Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13 (Q & A)

In my last post I presented my framework for my views on pacifism (or “Christian non-violence”). The framework raised a number of questions, especially in regard to question #3, which I now intend to address.

Here’s a quick summary of my position.

First, in the face of evil, violence, and persecution, we as Christians should give up the right to vengeance, trust in God, and love our enemies as we follow the example of Jesus.

Second, one reason we can do this is because we know that God is just and he will bring about ultimate judgment. Since God will bring about perfect justice, we don’t need to.

Third, one way God has provided a means for approximate retributive justice is through the State which he has granted authority to “carry the sword” for the good of the people.

Now for the Q & A:

#1 Rome and America have drastically different political systems, how does that change our interpretation of Romans 13?

It is true that Rome and America have drastically different political systems. It is true that Paul did not have a democratic system of government in mind in Romans 13. Given the drastic change in context, should we modify our understanding of Romans 13? Does it really apply to us? If so, in what way?

For me, the whole question hinges on the concept of “authority.” The agents of the State (Rome in this case) are called the “authorities” and have been given that authority by God. In fact, “there is no authority except that which God has established” (13:1). These authorities are “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (13:4). In other words, God grants the State authority in order to bring some level of justice – punishment for those who do wrong.

But, is Rome only in view here? I don’t believe that is the case. God is the one who raises up and humbles Kings and governments. I don’t think Romans 13:1 is limited to Rome only. It provides us with a general principle for understanding our relationship to the State. The key difference between Rome and America is how the government acquired its authority. In America it is conferred by the people (approximately anyway). Nevertheless, God is the one who ultimately grants authority.

So, I believe the general principle stands.

The big difference is that Paul and the early Christians (except for those who were government officials) had no say in the government. Today, we all have a say, we all have a vote, in how our government will be run.

This adds a new layer of complexity. As believers we are not only concerned with our individual lives or the life and governance of the church, but we can direct public policy. This is an ethical consideration not in view for Paul.

So how do we resolve this tension? I, as a Christian, ought to seek non-violence but I also believe the government has been granted authority to carry out violence for the cause of justice. I don’t normally like to wade into politics but, in order to be honest in answering this question it appears I must. In this regard, I think we ought to hold three principles in mind:

1)      All things considered, non-violence is better than violence. I want my government to be people who seek peace and the path of non-violence first.

2)      All things considered, justice is better than injustice and, sometimes, retributive justice means the exercise of violence within bounds. I want my government to be people who carry out justice for the good of the people. Therefore, I am not de facto opposed to things like capital punishment or “just war.”

3)      I know that the authority provided to the State is provisional and deeply flawed. The State will never be able to bring about perfect justice. I do not want my government to stand in the place of God. I want my government to act within limits. I do not want it to seek a Utopia. I only desire it to seek “approximate justice.”

#2 Is Paul describing the way things are or the way things should be?

This is a related question. Paul could either be just describing the way things are: “God granted authority to Rome so we must submit, even when they themselves treat us unjustly,” or he could be describing the way things should be: “God has granted authority to the State to bring about good and punish wrongdoing.” The first interpretation leads us to a limited application. The second provides us with a broad framework. It should be clear that I have chosen the second route. Several things in the text draw me to this conclusion.

1)      The description from the text does not quite match up with the historical reality. In reality, the State at the time was ambivalent and hostile to both Jews and Christians. Christians needed to apply the principles of Romans 12 (love enemies) to the agents of the State itself. Paul, on the other hand, says the agents of the State “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” and that if you do right “you will be commended.” How do we account for this discrepancy? First, even though Rome was flawed there was still a remnant of justice being accomplished. Second, Paul had in mind an ideal state, a general principle.

2)      Paul describes the actions of the State in positive terms. He doesn’t point to the evil carried out by the State, but to the good. The agents of the State serve justice, not personal vengeance. They are servants of God. They punish wrongdoers. They work for good.

3)      Paul doesn’t condemn their use of the sword – he grants that is has authority and commends its use to the extent that it carries out justice. Surely Paul is not justifying or commending violence by the State carte blanche. If he was doing so he would be justifying the death of Christ and the martyrdom of Jews and Christians. Instead, he is saying that when the State is acting in line with justice (ideal action of the State) its actions are commendable and justifiable.

This all leads me to believe Paul is describing a general principle and is not only describing the conditions of first century Christians. (Of course, we do well to understand this passage first within its original context.)

#3 Does this provide governments a blank check?

No. I addressed this in the previous question. Paul isn’t justifying unjust violence committed by the State. This could only be used to justify just action by the State. This kind of violence should be resisted.

All things considered peace is preferable to war, non-violence to violence. We ought to be extremely wary of any action by the State which will lead to death (death penalty, war, etc.) and should look with a critical eye when the State wants to exert its authority in this way. The same authority which can be used for justice (good) can also easily be used for injustice (evil).

#4 Should Christians serve as government officials in the carrying out of violence?

Every Christian in America is faced with the tension of how to vote. It’s even trickier to determine in what way it is permissible to serve ends of the State. The tension could be stated as follows: Christians are called to non-violence. The State is called to carry out justice, which sometimes includes the use of violence. Can Christians serve the State while staying true to their ethical commitments to Christ?

One way to solve this, as a Christian, is to forswear certain jobs where violence would be necessary: Police officer, Soldier, Executioner, etc., and possibly other jobs which enable the violence of the State.

(Personal note: I work as a software engineer for a company that works on military aircraft. In a small way I contribute to the “military industrial complex.” I have never worked on weapon systems. Everything I have worked on has use in both military and civil aircraft. However, on occasion, I have contributed to military programs. I had to ask the question before I started the job, “Can I perform this work in good conscience?” This was not a slam dunk answer for me, though obviously I decided the answer was “Yes.”)

It has not been unusual for Christians throughout the centuries to choose this path. And, to the extent they are acting within their consciences they are acting in faith. I certainly support this decision both because a Scriptural case can be made and because, historically, this has always been an option for believers. Also, there are cases where the State is so grossly unjust (Nazi Germany, for instance) that any support of the State would be sinful. If America turned down a similar road I would council believers to actively (but peacefully, don’t forget Romans 12!) resist service to the State.

I don’t think this is the only option, though, and that’s because the way the tension was stated above is too simplistic. Christians do not forswear all violence per se, but personal vengeance. That is, the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 deal with how we respond to personal attacks. In those cases we give up our right to “repay evil with evil.” Instead we leave justice to God.

The actions of the State are (or should be) something all together different. If a Christian is being persecuted and, let’s say, someone come over to his house while he is gone and murders his wife, it would be wrong for him to enact vengeance and kill the perpetrator. That’s vengeance and even though justice might call out for him to do it, he hasn’t been granted authority to carry it out.

Suppose, however, there is a Christian police officer on the force investigating the crime. He, not acting out of vengeance, but out of justice, could participate in the arrest and prosecution of the criminal, even if he expected the sentence to be the death penalty. In one case the Christian is acting out of vengeance. In the other case he is acting on the side of justice.

I would go so far as to say that, when the cause is just, it is not only permissible to act on the side of the State in carrying out justice (even through violence) but commendable. It’s commendable because justice is commendable and because these acts often involve commendable traits: bravery, personal sacrifice, brotherly love, etc. At the very least, these traits ought to be commended.

I am content, then, to leave this up to the conscience of the individual Christian. For those whose consciences prevent them from serving in this way, don’t serve. To do so would be to violate your conscience which would be a sin. For those whose consciences do not prevent them from serving I counsel they ask the following questions: “Is the cause just?” “Am I acting out of vengeance or for the cause of justice?” “Am I being asked to do things which are not just?” “Can I pursue a non-violent solution instead?” If you are satisfied with your answers, carry out your duty with a humble and sacrificial attitude. Act not only as a servant of God to carry out justice, but as a servant of Christ, to extend mercy.


Before I set out I typed out more questions which I wasn’t able to get to given time constraints (aka, my son waking up from his nap). I hope to present a third issue in a week or two.