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Lawful Force

Use of Force Laws

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An article based on the Sheepdog Church Security training course Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3[1]


What do we mean when we say, “force”? As a verb, it means to apply pressure, as in, “He forced the plug into the hole,” or, “The delegates forced a floor vote.” As a noun, it means pressure, applied exertion, influence, power, etc. For a Church Security Team, force is whatever pressure or influence you use to defend the church and its members – more specifically in the context of this series, against violence or the possibility of violence.

In The Bible

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him (Exodus 22:2).

And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them (1 Kings 18:40).

And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past (Joshua 20:5).


When we use certain levels or kinds of force, local, state, and federal laws apply. In most places, these will be citizen's arrest, hard empty-hand controls, non-lethal/less-lethal weapons, deadly force, and self-defense. Since the laws and court interpretations differ between jurisdictions, it pays to know how the law applies in your state and locality.

In the News

Central, Louisiana, April 21, 2020 - The pastor of a church in Central was arrested for vehicular assault after allegedly attempting to hit protesters with a church bus. The protesters were picketing the church for holding services despite Covid19 restrictions.[2]
Note: If the allegations were true, then this was a misuse of force.

Memphis, Tennessee, March 27, 2016 - A man carrying a handgun and an assault rifle was spotted entering a Memphis church Easter morning. The church had a policy of no firearms except by "authorized persons." He was stopped and arrested by a church security guard who was an off-duty police officer.[3]
Note: Since the officer was off-duty, this was a citizen's arrest.

Gastonia, North Carolina, October 27, 2019 - On a Sunday morning, church leaders tried to escort a disruptive man out of the building. During the course of the encounter, the man grasped the preacher. Once outside, he stripped naked and hit a church member on the head. When police arrived, he resisted arrest.[4]
Note: The story makes no mention of a church safety/security team, which could have been trained in empty-hand control techniques.

Nashville, Tennessee, October 28, 2018 - A church security guard was arrested for allegedly impersonating a police officer while intimidating a church attender. According to the police report, the complainant said the guard showed a photo appearing to be him in a New York City police uniform as he threatened the attender. Official records do not list the guard as being or having been a law enforcement officer. [5]
Note: Impersonating a law enforcement officer is a crime and can be seen as an abuse of the first two levels of use-of-force, officer presence and verbalization.

Special Monthly Resource

This month's special downloadable resource is "Use of Force: Recommended Training for Your Church's Safety Ministry."[6] It includes the "Use of Force Training Record." To get it click *HERE.* When you do, if you're not already subscribed you'll be added to the list for the monthly newsletter, The Church Guardian, and the weekly email updates.

You can find more information on the Use of Force in the Church Security Guide[7] article "Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force"[8] and in the Use of Force training course.[1]

Keeping the Use of Force Legal

While keeping the flock safe, a Church Safety Ministry wants to be on the safe side of the law. After all, criminal charges and/or lawsuits are definitely more than inconveniences. For one thing, they can be costly with legal fees, even more so with court judgments or fines. A conviction on a criminal charge can bring jail time and/or restrictions. Besides these, the adverse publicity can damage a church's public image, and how the church handles the case will impact its testimony and ministry. In all cases, it is important for the church, the Safety Ministry, and all persons involved to be open, honest, and transparent. The appearance of covering up will eventually be more damaging than the case itself.

Use-of-Force laws generally fall into any of four categories: Citizen's Arrest, Hard Empty-Hand Controls, Non-Lethal/Less-Lethal Weapons, and Deadly Force. Two or more of these may be included in Self-Defense Laws.

Citizen's Arrest

When a private citizen, that is someone who is not a sworn law enforcement officer, arrests a criminal suspect, it is called a "citizen's arrest." Take, for example, when Elijah called for the people to seize the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). He was not an official of the government of Israel. Even if you consider him a de-facto deputy because he had either the approval or the acquiescence of the king (who was present), he commanded ordinary citizens to make the arrest, so it was still a form of citizen's arrest.

Citizen's arrest has a long tradition in Western Civilization. For a long time there were no regular police forces. Neither were soldiers always immediately available. Nor could you pick up a phone and call local officials to respond to a crime. It was up to ordinary people who witnessed or reliably knew of a crime to detain the suspect and hold him or her for trial. In England, after sheriffs were established as county (shire) law enforcement officers, citizen's arrest was still recognized as legal. Also, Posse Comitatus - on-the-spot deputizing of local citizens to pursue and capture a fugitive - was a common practice.

Citizen's arrest carried over into the United States. It was widely used on the frontier. It is still legal today, but is more closely defined, and where and how it may be used is specified in law. These laws differ by state, but there are general similarities. The hazards for a citizen are personal injury and the possibility of a false arrest. The lines drawn by state laws are meant to protect both the citizen and the suspect. One reliable source for information on citizen's arrest is FindLaw.[9]

The first requirement for a citizen's arrest is knowledge that a crime was committed by the suspect. Usually this means witnessing the crime.

Then there is the circumstantial witnessing of a crime in progress (which may be a gray area for some cases). A classic example is the suspect running by carrying a purse followed by someone yelling, "Help! He stole my purse." Is the man with the purse really a thief, or is this a false accusation? This can be tricky. What if the man was holding his wife's purse and another woman came along trying to take it, claiming it was hers, and he was trying to get away from her?

On the other hand, the citizen may recognize a suspect publicly identified by law enforcement as being wanted for a certain crime. A citizen's arrest may be warranted. In some states, you may be required to report the sighting to the police, giving details such as place, time, direction and means of travel, how the suspect is dressed, etc. instead of making the arrest. If the suspect is armed and dangerous, reporting is the prudent option.

Another consideration is the amount of force used to make the arrest. Only the force needed to stop and detain the suspect should be used. The force used should be proportional to the level of the crime. Stricter rules apply to deadly force. Obviously, lethal weapons should not be used to arrest a shoplifter. FindLaw does advise citizens to "Speak with an Attorney." This applies to your Church Safety Ministry.

Hard Empty-Hand Controls

When it comes to takedowns, throws, and punches, there is a chance of serious personal injury, especially with certain holds. Laws usually do not directly address unarmed self-defense moves, but court cases do. Cases that make the news are injuries and deaths resulting from actions by police and professional security guards, but court precedents may be grounds for suing or charging a Church Safety Team member.

In North Carolina, according to U.S. LawShield, physical force, including pushing, pulling, and using holds, can be used to remove a trespasser, but only if the trespasser refuses to leave and the force used is necessary to execute the removal.[10]

Non-Lethal/Less-Lethal Weapons

Though we may still refer to "non-lethal" weapons, the trend is to use the "less-lethal" label. Why? Many of these lesser defend-or-control devices can still cause injuries, even death, in some situations. For instance, pepper spray turns out to be not as harmless as we once thought. A lot depends on individual sensitivity to the oleoresin capsicum (pepper oil) in the spray.

State and local laws regulate many less-lethal weapons. Some, like black jacks and spiked knuckles, are usually banned because of their deadly use by criminal gangs. Batons are often restricted to use by police or require training and certification. The use of chemical weapons (such as pepper spray and tear gas) and conducted-charge devices (stun guns and Tasers) is often covered by state laws and local ordinances.

Deadly Force

Deadly force (with lethal weapons) is expected to be the most highly regulated level of the use-of-force. Actually, it is the most contentious with the most diverse chart of state regulations. In some jurisdictions, firearms were more legal than pepper spray. At least that was the observation of a scholarly law school paper in 2010, when Eugene Volokh argued that the right to carry pepper spray was also covered by the Second Amendment alongside firearms.[11]

Regulating the carrying and use of firearms, swords, and switchblades is understandable because of their lethality - firearms especially, because they can kill at a distance (this can extend the argument to other projectile weapons).

State laws address issues such as who can own, possess, or carry a firearm. Those who are prohibited are usually felons (at least those convicted of violent crimes), the cognitively impaired, and certain classes of the mentally ill. Also covered are regulations for open carry, concealed carry, and places of exclusion (gun-free zones), specific permission, or no restriction - these places include houses of worship.

Some websites, such as State Laws and Published Ordinances - Firearms (34th Edition)* by the ATF[12], disclose firearms laws on a state-by-state basis. Our advice is to contact your own state's government to find its laws concerning weapons and self-defense.

*The ATF data covers all 50 states, DC, five U.S. territories and associated commonwealths, with a Spanish version for Puerto Rico and a separate listing for California municipalities.


The topic of self-defense and the law includes several levels of force. At issue in state laws are when and where you have the right or duty to defend yourself and others, and what levels of force are acceptable in those situations or conditions. As with other issues of law, what has been enacted is subject to judicial interpretation.

There are three general types of self-defense laws: Duty to Retreat, Stand Your Ground, and Castle Doctrine.

Duty to Retreat

As of this writing, fifteen states have Duty to Retreat laws[13] (on April 6, 2021, this will become fourteen states as Ohio's new Stand Your Ground law comes into effect). What is a Duty to Retreat? Basically, it means that if you have a means of escape when threatened, it is your duty to retreat, get away from the threat. According to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, "Rather, it's a provision that, under certain circumstances, failing to retreat from a confrontation will effectively strip you of your right to use deadly force for self-defense." What this means is that you first try to get out of the situation. If you cannot and the threat continues, then you may use deadly force.

In a sixteenth state, Pennsylvania, you must retreat or not use deadly force if the threatener does not display a lethal weapon and is not physically attacking you in a way which causes grave injury or death (for example, attempted strangulation). Volokh says this is part Duty to Retreat, part Stand Your Ground.

Duty to Retreat laws have exceptions based on the Castle Doctrine. States differ on the places and extent of the Castle Doctrine (see below).

Of course, there are distinctions in how this is applied. Most of these derive from court cases. The issue here is answering the questions of whether the defender had a way of escape, was aware of it, and was able to rationally decide to use it. Also at issue is how imminent the threat of death or serious bodily injury was. That's a lot of room for lawyers to move around.

If a defender uses deadly force, he or she has to show that there was no other choice. To put it bluntly, if it is not obvious that you had a right to use deadly force, you may be facing charges of murder, manslaughter, or assault and battery with a deadly weapon.

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground means that you do not have to retreat when threatened, but have the right to use deadly force against deadly force. Certain conditions must be met. Basically they are:

  1. Lawful presence: you have a right to be in that place.
  2. You reasonably believe that force is necessary
    1. to protect yourself or others from a deadly assault, or
    2. to prevent a forcible felony.
  3. You are not engaged in an unlawful activity.
  4. You are not the aggressor.

Castle Doctrine

The Castle Doctrine comes from the concept in English common law that "A man's home is his castle." In other words, he has the right to defend his own home. This principle was stated in the Old Testament Law (Exodus 22:2). This doctrine is the primary modifier for the Duty to Retreat. It is in your "castle" that you do not have to retreat, from a deadly threat (although some have proposed changes to that, requiring you to leave the house or hide if you can).

What your "castle" is differs by state. Using a map and a compilation of definitions by state, Volokh shows how this applies in each U.S. state and territory:

  1. 35 states plus Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands have Stand Your Ground laws
  2. Your Castle is your home (8 states)
  3. Your Castle is your home or in your vehicle (1 state: Ohio until April 6, 2021)
  4. Your Castle is your home or your workplace (5 states)
  5. Your Castle is your home or vehicle or workplace (1 state and 1 territory)
  6. A "middle ground" approach (D.C.)
  7. No settled rule (2 territories)[13]

Whether the Castle Doctrine applies to defending a congregation depends on the law in that state and how it is interpreted. For Church Safety Team members it is prudent to not consider the church your castle.

Special Products and Services

Sheepdog Church Security has affiliate relationships with providers of a legal service and a defensive product in regards to Use of Force.

Legal Service

Legally, using force in defending yourself and others is criminally and civilly hazardous. Even the perception that force was wrongly used may lead to a criminal investigation and/or a lawsuit. This is especially true if death or serious injury results. If that has happened, you need immediate legal help, both advice and representation.

U.S. LawShield ® began as Texas LawShield. It is a membership organization of attorneys who provide legal services for subscribers in the area of use of force. It describes itself as a "most comprehensive (and affordable) Legal Defense for Self Defense Program." A lawyer will be assigned to defend you if you are sued or criminally charged for using deadly force in self-defense. You can subscribe as an affiliate member of Sheepdog Church Security.[14]

Defensive Product

A special non-lethal self-defense spray product, Reflex Protect, is specially designed to be easily and safely used at home, in schools, at work, and in healthcare facilities. It can also be used by Church Safety Team members. It has a uniquely designed spray head. You can buy it as a Sheepdog Church Security member.[15]


As we defend the flock, we must do it legally. Learn how your state's use-of-force laws apply to a Church Safety Ministry and apply them.

There Is More

The other two articles in this Use-of-Force series are "To the Defense" (Protecting the Flock from Violent Threats) and "How Forceful?" (The Continuum of Force). The last article for the month will be a closer look at "The 2001 Greater Oak Missionary Baptist Church Shooting."


  1. Kris Moloney, "Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3," Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses, © 2016-2017: Training Materials (Classroom) []; Individual Training [].
  2. News staff, "Pastor arrested in Louisiana after allegedly trying to hit protester with bus," WVTM 13 Digital, April 21, 2020 [].
  3. Staff and Jerry Askin, "Man brings handgun, assault rifle into church," WMCActionNews5, March 27, 2016, Updated July 1, 2016 [].
  4. Author: Associated Press, "Man Gets Naked at Church, Punches Churchgoer in Head: Police," WFMY News2, November 1, 2019 [].
  5. Jason Steen, "Armed Security Guard Arrested for Impersonating Police Officer," Scoop Nashville, November 2, 2018 [].
  6. Kris Moloney, "Use of Force: Recommended Training Your Church's Safety Ministry," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2019 [].
  7. Online Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security [].
  8. Kris Moloney, "Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force," Sheepdog Church Security [].
  9. FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors, "Citizen's Arrest," FindLaw, Last updated January 28, 2019 [].
  10. Anon, "When a Trespasser Commits a Party Foul…," U.S. LawShield, June 17, 2019 [].
  11. Eugene Volokh, "Nonlethal Self-Defense, (Almost Entirely) Nonlethal Weapons, and the Rights to Keep and Bear Arms and Defend Life," Journal of Scholarly Perspectives, 6(01), UCLA, 2010 [].
  12. ATF Staff, "State Laws and Published Ordinances - Firearms (34th Edition)," Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives, Last Reviewed January 15, 2021 (some data is from the 33rd edition in 2019) [].
  13. Eugene Volokh, "Stand Your Ground (35 States) vs. Duty to Retreat (15 States)," Reason, December 21, 2020 [].
  14. U.S. LawShield (Legal Defense for Self Defense Program), Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link [].
  15. Reflex Protect (Revolutionizing non-lethal defense), Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link [].