses.

And I’m not against hunters. Don’t get on my case about that, saying that Piper doesn’t believe that you can have bows and arrows and rifles, etc.

And I’m not going to get in your face if you have a gun lying in your drawer. I just think it’s not very wise.

Those who live by the gun will die by the gun.

Matthew Perman, who worked closely with John Piper at Desiring God, and who undoubtedly published this with his approval, writes,

Part of the answer to this difficulty lies in understanding the hyperbolic nature of much of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t think that Jesus is telling us never to respond to evil with force (such as in self-defense) or always to literally turn the other cheek when we are slapped any more than his command later in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:6 means that we should only pray when we are completely alone or his command in 5:29 means that some should literally gouge out their eyes. Jesus himself drove the thieves away from the temple with a whip (John 2:15) and Paul at times insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11; cf. also the interesting instance of 16:35-40). Jesus is using hyperbole to illustrate what our primary disposition and attitude should be, not to say that we should literally give in to every attempt to do evil against us.

Grudem, famous for his Systematic Theology, also has a book on politics. Politically relevant audio lectures of his are also available.

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