Open Romans 13:1-7.
We discussed what this passage says about the authority of the state. Now we turn to the question of whether God authorizes governments to conduct wars, and whether it authorizes Christians to kill enemies in war.
Romans 13:4 is the crucial verse, and I’m going to argue these points:
- carrying the sword refers to punishing wrongdoers, not prosecuting war;
- the New Testament does not instruct the state about war;
- followers of Jesus must not go to war, because our King forbids it.
Here’s the context:
Romans 13:1-7 (my translation)
1 Every person, be subject to the authorities in power. For no authority exists unless it’s from God. The ones that exist have been designated by God. 2 That means a person who rises against an authority has opposed God’s directive, and as opponents, they draw judgement on themselves.
3 For rulers are not fearful to those who do good, but to the bad. You want to live without fear of authority? Do good, and you’ll have its approval. 4 For it is God’s agent, to lead you into the good. But if you do what’s bad, be afraid. There’s a reason it carries the sword: it’s God’s agent to punish in anger the one who does what’s bad.
5 That’s why it’s so crucial to be subject — not only because of its anger, but also because of what we all know to be right. 6 That’s why you must pay taxes, since they’re God’s servants called to faithful service as we are. 7 Fulfil your obligations to everyone: to whom you owe tax, tax; to whom you owe revenue, revenue; to whom you owe fear, fear; to whom you owe respect, respect.
All authority derives from God. That’s true of parents, teachers, mayors, police, courts, and politicians. Therefore the right way to show honour to God is to show honour to those who represent him. The Bible’s whole narrative spells out the source and limits of that authority.
Humans always were representatives of the divine ruler on the earth, though originally God did not authorize us to rule over each other (Genesis 1:26-28). God ruled over us, and it was grasping at his power that caused all our struggles (Genesis 3) resulting in unsustainable violence (Genesis 4–6).
After the flood, God’s key agenda was containing the violence. He authorized humans to act on his behalf to curtail violence. Instantly, human rulers abused that power. Noah introduced the curse of slavery (Genesis 9), and Nimrod introduced war to build kingdoms (Genesis 10). Since he had authorized human rule, God didn’t stop them. Okay, he did intervene when they tried to shift the power of heaven into human hands (Genesis 11).
Instead of confronting the nations, God launched an alternative strategy: a nation of his own through Abraham (Genesis 12). Only rarely did God intervene to call human rulers out for failing to act as his servants (e.g. Sodom).
This framework makes particularly good sense of this verse:
Romans 13:4 There’s a reason it carries the sword: it’s God’s agent to punish in anger the one who does what’s bad.
This is precisely what Genesis 9:6 says: the one who sheds human blood is to have their blood shed by humans, because humans function as agents of the heavenly ruler (image of God). The phrase punish in anger refers to avenging bloodshed (see ESV, ASV, CSB, CJB, ERV, HSCB, LEB, NASB, NKJV, RV). Consequently, bearing the sword means the state’s power to execute wrong doers, just as Genesis 9:6 says. (Christians supporting capital punishment does not necessarily follow.)
Even a cursory reading of Romans 13:4 reveals that bearing the sword means the state’s authority to execute justice. Nothing in this context authorizes governments to prosecute war. That’s a separate issue, though there is a long history (dating back to Nimrod) of warriors extending it to making war as well.
So has God authorized governments to protect their citizens by conducting wars against their enemies? Is there any such thing as a “just” war?
You won’t find that question answered in the New Testament. Jesus never gave such advice to Herod or Pilate. Paul’s letter to Rome contains no instructions to Caesar on how to run his government. Even Revelation is addressed to the churches, not the Empire. The Bible doesn’t tell rulers how to run their empires.
But what the New Testament says to followers of Jesus is crystal clear. Even if God’s agent, the government, orders you to kill our enemies, a direct order from our commander-in-chief countermands that call. We are not obeying Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” if we’re killing them. That command — “love your enemies” — defines our allegiance. It was the most quoted verse of the New Testament for the first three centuries.
How could Paul have made his message any clearer? Four verses earlier, he issued an absolute prohibition on believers bearing the sword in anger:
Romans 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to God’s anger.
I have no advice for Canberra about what to do if Australia comes under attack. But I do have a command for Christians, a command that outranks whatever Canberra bids you do. Your king commands you to love your enemies. Using violence to defeat violence is not an option (12:21).
Somebody has to stop fighting first. King Jesus did. It’s how he saves the world. Don’t follow the commands of those who prosecute war. Follow the Lamb. That’s the only path to peace: refusing to engage in violence because you have a higher allegiance, to the kingdom of God.
Update 2018-10-01: Here’s a great example of Christians who believe in non-violence making a difference: Coptic Christians Model The Way Of Christ.