Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sermon of the Week: Christians and Gun Ownership. Andy Stanley's "Tough as Nails" series (2/14 - 2/20, 2016)

Tough as Nails
"Uncertainty is unavoidable. Being fearful is optional."
This four-part sermon series is, I believe, the first I have heard that is intentionally "meta." I bet most in the North Point audience wouldn't recognize it, but Stanley is very cleverly addressing the recent debate in evangelical circles about gun ownership, as well as (more overtly) responding fears over immigration and refugees. I appreciated this series because it clarified some arguments I was making in my own mind.

John Piper and Jerry Falwell, Jr. engaged in some critical dialogue after Falwell encouraged students on his campus to arm themselves and take a conceal-and-carry class offered on campus in response to Muslim-initiated violence. Falwell said:
"I’ve always thought if more good people had conceal-carry permits then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach 'em a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Piper, from his position as Chancellor at a seminary, responded with a biblical critique that went so far as to call into question any Christian ownership of firearms for the purpose of protection.

Stanley, very subtly, seems to be aligning himself with Piper's principles. He recently preached a series on the "N Commandments," focusing on all the commands Jesus gave that include the word "not." "Do not fear" is chief among those commands, echoed throughout the Old and New Testaments; I don't think there is a command in Scripture found more often. Preaching from Hebrews, Stanley notes the suffering of the early Christians, many of whom were Jewish converts being persecuted by fellow Jews. As Piper points out in his argument, we have no biblical record or record from other sources of early Christians taking up arms in resistance either to the government or to their neighbors, and certainly none that the Apostles were encouraging them to do so. Some critics have pointed out that Christians were simply showing proper submission to the Roman government (1 Peter 2) in their martyrdom. However, persecution came not just from the government proper but from both the Jewish diaspora (Acts 20:3 as one example) who were also under intermittent persecution and from Gentiles who felt threatened by Christian teaching but were not themselves in authority (see Acts 19:23-29). In the New Testament, we see Christians either fleeing persecution to preach in a different city, or examples like Paul willingly submitting himself to Jewish arrest later, but not Christians arming themselves. (This is vitally important given that the Jewish rebellion against Rome and civil war among Jews was gaining steam as epistles were being written.) Post-biblical history suggests this has always been the majority position of the church, (visit the Voice of the Martyr's website).

Stanley asks the question: How many guns and how much ammo do you need to feel safe? And at what point in these purchases are you putting your trust in something other than God? At what point does your desire for safety and security limit your faith, and other people's access to the Gospel? There is always a risk of danger-- God isn't safe, and the Christian was never promised by Jesus to be as such.

The response of some advocates for armed response have been to note that Jesus did not forbid his disciples to own swords; some interpretations of Luke 22 seem that he advocated the purchase of swords.

Luke 22:36 (HCSB) Then He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. 37 For I tell you, what is written must be fulfilled in Me: And He was counted among the outlaws. Yes, what is written about Me is coming to its fulfillment.”
38 “Lord,” they said, “look, here are two swords.”
“Enough of that!” He told them.

Falwell Jr. and his supporters argue that Jesus was restoring the old order of things, advocating for protection, encouraging them to defend themselves from persecution, etc. This seems an odd interpretation, given that the previous verses contain Jesus' warning about the fall of Jerusalem and promises of persecution to his disciples in Luke 21:16 You will even be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will kill some of you. 17 You will be hated by everyone because of My name, 18 but not a hair of your head will be lost. 19 By your endurance gain your lives." That does not sound like a call to organized self-defense, which could easily have been arranged as there were so many motivated groups in Israel at the time.

It is hard to square Falwell Jr.'s ideas with Matthew 10:28 "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Piper disagrees with Falwell, Jr. & co.'s interpretation of Luke 22 based on the context and what is seen plainly in the text:
"I do not think that Jesus meant in verse 36 that his disciples were to henceforth be an armed band of preachers ready to use violence to defend themselves from persecution...If that is the correct interpretation of this text, my question is, “Why did none of his disciples in the New Testament ever do that — or commend that?” The probable answer is that Jesus did not mean for them to think in terms of armed defense for the rest of their ministry. Jesus’s abrupt words, at the end of the paragraph, when the disciples produced two swords, were not, “Well, you need to get nine more.” He said, “It is enough!” or “That’s plenty!” This may well signify that the disciples have given a mistaken literal meaning to a figurative intention. Darrell Bock concludes,

    Two events [are] commentary on this verse [36]: Jesus’ rebuke of the use of a sword against the high priest’s servant (22:49–51) and the church’s nonviolent response to persecution in the Book of Acts (4:25–31; 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). In fact, Acts 4:25–31 shows the church armed only with prayer and faith in God. Luke 22:36 sees the sword as only a symbol of preparation for pressure, since Jesus’ rebuke of a literal interpretation (22:38) shows that a symbol is meant (Fitzmyer 1985: 1432; Marshall 1978: 825). It points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge (Nolland 1993b: 1076). (Luke, volume 2, page 1747)

What seems plain to me is that the uncertainty of this text (which I share) should not be used to silence the others I have cited."
I personally begin with the premise that fear is the opposite of faith. If God has repeatedly commanded us not to fear, then it's a sin to fear. Further, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and faith in Christ is a critical component of decisions we make regarding our behavior before one another (Romans 14:19-23). If I arm myself with the expectation that my life and others' lives are in my own hands, then is my faith not in myself and not in God? When Peter took up a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus' response was "Matthew 26:52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword." Piper has elsewhere speculated that perhaps we run extraordinary risks in arming ourselves (beyond the elevated risk of an accident), indicating we prefer faith in our own protection to God's.

I am not completely convinced that Piper is correct on the issue of self-defense or defending a loved one when threatened. Piper rightly notes that whatever action we take in that moment, it must not be out of a spirit of fear or vengeance; he just does not think that is possible in pulling a gun on someone (or maybe even calling 911 on them). I think there is merit in arguing that I am loving my neighbor if I see a crime being committed and I can stop it, whether by gun or other means. If I can do so out of faith and love rather than fear and vengeance, then I am not succumbing to sin. But fear is sin, and to live a lifestyle submitted to it is unbiblical. Like Stanley and Piper, I am concerned that the balance of American Christianity has shifted toward a spirit of fear and selfishness (the attitude of "Look what THEY'VE done to MY country!") rather than one of love and fearlessly radical discipleship. Stanley's sermon series is a call to get back to the latter.

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