A Florida church is warning visitors that its members are “heavily armed” ― and they’re using the Bible to justify their Second Amendment rights.
The River at Tampa Bay has had warning signs posted to the doors of its church building for over a year, Fox 13 reports. The signs went viral after senior Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne posted an image on his Instagram earlier this month, days after a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, claimed the lives of 26 people.
The signs warn visitors that the church “is not a gun free zone” and that any would-be attackers will be dealt with using “deadly force.”
“Yes we are a church and we will protect our people,” the sign reads.
The River at Tampa Bay is a nondenominational megachurch in east Tampa with a wide reach. Associate Pastor Allen Hawes told the Tampa Bay Times that Sunday services at his church can attract more than 1,200 people. The church also streams its services online.
On an average Sunday, Hawes said, visitors could be surrounded by armed parishioners with concealed-carry permits, as well as private plainclothes or uniformed security professionals. The church has reportedly held concealed-weapon permit classes for members in the past.
Hawes said he sees the measures as a “deterrent” against people who would like to cause harm to church members.
“Look at what is going on,” he told Fox 13 Tampa. “In the past two months, look at what happened in Texas. Look at what happened in Las Vegas. Because we are a church that is on television, we are very involved in the community. We want people to know that this is a safe zone.”
“Would I rather ruffle a few feathers,” he added, “or do I want to count bodies?”
Churches have been rocked by gun violence in recent years. Since 2012, more than 13 fatal shootings have happened at houses of worship, including mosques and temples, The Associated Press reports. The Sutherland Springs shooting has prompted churches across the country to look into tightening security measures. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that the Sutherland Springs massacre shows why more people should carry guns in churches.
Gun advocates often argue that widespread gun ownership leads to a decrease in crime, but several studies have shown the opposite to be true ― that in homes, at least, having more guns leads to greater risk of homicide and suicide.
Still, the belief that more guns lead to increased safety persists. Some pastors have even used the Bible to promote the idea of gun ownership as a form of self-defense.
Hawes cited Scripture to justify the church’s position on guns, according to Fox, noting that the Bible instructs Christians to look after those in their care.
“I believe, if you look at the teachings of Jesus, Matthew, and different places in the scriptures, we see it will get increasingly darker,” he said. “Wars, rumors of wars, and people with not good intentions are going to look for a way to make a statement.”
On Instagram, a few commenters echoed Hawes’ argument that there is a scriptural basis for Christians taking up guns.
“Awesome! Had the same idea for my church,” one Instagram user wrote. “For those that are shocked by this - God will protect His people, but He expects us to do our part. That’s why we use seatbelts, or wear helmets ... Being a Christian isn’t safe in a world that hates Christians. We have the right to protect ourselves like everyone else.”
Another commenter argued that Jesus taught his disciples to practice nonaggression, citing a verse in Matthew where Christ says “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Howard-Browne responded, calling that interpretation “nonsense.”
“You advocate allowing the congregation to be fish in a bowl to a crazed gunman,” he wrote, adding an “eye roll” emoji. “We are not living by the sword by protecting our family... How can you twist scripture to insinuate that people should sit there while their wives and children are murdered in front of their eyes - what garbage!”
But not all Christians agree that the Bible offers a justification for carrying guns in self-defense. From across Christianity’s theological spectrum, many have been advocating for strong gun control measures for some time.
Rev. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary in New York, told HuffPost that she believes using the Bible to promote guns is “a heretical distortion of the gospel itself, hijacked by the NRA.”
“The church is a sanctuary, the place that God dwells, and should provide welcome to all of God’s children,” she said. “Guns have no place in church and God’s children should never be encouraged to use deadly force.”