How do Christians interpret “You shall not kill”?

How do Christians interpret “You shall not kill”? May 25, 2015


When are we as Christians allowed to fight back and protect our civilization?


George wonders whether Christians should work in police departments, whose conduct is much in the news, as well as the armed forces or other security vocations that  involve use of violence and possible  injury or death. The Religion Guy previously addressed various religions’ views of military service: But it’s a perennial and important topic worth another look, this time limited to Christianity. [Thus the following leaves aside the pressing problem of Islam’s growing faction that applies religiously motivated terrorism against the innocent, fellow Muslims included.]

The Christian discussion involves especially two Bible passages. In the Ten Commandments, God proclaims, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:17).  Or so say the familiar Douay, King James, and Revised Standard versions. However, most recent Christian translations instead follow the same word choice as the Jewish Publication Society editions of 1917 and 1985: “You shall not murder.”

Hebrew scholars tell us the verb here refers specifically to illegitimate taking of life, that is “murder,” as distinct from various other types of “killing.” Conservative Judaism’s commentary explains that throughout Scripture the verb in the commandments “is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war” that may be justifiable. Richard Elliott Friedman of the University of California, San Diego, lists situations where other verbs are used: “manslaughter, killing through negligence, killing in war, execution for crimes, killing animals, animals killing humans, and human sacrifice,” plus deadly mistakes treated in Deuteronomy 4:41-42. (Friedman notes the vigorous debate over whether “killing” in abortion and assisted suicide is the equivalent of biblical “murder.”)

The late Canadian Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” for Judaism’s liberal Reform branch. This work said correct understanding of the Hebrew means “those supporting pacifism or the abolition of capital punishment cannot justifiably base themselves on this word, but must look to other reasons.”

Clear enough. But did Jesus Christ reinterpret this teaching? That brings us to the second scriptural passage, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, often seen as patterned after God’s giving of the Old Testament law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

This challenging section raises major interpretive questions. Old Testament law functioned when Jews had their own government, whereas the New Testament speaks to Jews and Gentiles utterly lacking in political power. Do Jesus’ words apply only to personal relationships or, as advocates of non-violence and pacifism believe, require that Christians always refuse to bear arms?

As with the Old Testament translations, modern New Testaments have Jesus quote the commandment as “you shall not murder” instead of “kill” in Matthew 5:21-22. Non-pacifists figure Jesus would have followed Old Testament acceptance of certain killings as morally justified since he didn’t overturn this concept. Proof texts: In Luke 3:12-14 Jesus tells soldiers to shun theft and false accusations, not to forsake their careers. Nor did he denounce the vocation of the Roman centurion who believed Jesus could heal his servant (Matthew 8, Luke 7).

Jesus extends the “murder” commandment to anger and insults against another person, reaffirms the Leviticus 19:18 commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” then adds the new twist to also “love your enemies.” The startling conclusion is that his followers “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Most interpreters explain this as an ideal to strive for that necessarily cannot be fulfilled, since the Bible teaches that even diligently moral people fall into sin.

The bigger difficulty arises in 5:38-39: “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 one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also.” How should that be interpreted?

To R. E. Nixon of St. John’s College in England, “the context suggests it is applicable to wrongs done to the person himself and not a prohibition of the defense of others.” Canada’s Adrian Leske says this is “not an invitation to commit suicide or let injustice go unpunished, but a call to counter evil with good, hatred with love, and so to transform human relationships.” And U.S. conservative Michael Wilkins writes in the “ESV Study Bible” that “Jesus is not prohibiting the use of force by governments, police, or soldiers when combating evil. Rather, Jesus’ focus here is on individual conduct.” Such analysts cite Old Testament and New Testament passages that advocate protection of the innocent, administration of justice, and respect for government authorities. The Catechism of the Catholic Church urges peace where possible but takes much the same position in its treatment of the Ten Commandments (#2302-2317).

However, a Protestant pacifist like Scot McKnight of Northern Seminary in Illinois can point to precedents from church history after New Testament times: “While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing their voices seemed to be unanimous: Believers are prohibited from taking human life.” (There’s more on this history in the “Religion Q nd A” item cited above.) Pacifism is much the minority view among Christians, yet has persisted through history as a respected witness. Such believers also advocate strict peace-making in national and international affairs, a case of Bible “literalism” inspiring “liberal” politics.


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