By Bruce Mills
The other day, one of the supervisors at my office who is also a follower of Christ flagged me down in the parking lot, saying, “Hey, Bruce, can I see you for a minute? I need to ask you a question.”
I thought he wanted to ask me a question about my job responsibilities, but instead, his question caught me by surprise. He said, “A deputy sheriff friend of mine is looking to get a tattoo of a reference to a Bible verse that talks about law enforcement being ordained by God to carry out His purposes. I gave him Romans 13:4, but I wanted to make sure that I was correct in my understanding. Is Romans 13:4 referring to law enforcement?”
For those of you who don’t know off the top of your head what Romans 13:4 says in regard to the government, it reads, “for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”
I quickly assured my friend that since law enforcement is the arm of government by which justice against evildoers is initiated, Romans 13:4 is certainly an endorsement of that profession. But what interested me was the motive of the man seeking the tattoo. So I asked my friend why the deputy wanted to get such a reference permanently inked into his skin.
He explained that this deputy knew about the sixth of the Ten Commandments which, in the old English language of the King James Version states, “Thou shalt not kill,” and he had come to my friend who he knew was a Christian and wanted to know whether God endorsed the fact that in his role as a law enforcement officer, he might have to take someone’s life. When my friend explained that God did such in Romans 13:4 with the statement, “for it does not bear the sword for nothing,” the deputy decided that he wanted to have that Scripture reference tattooed onto his body as a permanent reminder that what he was doing as his chosen profession was endorsed by God as one of His purposes for mankind. But later on my friend began doubting his understanding of that phrase in the verse, wondering if it was, in fact, an endorsement of the government’s right to take a life.
I then went on to explain a basic overview of that statement to my friend, but I would like to expound upon it further in this post, for anyone who might wonder about the government’s authority to execute criminals for certain crimes. The seeming conflict between “Thou shalt not kill” and what it means to “bear the sword” have created much confusion in the minds of some Christians.
First of all, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments with the included command, “Thou shalt not kill,” He was not prohibiting any killing by any one at any time. Rather, when that statement is examined in the original Hebrew language, it simply says, “No murder.” Instead of referring to the government’s use of capital punishment for certain crimes, or the justifiable use of deadly force to protect oneself or others, it refers to the crime of murder; that is, the unjustified killing of another person. The translation which has come to us in the old language of the King James Version has unfortunately concealed the true meaning of the commandment, and consequently, caused a great deal of misunderstanding. That statement has nothing whatsoever to do with capital punishment or defending oneself or others.
God is the one who instituted capital punishment all the way back in Gen. 9:6— “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Because man was created in God’s image, for someone to murder a man is such a heinous offense against the image of God that the person must pay with his own life.
However, some people say, “But that was the Old Testament law. Things are different since Jesus came. He spoke about being gentle and merciful and said we are to be peacemakers. He said we are to turn the other cheek when someone attacks us, so capital punishment is no longer valid for mankind.”
However, when Jesus made those statements in the Sermon on the Mount, He was talking about the individual’s response to mistreatment. He was not speaking of the responsibility of government in terms of maintaining justice and protection for its citizens. But, when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the authorities came to arrest Him, Peter took out his sword to start fighting against them. He even tried to take off the head of the high priest’s servant, but the fellow apparently ducked and Peter got only his ear. Jesus, recognizing that the government authorities were ordained of God, said something very important to Peter. He said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
What was He saying? Let me first tell you what He wasn’t saying. He wasn’t saying, “If you fight with a sword, you’re liable to meet somebody who will fight back with a sword and kill you.”
No, Jesus was saying, “You take a life, Peter, and I will affirm the right of this government to take your life.” Jesus was affirming capital punishment as a proper extension of civil authority. He was saying, “Peter, if you use that sword, then I affirm by God-ordained law that you will die by the sword.” He was reminding His disciple that the penalty for his unjustified killing one of Jesus’ enemies would be to perish himself through execution, which the Lord was acknowledging would be justified.
Also, when the apostle Paul stood before the Roman governor Festus and made his appeal to Caesar, he said, “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die…” (Acts 25:11). In saying that, he was acknowledging that capital punishment was sometimes justified and that he would willingly accept it if he were to be found guilty of a capital crime.
And, as my friend accurately told the deputy sheriff who asked him about whether the Bible endorsed his role as a law enforcement officer in taking a human life when necessary, Romans 13:4 also provides justification for the government’s use of capital punishment or deadly force by the statement “for it does not bear the sword for nothing.”
In biblical times, the Roman government was well-known for its well-developed criminal justice system. It used capital punishment as the punishment for certain crimes deemed to be worthy of death. If the guilty party was not a Roman citizen, crucifixion was often the means by which the offender was executed. However, crucifixion was such a horrible means of death that it was prohibited for use as a means of executing those who were Roman citizens. For Roman citizens, the means of execution was beheading with a sword because it provided instant death rather than the protracted, painful death which came by crucifixion. Thus, the reference in Romans 13:4 to the government “bearing the sword” is referring to capital punishment as a means of punishing evildoers.
So then, both the Old Testament and the New Testament endorse and authorize the government’s use of capital punishment for those guilty of evil deeds deemed worthy of execution. Government’s role is to function as God’s avenging minister to exercise His wrath on those who practice evil.
Now, whether it is a good idea for a law enforcement officer to get Romans 13:4 tattooed onto his skin in order to remind himself that he is acting with God’s authority if he finds himself in a “deadly force” situation is another matter altogether. But that discussion is best left to another time and place.