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Recently, while in church, my three-year-old daughter began squirming and resisting my wife's attempts to keep her seated. So I picked the child up and carried her out, while she gave everyone within earshot a clear indication that this too was against her will.

Parents are granted the authority to use force in dealing with their children. In fact, parenting of young children would be inconceivable without the power to move children, fence them in, or otherwise physically constrain them. Most orthodox Christians also recognize, in light of Proverbs 23:13, 14 and other passages, that corporal punishment is a necessary part of parenting.

The family is one of two spheres of authority that may use force. The state is given the power of the sword (Romans 13:4), while the church is limited to non-violent means of persuasion (Matthew 18:15-18). The individual also may use the sword, as is clear from Christ's instructions to his disciples in Luke 22:36-38 as well as other passages.

Limits to Physical Force

The family, state, and individual are all limited in their use of physical coercion. The family may use force to protect and discipline children (discipline being a form of protection), but may never resort to capital punishment. As R. J. Rushdoony observed, this is why Cain did not receive the death penalty for killing Abel — the only ones who could have administered the punishment were his parents. An incorrigible, rebellious child (presumably adult, living in his parents' household) could be executed for disobedience to his parents, under the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 21:19-21), but the parents had to appeal to the civil government to decide the case and carry out the punishment.

The state also is limited, in that not all sins fall under its jurisdiction, and the force of punishment must fit the crime (Exodus 21:23-25). Most of us would object, and rightly so, if the state were to step in to punish my three-year-old for misbehaving in church. We would also find it a grievous miscarriage of justice if the state were to execute someone for underpaying his taxes by $100.

The individual may pick up the sword in service of the state, in self-defense, or defense of someone under his authority. For example, if the state is waging a just war, the individual may use lethal force as an agent of the state. The executioner is, in a sense, granted a temporary license to kill the person who has committed a capital crime and has been legally convicted. Apart from a commission from the state, however, the individual does not have the authority to arrest, convict, and execute criminals. Vigilantism bypasses the civil government entirely, rejecting the judicial process commended to us in the Bible (e.g., Exodus 22:8, 9; Deuteronomy 16:18).

Whenever the individual uses the sword without the specific authorization of the state, it must be as a stopgap measure to provide for physical defense when the state is unavailable. Most crimes are committed without a law enforcement official present to stop the criminal in the act. It is then entirely appropriate for an individual to step in and do what the law enforcement official would do if present. The individual then becomes an implicit agent of the state. This may mean self-defense or coming to the defense of others who are being assaulted. The little-used power of citizen's arrest is a formal acknowledgement of this delegation of authority. Scripture supports this use of the sword Exodus 22:2 allowed a homeowner to use lethal force against a thief breaking in, and the previously cited passage in Luke 22 shows Christ's approval of self-protection. The "turn the other cheek" passage (Matthew 5:38-42), often cited to support an extreme pacifism, clearly addresses our reaction to personal insults and inconveniences, and not serious threats to one's life, family, livelihood, or home.

The individual has not only the authority, but the duty to use force coercively in certain circumstances. The individual's duty to use force to discipline and protect pertains particularly to those under one's authority. As mentioned previously, this includes the judicious use of milder force by parents as a necessary part of guiding and disciplining their children. As tempting as it might be, I cannot step in to administer corporal punishment to a stranger's child mouthing off in the grocery store. But within the bounds of my own jurisdiction, I have a duty to intervene with force when necessary. Heads of household have a responsibility to protect those under their roof. A husband and father who simply calls the police when an assailant presents an imminent threat to his family, and fails to physically intervene for their protection, is as culpable as one who will not provide food for his household. The city of Kennesaw, Georgia recognized this when, in 1982, it required each head of household to keep a firearm in the home.1

Thus, the principle that emerges is: coercive force may not be used by an individual, unless acting for the benefit of someone under his authority, or authorized to do so by a government Biblically empowered to use force. A relative, babysitter, or teacher may therefore, in the parents' absence, coerce a misbehaving child if the parents cannot be summoned in a timely manner and it can be reasonably assumed that the parent would want coercion to take place in that situation. A bystander witnessing a mugging across the street may, in a policeman's absence, use force to stop the crime and apprehend the thief.

Tyranny by Absence of Force

What if the state refuses to use the sword to defend its subjects against violent assaults, and fails to prosecute criminals? The individual using force to defend himself or others cannot then be said to act as a law enforcement official would act, for the civil magistrate has abandoned his protective duties and would in fact do nothing. A bystander witnessing a mugging across the street could only watch, for there can be no assumption that one explicitly vested with state authority would act at all. A government that allows its citizens to be exposed to the predations of murderers and thieves, ignoring their pleas for protection, is one that is essentially tyrannical. It is a passive, rather than an active, tyranny.

Our attitude toward such a government should be the same as our attitude toward a church that has egregiously failed to exercise church discipline — we should either work to reform it, or remove ourselves from under its authority. John Calvin contended that Christians, as individuals, should be obedient to evil governments where they do not require sin, but he added that lower magistrates are responsible to "curb the tyranny of kings."2 Lesser officials may be effective in changing the government, or leading their people out from under tyrannical authority. Such themes were picked up by later Calvinists such as Theodore Beza (De Jure Magisterium), Phillipe du Plessis Mornay (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos) and Samuel Rutherford (Lex Rex).

During the very period of time that the state has been failing to act effectively against criminal activity, the state has sought a monopoly of force. This is amply illustrated by gun control laws, increasing prosecution of parents who use corporal punishment to discipline their children, and the recent federal restrictions on what airline passengers and pilots may carry on board. This should not be surprising. As R.J. Rushdoony noted:

The goal of the state is the old pagan and Platonic dream of a monopoly of power. By its claim to sovereignty and to universal jurisdiction over everything within its domain, the modern state seeks indeed to be a god walking on earth. The Biblical faith in a multiplicity of governments under God is denied. The self-government of the individual, and the governments of the family, church, school, vocation, and society are all subverted in favor of the unitary power of the state.3

Tyrant states have effectively refused to use force when it is appropriate, while at other times they employ startling violence against people who have done nothing that should attract forceful intervention by the state. The Christian response to this should be prompt and emphatic. First, we should remind civil and familial authorities that all governments are under God and are subject to Biblical limitations on the use of force. Second, we should teach the duty of using judicious force within those limitations. Third, we should work vigorously to end the state's attempts to obtain a monopoly of force. In each of these efforts, we should remember that the root of tyranny is in the hearts of men, and it is therefore prayer and faithful preaching that will have the greatest ultimate impact.


1. Of course, the overall crime rate dropped by 89 percent over the next 16 years, and burglaries nearly disappeared.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 20, Section 31.

3. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House), 1986, p. 160.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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