Guns and Jesus: Falwell, Piper Model Christian Civility Even as They Disagree
I am intrigued by the way two Christian leaders have conducted themselves in a public disagreement over the issue of students arming themselves with guns against the threat of a campus terrorist attack.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, recently encouraged students there to take the free course offered by the university to get their concealed-carry permits and to arm themselves with guns. Concerned about terrorism and shootings at educational campuses, he declared, “We will teach them a lesson if they show up here.” In response, John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, made it a point to deliver a different message to his students, emphasizing the New Testament focus on suffering in the face of hostility and persecution.
I don’t agree completely with either man’s position, but I am encouraged by how these two Christian leaders are providing a model for civil, reasoned disagreement.
Dr. Piper has taken the time to thoroughly outline the scriptures that inform his conclusion and has made that public. He is demonstrating the way Christians should honor the authority of scripture as well as demonstrating how he reasons through ethical dilemmas. Dr. Falwell has offered some clarification to his students in the face of criticism about his remarks. And according to Dr. Piper, the two men have communicated directly with each other, a good practice in such situations. I pray that their discussions will remain respectful and honor the purity of the Gospel as well as the gravity of the subject.
We can certainly understand the concern expressed by President Falwell for students under his care. As citizens of a country that recognizes in its constitution the right to self-defense, these students are being encouraged to exercise that right under the currents laws of the state. Falwell’s hope is that armed students could prevent the sort of mass killing (or at least lessen the death toll) that has occurred elsewhere, including at a university just up the road from Liberty.
Chancellor Piper, on the other hand, is making the point that both Liberty U and Bethlehem College are training Christian leaders and that Christians are also citizens of a higher and greater kingdom. Christians cannot limit their ethical decisions to their rights as defined by the U.S. Constitution.
I hope neither side hardens in their perspective and demeans those who hold another view. Chancellor Piper is right to be concerned that Christians not adopt a militant attitude eager to shoot someone. President Falwell is right to be concerned about stopping those trying to kill masses of people.
Without getting into the details of each position, I wish to commend the discussion, but I suggest that maybe the bigger picture here is the glaring need for Christians to think Christianly about issues that have become politicized. We can’t afford to parrot the conservative or liberal line without measuring our position by the clearest possible revelation of the New Testament. We have an allegiance beyond being American, and certainly beyond being Republican or Democrat.
We have been redeemed by Jesus, the Lord. Our opinions must be submitted to him. I hope that somewhere in the curriculum at Liberty University there is a biblically informed process taught on how to address this issue. I could wish that President Falwell would summarize that for the public so that other Christians could learn at this crucial point in our culture. Two brothers in Christ eager to live by the truth as revealed in Jesus can show how they have come to their conclusions without demeaning each other. Both have high respect for the authority of Scripture. Both have submitted to Jesus as Lord. Both care for their students. Both care about the expanse of the Gospel. Both have influence beyond their local schools. With so much in common, there must be a way to address this issue that will edify all who sincerely want to know the truth.
The issue is by no means simple. We are called to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. At the same time, the New Testament also leaves a place for governments to punish evildoers, and Jesus at one point actually encourages his apostles, none of them members of the Roman or Jewish government at the time, to carry swords on their missionary travels. At the same time, it’s by no means obvious what he meant by this injunction. In sum, this is not an issue that lends itself to slapdash proof-texting.
If we are to be faithful followers of Christ, we have no option but to live for the purpose of revealing him as sufficient and satisfying. We show that we do not live for the benefits of this earth alone. We have greater treasure than this world offers. That will at times entail suffering loss. We know that we don’t win the ultimate war by killing the enemy, but by dying with Christ to our own agendas. As the apostle Paul said in describing the Christian perspective:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
The New Testament doesn’t spell out what positions we should hold in every situation like a manual would. For instance, if we search the scriptures for specific instruction about arming ourselves with guns, we won’t find it. (Not even the account of Jesus telling the remaining disciples on the way to Gethsemane to get a sword is a clear instruction for us today.) God seems content to give us the freedom to apply his love and purpose to our particular situations. Does selfless love include using whatever legal means are at our disposal to save innocent lives? Does love demand that we suffer to show our total satisfaction in Christ? Honest, patient discussions among fellow believers who are seeking the best way to love are vital.
I feel confident that President Falwell and Chancellor Piper are both trying to express this love that has captured them and drawn them to mentor others in the faith. They are both concerned about their students — as well as the terrorist they would rejoice to see brought into a saving relationship with Christ. Given the choice they would choose both safety and peace for their students and transformation for those trying to destroy.
I pray that these two Christian leaders will embrace each other and work together to show how love is stronger than our differences. I dare to pray that this will be an example to those making civil policy. In this way the church actually leads in our society.
And I pray that students, whether they arm themselves with guns or not, will dress up in the spiritual armor the apostle Paul described in his letter the Ephesians. Since the war behind the war is spiritual, may they turn the tables on the schemes of hell and pray until love instead of fear permeates every campus. Let them care as urgently for their fellow students as if they were already under siege from a gunman. And let this conflict be the catalyst of a fresh awakening among students and faculty alike, until every crevice of darkness has been invaded with the light of the Gospel of Jesus our Lord.