War and Vengeance in the Epistles and Revelation - Part 2

By: 

Ralph Orr

Hebrews 11, these all had faith

Sometimes we hear the argument that those who defend with lethal weapons lack faith. If only they had more faith in God, he would deliver them without their need to fight. Or if they died, God would deliver them in the resurrection of the just.

This argument reminds me of those who believe that using doctors is a lack of faith. If you really trusted God, they say, God would heal you. You would not need doctors. Of course the Bible does not teach this approach either. One can trust that God will heal in whatever way he pleases, by miracles, through doctors or through the body’s natural healing ability. To insist that healing from God comes only through what we call a miracle is to limit God. It is by limiting God that we show a lack of faith.

One could equally say that if you really trusted God to provide for your needs you would not go to work. Going to work, it could be alleged, shows a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide. Yet the people of God have always worked. They have understood that although God provides, he expects Christians to earn their daily bread. Christians go to work in faith, not without faith.

In the Old Testament the people of God fought. They picked up their swords and trusted in God to deliver them. They knew that God would fight for them either through their swords or by whatever other means he chose. Faith and fighting were not mutually exclusive behaviors.

Hebrews 11 surveys the Old Testament witness of faith.

I do not have time to tell you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.... Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (verses 32b–38)

What fascinates me about this passage is the great variety of experiences that the people of God have been through. Some suffered for righteousness’ sake, were driven about, tortured and martyred. They were unable to defend themselves and were without others to defend them. Others found miraculous deliverance. Still others fought boldly, God working with them to bring deliverance. The New Testament does not disparage, criticize or downplay any of their faith experiences. Nor does the New Testament suggest that our faith must find its expression differently — with the one exception that the New Testament specifies that we must have faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Hebrews 11 covers about 2000 years of history, from Abraham to John the Baptist. It spans two covenants — the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. The New Testament’s history of the new covenant begins with the death of Jesus about a.d. 30. It ends about 70 years later with the writing of the book of Revelation. The new covenant is now 2000 years old, but the biblical history of the new covenant spans only a small portion of that time.

Why is this significant? Suppose, for example, we had only the history of Israel’s 70 years of Babylonian exile. Though we would have the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, we would have no biblical record of the fall of Jericho, the period of the judges or David’s slaying of Goliath. Different situations in Israel’s history produced different faith experiences.

In isolation, the examples from Daniel might be understood as supporting pacifism, since Daniel and his friends did not fight. The other examples cannot be so understood. To have the first examples alone would give us a very incomplete picture of how God defends his people.

This incomplete picture might lead us to believe that God never commanded Israel to war. Or we might not know of the times that Israel righteously trusted God when they went to war. We would know nothing of how God trained David to fight.

My point is this, to believe that the experiences and beliefs of God’s people in one limited period are normative for all time is in error. Just because the Ante-Nicene fathers were apparently pacifists, or that the New Testament church never fully faced the issue of military service, is no proof that we must be pacifists. While we appreciate much of what they stood for, not all of their theology and ethics were sound. They did not anticipate the many questions that Christians today must consider. New situations require new thinking.

Unfortunately for us, the New Testament also does not address all the ethical dilemmas that face modern Christians. We must mine Scripture for guidance, while being careful to discern properly the original situation in which a teaching was given. If the contexts are different, we must take care to be certain that the teaching applies in the new situation. It may not.

Hebrews 11 praises the faith of those who lived before there was a Christian church. Their faith at times involved combat. At other times it involved flight and deprivation. Even in Hebrews 11 contexts changed from one story to another. What might have been appropriate for one person of God may not have been for another. What united them was their faith in God. That ethic remains.

Although Hebrews 11 does not address military service and pacifism under the new covenant, by giving us its many examples of faith during times of war, it suggests that we should not automatically think less of those whose faith permits them to fight. In Hebrews 11, those who conquered their enemies through faith are equal morally to those who died as martyrs. In modern parlance, they praised the Lord and passed the ammunition.

To this you were called

Of the pacifist churches, those in the Anabaptist family (e.g., Mennonites, Amish, Brethren) have the longest history of consistent pacifism. Born in persecution and martyrdom, Anabaptist theology has often stressed the suffering of Christ as the pattern for Christian ethics. Jesus’ nonviolent suffering on the cross, his forgiveness of those who tortured and murdered him and his willingness to die for all humanity have been the basis for their understanding of Christian ethics. Christians, they believe, are to live just as he did. That means they cannot participate in carnal warfare.

Related to the above is their belief that this world is so corrupt that Christians should not participate in its affairs. That means that Anabaptists as a whole do not hold government jobs. While they acknowledge that human government has God’s approval, they believe that a Christian has been given a higher calling requiring his or her separation from this world’s institutions. In the paragraphs that follow, we will examine these claims in more detail.

Before doing so, we should perhaps remind ourselves of a point we made in part two of this series. There we observed that the purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial suffering was a unique aspect of his ministry. To fulfill his purpose Jesus had to deny the sword. This uniqueness of Jesus’ mission should caution us not to take cross-based ethics too far. Our mission is not Jesus’ mission.

However, although our mission is not Jesus’ mission, Christians should not assume that God does not call us to sacrificial service as well. Jesus told his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Matthew 10:38, 16:24). Those who seek to save their lives, Jesus said, would lose them. While those who lost their lives for his sake would find them (16:25). Christians must consider that martyrdom for Jesus may be part of their calling.

With that in mind, we turn to 1 Peter. It teaches:

If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20b–25)

Our Christian calling includes a call to be willing to suffer unjustly and not fight back. Any Christian ethic that does not include this teaching has failed to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ example for us. To grasp how Peter understood this ethic, we need to study 1 Peter 2 in its context.

Peter’s statement on Christian suffering follows his teaching that Christians should have public good deeds so that pagans who see them will glorify God on the day of visitation (verse 12). Peter lists the type of good deeds he has in mind. Christians, he says, are to submit to governmental authorities (verses 13–17). Christian slaves are to submit to their masters, even unjust ones. Such submission might result in an unjust beating (verses 18–21). Slaves are to do this because Jesus himself patterned such behavior. He was the suffering servant.

In chapter four Peter expands his advice.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ. . . . If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed. (4:12–16a)

Unjust suffering for what is good, suffering for being a Christian, is noble. It imitates Jesus. Still, we should keep in mind that Peter never advised that we should seek to suffer. For example, he never taught Christians to become enslaved to unjust masters so that they could then copy the suffering of Jesus.

Peter directed his advice to those who were suffering already, to those who had little opportunity to escape unjust blows. He spoke to Christians caught in oppressive situations with no hope of escape. His was not an explanation of how Christians were to behave in every circumstance.

Notice also that Peter implied that people who behaved criminally should expect to suffer. But Christians, he argues, if they suffer as Christians, have nothing to be ashamed of.

Whether Christians employed by governments can bring suffering, even death, on those behaving as criminals is beyond 1 Peter’s concerns. Peter’s call to Christians to endure suffering as Jesus did springs from the congregational realities with which he was dealing. In Peter’s day many Christian slaves were without any hope of emancipation. In Peter’s day, Christians generally were denied government and military positions. Governmentally sanctioned persecution was becoming an increasing problem. Christians did not seek military or government employment in part because to do so would have required their participation in pagan rites.

1 Peter does not say how Christians may behave in a culture where slavery is abolished, governments protect Christians, paganism is no longer imposed and believers may be employed in governmental and military service. These circumstances, different from those faced by the early church, are our present reality.

It should be apparent that Peter’s advice does not automatically transfer to every modern circumstance. For example, Peter’s advice assumes that Christians are in no position to either liberate slaves, or short of that, to prohibit their abuse and punish their abusers. We should not assume, therefore, that he would give the same advice to those who could defend the oppressed as he would give to those who were abused and could do nothing to change their condition. Properly understood, one cannot use 1 Peter to defend pacifism.

1 John 4:20, if we hate our brother

John is known as the apostle of love. If love requires pacifism, then it seems that the apostle of love would say so. Some believe that he does.

First John tells Christians "to love one another as he [Jesus] commanded us" (1 John 3:23, cp. 3:11). First John defines love not by giving us a series of commands, but by examples both positive and negative. For example, it affirms "If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (verses 20–21).

The reader of the earlier articles in this series will recall that we have dealt with most of the key points in this passage already. For example, we learned that in the New Testament a brother is not any human being, but is a member of the household of faith. So when John tells us to love our brothers, he is saying we should love fellow Christians. He is not discussing whether we should love anyone else or how to love anyone else.

Love is also multidirectional. Love for one person may conflict with love for another, or love for the community. One may find it necessary to punish those to whom one owes love. It may even be necessary to defend with deadly force one person you love against the assaults of another person you love. This is an unfortunate but occasionally real example of love in action. In both Testaments, bloodshedding and love are not mutually exclusive. The Bible makes no such dichotomy.

So, all that we can say from John’s writings is that he tells us that Christians should love Christians. Christians should not hate Christians. On this point all Christians would agree.

The Apocalypse

God also inspired the apostle of love to write the most enigmatic of the New Testament books — the symbolic and violent book of Revelation. Bloodletting fills many of its pages. For pacifists, these bloodlettings are the acts of sinful humanity, the acts of Satan or the result of the just judgments of the Lord of life. The church is believed to shed the blood of no one, but through its martyrs has its own blood shed. By the close of the book, God has avenged his people.

That God’s vengeance concludes the book again points out that warfare is not inherently sinful. In the New Testament, God and the Lord Jesus Christ are warriors. They fight to defend their defenseless church.

Revelation 11 particularly intrigues me. I believe it says something important that most commentators miss. It tells the story of God’s two witnesses. It says of them:

If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have the power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying, and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they will.

I grant that this is apocalyptic imagery, so it is debatable how literally we should take this. Are these actual men? Time will tell. They may be. Regardless, they are portrayed as men who do God’s will.

In Revelation God gives the two witnesses unique power and authority. The chapter does not simply say that they will announce God’s judgments. Instead, it explicitly says that God will grant them the power to start killer plagues. When water turns into blood, when plagues of all kinds strike the earth, when it does not rain for three-and-a-half years, people will die, including innocent babies. They will die because these men order it.

Whether these men are apocalyptic symbols or are real-live prophets makes no difference in the validity of their ethical example. Symbolically or literally, they are not pacifists. God and the apostle John have no problem with that. In the new covenant era, it is righteous for the two witnesses to use deadly force.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil

I have waited until this point in my paper to analyze what some may consider to be two of the strongest pacifist pericopes in the New Testament, Romans 12:17–21 and Romans 13:8–10. These verses come before and after Paul’s discussion of the God-ordained purpose for the military.

There are two basic views of these verses as they relate to Paul’s comments on human government. A Christian pacifist understanding would have these verses contrasting the Christian walk with what God has in mind for human government. There is one standard for the church, another for the state. This is the Anabaptist view. They add that Christians, because they have a different calling, cannot be agents of the state.

The nonpacifist view sees these verses as showing how private Christian citizens and the state should interact. This view says that private citizens should not unnecessarily take the law into their own hands. The state has been ordained to deal with evil persons. If Christians are working for the state, then that becomes their responsibility as well.

We should now examine these verses. In them Paul says:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary;

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21)

Keys words in this pericope are evil, right, peace, revenge, wrath, enemy and good. Let us think about these words. Christians are not to repay evil for evil. But what is evil? How we define this term will control our understanding of this verse. In this passage, Paul does not explain what he means by evil. He assumes that he and his readers share common ideas of what evil is. (Some things Paul probably considered evil are listed in Romans 1:28–31. See also his comments in 7:21–23, where he tells of his own evil within.)

I understand evil to be actions and attitudes reprehensible to God. I do not believe defending a widow from a vicious murderer, even if it means taking the murderer’s life, is evil. It would be evil, however, if I, in revenge, assaulted the innocent grandmother of the murderer.

I do not read Romans as condemning as evil the defense of the innocent, even if such defense causes harm to the guilty. I believe pacifists who consider Paul’s desire that we not return evil for evil to also forbid every type of deadly force are wrong. Deadly force is not inherently evil.

To say that something is bad does not always imply a negative moral judgment, especially when speaking of things. By contrast, to say that something is evil always implies a strongly negative judgment. For example, we can speak of a bad piece of fruit, like an apple, and simply mean that it has spoiled and is no longer good for eating. The fruit is bad, but the fruit is not evil. We are not making a moral judgment about the apple.

But now let us speak of bad apples. Literally, a bad apple is an apple that has begun to rot. Metaphorically, a bad apple is a person whose character has begun to rot. If such persons are extremely bad, they are evil. To call anyone evil is to make a severe moral judgment about that person.

In some modern teenage slang "bad" means "good." Those uninformed of this usage may not understand what a teenager means when he or she says something is "bad." These illustrations show how understanding the context in which a writer uses words enables us to understand the writer’s meanings. Not paying attention to contexts can lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Most people agree that war is bad. Most agree that many wars are evil. Yet, few agree that all who fought against Hitler were evil or that their cause was evil. To say that war is bad is not the same thing as saying war is evil.

To say that some wars are evil is not to say that all wars are evil. To say that one side in a war is evil is not to say that both sides are evil. To say that one soldier who kills is evil is not to say that all soldiers who kill are evil. What interests us is whether Paul considers all forms of bloodshed — including defensive warfare, capital punishment, killing in self-defense or the defense of others — to be evil behavior for Christians. If Paul does characterize all such behavior as evil for Christians, then we can conclude that Paul believes Christians must be pacifists.

Of course, as we have said, some view warfare as evil for Christians but not for non-Christians. Let us consider that possibility. Does Paul argue for a two-tier, two-realm morality: one morality for non-Christians and another for Christians?

As we have seen, Paul commands Christians not to repay anyone "evil for evil." If one believes that all bloodshed is evil, then one will read this statement as denying any possibility of Christian bloodletting. Yet if one does not believe all bloodletting is evil, then one will not think this is what Paul means. We cannot use this statement by Paul to defend pacifism until we prove that Paul believes Christians can never under any circumstances kill another human. Is this what Paul believes?

Fortunately, Paul’s comments do not end there. He immediately follows with "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody" (verse 17b). If one does what everyone considers right, one will not be repaying evil with evil. Because everyone does not have the same opinion about all types of violent force, Paul’s statement is not too helpful.

To clarify his teaching further Paul says, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Obviously Paul understands that living at peace may not depend on us, and, therefore, may not be possible. If the enemy insists that he or she is going to bomb your home, peace no longer exists. Paul’s statement implies that Christians may not always be living at peace. At those times may we use violent force?

Paul understood that mistreated people may try to seek revenge. The old covenant regulated vengeance within Israel. No one could demand more than an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. By Paul’s day, the rabbis understood that the most practical way to handle such cases was to impose a monetary fine on the guilty party.

The law also imposed death sentences to maintain Israel’s religious purity and to punish murder. In Genesis, God gave all nations authority to take human life. Murderers were to be executed.

Paul does not tell us in Romans 12 what kind of vengeance he has in mind when he says, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath." However, a few verses later Paul explains that soldiers, those who "bear the sword," are God’s servants and God’s agents of wrath (13:4). To "leave room for God’s wrath" would, therefore, have to include allowing for the activity of soldiers. God’s wrath is not limited to human activity, but may include it.

Since God has established government to execute his wrath, Paul’s advice seems to mean that Christians should not take the law into their own hands. They are to allow for God’s ordained way of bringing wrath.

How should Christians behave when wronged? Besides trusting God to avenge (verse 19), Christians are to treat their enemies with kindness. A hungry enemy is to be fed. A thirsty enemy is to be given drink. This is to be done with the knowledge that "you will heap burning coals on his head." We are to conquer evil with good (verse 21).3

We should consider, however, that when the enemy is shooting at you, feeding them is not possible. When the enemy is bombing your city, you cannot give them drink.

Paul envisions a more personal and perhaps communal situation. You know your enemy. You know if they are hungry or thirsty. The situation is calm enough for you to safely give them food and drink.

You cannot apply Paul’s counsel when your enemy is acting violently toward you, your family, your neighbors or your country. It can only happen when your enemy is acting peacefully toward you.

Nor does Paul suggest that because we feed our enemies, we sit back and do nothing to bring them to justice. Suppose someone rapes your wife. Such things do happen. You know who the rapist is. Vengeance is due. Yet you do nothing to apprehend him or that might result in him being punished. Why? Because Paul counsels you to feed him.

That, of course, would be nonsense. Paul says nothing about ignoring crimes, or doing nothing to punish criminals legally. He says simply that we must not seek private vengeance, that we must trust in God’s determination that vengeance will be done, and when possible to "live at peace with everyone." Then he goes on to say that soldiers are instruments of God’s vengeance.

To take a modern example, Western nations have sought to treat captured prisoners of war humanely. They have to a greater or lesser degree fed them when hungry and given them drink when they were thirsty. Western nations have tried, though not perfectly, to overcome evil with good. American treatment of conquered Japan and Germany is an imperfect example of what Paul is talking about.

That God wants us to do good to an enemy does not mean that God never allows us to respond with violent force to our enemy’s evil doing. Though we are not to return evil for evil, not all violent force is evil. Doing good and responding with violent force are not contradictory behaviors. Our enemies’ actions have some bearing on how we respond. Private vengeance is usually wrong. Vigilantism can rarely be justified. Yet legal governmental wrath on evildoers God has ordained.

To explain himself further, Paul taught that the only debt we should owe anyone is the debt of love (13:8). To love another is to fulfill the law (verses 8b and 10b). Paul seems to have understood that to love our neighbor means we are to love all humankind (verses 8 and 10). "Love does no harm [or wrong, NRSV] to its neighbor" (verse 10). In this passage Paul did not explain exactly what he meant by harm (or wrong). Instead he gave us examples.

Paul’s examples came from the Ten Commandments. He cited them not as law but to illustrate what he meant by harm. The commandments he quoted prohibited things that gentiles widely considered harmful (verse 9). Paul would not limit harm to these examples, but he does not say exactly what he considers harm to be in every case. Christians, he simply says, are to be harmless.

However, just as with love, so it is with harmlessness. Our obligations to be harmless are multidirectional, and therefore can be conflicting. If I know a father is molesting his daughter, is my obligation of harmlessness to him or his daughter? Whatever I do or not do, the potential for harm is there. If I see a drunk beating up his elderly mother, am I to be harmless to her or to her drunken son? If I do nothing, then my inaction causes her additional harm. If I intervene, then my actions may harm him. If a deranged killer is attacking his family, to whom am I expected to be harmless? Either my action or my inaction will probably harm somebody.

This raises an important point. Pacifists often accuse nonpacifists of supporting behavior that is terribly grave in its consequences. To them, pacifism is relatively harmless. Yet in the examples given above, pacifism is not necessarily harmless. Pacifism can have just as grave consequences as the refusal to kill.

Returning to Paul, we can see that his call for Christians to be harmless is possible in many one-to-one situations. But when a third party is involved (either directly or indirectly), our obligations can be conflicting, making total harmlessness impossible. Pacifism itself cannot be harmless to everyone every time. The Holocaust is a mute witness to that truth. Even if we allow for passive resistance or nonlethal force as potential options to deadly defense, would such tactics have stopped Hitler? Harmlessness to the SS would have lead to increasing harm of the Jews and everyone else they hated. Paul’s comments on harmlessness seem only to make sense in his broader command that "if it be possible . . . live at peace with everyone" (12:18). Our conflicting responsibilities to love means that it is not always possible for us to do this.

For he is God’s servant

We can now examine Paul’s understanding of human government. Romans 13:1–7 has bedeviled Christian political theorists for centuries, not because what it says is incomprehensible, but because people’s understanding of how it is to be applied are so varied. If Paul had only written an entire book on the relationships between Christians and human governments it might all be much clearer. Yet he did not. He wrote seven verses. He gave us basic principles, not detailed applications.

In speaking of human government, Paul was not addressing the forms that those governments might take. His was not a treatise on democracy, kingship or any other form of human government. He was simply addressing the purposes that God has given to governments. His argument assumed that governments act responsibly, according to their God-given functions. He was speaking of the ideal, not the real. That governments often stray far from the ideal has created some ethical dilemmas for Christians.

Paul tells Christians in Romans 13:1 to submit to governments because God has ordained them. No authority exists that God has not ordained. Rebellion against such authority is, therefore, rebellion against God. Judgment will come on the rebels, presumably from the governments themselves. That is because "rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong" (verse 3a).

The argument presupposes God’s superior authority over the governments, for he ordained them. This superiority of authority means that Christians have a superiority of obedience. Where God and state conflict, obedience to God comes first.

Government authorities that are fulfilling their God-ordained roles will commend those who do right. They will do this because they are God’s servants to do us good (verse 4a).

Where government authorities are God’s servants, may Christians be this kind of God’s servant? May Christians be governing authorities? May they bear the sword? Paul does not say. We know that he assumes Christians are not government authorities, because he only speaks of Christians as under the authorities. Yet Paul’s argument does not envision all Christian possibilities. The what-if question we just raised is not a part of his letter.

Paul’s argument also does not envision all governmental possibilities either, such as an Adolf Hitler or a Stalin. In Romans 13, governing authorities are God’s servants and they behave as God’s servants. Later in Revelation, as Rome persecuted the church, the Roman government is portrayed as a power that has joined the other side.

Revelation portrays Christian responsibility toward such governments as nonsubmissive. For example, the two witnesses resist with deadly plagues those who seek their harm, until it is God’s time for the two witnesses to be martyred. The "woman" of Revelation 12 flees from Satan rather than submit to death, though some of her children are martyred. In Revelation the righteous die rather than submit to "Babylon’s" demands. Nothing suggests that their deaths are because they are pacifists or conscientious objectors. Socially powerless, they await the return of the Lord of Lords, who will lead the armies of heaven into righteous war.

But in the ideal presentation of Romans 13, government authorities appropriately bear the sword as God’s servants (verse 4). The sword symbolizes their power over human life.

In Paul’s day, the army carried out all police, prison and military functions of the state. The modern distinctions between police and army did not exist. So, whatever Paul wrote about soldiers applies to law-enforcement agents.

Paul taught that soldiers and those who command them are governing authorities. Soldiers are God’s servants. Paul does not claim that God approves of every one of their actions any more than he approves of all our actions. But they are God’s servants. These servants are agents "of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (verse 4). The sword is an instrument of wrath.

As Paul often does, he speaks of generalities without any qualifying statements. Obviously God does not approve every wrathful act of governing authorities. Yet he approves some of their wrathful acts. That is the purpose behind God’s giving the sword to governments. He often brings vengeance through them. God holds them accountable for how and on whom they execute vengeance, but not for vengeance itself. That God gave them a sword means they can kill people, for that is the purpose of a sword. Yet they should kill according to the reason God gave them the sword in the first place: to bring God’s wrath on wrongdoers.

We submit to these authorities because of who ordained them and because we do not wish to have a conscience problem. Because they are God’s servants, and labor continually at their jobs, we pay our taxes. That is how they get paid (verses 5–7).

For us as a church, these verses raise interesting questions. For example, when was the last time you heard a sermon telling Christians to honor the military or police because they were ministers of God? I have never heard a sermon that said the American soldiers, Russian sailors and Japanese airmen were all God’s ministers. Yet that is what the Scriptures teach. Perhaps we would have had a different view of military service and war had we preached these verses.

In all of Paul’s discussion of government authorities, their God-ordained functions, their power over life and our Christian submission to them, Paul never implies that Christians cannot morally perform government functions. Of course, neither does he encourage Christians to find ways of serving God in this manner.

May Christians war? Our answers seem to hinge on whether we believe Christians can be the kinds of servants of God who "do not carry the sword for nothing" and who "bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

Anabaptists generally say that Christians may not serve God in this way, that what is duty to the unbeliever is sin for the believer. They believe that in this matter God has two different rules of conduct, one for Christians one for non-Christians. Most other Christians disagree.

Ralph Orr


Endnote

3 At first, Paul’s claim — that giving food and drink to our enemies will result in burning coals heaped on their heads — appears to suggest that we do good to gain vengeance. However, that contradicts a purpose for feeding our enemies — to relieve their physical needs. Thus, many commentators feel "burning coals on their heads" metaphorically refers to a burning conscience. By treating our enemies with kindness we move them to repentance.

 

 

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