Peace-Loving Believers in an Age of Violence, Part 2

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Just war advocates normally base their stance upon passages revealing the divine origin and approval of government and its functions. Romans 13:1–7 forms the anchoring text for developing their view of governmental authority in the lives of Christians. The apostle Paul represents the government as a divinely constituted authority (vv. 1, 2). Hodge argues that

It was to Paul a matter of little importance whether the Roman emperor was appointed by the senate, the army, or the people; whether the assumption of the imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, or whether his successors had a legitimate claim to the throne or not. It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed.[1]

Even though the civil and military assets of the Roman Empire engaged in the slaughter Christians, the Holy Spirit directed the apostle to instruct believers in Rome to submit to the government. It did not matter that the emperors of Rome lived profligate lives steeped in immorality and debauchery, their authority was legitimate. All “resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment”[2] — except for situations in which obeying the government might result in disobedience to God. Harrison handles the seeming contradiction of Romans 13:1–2 and Acts 5:29 by suggesting a two-fold approach. First, assume that the apostle merely presents the norm stripped of any possible biblical exception[3] and second, apply the principle of Romans 8:28, trusting that God eventually will “bring good out of apparent evil.”[4]

The sword of governmental authority may avenge[5] wrong (Romans 13:3, 4).[6] In order to accomplish its biblical mandate, a government cannot remain passive nor can it avoid actions that might involve the taking of life. “The Biblical state protects against tyranny from within (crime) and tyranny from without (invasion).”[7] Adherents to all four major views of Christian involvement in the military recognize the truth and necessity of this aspect of God-given governmental authority. Differences arise in regard to the nature of Christian participation in government and government-directed military.

Christians submitting to governmental authority must preserve a good conscience in the matter (Romans 13:5).[8] Believers must pay their taxes (v. 6), even if those taxes support military actions undertaken by the government.[9] Every Christian tax payer participates indirectly in his or her government’s wars. Taxes that the apostle Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to pay eventually financed Paul’s imprisonment, extradition, and execution. Likewise, Christ ordered payment of taxes to Rome and Roman soldiers paid by those taxes executed Him. Augustine stated the position of the Church regarding taxes:

So if anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show the proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is his superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s but unto God the things which are God’s.[10]

Christians might both be subject to governmental authority and be partners in wielding the sword of governmental authority. Such partnership might involve serving in a civil police force. If a Christian must avoid military service, it would seem a corollary that a Christian must not be a police officer either. Christian pacifists occasionally try to distinguish between police and military service, allowing the former while denying the legitimacy of the latter.[11]

New Testament examples of Christians serving as government officers demonstrate that believers have biblical precedent for wielding the sword of Romans 13:4.[12]

  • Cornelius served as a centurion, a military officer of high rank in a battalion of Roman fighting men (Acts 10:1). Although he was a soldier on active duty, he is described as “devout” (v. 2), a term that, at the least, describes a man of high moral character and piety. He became a convert to Christ and was baptized publicly (v. 48). The Scripture is silent about his status from that point on. DeVan and Smythe observe that “Jesus gives no hint of disapproval towards military service in his interaction with the centurion (Matt. 5:8–13; and Luke 7:1–10). Cf. Luke 3:14; Acts 10; Rom. 13:4; 1 Cor. 9:7; 2 Tim. 2:3–4; and Heb. 11:32–34.”[13]
  • Sergius Paulus fulfilled his duties as proconsul in the Roman government in Cyprus (Acts 13:7). A proconsul’s (a Roman provincial governor) authority included ordering the execution of criminals and deploying Roman troops in battle when needed.[14] He became a believer (v. 12). No record is given of any resignation from his office upon becoming a Christian.
  • Erastus (Romans 16:23) held the office of city treasurer even after his conversion. As a government officer he managed the funds that would be utilized in the execution of criminals and the payment of police. As an active official, he could be called upon to wield the Roman sword of authority both figuratively and literally.
  • Zenas (Titus 3:13) was an active Christian lawyer. In the Roman system of the courts, he played a role in the application of the avenging sword — the application of capital punishment.

Click Part 1 to read the previous post in this series.

 

Footnotes

[1] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 407.

[2] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. in 1, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 2:149.

[3] “The way is then open to justify revolution in cases where rights are denied and liberties taken away, making life intolerable for freedom-loving men and women, since the state has ceased to fulfill its God-appointed function. However, Christians will not as a church lead in revolution, but only as citizens of the commonwealth. At the very least, under circumstances involving a collapse of justice, the Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state’s failure, pointing out the deviation from the divinely ordained pattern. Subjection to the state is not to be confused with unthinking, blind, docile conformity” — Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols., ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein, 10:1–171 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 138.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Avenge is a better translation to employ since it “is generally used in the sense of achieving justice, whereas revenge … stresses retaliation” — William Morris, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), 91.

[6] Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:152–53.

[7] P. Andrew Sandlin, “War, the Bible, and the State,” Chalcedon Report 4, no. 8 (May 2000): 3.

[8] Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:154.

[9] Does the Pauline position contradict the rallying cry of the American Revolution which decried British taxation? Many American colonists had fled religious persecution in Europe. They committed themselves to freedom of religion and freedom from tyranny. Taxation without representation was but one aspect of the problem; excessive taxation was also a problem. The British crown’s taxes were considered a threat to the welfare of the colonists. The vast distances separating the colonies from the British government hindered good communication to such an extent that a local, independent government was deemed necessary. Whether or not the American Revolution was contrary to Scripture, modern Christians cannot appeal to its example for avoiding taxation since the two situations are very different. For more detailed attention to the complexities involved in Christian involvement in the Revolutionary War, see Alan Johnson, “The Bible and War in America: An Historical Survey,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 2 (June 1985): 172–74.

[10] P. F. Landes, ed., Augustine on Romans (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 41, 43, cited by Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 6, ed. by Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 325. Cf., also, Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 406.

[11] Richard McSorley, New Testament Basis of Peacemaking, 3rd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 22–23. Cf. Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1985), 45–47. See the just peacemaking focus on police action against terrorism rather than military action: Duane K. Friesen, John Langan, and Glen Stassen, “Introduction: Just Peacemaking as the New Ethic for Peace and War,” in Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War, 2nd ed., ed. by Glen Stassen (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 7.

[12] The following material is excerpted from William D. Barrick, “The Christian and War,” Master’s Seminary Journal 11, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 223.

[13] Benjamin B. DeVan and Thomas W. Smythe, “The Character of Jesus Defended,” Christian Apologetics Journal 5, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 116 n. 62.

[14] These proconsular powers can be compared to the lesser powers of a procurator like Pontius Pilate who employed Roman troops in the slaughter of Galileans (Luke 13:1) and the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves (Matthew 27:1–38). Cf. F. F. Bruce, “Palestine, Administration of (Roman),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 5:97–98 (New York: Doubleday, 1992); John F. Hall, “Procurator,” ibid., 5:473–74.

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