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What John Piper Said About Guns

How Should Christians Use Guns?

John Piper sparked a firestorm with his recent article, Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves? Piper’s article was a response to Jerry Falwell Jr. who has encouraged the students at Liberty University to secure permits to carry guns. I appreciated Piper’s attempt to answer a difficult question, and equally appreciated some of the measured and helpful responses from those who disagreed with him. What follows is a summary of some of the points he made along with some of the major points of three people who interacted with and (tactfully) disagreed with him: Steven Wedgeworth, Bob Thune, and Douglas Wilson.

Here is Piper’s big point in his own words:

My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

In response to this, Steven Wedgeworth writes, “This is a good way to approach the issue and a very important one for the average pastor to be able to consider. An eagerness to shed blood is anti-biblical and a real temptation in our contemporary culture. But Dr. Piper’s declaration that he is not “primarily” interested in self-defense falls flat when he goes on to directly address self-defense and tie it in to a larger theological framework of sacrifice and exile.” Several others noted roughly the same thing, that Piper says he is attempting to deal with a limited and defined point, but actually goes significantly wider than that. Much of the disagreement comes from these wider points.

Wedgeworth goes on to offer these three critiques:

  1. “Piper’s argument is biblicistic and dependent upon a specific understanding of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old.” [For a definition of biblicism, click here and scroll down to the heading Biblicism.]
  2. “Piper confuses self-sacrifice with the protection of others.”
  3. “Piper’s essay is actually a very confusing piece of argument.”

He concludes by saying, “[Piper’s] logic is badly confused, as he fails to distinguish between the spiritual and temporal realms, misunderstands the civic role of the family, and conflates the question of preservation of life with vengeance and bloodlust in general. Thus, he is unable to offer any sort of corrective and may actually give a cure that is worse than the disease.”

Later in his article, Piper writes, “[A]ny claim that in a democracy the citizens are the government, and therefore may assume the role of the sword-bearing ruler in Romans 13, is elevating political extrapolation over biblical revelation. When Paul says, ‘[The ruler] does not bear the sword in vain’ (Romans 13:4), he does not mean that Christians citizens should all carry swords so the enemy doesn’t get any bright ideas.”

Bob Thune responds, “[Piper] fails to reckon with the reality that in the United States, a Christian citizen who legally uses deadly force to stop an attacker is a legitimate extension of the government’s sword-wielding power. If God has given the ruler the right to bear the sword… and if the ruler extends to private citizens that right… then where exactly is the extrapolation?”

Similarly, Thune says, “Piper asserts that there is, in the Bible, ‘no direct dealing with the situation of using lethal force to save family and friend, except in regards to police and military.’ But can he point to the chapter and verse where the Bible deals with police and military using lethal force? No. Because there isn’t one. The assertion that police and military may use lethal force is an application of texts like Romans 13. And so is the assertion that a private citizen may use lethal force!”

Later, Thune writes,

I agree with Piper that Christians should not carry concealed weapons for the purposes of (in the order of his arguments) 1. avenging ourselves, 2. retaliating for unjust treatment, 3. handling hostility, 4. advancing the Christian cause by force, 5. returning evil for evil, or 6. resisting persecution. … 

Piper leans heavily on the book of 1 Peter, where Christians are urged to endure unjust suffering. But contextually, that persecution was coming from the government itself. If at some point in the future our government turns with hostility upon Christians and uses the “power of the sword” against us (as did Nero in the first century), then certainly we must bear that suffering without retaliation. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters are doing this right now throughout the world. But it’s a stretch to say: therefore, Christians should lay down while a radicalized terrorist shoots innocent people.

Doug Wilson praises Piper for what he attempts to do in this article: “He is a biblical absolutist, and he is pursuing a tight, systematic, rational argument from the text of Scripture. … I don’t have a doubt in my mind that John will go wherever the argument requires him to go, and he will submit to the text, whatever it says. We need more of that, not less.” He then summarizes his disagreement by interacting with this section of Piper’s article: “I do not know what I would do before this situation [a man assaulting his wife] presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me.” Here is Wilson’s response:

Let us say that a member of John Piper’s leadership team shot and killed someone who was violently assaulting his wife. The prosecutor refused to touch the case because he said it was an open and shut case. The response was well within the law, and the force used to stop the assailant was not disproportionate. Let us also say that the man who did this believes that he did the right thing, the only thing that he could have done under those circumstances. He is not apologetic at all. In short, he had a gun on him, and he had that gun because he disagreed with John’s entire approach as outlined in the article. Now what?

The solution is, of course, to continue to study God’s Word and to believe that it contains the wisdom we need to know how to respond.

I would like to commend those who disagreed with Piper in a civil fashion. This is not an issue of first-order doctrine and, for that reason, there is every reason to have the discussion and to have it tactfully. I benefitted a lot from reading and considering the various positions. Between them, they aptly highlighted the complexity of the issue and put forward compelling arguments. This is exactly what the blogosphere can do so well.

As for me, I live in Canada where the laws are very different and so, too, is the relationship between citizens and firearms. For that reason, I have put little thought into the ownership and use of guns and found this discussion quite helpful in forming my thoughts. To tip my cards just a little, I find myself appreciating Piper’s efforts, especially related to demeanor and heart-attitude, but leaning more toward the points made by Wedgeworth and Thune.

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