Opinion

Allowing guns in church flies in the face of tradition and Scripture

In this April 30, 2016, photograph, Jake Driskell, a Laurel, Miss., police officer and owner of Gun Guy Tactical, explains the specifics of Mississippi's enhanced concealed carry law with Crestview Baptist Church members and area residents in Petal, Miss. The 20 participants in the class received hands-on assistance during a practical shooting exercise, a thorough review on the fundamentals of safe handling of firearms and a review of the state's basic and enhanced concealed carry laws. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (Caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — When knights in the service of King Henry II showed up at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 looking for Archbishop Thomas Becket, monks tried to block the door. But Becket forbade the effort, declaring that the church was “a house of prayer” and not “a fortress.”

As a result, Becket was hacked to death, practically at the foot of the church’s holiest spot, the altar.

Nowadays, a siege mentality is what advocates for open carry on church property favor in the wake of the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.


RELATED: Could it happen here? How churches are preparing for a mass shooting


Speaking to Fox News hours after more than two dozen people were killed in that shooting, Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, suggested that heightened security and “arming some of the parishioners or the congregation” could help prevent such tragedies. On Fox and Friends the next morning, Dallas pastor and Trump faith adviser the Rev. Robert Jeffress boasted that members of his congregation routinely bring guns to worship services. If a would-be assassin attempted anything in his church, Jeffress warned, “they may get one shot off, or two shots off, but that’s it — and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life.”

Pistol-packing parishioners may seem like a way to prevent tragic events like Sutherland Springs, or the 2015 Charleston massacre, or the other church shootings that have become so commonplace that the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis created a database to track them. Yet such strategies not only fly in the face of long-standing ecclesiastical tradition but also with Scripture itself.

Both the Old and New Testaments are rife with references to swords and, to a lesser degree, knives and daggers, the Biblical-era equivalents of the AR-15 or the handgun. Many are quasi-metaphorical, often in the context of war, as in Judges 1:8, when the Israelites, under Judah, attacked Jerusalem “and put the city to the sword.” As tools of self-defense, the list narrows considerably. Still, those who look to Scripture to justify open carry in the aisles might quote Exodus 22:2, a passage dealing with property laws, which exonerates anyone from “bloodguiltiness” for slaying a thief in the night. (The very next verse, however, reverses that judgment if the event occurs in broad daylight.) Yet earlier in Exodus (21:12), the punishment for “[w]hoever strikes a person mortally” is clear-cut: he “shall be put to death” under the rule of law and not by vigilantes.

Jesus’ warning in Matthew 10:34, that “I have come not to bring peace … but a sword,” seems like a handy verse to reach for, along with your Glock. But standard interpretations of this passage hold that by “sword” Jesus means the controversy and division that his ministry will create, even among family members.

During his arrest, Jesus makes plain his position on the use of violence in self-defense. When Peter, ever the bungling apostle, thinks he is saving the day by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest, Jesus commands him to put away his weapon, declaring, in one of his most famous, pacifist dictums: “[A]ll who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).


RELATED: God and guns: Texas pastors undergo security training a month after Sutherland Springs


Places of worship also served as sanctuaries, where asylum seekers, like the usurper Adonijah fleeing Solomon’s wrath in 1 Kings 1:50-51, sought refuge, while checking their weapons at the door. The tradition continued into the Middle Ages, when weapons were generally forbidden in churches, with the exception of those used in rituals.

“The church was to be a place above and beyond the mundane world. It should not be a place of violence, and an armed congregation is one where arguments are likely to get out of hand,” said Daniel Gerrard, author of “The Church at War: The Military Activities of Bishops, Abbots and Other Clergy in England, c.900-1200.”

Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic church architecture reflected these spiritual precepts. The covered porch abutting the church door was traditionally known as the vapenhus (“weapons house”), a place to store arms when entering a church. Even acts of violence committed within the vicinity of a church carried increasingly severe penalties.

Murder of Thomas Becket. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The closer you got to a church, the more penance you did for killing someone,” said Kurt Villads Jensen, director of Stockholm University’s Centre for Medieval Studies. Committing murder on a church road “was a worse offense than on other roads,” he added, while “killing someone in a consecrated area, like near the altar, was an automatic excommunication.” (Indeed, Becket’s murderers suffered this fate.)

The clergy in particular, by custom and canon law, were prohibited from bearing arms, in church or elsewhere. Writing in the 10th century, Bishop Ratherius of Verona warned clerics that “our arms must be spiritual ones,” while the Anglo-Norman church made it official in 1070: “No cleric should bear secular arms.” These traditions survived into 19th-century American religious life. In 1864, the Episcopal Church, reflecting on the carnage of the Civil War, reaffirmed its long-standing opposition to the bearing of arms by clergy. The church’s objection was rooted in “the ancient Common Law and custom of England” and predicated on the horrifying prospect of receiving Holy Communion “from hands that dripped with human blood.”

Yet transplanted, European ecclesiastical traditions did not always align, historically, with rough and ready American, Colonial-era norms. Royalist preacher Jonathan Boucher, rector of Queen Anne’s Parish in Prince George’s Country, Md., during the early 1770s, kept a pair of loaded pistols in the pulpit. On one occasion, when 200 armed anti-Royalist parishioners packed the church, he threatened their leader that he would “blow his brains out” if any laid a hand on him.

Clayton Cramer, author of “Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie,” has pointed out that “the duty to come to church armed” was common in many Colonies. Yet he just as quickly acknowledged that fear of Indian attack and slave uprisings inspired the mandate, neither of which are likely threats these days. (In fact, statistically, white males – as opposed to African-Americans, let alone Native Americans – have been responsible for the majority of mass shootings in the United States over the last 35 years.)

A 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that roughly three-quarters of Americans oppose guns in churches and places of worship. And many denominations, from Lutherans to Methodists to Roman Catholics, either in the wake of Sutherland Springs or well before, have taken a stance on the issue, condemning gun violence and advocating for greater gun control. Some dioceses, including those in Texas and Georgia, have called for the prohibition of guns in churches, asserting their legal rights to restrict weapons on private property. Currently, fewer than a dozen states have laws governing guns in houses of worship. Whereas states such as South Carolina have banned guns in church, legislators in Texas recently made it legal for congregations to arm themselves as a security measure. In 2014, Georgians pushed back against a 2010 federal court ruling that banned guns in church, and won. And in Arkansas in 2013, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe signed a law permitting concealed-carry permit holders to carry weapons into church.

A few weeks before Sutherland Springs, The Associated Press reported that there had been 13 church shootings in the U.S. since 2012. Regardless of what Jesus might do in response to such troubling statistics, firearms safety instructor Dean Weingarten, in a column for Ammoland published the day after the Texas church shooting, predicted that “with the recent attacks on church attendees, the legal carry of firearms to church is bound to rise.”

(Tom Verde is a freelance journalist who writes about religion, culture and history.  The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Tom Verde

22 Comments

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  • .Allowing guns in church flies in the face of tradition and Scripture.”

    Scripture doesn’t mention guns. It does mention a loving, caring god. Thoughts and prayers, too

    One can draw one’s own conclusions.

  • Shared this with my chaplain friend. He informed me that Jesus told His disciples to purchase swords.

  • There’s not really any one-size-fits-all solution on this issue. And the killers don’t care.

    There are 1000’s of walking time-bombs in America right now. They can get guns legally, no police records. Got good jobs, good incomes, good credit, good college degrees, good reps.

    So it ain’t always what pundits SAY in the media. It’s what your church will DO, if and when those time-bombs get to your church. Churches & clergy must prayerfully decide on a security plan.

    (P.S. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Lar Grizzly 50BMG Big Boar. Just sprinkle some Holy Oil on it first. )

  • AsonofSocrates,

    Jesus’ words at Luke 22:36, “Let one having no sword sell his outer garment and buy one” would not indicate that his disciples were about to enter into a hazardous life.

    He only desired to have a sword available among his followers to show them clearly that though they would come into circumstances that could provoke armed resistance, Jesus did not intend to resort to the sword, but would give himself up voluntarily in harmony with God’s will.

    Thus, when a great crowd of people came to arrest Jesus, Peter did react, and with a sword, lopped off an ear of Malchus, a slave of the high priest!

    Jesus told him to return his sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:51,52; John 18:10,11). Jesus even touched the ear of Malchus and healed him (Luke 22:50,51)!

    Neither Peter’s sword, nor the other one, would have availed much against such a large group of men who came to arrest Jesus, and by trying to use them, they would have undoubtedly perished by the sword. Thankfully, that did not happen! ??☝

  • The NRA is partially right when they say “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun”. There’s two things that a victim can use to stop an armed attacker: reason and force.
    Reason includes begging, bribing, crying, etc.
    Force includes “suicidal charge”, and “Good guy with a gun”

    Those are the only two ways. That’s it. Even psychologists cover those three basic human interactions: fight, flight or freeze. Obviously “freeze” won’t do anything to stop an attacker, and “flight” would only “stop” them if there was only one victim, and they succeeded in fleeing. But even that “forces” the attacker to stop.

    So it still boils down to “reason” and “force”.
    Some liberals can’t seem to accept that fact.

  • I have no issue with carrying concealed in a church. If I am doing it correctly, no will know anyway.
    Open carry does take the “serenity” of the mass. Its a distraction from communion.
    Just my $0.02. I am sure my priest would have a different response.

  • If you feel the need to go armed to church, there is either something wrong with you or wrong with the church. Or both.

  • I doubt reasoning is going to work with any active shooter. These people are either terrorists or severely mentally ill. Once the attacker is armed, force of some kind, firearms or otherwise, is the only answer. But giving all the “good guys” a gun is not the answer either. In fact this has already led to accidental shootings, in church, because people don’t know what they’re doing. Security experts have said that you can’t just give out guns, you need an actual security plan. If people are going to be armed in church, they need to be educated, trained, and prepared to react correctly.

  • No federal court ever “banned guns in church.” The court merely held constitutional under the First Amendment a state law passed *by Georgians* that banned guns in church. A few years later, Georgia repealed that statute.

  • Agreed, any business that wants extra security, needs to implement a robust plan.
    But for the never ending debate of firearms, “reason and force” are still the only options. It’s how force will be applied, is the key to our discussion.

  • Wanting the option to protect yourself means you have something wrong with you? That’s weird.
    I bet you think fire extinguishers, seat belts, helmets for motorcyclists, etc. are all signs that there’s something wrong with the person because they take precautions.

    You must have some insight as to exactly when and where criminals will strike.
    You see, I always understood that criminals are the ones that know the time, location, who’s going to be a victim, and what weapons they will use. I didn’t know that there’s a way for victims to find out all that info before hand, and allow them to simply not be present at the time of the crime.

    Very interesting.

  • If you have to bring a gun to church…then it’s best not to go at all. Pray at home. Don’t make your church a temple of collateral causalities. This problem only exists here in the US…

    The insanity of not even considering the real solution…less guns in the hands of madmen and criminals !! It works all over the world except here. This debate is not happening in almost all developed countries having many places of worship (and most undeveloped countries)…and in these places, unlike the USA…there is simply no significant mass shooting problem in church or otherwise.

  • But here’s the kicker: A lot of Bible-believing churches, clergy, deacons, boards, have already stopped debating the issue. They’re okay with being criticized.

    They know that some churches are privileged to have off-duty officers as members, or they have good $$$$ and can hire plainclothes security. Nobody’s questioning THEIR unannounced security gig, for they’re just obeying Prov. 22:3. (Prayer doesn’t repeal that text, btw.)

    But the age of CCW means that all churches can do roughly the same gig. Some will, some won’t — subject to change. But most churches, on all sides, now feel that the decision is between them and God. No media, no RNS, no public airing of their security plans.

  • Well, there was that National Frontfolower who killed himself in Notre Dame in Paris a couple of years ago because he was so disappointed that gay marriage existed. The

  • Edward,

    Thanks for the welcome back! It feels splendiferously bodacious and mellifluous, besides fantastic and amazing!??☝️

  • A single verse of Scripture to use as justification? What about’ He will give His angels charge over you and guard you in all your ways’?

    BTW your position sound like it would work as an argument for some bible-believing churches to be ok with gay marriages too.

  • Unfortunately, the evidence shows that all the other prevention devices actually do something. No good solid evidence that carrying guns actually has the same effect.

  • You’re confusing preventing and stopping.
    Every instance of a bad guy shooting people is stopped with reason or force. Even if the bad guy chooses to end their own life without anyone else there, they’ve reasoned with themselves to discontinue.

  • To repeat, if you feel it necessary to come armed to church, there is something wrong with you, something wrong with the church, or both. Fine, hire security if necessary. But concealed carry at church is simply wrong.

  • Actually FBI stats reports that in mass shootings more armed shooters have been stopped by unarmed persons choosing to tackle the shooter. Data suggests that the good guy with a gun is largely a myth in high risk, life or death situations.

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