by Richard Mansel, assistant editor
The Apostle Paul provides a concise discussion on God’s view of government. It is important that Christians study Romans 13:1-6, especially when the role of government is under reconsideration in the United States.
“For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4, NKJV).
Government is the method for ordering secular society. Governmental authority comes from God but man maintains his freewill. Thus, leaders will either follow God or disobey him. If the latter, there will be consequences.
If laws order society, then disobedience brings punishment [keeping Acts 5:29 in mind]. Government must have the authority to enforce its laws, so the innocent can be safe. Governmental authorities are called “God’s minister” for this purpose.
In Romans 12:19, Paul wrote that men were not to “avenge themselves,” because God would take care of their punishment. In part, the governing authorities carry this out. The New English Bible calls them, “God’s agents.”
While they are not ministers in the same respect as spiritual ministers, they are an instrument of God to facilitate the stabilization of society. “The might of the state is entrusted by God with the office of avenger.”/1
The avenger carries the authority to enforce the laws of the land. He “does not bear the sword in vain,” which means, “to bear constantly”./2 Government should never be off-duty, because God is not.
The Greek word for “sword” refers to the “sword worn by the superior magistrates of the provinces, to whom belonged the right of capital punishment.”/3 This sword was the ultimate symbol of life and death./4 It implied “repeated or habitual action.”/5
“The Emperor Trajan once presented a dagger to a provincial governor with the words, ‘For me. If I deserve it, in me.'”/6
The full phrase has in view the “power of life and death which was then, as for most of human civilization, the ultimate sanction for government.”/7
Man is not to enact vigilante justice. God has established a system to enact punishment on criminals. Government bears the authority to execute wrath by the sword.
The role of government in this function is verified by Jesus (John 19:11) and Paul (Acts 25:10-11). Evil rulers existed in New Testament times, so they do not negate the command to be subject to the leaders of the land.
Does this mention of the sword allow capital punishment by the government?
When we discuss the issue, we will examine it from the Biblical perspective. Discussions on racial disparity and fairness and the humanity of execution methods are beyond the scope of our discussion.
1/ The quote is attributed to Falkenroth but the source is unknown to me.
2/ Joseph Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1977), 393.
3/ C.G. Moule, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.), 355.
5/ James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 764
6/ Tom Wacaster, Studies in Romans (Pulaski, Sain Publications, 2005), 563.
7/ Dunn, 764.