A Nuanced Difference
I think Christians often wonder what it means to turn the other cheek. Jesus taught in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil, but if anyone slaps on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’”
If we pay careful attention to the wording of that verse, Jesus is teaching about turning the other cheek has a specific meaning. If I’m facing someone and I slap that person on the right cheek, it would require me to slap the person with the back of my hand to make contact with the person’s right cheek.
So, I think what it means is that Jesus is telling us not to hit back when someone slaps us an insult. I don’t think it is really talking about escaping or defending ourselves against a violent attack that would do us bodily harm or even kill us.
Christians shouldn’t retaliate when persecuted specifically for their Christian faith but should take that as part of what God calls them to do to suffer for the sake of the testimony of the gospel.
There are a number of other passages of Scripture that encourage escaping from danger or even using force in self-defense, if necessary, and encourage us to defend other people against wrongful attacks. Jesus’s disciples carried swords, even after three years of traveling with Jesus. In the garden of Gethsemane, they had swords. Swords in the first century were used for self-defense. So, I think there are times in which self-defense to prevent us from suffering significant bodily harm is justified.
However, I need to specify also that Christians shouldn’t retaliate when persecuted specifically for their Christian faith, but should take that as part of what God calls them to do to suffer for the sake of the testimony of the gospel.
The Playground Dilemma
Another question comes up with regard to self-defense, and that is, what should children do when attacked by a bully on a playground? Children should be taught to be peacemakers, of course (Mat. 5:9), but if a bully continues to escalate his or her attacks, and if no parent or teacher will intervene—which sadly happens—then I think children should be taught to fight back and defend themselves with courage and determination, as well as to pray for and forgive those who attack them.
Otherwise, they could continue to suffer physical harm and internalize a deep sense of injustice and bewilderment at why no parent, teacher, or other authority is protecting them. I think that can be very harmful.
- Why the Study of Ethics Matters for Everyday Christians (Wayne Grudem)
- Do Christians Ever Need to Choose the Lesser Sin? (Wayne Grudem)
- 10 Things You Should Know about Christian Ethics (Wayne Grudem)