A Theological Response to Church Shootings
Unfortunately, a prayer that I have heard offered may now need to be put to rest. “Lord, we thank you that we live in a land where we can assemble together for worship without fear…”
Maybe there was a time in our past where we felt that and believed that, and so we could offer a line of thanks to God. But that day has passed. With the rise of recent church shootings in America, now church members think twice about coming to worship because of fear about someone who might intrude upon our worship services. Just recently, this fear was realized when a guest walked into West Freeway Church of Christ’s worship assembly, sat down on a pew, and, while communion was being passed, started shooting.
Now, the realization hits us that this could happen on any Sunday in any congregation. How do we make sense of this reality? How do we respond? Our response is typically tied to how we define the problem. If church shootings are a security problem, then we begin to propose different security measures that church leaders can take. If church shootings are a political problem, then we begin to offer various legal measures that politicians should take for gun control or open carry laws.
But I want to assert that fundamentally church shootings are a theological problem. They
are an attack on the people of God. Thus, our first response should be to think theologically about the situation and offer a biblical response.
The Scriptures make it clear that the people of God are going to face attacks. These attacks take different forms. They can be from internal forces like disunity (Philippians 4:3), divisiveness (1 Corinthians 1:10), or theological disagreements (Romans 14:13). But sometimes they can be from external forces, such as heresy infiltrating the church (Galatians 1:6) or, especially, persecution (Acts 8:1). Persecution is a violent attack upon the church because of its faith. Sometimes it is government-sponsored. Sometimes it is more informal in nature. But persecution is often a tactic used by the enemy to discourage, frighten, and harm the people of God.
While a church shooting may not fit the classic understanding of Christian persecution, it
is very similar - an intruder enters the assembly with the intent of harming those who have gathered to worship God and express their faith. And so, with this framework in mind, what do the Scriptures teach us on how to respond when persecution comes our way.
1. Don’t be Surprised (1 Peter 5:12) - Christians are called to take up our cross and follow Christ. We knew that discipleship would not be easy and we knew the cost. Often American Christians have been lulled into thinking that we should always be protected and be completely secure. Yet Christians around the world and throughout history have gathered for worship, knowing that their assembly could be broken up in an attack. While it is a shocking reality for Americans that this could be the case for us, as Christians, it should not surprise us.
2. Don’t have Fear (1 Peter 3:14) - Christians have an eternal perspective on life. We have died to Christ and we look forward to being raised with Him. Our home is not this broken world but the renewed one for which we and creation itself groans (Rom. 8:22-23). It is because of this that we do not fear the one who can harm the body but the one who can harm the soul. Christians are not to be intimidated or shrink back in fear. Rather, like the apostles after they faced persecution, we should pray for boldness (Acts 4:29).
3. Don’t be Naïve (Matthew 10:16) - Christians should also exhibit wisdom in finding ways to protect the flock. The early church often would help a missionary to safety or scatter to other protected areas when persecution broke out. So too Christians should be vigilant in cultivating teams and plans on how they will help keep the assembly secure. This should not simply be about arming people! Rather this should be about prayerfully working together to have a protocol on how to keep the assembly protected in effective ways. I think Nehemiah’s words are helpful here, when the returning exiles were faced with a potential attack, “So we prayed to our God and posted a guard.” (Neh. 4:9)
4. Don’t be Judgmental (James 2:1-4) - One of the easiest effects that violence can have on the church is to make the church skeptical and suspicious of the outsider. Christians are called to welcome the outsider. We are commanded to not show favoritism or judge others as humans would – purely from the outside. Rather, we want the assembly to be a place of hospitality for everyone. No matter how many attacks that Satan attempts, the church cannot lose her DNA of love, kindness, and welcome.
Whenever we hear of brothers and sisters under attack by the enemy – whether across the world or down the street – we join with them in solidarity. We weep, we cry, and we declare to God with martyrs of the past, “How Long, O Lord?” But until the Lord comes, our goal is to be faithful – not necessarily safe. We seek to boldly and courageously witness to the gospel. May the Spirit of God help us to do that!