EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited and updated, having run previously in the Oct. 8, 2013, edition of The Pathway.
NORWOOD – Pastor Stephen Fugitt believes that churches have the right to arm themselves for the day when a gunman enters their buildings to do harm. Yet no one had time to open fire against a gunman who aimed his .357 magnum revolver at Fugitt as he preached to his congregation at the First Baptist Church, Norwood, July 21, 2013.
Instead, one church member grabbed the gunman’s arm, causing his first shot to hit the ceiling, while other men helped to wrestle him to the ground. They held him there until police arrived, and no one was seriously injured.
According to a Christianity Today report, 115 instances of such church violence occurred in the United States in 2012, compared to only 10 a decade earlier. Church shootings, the report added, remain less likely than a person being struck by a bolt of lightning. Even so, when church violence strikes, people have no time to think, but only to react.
For this reason, Fugitt urges Southern Baptists to plan how they will respond if a gunman enters their buildings, and they must decide now whether they will respond with deadly force.
“Missouri law allows churches to make these kinds of decisions,” Fugitt said. “Initially, I would say that if a person is considering the use of armed protection, they should be trained. I believe it’s biblically defensible to protect members and others attending our services and events. In my view, it’s one thing if God calls us to martyrdom, but if we can defend innocent lives, we should.”
“When someone walks into your church and starts shooting,” he added, “you don’t have time in that moment to develop a theory on the matter. It’s better to have processed your thoughts about this ahead of time.”
Various Christians, however, have developed conflicting theories about the use of weapons in church security, said Vaughn Baker, president of Strategos International and lay leader at Abundant Life Baptist Church, Lee’s Summit. Baker said that Strategos International always defends the right of churches to protect their members and visitors from violence.
Yet Baker has heard from Christian leaders who oppose the mission of Strategos International and the use, especially, of armed security in churches. He recalled that, in one email, a Christian leader said, “Listen, I’ve read what you guys do, and I am really glad that you guys weren’t around in the Garden of Gethsemane to protect Jesus from being taken to the cross. And I’m really glad you weren’t around to protect the early Christians when they were being persecuted by the Romans. And I’m really glad you weren’t around to protect the disciples when they were being martyred for their faith. Otherwise, Christianity wouldn’t be what it is today.”
“There is a big difference,” Baker responded, “between being a martyr and being a victim.”
Such a difference indeed exists, according to church historian John Mark Yeats. Christians in the United States, he said, face church violence in a context that differs greatly from what many Christians have faced throughout history and, currently, throughout the world.
“Context, context—that makes a huge difference,” said Yeats, who serves as the undergraduate dean and associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
In the United States, Yeats explained, Christians are able to think of church violence primarily as a safety issue, whereas persecuted churches throughout history and around the world have been forced to think about church violence primarily in light of their Christian witness. Within these different contexts, Christians must respond to church violence in different ways, although every church should attempt to respond in a way that brings glory to Christ.
“The primary goal has to remain that the gospel is for all,” Yeats said, adding that Southern Baptists should also strive as much as possible “to preserve life.”
The sanctity of human life, in fact, should serve as the bedrock for Southern Baptists’ church security plans, ethicist J. Alan Branch said.
“I have a right – in fact, I think a mandate – to defend innocent human life,” said Branch, professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Seminary and chaplain in the United States Army Reserves. “If someone comes to me and they are trying to assault my family, I have a moral obligation to try to stop that person and defend innocent humans—namely, my family. I have a mandate from God … to protect my wife and my children, up to using physical force when necessary.”
Similarly, church members “have the right to live,” and no one has the right to take their lives, Branch said. “If someone is breaking into the church and is there to hurt and kill and maim innocent people—little boys and girls and men and women who are coming there to study about Jesus—you have got to stop them.”
Although churches have a right to defend innocent humans, Christians can by no means pursue vigilante justice, Branch added. According to Romans 13, God has instituted the government to administer such justice.
Even if churches that want to use armed security do not have access to officers of the law, they must appoint only those who are well trained and committed, said Rob Quillin, pastor of First Baptist Church, Kahoka, and a retired Kansas City police officer.
“There need to be specific requirements for those who are protecting us,” he said. “Are they levelheaded? What kind of reaction skills do they have? What kind of training do they have? And what is their commitment?”’
Members of a church’s security team should train at least monthly, recognizing that “shooting is a perishable skill.”
“I can tell you from being involved in shootings that you may be a 100 percent shooter on a range, but when somebody is shooting at you, you may immediately turn into a 30 percent shooter or a 40 percent shooter,” he said, adding that when church violence occurs, it will come suddenly in a confined space filled with confused and scared bystanders.
“Sometimes the best option, even if you have a gun, is not to use that gun,” Quillin said. “If there is any way, whatsoever, to retreat, to get out, to avoid it, to run away, then run away. Don’t engage a threat if you don’t have to. That is why we pay our men and women in law enforcement. God bless them—they are so brave in going into something where everybody else is running away. But let them handle it if at all possible.”
Of course, Quillin added, “the best fight in the world is the one you don’t have to have,” and if churches allow people to see that they have security, they may in fact discourage violence.
“Criminals will take the path of least resistance,” said Al Meredith, former pastor of Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. For this reason, church security plans may prevent violence or criminal activity. Nevertheless, he said, Christians should take care lest their concerns for safety hinder ministry.
Meredith admits that he is concerned by the surge of violence that has struck churches since 1999, when a gunman opened fire during a youth worship service at his church, killing seven people and injuring several others before taking his own life. Even so, he refuses to neglect “the ragamuffins and the outcasts that Jesus came to seek and to save.”
In the attempt to implement security plans, churches must not “build an ark and seal it off while the rest of the world drowns,” Meredith said. “You have to be balanced. Be reasonable. Take reasonable precautions. And refuse to develop a fortress mentality.
“Instead of retreating to the fortress, while the world goes to hell in a handbag, we need to be out there where they are at, winning them to Christ and bringing them in.”