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A Disembodied Head? Part 9: Romans 13

What does the Bible say about violence and the sword?

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13.1-7)

At first blush, this passage seems to run counter to yesterday’s post about the exclusion of violence. I’ve often heard this passage used as a counter to the Sermon on the Mount. (I used to use it that way myself at times!) But a closer look at the passage itself, and the words before and after, reveal that this is a tragic misunderstanding of what Paul seems to be trying to say if we look at this holistically. First, some quick notes about this passage:

  • The instructions to Christians are to be subject, pay taxes, and obey the law as much as conscience allows as we follow Christ.
  • There is a clear lack of instructions for how to exercise power if you are in the government/political world.
  • The power of the sword is clearly given to the state, but there is no encouragement for Christians to be involved in that, at all! While the authorities are called “God’s servants”, they are “devoted to governing”, not God; Christians are called to be devoted to Christ.
  • God can use the state, and its authority comes from God. This is not meant to imply that we need to redeem it.

But now, let us set the context to be sure we don’t read too much or too little into these seven verses. Romans 12 begins by talking about presenting ourselves as living sacrifices (verses 1-2), then moves into a discussion of humility and service within the Body of Christ (verses 3-8). Finally, Chapter 12 ends with verses 9-21 which I will quote here:

9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Clearly, verse 14 sounds quite like the passages quoted in yesterday’s post. Note that the idea of vengeance (repayment) is addressed in verses 17-21. This further clarifies and reiterates what the Church in Rome would already have heard about the teachings of Christ. What I find pertinent to our discussion is that Paul seems to see a thought that might come up in the minds of his readers after this. Well, if vengeance is God’s job, then how do I know that the wrong will be righted? This, to me explains the seeming abrupt shift when we get into Chapter 13 in the verses quoted above. Paul says that we are to leave the “revenge” up to God and trust His judgement. If needed, He may use the state to exact this judgement, but it is not our duty to worry about that and allow evil to overcome us. We overcome evil with good.
While this view may seem like a stretch at first (it did to me when I first heard it from non-violent friends), consider the verses that follow the passage quoted above, Romans 13.8-14:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers. 12 The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.
After the discussion of how we interact with the state (apparently submission but not involvement) Paul returns to admonitions to love each other and our neighbors. We are to conduct ourselves without discord and jealousy (which could be the source of thoughts of getting even). We are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, our head.
Simply put, the thirst for violence and Christian participation in violent justice through the state are not supported by this passage, as I used to think. In fact, this passage seems to be intended to pull Christians away from this distraction from the life of the Christian. If my life is a holy, living sacrifice to God, then injustice done to me is God’s problem to deal with. I am His possession. If He chooses to use the government to mete out His justice, that is His right. If He chooses not to avenge me in any way that I can see, that is of no concern to me. I am to focus on loving, feeding, and praying for my enemy. Violence then, is excluded.
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In response to a perceptive question from loyal reader Rob Martin, I thought I’d add a quick note about one other passage that I had decided not to comment on yesterday. What about the passage in Luke 22 (verses 36-38) where Jesus seems to instruct the disciples that they should sell their possessions and buy swords. The disciples respond that they already have two. Jesus simply says “It is enough.” Later, as Jesus is being arrested, the disciples ask if this is the time to use their swords. Peter, without waiting for an answer, pulls out one of the swords and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. At this Jesus stops them with the words quoted (from Matthews version of the story) at the beginning of yesterday’s post and tells them all to put away their swords. (The NET translates this in Luke as “Enough of this!”) Clearly, the disciples thought Christ was endorsing violence, but it seems they were wrong. We should be wise enough to avoid this mistake given that we can read the whole text.
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I’m planning to move on Monday to another topic in the series. If there is some argument for violence that you would like me to address, please comment below! If you disagree with my conclusions that violence is excluded, maybe it is why you come to that conclusion. If you agree with me, maybe it is a common argument you’ve encountered. Either way, I’d be happy to look into it and let you know how I would respond.
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3 comments on “A Disembodied Head? Part 9: Romans 13

  1. Bingo! Nailed it.

    One other reminder: when we read Romans 13, we must make sure that we recognize that when Paul is talking about government and ruling authorities, he is not talking about a nice, friendly democracy that is tolerant of many competing ideas and religious beliefs… he is talking about an empire for which the statement “Jesus is Lord” (go back to Romans 10:9 for that) is not simply a religious statement but one with political ramifications. So, here we have Paul saying, “Hey… respect your government, be subject to it, etc.”… Another tie in verse from Romans 12:18 is to “as best as you are able, get along with everyone” (my rough paraphrase). So, even when government is supposedly counter to Jesus’ Kingdom and is certainly not acting properly, there is a level of respect that they still deserve… respect, but not necessarily allegiance in all things.

    Thanks, Sam! Excellent stuff!

  2. We used some of that Roman 12 text in our wedding. It’s a very Anabaptist-y text and is absolutely necessary to understand Romans 13 correctly.

    The main arguments for violence are “common sense” ones, not biblical ones: you can’t really be saying that we just ignore Hitler, or the thief in the house with a gun pointed at our children? Most seem to think these are so obvious that they over-rule Jesus’ commands to love even enemies or Paul’s commands to repay evil with good, but they actually rely on a lot of assumptions that should in my opinion run counter to the Christian worldview.

    The other one we get occasionally is arguments from the Old Testament. If God then could not only condone but command mass violence, surely there is at least some justifiable examples now, or so the argument goes. Kinda missing the point of a new covenant, but it is convincing to many.

  3. […] 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans …read more […]

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