Texas hero risked life to save others
Heroes need prayers, too. Stephen Willeford — the Texan who confronted…
At many Churches of Christ across the nation, Christians bring more than their swords — as some refer to their Bibles — to Sunday worship.
An untold number also carry concealed handguns into the assembly, church leaders told The Christian Chronicle.
As mass shootings make all-too-frequent headlines in America, some see pistol-packing church members — and even preachers — as protection, the Chronicle found in interviews with dozens of ministers, elders and deacons in 15 states.
“I do not believe that Jesus — or even the old law — taught members to cower in the face of danger,” said Chris Gallagher, minister for the Gadsden Church of Christ in Alabama. “It was Jesus who told his apostles to take a sword in Luke 22.
“A gunman coming into our services to cause harm to men, women and children through his evil desires should be stopped,” added Gallagher, noting that he usually locks his own Ruger .380 pistol in his office when he preaches. “Shall we let the evil of one man injure and harm a collection of God’s people?”
Four months ago, a gunman opened fire at a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people before fleeing unharmed. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested the next day in North Carolina.
Such a scenario likely wouldn’t happen at the rural Lake Butler Church of Christ in Florida, minister Trent Wheeler said.
“Walking in with the intent to harm our congregation would be like walking in to harm someone at an NRA (National Rifle Association) rally or gun show,” Wheeler said.
Likewise, gun-carrying members of the Katy Church of Christ in Texas likely would use deadly force if necessary, associate minister Chris Hodges said.
“There is a world of difference in being ready to die for your faith than to die at the hands of a crazy man simply because he’s crazy,” Hodges said. “I believe that God would permit me to protect myself and my family in cases such as that.”
On the other hand, Tyler Jarvis, student and family minister for the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, Texas, wrestles with the gun question.
“I think that the church should trust in the protection and mercy of God, even if it means not being able to defend against an attacker or intruder,” Jarvis said. “The church ought to be able to extend love and forgiveness to those who wish to harm them, even if it costs them their lives in the process.
Tyler Jarvis“I don’t think Christians should seek to be martyrs,” he added. “But being able to surrender one’s own life without the need to engage in self-preserving violence is about as Christ-like as one can be.”
At the Washington Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, about 10 men and women regularly attend services armed, minister David Deagel said.
“They bring their sidearm to church as they would to the supermarket or anywhere else legally allowed to do so,” Deagel said. “I also understand these individuals to be well trained and very responsible when it comes to firearm safety.”
Related: After massacre, a prayer vigil
But the church trusts in God, not guns, he said.
“The horrific tragedy which occurred in Charleston, S.C., caused us to pray and regret the current state of our society in which such an event would be plotted and consummated,” Deagel said. “It did not cause us to trust in our weapons and neglect God, our refuge and fortress.”
Churches tend to be open, trusting and inviting, which can make them “easy targets,” said Brent Sandlin, president and CEO of First Security Systems in Hurst, Texas.
Sandlin, who attends The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas, advocates creating church security teams comprised of members with backgrounds in the military, law enforcement and related areas.
“You want someone that has an alert personality, someone that has common sense and is not going to overreact,” he said.
What you don’t want, he said: a bunch of random members waving firearms in a crisis situation.
“In my mind, there definitely needs to be more thought put into it, and you need policies and procedures,” Sandlin said.
Brent SandlinHe gave the example of a person with a knife or gun headed to the front of an auditorium filled with 500 innocent people.
“You cannot have seven people that all of a sudden are raising their guns, and they start shooting,” he said. “You’ve got all sorts of innocent people around, so you can’t do that. If you’ve got somebody coming and they are actively shooting — they have an AK-47, and they’re unloading 150 rounds — you may have to do different.
“But if the police come in, who is the enemy? And who is the church member that has very good intentions? The police are going to see that this person has a gun, and they’ve got an active shooter, and they just may shoot him.”
Related: ‘We are not giving up’
At the Fort Walton Beach Church of Christ in Florida, Samel Brown, an Air Force security forces manager, helped develop crisis procedures.
After the Charleston shooting, talk at the church focused on “how many people in our church are ‘packing,’ and how someone would be sorry to try anything here,” said Daniel Coutinho, minister to students and families.
That talk prompted Brown to ask the elders to remind the congregation of the extensive safety and health measures in place with key people assigned to specific duties.
Members were urged to trust in the Lord and not react on their own to situations that arise.
“The security guys mostly just keep an eye out, serve as greeters and deal peacefully and lovingly with folks who walk in under the influence,” Coutinho said.
Other church leaders said the Charleston shooting — far from making their congregations feel more secure — exposed vulnerabilities.
“We have heard, ‘That could easily happen here,’” said Josh Ketchum, minister for the Seven Oaks Church of Christ in Mayfield, Ky.
Josh KetchumSince the Emanuel AME deaths, the Seven Oaks church has trained greeters and parking attendants to serve as a first line of defense and added a security camera system, he said.
“We believe theologically we have an obligation to protect and defend our church membership, especially children, against a stranger or angry member who was to come in and abduct or begin shooting,” Ketchum said. “I believe the issue would be the image to visitors and other newcomers if there was to be a strong security presence with open guns or badged officers.”
The Camden Avenue Church of Christ in Parkersburg, W.Va., invited police officers to offer tips on responding to an active shooter.
“We are also looking into things like alarm systems, a public address system through the entire building so that teachers can be notified of emergencies and possibly a camera system that will let us monitor the grounds during services,” said deacon Rob Hoover, a former law enforcement officer.
Carlus PageThe Highway 15 Church of Christ in Biloxi, Miss., has implemented an active shooter reaction plan in recognition of “all the mass shootings that cause us to become more attentive to all those who enter the worship facility,” minister Carlus Page said.
“We remain vigilant, and we have selected brethren who have a tactical background and are armed amidst our assembly,” said Page, who has a law enforcement background. “Unfortunately, we can’t ultimately eliminate the threat, but we can definitely minimize the impact it could possibly have on our beloved.”
Would Jesus pack heat?
“It is not a simple issue,” said Patrick Barber, minister for the East Point Church of Christ in Wichita, Kan. “Would Jesus stand up for the innocent? Certainly. Would he kill someone to protect the innocent? I’m not so sure.”
Of the Charleston shooting, Barber said, “It did cause us to have some discussions, but we chose not to turn the church facility into a bunker or a militarized zone.”
“We have two police officers that attend services at our church. They conceal carry every week and walk our hallways though they are not in uniform. We estimate eight to 10 (members) at least that conceal carry every week as well. This group gets together once a month on Saturday mornings for breakfast and target practice — the South will not be taken without a fight according to their arsenals. The leadership of the church is aware that a number of people carry each week, but have not voiced affirmation or discouragement of this practice.” — Brad Cox, minister of preaching and teaching, High Pointe Church of Christ, McKinney, Texas
“The church in Manchester, N.H., has two retired police officers as regular attenders and one elder who regularly carries a gun concealed. Between the two professionals, who often carry, and the other brother, who regularly carries, we feel relatively secure. Honestly, we’re more concerned with burglary than gun violence — we’ve been burglarized in the recent past, which has caused us to step up our off-hours security measures.” — Park Linscomb, minister, Manchester Church of Christ, New Hampshire
“We’ve had a police officer from Pennsylvania who’s had SWAT training come and do a security seminar with those in the congregation interested in volunteering for security detail (we have about 10-15 guys who rotate duties; conceal-carry folks, mostly). We also have a deacon who is in charge of security, and he coordinates such things. I feel pretty secure that these guys know what they’re talking about.” — Neal Pollard, minister, Bear Valley Church of Christ, Denver
“We don’t have any professional security members, but there are several people I know of that do carry concealed weapons most everywhere they go as I understand it. In South Dakota, the gun culture is fairly laid back. Guns are a large part of hunting season, but for the rest of the year, you’re not required to obtain a permit to simply buy, own or visibly carry a firearm, though you must if you conceal or conceal in a car. We don’t ‘know’ who does and who doesn’t. Guns are really not a hot-button issue in South Dakota. If someone were to come and open fire in our congregation, I do think there’d be a chance they would be in turn fired upon, obviously depending on who was and wasn’t there.” — Thomas Pruett, minister, Northern Hills Church of Christ, Belle Fourche/Spearfish, S.D.
“Charleston was a tragedy. I think that the (Emanuel AME Church) would do the same that they did the night of the shooting. They were practicing the biblical mandate to make people feel welcome. The Sunday after the shooting, a young male came to our assembly intoxicated. He walked up to the stage and tried to grab a microphone. We were all nervous. Those who have been through recovery tried to connect with him, and I finally talked to him and shared that he could share his thoughts during our communion time. He calmed down. During communion, he shared that we need to love people and that God was a big God — then rambled on until we got him to stop. He sat down and had communion with us then left. While we were all nervous, no one came up afterward and said we need stricter security. I think we all realized that we are all vulnerable at any time, and the Charleston congregation’s openness, vulnerability and forgiveness seemed to model what Jesus expects of us.” — Ron Clark, minister, Agape Church of Christ, Portland, Ore.
“We have a plainclothes policeman in the auditorium during all services. He is connected through an earpiece to the four policemen outside who direct traffic and remain on the premises to watch for any problems. Thus, they can warn him in case they observe a possible problem. In addition, we have the services of a private security firm. They provide uniformed security, but currently without weapons. However, some of them are being given additional training and will later be allowed to carry a weapon. We also have a number of security cameras throughout the building.” — Lynn Waller, elder, The Hills Church of Christ, North Richland Hills, Texas
“We have been security conscious for a long time. We have a uniformed armed security officer in our building every Sunday morning. People have come to know him and appreciate the security. We have a number of conceal carry people who carry every Sunday. We are good with that. We have chosen not to post ‘no open carry’ signs because they are so conspicuous, but we will ask anyone who comes in open carry not to do so. Our children’s ministry has all kinds of security measures in place. We have a buzz-in system on our office door during the week. I think most of our church would feel we take proper precautions.” — Jim Hackney, executive minister, Heritage Church of Christ, Keller, Texas
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.