Guns in the Church

Guns in Church

     When I was a pastor, ten years ago, I learned that a married couple, both FBI agents, joined my church. We already had two police officers in attendance, but I welcomed the news in a day when church shootings, like school shootings, were in the news. "It makes me feel safer," one person noted, even if she didn't know how rare church shootings really are (See:

     Chance of being wounded by a bullet, in a church: 1 in 100 million

     Chance of being wounded by gossip, in a church: 7 in 10

     The news about the FBI agents, who carry a weapon at all times, made me glad because it brought us closer to the standards of just war theory, which helps us decide if we want random church members to bring guns to church. My state allows concealed weapons and our ushers noted telling bulges in the jackets of certain men (and a few women). They brought weapons to church "in case someone needs to stop a madman." I didn't doubt their motives but I did question their aim – not in the calm of the firing range, but in the panic of a shooting incident. If hundreds were running and screaming, would "George" be more likely to hit the killer or a nearby worshipper? The knowledge that FBI agents and police were on the premises might move George to leave defense to the pros, which fits Christian just war theory.

     The principal demand of just war theory, for the military, is justice, which has two elements. The first, called justice to war, names the conditions that give nations the moral and legal right to declare war. The second, called justice in war, enumerates rules for combat. That is vital since protracted conflict tends to spiral toward "total war," in which any act that degrades the enemy's will or capacity to fight is justified. When that happens, nations may use weapons that cause indiscriminate death.

     Justice to war has five main elements. 1) Combat must have a just cause - a real injury, such as invasion of peaceful lands. 2) A legitimate civil authority must declare war. 3) War must have the right intention - a just peace. 4) War is a last resort, after negotiations and non-lethal pressure fail. 5) War must be proportional to the issues prompting it. The damage of war should not exceed the original injustice. Resistance must not do more harm than good. This includes assessment of the probability of success. If a situation meets all these criteria, it may warrant military force. Point 5 argues against ordinary people bringing guns to church. If someone starts shooting, an ordinary person is very unlikely to hit that shooter and far more likely to hit a worshippers. So the damage is likely to outweigh the original injustice.

      Let's apply this to guns in church. Although experts say churches are very safe, shootings do occur. Statistician David Drake of the center for Homicide Research tallied 146 church shootings, mostly non-lethal, from 2006-16. The evidence suggests that few shooters are "madmen" seeking a soft target where people are unarmed. Most are either domestic incidents or acts of anger against the church, but that is small comfort. Certain men think of guns when enraged – when, for example, the church helps a woman escape from a violent man. One leader thought men should bring guns to church to deter a deranged man from shooting up a church: "He won't come if he knows the men are packing." This idea divides people. One sees realistic masculinity, another thinks guns have little to do with Christianity. Who is right?

     Jesus did say, "Do not resist the one who is evil… if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," but this teaching hardly establishes pacifism. First, the blow to the right check is by the left hand. It represents an insulting blow, not attempted murder. Second, the command to turn the other cheek hardly covers the question of harm to others. A man may accept a blow, without defending himself, to follow the way of Jesus, but what if he is responsible for his wife, children, or friends?

     I am no pacifist. When I lived in tough city neighborhoods in grad school, I kept a baseball bat, not a gun, near the bed, and not for an early game. I knew how to wield it and I know bats can't strike bystanders fifty yards away. That seemed to fit Exodus 22:2-23: "If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him." That law corresponds to laws that let people shoot intruders in the home. Yet the law is more intent on preserving life, because it restricts deadly force in daytime. A pastor who keeps a gun at home explained, "If someone breaks into your house during the day, they mean to take your property. If they break in at night, they may mean to hurt you."

     The central issue, I believe, is the assurance that the use of force will not do more harm than good. That includes assessment of the probability of success. For that reason, no one who lacks excellent training should ever bring a gun to church. Excellent training includes 1) a record of practice and accuracy, 2) training in the art of de-escalating conflicts and 3) extensive practice for high stress situations, including crowded places.

     If someone meets all these criteria, they may, if approved by the church's leaders, bring a firearm to church. The church has long granted believers the freedom to serve in the military and its reasoning applies to security in the church. Even in war, love and faithfulness govern the military. Soldiers keep their oaths to protect their people. They love their people by protecting them (Judg. 18:28, 1 Sam 17). Soldiers can and should also have inward love for their enemies. To fire a gun in love, a soldier must see adversaries as human and take no pleasure in using force against them. Indeed, to resist invaders can be an act of love toward the invaders. When the Nazis invaded Poland and France they harmed those nations but they damaged themselves, too. Germany committed terrible sins and crimes, for which they paid bitterly. A generation poured rivers of blood onto its hands. Millions of German soldiers suffered moral corruption and guilt, then death, and Germany bore economic and territorial losses. How much better for the Germans, had the Poles and French defeated them at once. Successful defensive wars help both the invader and the invaded. The situation is similar in the event of a violent person at church. It is good for the church and for a violent person to be stopped, using minimal force, to protect the innocent. A small number of people are ready to do that.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.


Dan Doriani