As a Christian and a martial arts student, I have often wrestled with the idea of self-defense. Does God expect me to defend my family and myself when physically attacked or am I to “turn the other cheek” and endure it in the name of Jesus? As I considered the many comments I encountered on this topic, I became even more confused. Some advocates for “religion” have gone as far as to say that anyone who practices any form of martial arts is without a doubt bound for hell. It wasn’t until I committed myself to a more thorough study of the scriptures that I discovered the truth for myself. The Bible gives more than a few examples of the practice of self-defense and the idea of martial arts. I would like to share some of what I have learned in this study of the Bible – Old Testament and New. The Bible is, in fact, the very word of God (II Timothy 3:16-17).
God and Warfare
The first example of a physical struggle in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 4. It is here that Cain kills his brother Abel. This is an act of violence condemned by God for two reasons. First, the violence was out of anger and jealousy because his brother’s actions were better than his own (Genesis 4:4-7). Secondly, the violence was pre-meditated. God confronted Cain before this violence occurred. He told Cain that he would need to figure out how to master the sin of anger and jealousy that was trying to overtake him. What this scripture teaches is that God does not want us to initiate violence but he wants us to train ourselves to master our emotions when tempted with feelings of anger, jealousy and rage. He wants us to prepare our hearts to respond humbly. I believe the study of martial arts can provide this kind of training. I have seen it in my son’s martial arts class. His sensei (teacher) may spend up to half of the one-hour class teaching the children humility, manners, concern for others and peace-making. They are taught to avoid violence and stay calm in situations of conflict. This kind of character training is right in line with the example of God’s training of Cain.
The next biblical example of a conflict involving a physical struggle is found in Genesis chapter 14. In this chapter, kings are at war and Abram’s nephew, Lot, and Lot’s family are taken captive. In response to hearing the news about his relatives, Abram sends men to rescue them. In Genesis 14:14-16, Abram sent out “the 318 trained men born in his household”. It seems that even though Abram was not at war, he had a training program for his family and household. It was obviously a training program for warfare of some kind – and a good one, at that, since they were victorious in returning Lot, his family and all of their possessions from the hands of warring kings. After Abram’s successful rescue, he is honored by God and reminded that God had made him successful against his adversary. God later renames Abram, “Abraham” and he becomes the founding father of faith for the Jewish people (and later Christians as well).
To clarify the meaning of the term “martial arts”, Webster’s defines the word martial as “warfare” or “warrior”, and arts as “a skill acquired by study”. In the story of Abram rescuing Lot, the Bible gives us an example of warrior training. Not everyone in Abram’s household was a part of the 318 trained men, but the ones that were had excellent martial arts training. And God helped them to be victorious as they executed their warfare skills.
Here are a few other brief examples of warfare, from the Old Testament, that could be studied further:
Genesis 32 – Jacob avoids war with his brother, Esau. He prepares for battle but orchestrates a peaceful resolution.
Deuteronomy 20 – God goes with the warriors to fight against their enemies.
II Samuel 23:8-39 – the Bible describes David and his mighty men of battle.
Nehemiah 4 – the builders of Jerusalem’s city wall carry weapons to defend themselves during the rebuilding.
There are many more examples in the Old Testament, with a wide variety of scenarios and many unique resolutions. The subject of warfare is very complex and each situation needs to be considered carefully. Therefore, when faced with adversity, wisdom needs to be applied.
An Eye For An Eye
Even with the Old Testament of the Bible showing support for martial arts training, some might argue that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament – that God’s position on warfare changed when Jesus came on the scene. It might be said that the God of the Old Testament was about war and the God of the New Testament is about peace.
The Bible, however, does not support this. James 1:17 says that God does not change, and Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus Christ [God] is the same yesterday, today and forever. Therefore, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. As we continue to study this topic, we will see that the New Testament also discusses self-defense and the idea of martial arts.
Matthew 5:38-42, in which Jesus talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, has been used to condemn martial arts. It reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” At first glance this passage seems to be advocating a reversal of the Old Testament laws. I was swayed by this argument myself, and was torn in my own convictions for some time. But when I finally decided to dig deeper into the Bible, I was amazed and encouraged to find some answers.
Many people who want to obey the Bible simply gloss over this scripture, like I did, because they are torn between what they think the Bible says and their consciences telling them to prepare for warfare and to protect.
The truth is that Jesus never intended to abolish the Old Testament laws. He only intended to clarify them, to reinforce them, fulfill them, and reveal God’s heart behind them. This is what Jesus says just moments earlier in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the [Old Testament] Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” When Jesus speaks about “turning the other cheek”, in Matthew 5, he is referring to the Old Testament Mosaic laws found in Exodus 21, 22 and 23. These chapters in Exodus contain the laws God gave to his people, which reinforce and further detail the famous “ten commandments”. Jesus is specifically referring to Exodus 21:22 where God explains what punishment should be given if men are fighting and an innocent by-stander is harmed (in this instance, a pregnant woman). This is not a scripture about self-defense but about restitution and punishment for a crime. Jesus referred to this scripture because the people, in religious self-righteousness, were using this particular scripture to justify retaliation and vengeance.
“An eye for an eye” had become an excuse to be intolerant and merciless toward one another. A closer look at the “act of aggression” that Jesus refers to as a strike on the cheek, will reveal that he is talking about an insult rather than a fighting fist. The word “strike” is translated from the Greek word “rhapizo” which is used interchangeably with the word “slap”. In the Jewish culture (as in many other cultures), a slap in the face was a form of humiliation or rebuke. It was not necessarily a physical attack and was not meant to result in physical harm. Even Exodus 21:21 (regarding “an eye for an eye”) says that if, as a result of a conflict, a pregnant by-stander is forced to give birth pre-maturely but there is no serious injury to the woman or the baby, “an eye for an eye” should not be applied as a punishment. Jesus is confirming that this Old Testament law regarding punishment is not to be used as an excuse for retaliation when inconvenienced or insulted. Jesus is exposing the heart of man and is further clarifying the Old Testament Law. God’s desire is that we don’t retaliate but rather that we restrain our emotions in the heat of conflict and maintain righteousness and mercifulness. We are not to pounce on our adversary at the first sign that we have been offended. The ultimate goal of God is to win over the offender, help him to see God’s mercy and institute a change of heart in the offender (see 2 Peter 3:9-15 and Luke 9:51-56 for further study).
Guidelines For Martial Arts
The Bible provides some guidelines for practicing self-defense and martial arts as it aims to clarify what is and is not acceptable in the face of conflict. II Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture [the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” I Corinthians 13:7 says, “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”. Using the Bible as a guide, a person can become thoroughly equipped to be a protector.
Permanent injury or death can occur as a result of practicing martial arts. This does not make martial arts unacceptable to God but God clarifies what is and is not acceptable in regard to deadly force in various situations. For example, Exodus 21:12-14 says that if a person is killed unintentionally, the killer is not guilty of murder. If it is intentional, the killer is to be sentenced to death. Exodus 21:18-19 says that if men are quarreling and one strikes the other and injures him seriously but not permanently (even with a weapon), he is responsible only to compensate the injured man for loss of time and medical expenses. I point out these scriptures to show that God is concerned with the attacker’s and the defender’s intentions as well as the outcome of the conflict. We cannot simply say that anyone who harms or kills another man is guilty and has committed a sin. It depends on his intentions. Also, we see that using extreme force, or even a weapon may be acceptable if it is used in a way as to not intentionally inflict permanent damage.
The Bible refers to another situation in which self-defense may be used during a robbery, in Exodus 22:2-3. If a man is being robbed, he is entitled to protect his property, his family and himself. If the attempted robbery takes place at night and the actions of self-defense result in the death of the robber, the defender is not guilty. If the attempted robbery takes place in the daytime and the robber is killed, the defender is guilty of sin. The difference may be that in the daytime, the defender should have more control of his actions and should be able to subdue the robber without killing him. Self-defense is warranted but control must be applied. At night, in the dark, maximum force would be acceptable since it is more difficult to assess the threat that the robber poses. It would be more difficult to tell if the attacker had a weapon, or to assess his physical strength.
God expects us to constantly make decisions about the situations we are in. In regard to martial arts and self-defense, it seems that God is concerned with our intentions. Guilt and innocence, to him, are a matter of the heart. God expects us to be directed by the heart of the scriptures in the Bible. We must be directed in our actions by scriptures such as Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, “You shall not murder” as well as I Corinthians 13:7 which says, “[Love] always protects”. As the Bible states in II Timothy 3:16-17, all Bible scripture is relevant and useful. During one of my martial arts classes, one of my fellow students asked our sensei, “What attack should I make now?” He had just finished practicing a series of intense self-defense tactics on his partner, rendering him harmless. Sensei replied, “Run”. No final “kill-move”? No, it is time to make another decision about the threat the attacker poses. If the attacker has been successfully rendered harmless then you shouldn’t stick around to inflict more damage or further risk your own safety. The Bible gives us specific guidelines for martial arts but God also communicates his heart about how he wants us to treat one another. He wants us to treat one another with love – even in conflict.
I have also wrestled with the question of whether or not it was right for weapons to be used as a means of defense. Should I own a fighting knife, a sword or a gun? Isaiah 2:4 says, “…They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” If this scripture were taken out of context with the rest of the Bible, to use a weapon would be a sin. But this scripture has to be balanced with others. In the context, this scripture is describing the contrast between the nations of that time and the type of nation Jesus would establish in the future. The nation that Jesus would establish would have no military and there would be no physical walls to defend. It would be a spiritual nation, not a physical one.
The New Testament clearly confirms the right to bear arms. Romans 13:4 says, “For [the governing authority] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Even Jesus directs his disciples to acquire weapons as the time of his crucifixion approached. Luke 22:36 says, “He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'” And in Luke 22:38, “The disciples said, ‘See Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That is enough,’ he replied.” Peter soon after uses the sword to protect Jesus and Jesus rebukes him for it. This was not to say that it is wrong to use a weapon to protect someone. Peter had earlier been rebuked by Jesus for trying to keep him from fulfilling his mission of dying for the sins of the world (see Matthew 16:21-28). Jesus was re-stating that Peter was not to protect Jesus from going to his death. This was not the correct time to use the sword. Jesus had his disciples arm themselves because Jesus was not going to be with them, physically, any longer. They would need to protect themselves and each other and Jesus gave them the right to bear arms in order to do so.