Friday, November 10, 2017

Proof Texting and the Gun Control Debate

After the recent horrific church shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX I saw a lot of varied reactions on social media. Of course there were renewed calls for stronger gun control laws and there was the predictable defense of Second Amendment rights. Many of social media posts both for and against gun control came from self-identified Christians.

I believe that followers of Jesus should be vocal in this debate, but that is not subject of this post. I want to discuss the exegesis of some of the Christians who were defending taking their guns into churches for the purpose of defending themselves in the face of another armed attacker. When I displayed an amount of discomfort with the thought of many of my parishioners carrying their guns to church in order to protect themselves and others, I was countered with many Bible verses as to why this is not only acceptable but even should be seen as noble. There was one verse in particular that I want to interact with here.

Several people posted Luke 22:36 as a proof text that Jesus sanctioned the ownership of weapons: “…And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one.” In spite of the many times that Jesus seems to admonish his followers to foreswear violence and revenge, this verse is cited as the rationale for Christian gun ownership. Is this good exegesis?

Exegesis is the study of ancient texts in their context to understand what the text meant to its original readers or hearers. Our job as students of the Bible is to find underlying principle in a text to apply to our situation today. So, is this verse a good defense for a follower of Jesus bringing a handgun to church for protection?

Let’s first look at the context, what has preceded this statement and what follows. Luke 22 begins with the chief priests and scribes plotting with Judas to betray Jesus. The preparation for the Passover follows, as does the meal itself, Jesus’ Last Supper. There was a dispute over which of the disciples should be considered the greatest. Jesus predicts Peter’s denial and then Jesus tells the disciples to be ready for trouble (including his statement about buying a sword). Following Jesus’ injunction to buy a sword is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and his arrest by the chief priests and temple guard.

Should we take Jesus’ words in verse 36 literally or was Jesus speaking metaphorically? What was the point behind this uncharacteristic command? If we take Jesus’ words literally, that he was calling the disciples to be armed and ready for self defense, it seems to contradict his words elsewhere about how to treat those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-29: “Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also.”) Also, later in chapter 22, when the disciples mention that they have two swords, Jesus simply states, “That is enough.” Many commentators feel Jesus is displaying exasperation with them because they have missed the point, as in “Enough talk of this!” To be realistic, possessing two swords among the disciples would hardly be enough to defend themselves against the mob that was coming to arrest Jesus. When the mob appears, they ask “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” And one of them (identified in John’s gospel as Peter) puts his sword to use by cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus is not pleased with the act of self-defense and tells the disciples, “No more of this!” In Matthew, Jesus says “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). I think we can conclude that Jesus was not being literal about carrying swords for the purpose of defense against armed assault. So, what did Jesus mean?

Jesus is preparing his disciples for hard days to come. Earlier he had sent the disciples (as well as the 72) out without a moneybag, traveling bag or sandals. They were to receive what was offered to them by the people of peace they encountered on their travels. But now, Jesus is on the verge of arrest and crucifixion. He knows that difficulty will be their experience following his death. He wants them to be aware that these trials are coming so he uses the language of preparation for times of crisis. He is not telling them to be armed and ready for conflict. If that were the case, Jesus would have been disappointed at them only having two swords. It also would have contradicted every other saying he had on violence and revenge. We need to take into account all of Jesus’ teaching on a subject before applying a verse like that without its proper context.

The point I want to make is that when you want to make a case from Scripture about an issue as controversial and volatile as the possession and use of guns in our churches, then you must be painstakingly clear with your interpretation.
We cannot make Jesus appear to affirm something that he did not. And we cannot be careless with our exegesis lest we misrepresent the Word of God and our Savior. There is too much at stake for us to appear to be thoughtless in our handling of the true sword of the Spirit.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Robert Jeffress' Use of Romans 13 and God-given Authority

I had two reactions when I heard Pastor Robert Jeffress recently claim that President Trump had “God-given authority” to take out Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Dr. Jeffress appeals to Romans 13 to make his case: “That gives the government…authority to do whatever…to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” My first reaction was, yes, God has ordained rulers to maintain orderly societies. A sample of Rom. 13:1-7 states that, “The authorities that exist have been established by God…the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”(Washington Post interview). So, in a way, Jeffress may have a case. But, my second reaction was that his language as a pastor and a spokesman for the Prince of Peace just didn’t sit well with me for some reason (and I believe he has read more into Romans 13 that is there and he misunderstands the idea of God-given government authority).

Jeffress has claimed that if you have a problem with what he has stated, it is because either you don’t read the Bible or you don’t believe the Bible (, see 2:32 to 2:46).

I do read the Bible, and I believe what it says, so I thought I would take another look at Romans 13 to see if Jeffress is correct in what he states about the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. Jeffress states, “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil…In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” I want to take a look at Romans 13 to see how clear the case is.

Paul is a Roman citizen who is writing to a collection of house churches in Rome. At this portion of his letter, he is giving them ethical instructions based on his presentation of the message of Jesus Christ. Paul calls that message his “gospel”. Keep in mind, in the Roman world a “gospel” message (euangelion) was an announcement about the emperor, celebrating his birthday, a military victory or the anniversary of his accession to power. In Paul’s mind, the true ruler is Jesus. But Paul also recognizes that God has given to the world governing authorities to maintain orderly societies. Paul’s words in this chapter are directed to Christians living within the power structure of the Roman Empire. Paul’s words are not directed to the emperor dictating the boundaries of his power. Paul is telling his fellow Christians in Rome to be good citizens. If a citizen should step out of line, the government has the God-given right to correct that citizen, even with force.

So really, this passage says nothing about the God-given authority that rulers may have to wage war against enemy nation-states. But the idea that political authority is from God is an idea within the Judeo-Christian worldview. In Daniel 1:2, the prophet states that the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. So it seems possible that God can put a godless ruler in power for God’s purposes. Later in Daniel, the prophet writes that, “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes…” (Daniel 4:17). One of the Deuterocanonical books, the Wisdom of Solomon has the same idea, that the kings of the earth had their power given to them by God: “For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High…” (Wis. Sol 6:3). Both of these passages are followed by serious consequences for rulers who do not rule well. Nebuchadnezzar’s story continues to show God humbling him and causing him to lose his power for a period of time (Dan. 4:28-33). The passage in Wisdom of Solomon contains a threat to those who do not rule rightly…or walk according to the purpose of God, God will come upon them terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places (Wis. Sol 6:4-5).

In the book of Romans, Paul is writing to people who are living in a state whose “powers were exercised by a few by right of birth, or connection, or wealth, or ruthless self-advancement” (Dunn, Romans 9-16, 770). That could very well describe Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Could the people of North Korea then appeal to Romans 13 as support for their leader’s positions against the U.S.? We have to be careful when we read letters like Romans. They were not written to give the president of the U.S. in the 21st century the authority to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike or assassinate another leader. This passage was written to help Christians be good citizens and help maintain order in the society.

And as far as the rhetoric of a pastor advocating the president to go to war with an evil world leader (and Kim Jong Un is evil), is this the kind of message we need from a representative of Jesus Christ? Jesus states, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) and Jesus radically reinterprets who our neighbor is to include those we may hate (The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). In a pluralistic nation like the U.S. I don’t expect the president to behave like a pastor, but I do expect the pastor of a Christian church to speak words of peace and love. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Does the Church Have a Say in National Security?

The Huffington Post recently ran an article on three prominent evangelical leaders who voiced some support for President Trump's ban on Muslim refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations. (

The common theme in their support is that the government’s job is not necessarily the Church’s job. The pastors agree that individual Christians and churches should show mercy to those in need, but that’s not the government’s job. Franklin Graham stated that our country “should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws.” Ronnie Floyd stated, “We don’t advise the government on questions of national security and they don’t advise us on who and how we serve people.” Robert Jeffress stated that, “the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.”

I want to give all three of these men credit because they all affirm that individual Christians and churches should be taking care of those in need, that we should be Good Samaritans. I would imagine that all three of their Christian organizations provide some sort of support to immigrants and refugees. My main concern is how they have put this dichotomy between the government’s role in society and the church’s role in society. If the church has no right to criticize the government when it comes to national security, doesn’t the church lose it’s right to criticize the government when it comes to issues like marriage equality or abortion? Couldn’t someone with a secular viewpoint respond to Christian leaders who denounce same sex marriage and abortion rights with the call to stay out of it? Couldn’t someone counter Mr. Graham and say, “Our country should have order and there are laws that relate to abortion and I think we should follow those laws”? Secular opponents of a Christian worldview could easily say to Christians, “Determining who is worthy to be married is the government’s job, not the church’s job. Determining when human life begins is the government’s job, not the church’s job.”

If the church has any voice in informing the government when life begins and how to define marriage, then it has every right to demand that the government be gracious and generous in its foreign policy, especially when it comes to serving and protecting those who are fleeing great danger.