Nathan Price says his concealed gun doesn’t make him feel safer in church.
The gun does make him feel more prepared should something happen.
“I’m a big believer that violence can happen anywhere at anytime,” said Price, a former Marine and firearms trainer. “If you’re not carrying a firearm, you’re not going to be able to engage anyone causing harm around you.”
Price is one of an unknown number of Kansans who carry a gun in church. After a shooter killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church earlier this month, some pastors and congregants across the nation have renewed calls to carry.
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For some, carrying a gun in church is a way to prepare and protect in uncertain times. For others, it’s antithetical to the very purpose or church.
In Kansas, anyone 21 years and older who can legally own a firearm can carry one without a permit. Churches can put up signs banning concealed or open carry, but many churches don’t.
Congregants who carry
Price has carried a concealed weapon everywhere except work since 2006. At his current nondenominational church, which he didn’t want to identify, other people don’t know that he carries. At a previous church, he discussed his gun ownership with the pastor. Another church had a group of people who carried and acted as an unofficial security team, Price said.
For Price, part of carrying a firearm involves being “spiritually fit and prepared” in addition to well-trained. His opinion has been formed by the writings of people advocating self defense, like Charl van Wyk, a man who stopped the St. James Church Massacre in South Africa by shooting back.
Van Wyk has pointed in interviews to passages in the Bible such as 1 Timothy 5:8, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” and Luke 22:36, “and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” Loving your neighbor, van Wyk says, means defending them from harm, including with firearms.
“He makes a great case biblically for self defense and protecting others and your flock and your congregation,” Price said.
It’s not uncommon for Christians to own guns. No data is available on how many carry in church.
In a 2017 study, Pew Research Center found that protection topped the list of reasons for owning a gun. Pew gave evangelical magazine Christianity Today a look at the religious breakdowns behind the report, finding that 41 percent of white evangelicals owned a gun, compared with 33 percent of white mainline Christians, 32 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, 29 percent of black Protestants (including evangelical) and 24 percent of Catholics. That included guns for personal safety as well as guns for hunting and sport shooting.
The survey also found that a quarter of Americans who attend religious services weekly live in a gun-owning household, compared with 29 percent who attend less frequently.
Securing the church
The Rev. Lois Harder, pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, says there’s a different way to keep the church safe. She has no interest in being a sitting duck, she says, but also no interest in protecting herself or others by using violence.
“How do I even find words to express how I feel when I hear that?” she said about people carrying in church. “I just think it’s completely counterintuitive to everything I understand about the Gospel, about what Jesus taught us about worship.”
Death isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a Christian, she said. There are nonviolent ways of responding to an attack, even if they might be countercultural or counterintuitive, she said.
“There’s almost always a third way,” Harder said. “The way Jesus did things was always a bit different. It was not what people were expecting.”
Several church traditions advocate nonviolence, including the historic peace churches, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Other groups have also spoken out against guns in certain contexts. In 2016, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas and Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas issued a pastoral directive banning firearms from Episcopal churches in the state, unless they are carried by designated law enforcement officials in the line of duty.
The Rev. Alan Stucky, pastor of First Church of the Brethren, said beliefs of the historic peace traditions are rooted in teachings like the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
“We are not ignoring the reality of evil in the world, but we are trying to not participate in that cycle of violence,” Stucky said.
There also are potential dangers in allowing even well-meaning congregants to carry arms, some point out. Last week, a Tennessee man accidentally shot his wife and himself at church while showing his gun off during a discussion about church shootings.
Other churches choose to have firearms in the sanctuary in an official capacity.
The Rev. Jon Fillipi, pastor at Salina First Church of the Nazarene, has a security team largely made up of law enforcement and retired military. Most of the team’s members are armed.
Other members of the church also carry concealed firearms, he said.
Fillipi said he can identify most people who are carrying and isn’t afraid to ask. Those people know they are not supposed to participate in security “unless something terrible happens.” There’s no signage at the church, but if anyone comes in openly carrying, they’ll be asked to conceal their weapon or take it to their car.
The church needs to respond to violence with both the message of the Gospel and tangible ways that can include protection, he said.
Fillipi used to pastor in Emporia and remembers when there was a shooting at a Baptist church there 30 years ago. The same building had formerly housed his Nazarene church.
“From that day forward I was just really sensitive to the issue,” he said. “The church is a place where broken people come seeking guidance, grace and forgiveness, and because of that we have to be prepared to help people. That includes keeping them secure.”