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A biblical response to the Machine Gun Preacher

October 6, 2011

First, let me say that my intention with this post is NOT to question whether Sam Childers or those that support him are Christians. This post is about whether or not Sam’s actions are biblical and whether or not God would tell him to do those things.

There seem to be a number of arguments put forth to explain his actions as biblical:

  1. Luke 22:36 (or any other single verse)
  2. He is living out the Scriptures, “a doer of the word”
  3. Thou shall not kill (so we have the right to enact justice on those that do)
  4. God told him to do this (so you cannot question it)
  5. In the Old Testament the Israelites where told to destroy their enemies (and they fought battles with weapons)

Instead of answering these questions one by one, I am going to lay out my view for how we should view and approach the Scriptures and in the process of doing this, answer the above arguments.

Everything points to Jesus Christ

I believe the crux of the problem is in how we approach the Scriptures. Most Christians have been taught to approach the Bible in a few different ways. We are told to look for verses that stand out to us or inspire us and then meditate on and memorize the verse. We are taught to find verses that either tell us what God commands us to do or what he has promised to do for us. We look for verses that prove or backup some theological point or doctrine that we have (this is called proof-texting and I will have more to say on this later). Add to this the fact that the way most people today go about biblical hermeneutics, the principles of interpreting Scripture, is the same as how one would go about interpreting any historical work written by a secular author. We often simply look at the biblical text strictly in terms of its intended meaning at the time it was written. I am not saying this is wrong or not helpful, I just think it is limiting for a number of reasons.

First, the Holy Spirit intended more with the Scriptures than what the original authors knew or understood. In 1 Peter 1:10-12, Peter writes that the Old Testament prophets prophesied about the Messiah without fully being aware of all the details that they were prophesying about. He goes on to write that the full meaning of their words was intended, not for those who lived in the Old Testament era, but for those of us who live in the New Testament era.

Second, the Scriptures are not a set of individual, disconnected books, but rather a canon, where the books all work together to tell an entire story. Therefore, the meaning of a single book cannot be seen on its own, but rather must be understood and interpreted within the framework of the whole canon. The entire canon is centered around and on a single theme, thus, the New Testament and the Old Testament are two parts of the same story.

Thus I believe there is another method of interpreting Scripture that must be used if we really want to understand full meaning of the biblical text. That method is called the Christological hermeneutic. The goal of this method is to find Jesus Christ in all of Scripture. It has been said that the Christological hermeneutic “is built on the fact that all Scripture has but one center of gravity that links all of it together. And that center of gravity is the Person of Jesus Christ. This hermeneutic is also built on the notion that the main purpose of Scripture is to present, reveal, disclose, unveil, magnify, glorify, and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ…Both Old and New Testaments are fused together to create a single book with one coherent message. And that message is Jesus Christ. He is the glue that binds both Testaments together.”

We have been wrongly taught to see the Bible as nothing more than a manual for our behavior and Church practices. To this point, John Calvin stated, “The Scriptures should be read with the aim of finding Christ in them. Whoever turns aside from this object, even though he wears himself out all his life in learning, he will never reach the knowledge of the truth.”

Jesus also taught this view. He made it very clear that he was the subject and full meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures. In John 5:39, (speaking to the Jews) Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” And then in verse 46, He said, “Moses wrote about me.”

We cannot see a disconnect between the Old and New Testaments. To do so is to present a schizophrenic God. We must see the Old Testament as act 1 and the New Testament as act 2 of a two act play. Separate they allow us to see God the way we want to and to use scriptures and themes present in each to prop up our argument. Together they present a complete picture. The  Old Testament set the stage for what was to come. Everything in the Old Testament was a shadow of what is presented in the New Testament, namely, Jesus. And what Jesus came to present was himself: a better way, a better covenant.

From the old to the new covenant – a move to something better

Jesus ushered in a new covenant. In enacting a new covenant the previous one is canceled. Both Hebrews 7:15-22 and Hebrews 8 speak to this new and better covenant. Most believers would agree with this at least in theory, but practically many act like the old covenant is still in existence.

In the Old Testament there were something like 600+ laws, rules, and commands for the people of Israel to follow. The ones that we know best would be the 10 Commandments. When Jesus was crucified and resurrected he fulfilled the old covenant. A beautiful picture of this is when Jesus turns the water into wine. He has the servants fill up the six stone jars that were there for the Jewish rite of purification and then he turns the water into wine. What is significant is the fact that those jars were part of the old covenant requirements. In filling them up there was no way for the Jews at the wedding to use them for purification. They now were filled with something new, something better. This story was a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross.

Why is this so important? Because we cannot point to something acceptable or legal under the old covenant as applicable for our lives if there exists a new covenant that states otherwise. The old covenant does not exist anymore. It has been superseded. And Jesus makes it very clear that the new covenant is very different than the old. In fact the entire new covenant pretty much boiled down to one single commandment: love one another. In John 13:34-35 Jesus said:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Then in John 15:12-13 Jesus said:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

This seems to be much different than in the Old Testament where God has the Israelites go to war and destroy their enemies. Now, with the new covenant, we are being called to something else. In Matthew 5:43-44 Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

How can you reconcile the actions of a man who claims have sold weapons to rebel groups, who calls himself a mercenary and has claimed to kill people during offensive raids to save kids, and has threatened to seek out and kill the leader of the LRA to this new and better way that Jesus ushered in? You can’t. In his own book, Another Man’s War, Sam Childers quotes himself saying “The Lord I serve is the living Lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!” Jesus did not take life, but gave his life up. There is a big difference between laying your life down, and taking the life of another. When we believe in Christ, we become a part of Him and he becomes a part of us (by filling us with his spirit). When we live by His life, we do not shoot and kill people.

Let me be clear. Nations have militaries and police and I have no problems with Christians serving in either of these two professions. This is different than what Sam Childers is doing. He is acting on his own, to enact his own version of justice, and to kill in a premeditated fashion. That is not of Christ. Christ called us to love, not kill. And God is clear throughout the Scriptures that He is the one that executes justice. Nations have governments and justice systems to execute justice for their citizens. We trust that our government will do that and if not, we are under God and believe that he, in his time, will execute justice on those that seem to get away with evil. Psalms and Proverbs are full of language like this. Psalm 9:7-8 says:

But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness.

We have no right to act as lone vigilantes, exacting justice however and whenever we see fit. That is NOT our job.

God doesn’t speak in a vacuum

But God told Sam Childers to do all this right? And if God told him to do it, we cannot question it.

The problem with this view is that it is divisive. Either I agree that God told him to do this or I don’t believe in God. That is not acceptable. I am allowed to question, the Scriptures makes that very clear. In fact, verifying the truth of what someone says or testing the spirit of someone are actually encouraged. In Acts the writer states:

“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

In 1 John 4:1, John says:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

Throughout the first century the Apostles had to deal with many people claiming to have a message from God and yet were in reality teaching something that was not from God. The writers of the New Testament were clear that we should never take someone’s word for it that God told them to do or say something. That is why God gave us the body (church), a community of believers who are mutually submissive to each other, mutually accountable, and who together examine the truth of something or test the spirit of a person. It is never done in isolation, because alone it is easy for us to believer or hear anything. That is how cults are created. One person purports to hear from God and everyone else must follow what they say. Community keeps that from happening.

A community of believers would take a statement like “God told me to take up arms and actively kill if I have to in order to rescue children” and search the Scriptures and allow Christ, who resides within them, to show them whether or not this statement comes from Him. They do not just accept what that person says just because that person says they heard it from God. If a community is submitting to Jesus and allowing him to control, direct, and lead them then they will be able to determine if what someone says God spoke to them is truly from God. However, if a community of believers is more interested in their own lives and doing their own things then it would be easy to see how they would confirm something as from God even if it wasn’t as long as what God said benefited them in some way.

Finding verses to support your view

Proof-texting is the practice of using isolated verses of the Bible (often out of context) to substantiate a position or thought that one holds to be true. You have all seen this happen. You say something and the person you are talking to spouts off a single, decontextualized verse as their definitive answer on the subject, as if merely stating that verse ends all discussion on the subject.

The question is, how did we get to this point where a single verse of Scripture carries so much weight? One writer states that this is because there is this idea held by scholars that “not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself — irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in it own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.”

You can find a verse or passage to prove just about anything you want. That does not make it true. We must move beyond disconnected verses and passages as our answers to back up something we want to be true. As an example of how dangerous proof-texting can be, I am going to analyze Luke 22:36. The verse says:

“[Jesus] said to [the disciples], ‘But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.'”

It is easy to see how someone wanting to support Mr. Childers’ actions would see this verse as confirmation of what he is doing. Jesus said buy a sword to protect yourselves. Simple right? This is how most proof-texting is done. The problem is that even from a cursory reading of the entire passage in which the verse lies, it becomes very evident that this verse does not mean what its users claim it means. The full passage reads:

And [Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” – Luke 22:35-38

While Jesus does tell them to go get swords, his command was intended only to make the disciples aware that a time was coming which would be dangerous, a time in which many would not feel safe unless they carried a sword. Jesus had just asked them, when he had sent them out with nothing, if they had lacked anything and they said no. Why? Because Jesus was big enough to supply everything they needed and so they didn’t need to rely at all on themselves and their own strength. So, why in the next statement would he tell them to get swords, in order to use them by their own strength? The sword the disciples really needed to carry was the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:16-17) and the “word of God” according to John 1:1 is Jesus. So in effect Jesus was saying beware that dangerous times are ahead and you need to stay alert and carry me with you in order to make it through. 1 Peter 4:1 speaks to this idea of arming ourselves with the knowledge that we will have trouble so it does not surprise us when it comes.

And then Jesus says “it is enough” when they produce two swords. How are two swords among twelve men enough to do anything? Unless of course, Jesus was being ironic and stating that two swords would definitely be enough to protect them from the mob that was coming in which everyone was carrying a sword. However, two swords is more than enough for those that don’t actually need them and who have chosen to allow God himself to be their shield and strength.

This is all backed up by the fact that after Judas comes to betray Jesus and Peter takes out his sword and cuts the ear off a guard, Jesus says:

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? – Matt. 26:52-53

The disciples were still living and acting from under the old covenant. They obviously hadn’t gotten the fact that Jesus was initiating a new and better covenant. Then after Jesus is resurrected and ascends, we have the day of Pentecost and the spirit of Jesus fills them and from then on, throughout the rest of the first century we see the disciples living by a better way. They are put in jail, they are flogged and beaten, and most are killed, and yet they do not take matters into their own hands and use their own strength, but they rely on God and the strength he provides.

Conclusion

When we come to the Scriptures with a motive to find something to prove that what we or someone else is doing is right, it is easy to do. What is much more difficult is to approach the Scriptures with the only motive being finding Jesus Christ. It is harder because it involves dying to ourselves and our desires and instead allowing Jesus to live in and through us. It means we don’t get our way. It means we don’t get to decide what is right and wrong. It means Jesus leads and we follow.

Does God have a heart for children. Yes. Does he want his people to share in his love and passion for children? Absolutely. Would God tell someone to kill a person, to use armed, offensive raids to rescue children, or to sell arms to rebel groups? Never. Sam Childers acts “in the name of Jesus” and views himself as above the law, but it is clear that Jesus would not give this direction and allow a single person to take justice into their own hands. Christ came to institute a new covenant and a new way of doing things. As we have seen, we cannot point to how things were done in the Old Testament as examples for how we should do things today. Jesus laid down a single new guideline that rules our lives: love one another as I have loved you. And just in case we were tempted to believe that his commandment only applies to those who do good, he qualified it by saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matt. 5:43-45

Now, that is not to say that those who do evil should not be sought out, arrested, and punished for their crimes. What this does say is that as believers we have a higher calling. We do not seek to kill. We do not cheer when our enemies are killed. We do not seek to enact our own version of justice. Killing in the name of God has never brought anything but more death, violence, and hatred.

So what do we do? We love. We do good. We forgive those that do evil and cause hurt and pain. We allow God to be God and trust that He is at work and that if we do what He has called us to do, the results will be more amazing than we could ever have imagined.

COMMENT POLICY: I welcome feedback, but for the sake of keeping some standard of quality here to encourage others to read the discussion, I will delete comments that have a) gratuitous profanity or other NSFW material or b) nothing but ad hominems that don’t add to the discussion.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 9:27 pm

    My immediate reactions to your very well written and thoughtful response is thus.

    I agree that when anyone of any religion says that their God has spoken to them and instructed them to use violence in general, it is a worrisome thing.

    I may be wrong but I take Sam Childers as saying and really meaning that he has been called to help save these children not that God is necessarily telling him to use violence per se to achieve that goal. Just as many Christians say that God has called them to do good works in all kinds of ways all over the world. At this point I will give him the benefit of believing his heart is in the right place and that his initial intention was to only use force for defensive purposes.

    Did Sam then go too far by then seeking out LRA members before they attacked? That’s a difficult issue for me. But let us consider this. If the UN had sent in peacekeepers or an army into the area to help the people in that region of Sudan, and they had information on potential enemies like the LRA and they go out and hunt the rebels down, but under some broader legal authority, is that okay?

    Because if I extrapolate your argument about what Jesus says, about loving your enemies, are you then saying that the use of violence and force is then NEVER justifiable as a Christian? Are standing armies unChristian or only when they are acting purely in defence. But you know what they say a good defence is a good offence. Strike the enemy before he strikes you.

    If Christians believe that standing armies and police forces are justified in using force aka violence in certain situations as governed the rule of law, I would agree going after LRA on the offensive would be considered vigilantism here and not to be condoned. But that is because we have rule of law and a legal system that works most of the time.

    This is clearly not the case in Sudan where the government directly or via their proxies were the ones inflicting the suffering on their own people nor were they about to protect them from crazy rebels groups who may not have been on the payroll. Rule of law was out the window once the government was attacking its own people. Is the Christian duty to alleviate the suffering of people or to stop the cause of the suffering if you can. I don’t know the answer.

    • October 10, 2011 3:14 pm

      Jennifer,

      Thank you for your thoughts. In a previous post about him I stated that I am not questioning his heart. You are right that many people feel God has called them to do good work and help people, however, just because God told you to help people doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want: there are consequences to your actions (both good and bad). You are dealing with people’s lives and good intentions just aren’t good enough. This is a subject I talk a lot about on this blog and a subject that Christians, especially, have a hard time with. We want to help so badly that we believe anything we do is ok, but that is not the case. Your actions may end up causing more harm than good to the people and communities are you trying to help.

      Many people seem to really want to believe that he only wanted to use force for defensive purposes and was forced to use it offensively, but he has stated himself that he decided to be offensive to rescue kids because something needed to be done, not because he was getting attacked. He has also stated that he wants to kill Joseph Kony. Whether God told Sam to help people and use force to do it or whether God told him to help people and he chose force, neither scenario has a biblical foundation, as I have previously shown.

      I believe international forces, national armies, and police forces are necessary. They perform a role, both offensively and defensively. There are national and international laws that govern the actions of these groups and they can be held accountable for what they do. They should be the ones working to end the threat of groups like the LRA and they should be the ones rescuing the children. This is the way it happens in other parts of the world. It may not be happening that way all the time in Sudan (it does happen though), but that doesn’t give a single individual the right to take matters into their own hands.

      I believe Christians (and really everyone) should seek to alleviate the suffering of people AND to stop the cause of suffering in the first place. That does not mean Christians need to resort to force to do it. In the first few centuries that Christians existed they dealt with extreme persecution (to themselves) and major social injustices (to everyone). They did this, not with violence, but with service and love. They turned the world on upside down by doing the opposite of what most people would have done.

  2. October 8, 2011 3:19 pm

    Jon,

    Bro, I appreciate you taking the time to care about this situation and write this article. This situation points to a much deeper issue that you have exposed here. We would not even need to have this conversation if we knew what the very point of the scriptures were. The scriptures have one overarching goal and pursuit that you eloquently discuss here in this article. If many knew what the goal and purpose of all the scriptures were, we would not be having this conversation. Thanks for so clearly addressing this issue.

    Blessings to you bro,

    Jamal

    • October 10, 2011 3:21 pm

      Thanks, Jamal. You are so right. This goes much deeper than this single issue. Christians have been “using” the bible to justify their actions for far too long. When we realize the purpose of the scriptures is Jesus, we can no longer make verses say what we want them to say.

Trackbacks

  1. One year anniversary « Hands Wide Open
  2. Why supporting Sam Childers, aka the Machine Gun Preacher, is a very bad idea « Hands Wide Open
  3. An Interview with Christian Smith on “The Bible Made Impossible” « Hands Wide Open

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