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Martial Arts and The Bible

 by: Tom Katch

As a Christian and a martial arts student, I have often wrestled with the idea of self-defense. Does God expect me to defend my family and myself when physically attacked or am I to "turn the other cheek" and endure it in the name of Jesus? As I considered the many comments I encountered on this topic, I became even more confused. Some advocates for "religion" have gone as far as to say that anyone who practices any form of martial arts is without a doubt bound for hell. It wasn't until I committed myself to a more thorough study of the scriptures that I discovered the truth for myself. The Bible gives more than a few examples of the practice of self-defense and the idea of martial arts. I would like to share some of what I have learned in this study of the Bible - Old Testament and New. The Bible is, in fact, the very word of God (II Timothy 3:16-17).

God and Warfare

The first example of a physical struggle in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 4. It is here that Cain kills his brother Abel. This is an act of violence condemned by God for two reasons. First, the violence was out of anger and jealousy because his brother's actions were better than his own (Genesis 4:4-7). Secondly, the violence was pre-meditated. God confronted Cain before this violence occurred. He told Cain that he would need to figure out how to master the sin of anger and jealousy that was trying to overtake him. What this scripture teaches is that God does not want us to initiate violence but he wants us to train ourselves to master our emotions when tempted with feelings of anger, jealousy and rage. He wants us to prepare our hearts to respond humbly. I believe the study of martial arts can provide this kind of training. I have seen it in my son's martial arts class. His sensei (teacher) may spend up to half of the one-hour class teaching the children humility, manners, concern for others and peace-making. They are taught to avoid violence and stay calm in situations of conflict. This kind of character training is right in line with the example of God's training of Cain.

The next biblical example of a conflict involving a physical struggle is found in Genesis chapter 14. In this chapter, kings are at war and Abram's nephew, Lot, and Lot's family are taken captive. In response to hearing the news about his relatives, Abram sends men to rescue them. In Genesis 14:14-16, Abram sent out "the 318 trained men born in his household". It seems that even though Abram was not at war, he had a training program for his family and household. It was obviously a training program for warfare of some kind and a good one, at that, since they were victorious in returning Lot, his family and all of their possessions from the hands of warring kings. After Abram's successful rescue, he is honored by God and reminded that God had made him successful against his adversary. God later renames Abram, "Abraham" and he becomes the founding father of faith for the Jewish people (and later Christians as well).

To clarify the meaning of the term "martial arts", Webster's defines the word martial as "warfare" or "warrior", and arts as "a skill acquired by study". In the story of Abram rescuing Lot, the Bible gives us an example of warrior training. Not everyone in Abram's household was a part of the 318 trained men, but the ones that were had excellent martial arts training. And God helped them to be victorious as they executed their warfare skills.

Here are a few other brief examples of warfare, from the Old Testament, that could be studied further:

  • Genesis 32 - Jacob avoids war with his brother, Esau. He prepares for battle but orchestrates a peaceful resolution.

  • Deuteronomy 20 - God goes with the warriors to fight against their enemies.

  • II Samuel 23:8-39 - the Bible describes David and his mighty men of battle.

  • Nehemiah 4 - the builders of Jerusalem's city wall carry weapons to defend themselves during the rebuilding.

There are many more examples in the Old Testament, with a wide variety of scenarios and many unique resolutions. The subject of warfare is very complex and each situation needs to be considered carefully. Therefore, when faced with adversity, wisdom needs to be applied.

An Eye For An Eye

Even with the Old Testament of the Bible showing support for martial arts training, some might argue that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament that God's position on warfare changed when Jesus came on the scene. It might be said that the God of the Old Testament was about war and the God of the New Testament is about peace.

The Bible, however, does not support this. James 1:17 says that God does not change, and Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus Christ [God] is the same yesterday, today and forever. Therefore, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. As we continue to study this topic, we will see that the New Testament also discusses self-defense and the idea of martial arts.

Matthew 5:38-42, in which Jesus talks about "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", has been used to condemn martial arts. It reads, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." At first glance this passage seems to be advocating a reversal of the Old Testament laws. I was swayed by this argument myself, and was torn in my own convictions for some time. But when I finally decided to dig deeper into the Bible, I was amazed and encouraged to find some answers.

Many people who want to obey the Bible simply gloss over this scripture, like I did, because they are torn between what they think the Bible says and their consciences telling them to prepare for warfare and to protect.

The truth is that Jesus never intended to abolish the Old Testament laws. He only intended to clarify them, to reinforce them, fulfill them, and reveal God's heart behind them. This is what Jesus says just moments earlier in Matthew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the [Old Testament] Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." When Jesus speaks about "turning the other cheek", in Matthew 5, he is referring to the Old Testament Mosaic laws found in Exodus 21, 22 and 23. These chapters in Exodus contain the laws God gave to his people, which reinforce and further detail the famous "ten commandments". Jesus is specifically referring to Exodus 21:22 where God explains what punishment should be given if men are fighting and an innocent by-stander is harmed (in this instance, a pregnant woman). This is not a scripture about self-defense but about restitution and punishment for a crime. Jesus referred to this scripture because the people, in religious self-righteousness, were using this particular scripture to justify retaliation and vengeance. "An eye for an eye" had become an excuse to be intolerant and merciless toward one another. A closer look at the "act of aggression" that Jesus refers to as a strike on the cheek, will reveal that he is talking about an insult rather than a fighting fist. The word "strike" is translated from the Greek word "rhapizo" which is used interchangeably with the word "slap". In the Jewish culture (as in many other cultures), a slap in the face was a form of humiliation or rebuke. It was not necessarily a physical attack and was not meant to result in physical harm. Even Exodus 21:21 (regarding "an eye for an eye") says that if, as a result of a conflict, a pr

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