This article is written by Hans Neser and is used with his permission.

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Killing is a topic that brings a lot of emotion to foreground and is quite often clouded with strongly preconceived ideas fostered by personal upbringing, society and a misunderstanding of what the scriptures teach on this subject.

There are some difficult questions that have been responsible for many debates, arguments and divisions in the Body of Christ:

  1. Does God give you the right to defend yourself, family or home if attacked?
  2. Is it sinful to be involved in military action to defend your country?
  3. Is it sinful for a disciple to be actively involved in the execution of a prisoner condemned for a capital crime?

Before proceeding I must acknowledge that most of these ideas presented below are not my own in origin but credit must be given to Cecil Hook. Self Protection - Sinful or Sensible (Original text by Cecil Hook - Modified by Hans Neser). My thanks to Cecil for giving permission to publish extracts of his works.

This will be a study of certain rights of disciples.

  • Does being disciples require that we be socially passive, non­resistant, and nonviolent?
  • Do we have any recourse against injustice and tyranny?
  • Does a society have the right of self­protection?

Many perplexing questions call for answers. Some we may answer definitely; others may be left to the judgment of each individual in his particular circumstance.

The sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder," is the fundamental law protecting the sanctity of life. The very need for such a commandment is regrettable. The Golden Rule is the fundamental law to govern all social relationships. If it were practiced by all, this study would be unnecessary. The problem arises because the disciple must practice it even when others are not. In order to have a proper basis for many of our conclusions, we will consider both Mosaic and Christian teachings, principles, prohibitions, and regulations concerning our social conduct and the taking of life.

The sixth Commandment warns, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). Capital punishment was the penalty prescribed for violation of this commandment: "Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12; cf. Leviticus 24:17, Numbers 35:16f, Deuteronomy 19:1). The killer was to be killed. Would the executioner be violating "You shall not murder" in killing the killer? He would not be in violation because there are different definitions of killing, and execution of the criminal is not the type condemned.

There are at least four kinds of killing which were not considered as murder; hence, they did not incur the capital penalty. These would be identified as manslaughter, but not murder. Let us review these four types of manslaughter:

  • Accidental: "Ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth a person unwittingly may flee thither" (Numbers 35:11; read all of chapter 35). He was not considered to be a murderer.
  • Protective: "If a thief be found breaking in, and he be smitten so that he dieth, there shall be no bloodguiltiness for him" (Exodus 22:2).
  • Punitive: Capital punishment was prescribed for those who blasphemed the name of Jehovah (Leviticus 24:16), those who disregarded the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32f), one who cursed or struck his parents (Leviticus 20:13; Exodus 21:15, 17), and other offenses.
  • Warfare: God directed Israel into warfare on different occasions. In Deuteronomy 20, Moses sets forth regulations concerning battle.

Some persons reject these Mosaic regulations on the grounds that the Jews were permitted to hate and to take vengeance. But such objections come from a gross misunderstanding. God has never permitted man to hate his fellow man and to take vengeance. Rather, the law stated, "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:17). Love was to be demonstrated to one's enemy, for "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him." (Exodus 23:4; cf, Deuteronomy 22:1-4). Both Jesus and Paul go back to the law for their highest principles.

Judgement and Retribution
Another misunderstanding perpetuated is: "Under the law, it was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If someone knocked your tooth out, you could knock one of his out." But that is not a provision of the law. It did not permit personal retribution for crimes. Then who took action against injustices? This is a very crucial point which is so commonly overlooked.

To avenge is to inflict punishment for just retribution. God avenges. To take vengeance is to inflict pain or injury in resentful or malicious retaliation. Injustices were avenged, but not on a personal basis. It was through due process of law involving witnesses and trials before judges. "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." (Exodus 21:22f; cf, Leviticus 24:19f).

Injustice was avenged by due process of law in the court rather than individual retaliation. "Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly." (Deuteronomy 16:18). Difficult cases could be appealed to a higher court: "If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which Jehovah thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the priests and the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days: and thou shalt inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment" (Deuteronomy 17:8f). A person could not be convicted without sufficient evidence: "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established" (Deuteronomy 19:15f).

Was not the next of kin to a murdered person called "the avenger of blood?" Wasn't the avenger of blood given the right to avenge his kin by killing the murderer? Yes, there were circumstances where this was permitted, but there was a reason for it which is often overlooked. There were no police among Israel, so "citizen's arrests" were made by the complainant and he brought charges against the offender. Ordinarily, a person pressed his own charges, but a slain man could not perform such a thing. Someone else must do it for him, so the next of kin became the avenger of blood for the dead.

Ordinarily, this was a legal procedure for punishment of a murderer. The citizen was the complainant, witness, and executioner: "At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness shall he not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" (Deuteronomy 17:6f).

When a person killed another, he could run to the nearest city of refuge, surrender himself for protection, and wait for proper trial. "Assign you the cities of refuge whereof I spake unto you by Moses, that the manslayer that killeth any person unwittingly and unawares may nee thither: and they shall be unto you for a refuge from the avenger of blood. And he shall nee unto one of those cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them. And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver up the manslayer into his hand; because he smote his neighbor unawares, and hated him not beforetime. And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the manslayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled" (Joshua 20:2f). If, however, the man was guilty of murder, he was delivered to the avenger for execution: "If any man hate his neighbor, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally so that he dieth, and flee into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die" (Deuteronomy 19:11f).

If the manslayer did not surrender himself at the city of refuge, "The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death: when he meeteth him, he shall put him to death" (Numbers 35:18f). In this action, the avenger would be acting as an agent of the law-and of God's wrath - avenging injustice against society, rather than seeking personal revenge.

Playing God
Some object to the taking of life under any circumstances, declaring that such is "playing God." They only betray their ignorance of Biblical teaching. Do we play God when we bring a new life into the world, or remove an appendix? God has put life and death in our hands and wants us to deal with both discreetly. Who can contend that it is more praiseworthy to bring life into existence without honorable purpose than to destroy life with honorable purpose?

We should now be ready to answer these questions:

  • Could a righteous person fill the capacity prescribed under the Law of Moses as a judge, a soldier, or an executioner in capital cases?
  • Would death rendered by these persons be justified?
  • Could they perform these actions with love for their neighbor, without malice or personal vengeance?
  • May we conclude that God gave the Jewish society and its members the right of self­protection?

All these questions demand an affirmative answer.

Do not reject the foregoing on the ground that we are not under the Law of Moses. In it we have a context in which to interpret "Thou shalt not kill." That command was interpreted with the same love and lack of vengeance as that enjoined upon us. Our principle of self-protection is established.

Jesus and Paul
Jesus and his Spirit­led apostles added little, if anything, new to the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill" of Moses' law. They taught, "Thou shalt not kill" (Matthew 5:21), and "Let none of you suffer as a murderer" (1 Peter 4:15). Jesus taught, "Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). He took his greatest commandment and the second to it from Moses. When Paul warned, "Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord," he was referring back to the law (Romans 12:19i, Leviticus 19:17f).

Paul assures us that God will avenge for us. How and when does God avenge the injustices against us? In the judgment and hell? Yes, but that is of little comfort to us now. We don't have to wait until eternity for avenging. God uses due process of law to avenge today even as he did under Moses.

God has always provided for social order through government to protect the rights of the individual and the society. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul orders that we submit to civil government because it is ordained of God. Rulers, he says, are ministers of God who do not bear the sword - the instrument of capital punishment - in vain, but they are avengers for wrath. The "powers that be" are ordained for avenging, and God works through them for protection of both the individual and the society. Each person is a part of the society; hence, he is a part of the powers that be. As such, his aid in punishing the lawbreaker is avenging injustice and upholding God's ministry. To exonerate the offender is to violate justice and to jeopardize the innocent.

If someone steals your automobile, you avenge this wrong by reporting it to the police, bringing charges against the thief, and testifying against him in court. This process may be followed in avenging various wrongs. Even the slanderer may be sued in order to avenge, but not for revenge. "As much as in you lieth" (Romans 12:18), we should seek to live in peace, but we cannot always do so because others will not allow us. As an individual disciple, one may have an offender arrested and brought to trial. As a part of society, the disciple may serve as a policeman, juror, judge, jailer, or executioner. The disciple may do any and all of these things without malice, hatred, or personal vengeance, still loving the offender and praying for him.

Let us suppose that someone is attempting to kill a member of your family. What can you do? You may call the police, but there is not time to call them. You may then wound or kill the attacker, acting in behalf of the powers that be. Both God and governments give an innocent person the right of self-protection. The action would be motivated without malice or desire for vengeance. To fail to protect the family would show more concern for the violator than for the violated.

Military Action and Self Defence
Can one punish or kill an offender while keeping the Golden Rule? I am to love him always, and to do good to him as far as justice allows. Both the criminal and the victim must be considered. Shall I love the criminal more than the victim? The victim actually represents society which must be protected and avenged. If there is no avenging, law becomes meaningless, and the innocent lose their protection. Mercy may be shown a violator if it does not make law ineffective.

Governments do not bear the sword in vain in action against the individual criminal or the criminal nation when their actions are for self-protection and avenging. There is no justification for aggressive warfare, but a nation can no more rightly ignore injustice done against a weak nation than the neighbor can rightly ignore the aged widow next door as she is being attacked. It is true that these matters present a problem to the conscience because, due to our lack of accurate information, we cannot always be sure that we are supporting a just cause.

The "powers that be" are more than rulers; they are a system of government. We are parts of that system. As such, we pay taxes, obey laws, pray for the rulers, and honor our rulers. Each constructive action as a citizen aids the government in its role as protector and avenger, whether in peace or war. Jesus taught his disciples to pay taxes to Caesar even though they would be supporting a government which carried on extensive warfare and had a tax-supported pagan religion. Jesus did not demand that the soldier in the Roman army of occupation resign from, or desert, the army (Luke 3:14). God must expect each citizen to share as avengers of his wrath, while making allowance for his inability to know all the complex details which motivate the government and his inability to control all of its actions.

To some who study this issue, the non-violence and lack of self-defense of Jesus have been considered as sufficient evidence to show that no disciple should ever be violent or defend himself. Let us look at this further.

Although Jesus was generally non­violent in character, he did some aggressive, forceful, and destructive things. "And he found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: and he made a scourge of cords, and cast all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the changers' money, and overthrew their tables;" (John 2:14f). Also, Jesus caused the death of about two thousand hogs when he cast the demons into them (Mark 5:1f).

While on trial before Pilate, Jesus declared, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight" (John 18:36). There we have it plainly stated that his servants do not fight. But, is that really what Jesus was declaring? The remainder of that sentence qualifies the first part: "...that I should not be delivered to the Jews." He was actually saying that, if his kingdom were earthly, he would not allow the Jews to kill him. He had already told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Put up the sword into the sheath: the cup which the Father has given me, shall I not drink of it?" (John 18:11). Self defense would have frustrated his whole purpose in coming. He was giving himself willingly to the Jews to be crucified, thus fulfilling the scriptures. "Or thinkest thou that I cannot beseech my Father, and he shall even now send me more than twelve legions of angels? How then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" (Matthew 26:53f).

These statements of Jesus have nothing to do with the rights of his disciples through the centuries. His kingdom was not promoted or supported by military power, but the Kingdom of Heaven and the "powers that be" are not identical. He speaks of his avoiding the cross by use of help from the Father or the disciples.

Personal Opinions
If you have made it this far through this pile of material then I congratulate you. I hope that this has been of some help in clearing up any doubts and to make it easier to make the decisions necessary for you to keep a clear conscience when it comes to thoughts of military service and capital punishment.

Now what about you I hear you ask? What do you personally think and feel about the topics discussed in this paper? Where do you stand on these difficult issues?

Self Defense - I have been in a couple of situations where my life was threatened and to date I have not had to resort to physical combat to resolve the situations. God has protected me through my words and one time provided a brother to help me out of a sticky situation. Having said this, yes, I would resort to the minimum necessary physical measures necessary to protect myself, my family and my home from intruders and would be assailaints.

Military Service - In my younger days I served three years in the army reserve in an engineering corp. I entered this service as a Christian with the full understanding that if called upon by my country that I would be required to take up arms, go into the field of battle, raise my rifle and with deliberate intent shoot the enemy of my country. Would I be glad of this service? No definately not, who would be happy to be in a situation where you are required to kill your fellow man and also possibly be killed and no longer able to support your wife or family? For me the bottom line is that I wish to see the entire Nation evangelised and come to Christ and I personally believe that it is my duty to stand side by side with Christian and non-Christian alike and fight for the good of our country and pray that my faith and conduct in the worst of conditions that a man can endure would help those around me to see that you can conduct yourself with love and gratitude towards God at all times. And yes I would definately be praying for God to keep me alive and to get me out of there as soon as possible. I do not see that we can thank God for letting us live in such a prosperous and free nation, where that prosperity and freedom has been bought with the blood of many a young man and woman, if we ourselves would be be willing to take up arms and defend that freedom and prosperity with our own sweat, blood and tears.

Being involved in an execution - For me this is probbaly the hardest call of all. In any legal situation there exists the possibility of error and that an innocent man will be condemned to die. With this in mind I do not think that I could participate in such a proceedure and keep a clear conscience before God.

A final note (2 Thessalonians 3:16) Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.


Other HyperBible Article
For the a subject see Don Walker's article, "The Bible and Self-defence".