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Legal Force

Federal and State laws on the Use of Force

Law books and gavel

Based on the Sheepdog Church Security Training Course “Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws.”[1]

In the Bible

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

Unlawful Force Used - The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods (Acts 16:22). [This was unlawful since Paul and Silas were Roman citizens]

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

Excessive Force Defined - When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, [the slave] shall be avenged (Exodus 21:20).

Limitation on Force - 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).

In the News

Vallejo, California, November 4, 2018 - Plainclothes police officers forcefully arrested a man in church, grabbing him from behind as he started to go into a restroom. Only after putting him into a patrol car did they realize they had the wrong person. This case is the subject of the second of three lawsuits against the Vallejo Police Department for excessive use of force in 2017, 2018, and 2019.[2]

Birmingham, Alabama, June 20, 2017 - Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama, signed into law a bill allowing a church and two schools to form their own police departments.[3] The measure, passed by the legislature in April, was in response to a need for better security in large churches and private schools.[4]

Lilburn, Georgia, March 25, 2018 - Police went to a church parking lot after a mother reported her runaway teen daughter was spotted there in an SUV. The SUV belonged to the pastor, whose oldest son had been dating the girl. When the police tried to talk with the girl, the pastor and his family attacked them. The pastor, his wife, and two of their sons were arrested.[5]

The pastor and his oldest son pled guilty to charges. The father was sentenced to ten years in prison, then deportation, the son to seven years of probation as a first offender.[6] The mother went to trial. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.[7]

Special Resource

The February 2020 series of articles covers Protecting the Church with Use-of-Force Laws. In this article we consider federal and state laws on the use of force:

We also take a closer look at the news stories.

First, you should know about our download - "Use of Force." Click this link to get it.[8]

A Matter of Law

Government is obligated to protect the people from evil (Rom. 13:3-4). Besides national defense against foreign enemies, this also means protecting the people from criminals. This is the purpose of laws which define crimes and prescribe their penalties. These crimes include murder, manslaughter, and assault & battery, as well as theft and fraud. Therefore it is right for laws to say what kinds and levels of force are permitted in certain situations. In the Old Testament Law, Exodus 21:18-27, 22:2-3, and Lev. 24:19-20 do just that. Deuteronomy 19:16-21 extends this to a malicious false accusation intending bodily harm to the accused. Later, Joshua 20:2-6 outlines due process for someone accused of murder who claims it was an accidental death.

In our country, federal, state, and local laws say when a certain level of force is or is not acceptable. We call these Use-of-Force Laws. These laws are then further refined in court cases which draw lines in the gray areas of the law. Because of this, we need to not only know the laws of our state and our local jurisdiction, but also how court decisions have applied the law.

Use-of-Force Laws are generally applied to actions by (1) persons in authority, (2) persons trying to gain or maintain control of a situation, and (3) persons defending themselves, other persons, or property. Force used in the commission of a crime is covered by the laws addressing that crime. There are laws regarding the use of a firearm or other deadly weapon in the commission of a felony.

We are to use force lawfully. In this context we, as Christians, are to conduct ourselves lawfully both as individuals and as churches. The third news story is a counter example of that. A pastor and his family acted unlawfully both in hiding a runaway teen (for personal reasons) and in assaulting responding police officers. As a result of the charges it was revealed that the pastor himself - who is from Antigua - remained in this country unlawfully.

The Apostle Peter said two things which apply here: With "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), he said that the limit of human laws on us is when they require disobeying God's commands. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, he wrote:

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

The clear message is that the only cause for disobeying civil authorities is when that requires disobeying God's Word. With that in mind, let's look at the laws on use of force, which we as Christian must follow.

Federal Laws on Use of Force

Federal law on use-of-force applies mainly to the use of deadly [lethal] force by law enforcement. It applies in places of federal jurisdiction, such as U.S. territories (e.g. U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam), federal districts and lands (such as D.C. and national parks), military bases and facilities, and federal buildings (such as a federal office building or a U.S. Courthouse). One example of these laws is "10 CFR § 1047.7 - Use of deadly force"[9]

Also at the federal level are cases decided by federal courts, from district courts all the way to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Some of these are lawsuits filed in the district courts, but many are state and local court cases which have been appealed to a federal court. Cases decided by a U.S. Appeals Court are effective within that court's district, but SCOTUS decisions apply nationally.

State Laws on Use of Force

Each state has its own laws regarding the use of force. Best known are the differences on using deadly force in self-defense, such as Duty to Retreat, Stand Your Ground, and the Castle Doctrine. These have been the subject of national news stories, landmark court cases, and public demonstrations, also playing a role as election issues.

Duty to Retreat - The Duty to Retreat is the obligation to try to escape or get to cover (if you can) when threatened. This is the self-defense law in about half the states. There are different degrees in the laws as to how far you should retreat and when you may use physical defensive force.[10][11]

Stand Your Ground - This is, generally, the opposite of Duty to Retreat. Stand Your Ground laws say you have the right to defend yourself where you are. As with Duty to Retreat, there are degrees. There are also negating conditions, such as being in the act of committing a felony.[11]

Castle Doctrine - This is the legal recognition that a person's home or place of business is his/her castle, meaning the legal resident/occupant has the right to defend the place from intruders[12] (see Ex. 22:2). If you knock the feet out from under a burglar with a baseball bat and he is injured, you are not charged with assault and battery and held financially liable for his injuries since you were defending your home. If the burglar dies, you are not charged with murder. Again, there are state-by-state variations. For instance, your vehicle may or may not be your castle.

However, state law and local ordinances also relate to other uses of force, even the level of unarmed force used in defined situations. Most of these apply to their use by law enforcement officers, licensed security guards, and correction officers, but these laws may also cover citizen's arrest.

Some laws and guidelines may apply to how much force is used in personal self-defense. For instance, is some physical force allowed to stop someone from simply bothering you, or is it then considered assault and battery? Would pushing someone's hand off you be disallowed? Don't laugh - some people would actually go that far in claiming you assaulted them. This might not be a criminal case, but could end up in civil court. Although the laws probably do not go that far, there are legal lines drawn we need to know.

For most of us, it is hard to find an up-to-date listing of all states' use-of-force laws, but we can find those for our own state, and for us that is what matters. Some states have wider gray areas than others. Your church's attorney can advise you on where court cases have drawn lines in the gray.


Not only do we have a moral obligation as Christians to act within the limits of the law, but there are criminal and civil liabilities for not doing so. Therefore, we need to know how the law applies to the use of any level of force before we need to decide how to use it.

There Is More

This series on the Use of Force has four articles. The others are "A Forceful Answer" (When Force Is Called for), "How Forceful?" (The Continuum of Force), and "Managing Force" (Training, Practice, Control).


  1. Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses, "Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws" -
  2. Training Materials (Classroom) [];
  3. Individual Training (Online) [].
  4. John Glidden, "Vallejo slapped with two new excessive force lawsuits," Vallejo Times-Herald, December 17, 2019, Updated December 18, 2019 [].
  5. Leada Gore, "Ivey signs law allowing Briarwood church, school, Madison Academy to form police forces,", June 20, 2019, updated June 21, 2019 [].
  6. Bill Chappell, "Church Can Start Its Own Police Force, Alabama Senate Says," NPR, April 12, 2017 [].
  7. Tony Thomas, Minister, family arrested for allegedly attacking officers at church," WSB-TV, March 26, 2018
  8. Amanda C. Coyne, "Gwinnett minister, son plead guilty in brawl with police," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 10, 2019 [].
  9. Taylor Denman, "Minister's wife sentenced to five years after aiming a taser at a cop," Gwinnett Daily Post, September 10, 2019 [].
  10. Kris Moloney, "Use of Force." Sheepdog Church Security [].
  11. "10 CFR § 1047.7 - Use of deadly force," Cornell Law School, n/d [].
  12. Wikipedia, "Duty to Retreat" [].
  13. Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors, "Stand Your Ground Laws," FindLaw, n/d [].
  14. Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors, "Castle Doctrine Overview," FindLaw, n/d [].