Is it a sin for Christians to defend themselves? We are supposed to turn the other cheek right? Fighting fire with fire, retaliation, or vengeance is more in line with what Jesus said in Matt 5:38-42 when he said to “turn the other cheek”. Defending one’s self both from slander as well as physical assault is fine. Jesus even told his disciples to two take swords with them for the time after his ascension (Luke 22:35-38). Through the bible God had Israel go to war to defend themselves, Jesus didn’t change that.
In Matt 5:38-42 Jesus isn’t saying to be a pushover but rather make decisions that will lead to peace more quickly. Jesus didn’t stay silent when he was slapped by a soldier (John 18:22-23), and neither did Paul (Acts 23:1-4) when he was slapped. In both scenarios, they called out the person for striking them. Calling out injustice done to you is not a violation of turning the other cheek, because it is exactly what Jesus and Paul did when literally smacked. We don’t have to allow people to harm us and get away with it without calling them out. When it comes to physical assault striking someone back should only be done if will result in a resolution. Act with wisdom in each circumstance, self-defense in life-threatening situations is different from a simple insult or weak slap. If it is not worth escalating then don’t respond. The point is to not retaliate by fighting fire with fire but to fight fire with water. It’s also not about allowing the fire to keep burning or adding fuel to it. Jesus says to love even our enemies in Matt 5:44-48, and Luke 6:27-36, and this is also written in Psalms ch. 109.
We also find this in Proverbs 24:17 which says not to rejoice when your enemy falls. Proverbs 25:21-22 says if your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat, if they are thirsty, give them water to drink, and in doing so you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and God will reward you. This is similar to what Jesus says about how we treat people in Matthew 25:31-46. Romans 12:19-20 quotes Deut 32:35, which says vengeance is the Lord’s as well as Prov 25:21-22. Then in verse 21, Paul wrote, do not let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.
I think it is important to follow the spirit in different situations. Especially if they attack you because of something you first did to them, the best thing to do is ask for forgiveness and make amends. Matt 5:38 references “an Eye for an Eye” in the law, which is from Exod 21:24, Lev 24:20, & Deut 19:21. This was under the old covenant before the holy spirit, so people didn’t have the power to resist sin inside of them like new covenant believers. The city of refuge system was designed to protect people from those who held grudges against a person after causing the accidental death (Numbers 35:9-29, Deut 19:1-13). This was for someone that accidentally killed someone else, so they could escape from the victim’s family because even though it was an accident, their hard hearts prevented them from forgiving. The eye for an eye system is built on the foundations of the death penalty for murder (Gen 9:5-6). This allowed someone who was truly wronged to get immediate compensation so that they could move on and be free of grudges. Otherwise, it can turn into family feuds and sin in future generations that divide the nation of Israel. It also promoted equal retribution, meaning a person can’t murder someone for simply wounding them, the punishment has to match the crime.
In the Old Testament, wicked people that committed violent acts had to die or be injured in the same way to bring justice to the victim and prevent sin from spreading like a disease across the camp. People needed a deterrent to prevent retaliation. It’s kind of like when God in Genesis 4:15 pronounced a curse on anyone that continued the cycle of murder by marking Cain after he killed Abel. Lamech, Cain’s descendant killed a man for wounding him and thought the punishment associated with Cain’s mark should be multiplied 7 times for anyone that kills him (Gen 4:24). Murder spread despite God’s marking of Cain. Notice Lamach killed a man for wounding him, that is not equal to retribution, he had the right to wound but not kill.
Luke 22:35-38 is not a license to kill, unless absolutely necessary, but one should aim to try to restrain or disarm, and maybe wound when possible. Then pray for and care for that person to be healed as a demonstration of God’s power and love. Exodus 22:2-3 says, 2“If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder. 3 But if it happens in daylight, the one who killed the thief is guilty of murder. The distinction is that in the daytime a theft victim can call for help and it is easier to see if the thief is armed, so there is no need to murder them since it is easier to subdue them and ensure they pay restitution or be enslaved. At night they may have a weapon and most people were sleeping there was not a police service hotline available in the ancient world, so a person was allowed to do what was necessary to defend their family.
With physical violence, self-defense is more likely the thing to do, but in terms of the other examples, Jesus gave, like someone suing you (Matt 5:40) this is a greater application of turning the cheek. If they have just cause then give them what you can and try to settle it outside of court (1 Cor 6:7-8). And if it is slander you have the right to speak the truth and defend yourself, and in that situation, you just have to trust God to vindicate you, even if you don’t win. In Isaiah 54:17, God says that every tongue that rises against his people will be condemned, after saying no weapon will prosper against them. Joseph in Genesis 39, was falsely accused of sexual assault and imprisoned. However, he ended up vizier of Egypt years later. God’s justice will prevail in every situation, if you are persecuted and did nothing wrong then God will vindicate you, but if you did something wrong you have to apologize. We must remember not to allow anger to cause us to sin.
Remember the bible is not against killing, it is against murder (Ex 20:13, Deut 5:17). Murder is killing someone who is not proven guilty of anything worthy of death or was not an immediate threat to a person’s life. War and self-defense are allowed, but mass murder because of blood lust is forbidden and was punishable by death.
Paul said this:
Ephesians 4:26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.”[Ps 4:4] Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil.
A word from Peter on the subject:
1 Peter 3:17 (NLT) 13 Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. 15 Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.