Posted by: sean | December 21, 2007

What about Romans 13? Aren’t Governments Authorized to Kill?

Taken from pages 81-83 of The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down © David Bercot. Used by permission. Copies can be obtained from Scroll Publishing Co., P. O. Box 122, Amberson, PA 17210 or see their website at

But can’t we wear two hats? When I’m in an army uniform and am part of the U. S. Army, it isn’t me, the individual, doing the killing. It’s the United States government. And the United States government has been entrusted with the sword by God, according to Romans 13.

This argument seems plausible only because most Christians are still unable to think of the kingdom of God as a real, existing government.

To illustrate, suppose an American citizen were living in Germany in the 1930s. And further suppose that the German army drafted him. (Yes, governments have the power to conscript residents who are non-citizens.) Let’s say that this American accepted being drafted into the German army and that he later killed his fellow Americans during one of the battles of World War II. Further suppose that he was eventually captured by American forces and was put on trial.

Suppose that at his trial, this American presented the following defense: “I know it would have been wrong for me, an individual American, to take up arms against my fellow citizens. However, I was drafted into the German army and so it was no longer me, the American citizen, who killed other Americans. It was the German government conducting lawful warfare against the United States.”

Do you think the people and government of the United States would accept that plea? Of course not! So why do we imagine that Jesus will accept such a plea?

Actually, a real-life situation similar to my illustration recently happened. A few years ago, the United States conducted a war against the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. In the course of the war, the U. S. Army captured an American citizen named John Walker Lindh, who had joined the Taliban fighters. Now, let’s suppose that Mr. Lindh had made the following defense at his trial:

“I, John Walker Lindh, as an individual American citizen would never do anything to harm another American. Yes, it’s true that I joined the Taliban army. But at the time I joined, they were not at war with the United States. Whatever actions I took after that were not mine–they were the Taliban government’s actions. I did not fight against the United States as an individual. I only fought as a unit of the Taliban government. Therefore, I am innocent.”

Do you think an American jury would have accepted that? I think not.

Christians who reject nonresistance, in effect, want Jesus to subjugate Himself to Caesar. They want Jesus to acknowledge that His laws can be broken if Caesar requires people to do so. But would Caesar be willing to do the revers? Will Caesar allow us to break Caesar’s law if Jesus requires it?

In answer to that question, let’s suppose that Mr. Lindh had made this defense: “I, John Walker Lindh, the American citizen, would never do anything to harm another American. Of course that would be wrong! If I fought against the United States in Afghanistan, I did so purely as John Walker Lindh, the Muslim. My allegiance to Allah requires me to kill all infidels. Therefore as a member of Islam, I killed Americans. But I did this only as a part of the Islamic international community–not as an individual nor as an American. Therefore, I am innocent.”

What do you think? Would that defense have worked? Of course not. The United States government will not allow its citizens to kill one another, regardless of their religious beliefs. If someone kills another American, he will be charged with murder. The fact that his religion required it will be no excuse.

If our government will not allow its citizens to slaughter one another because of their religious differences, why do we imagine that Jesus will allow His citizens to slaughter one another because of their political or national differences?


  1. Sean, the response was well written in responding to the claim made by Bercot. Still, I’ve been trying to figure out what Romans 13 is getting at.

    1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

    2 Therefore whoever resists (same word as Matthew 5:29) authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.

    3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;

    4 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.

    If we hold that Christians at no time are ever to use force, where does that leave us in attempting to respond to this passage? Although Satan may be the god of this age, Scripture tells us here that God is using the governing authorities of this age to use force (bear the sword) to punish evil.

    Are we then to believe that Christians should support the government’s use of force to punish evil while simultaneously claiming that it is wrong for us, personally, to use force?

    Doesn’t this mean that those who ‘bear the sword’ as a minister of God for good, by necessity, HAVE to be people who reject Him?

    I’m not seeing a way to bring this altogether. What are your thoughts?

    • *Matthew 5:39

  2. We are to be subject to the governing authorities because they are appointed by God to bear the sword and execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Does that mean that God approves of everything the government does? Gregory Boyd responds:

    This doesn’t mean that worldly governments are created by God or that governments always use their God-given authority as God intended—as though Hitler and Stalin were carrying out God’s will! Paul rather says that God institutes, directs, or stations (tetagmenai) governments.

    …As he did with nations in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah 10), God uses governments as he finds them, in all their ungodly rebellious ways, to serve his own providential purposes. As Paul describes in Romans 13, this general purpose is to preserve as much law and order as is possible. Insofar as governments do this, they are properly exercising the authority God grants them and are, to that extent, good.

    Because of this good function, disciples of Jesus are commanded to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17) and live in conformity to the laws of their land as much as possible—that is, insofar as those laws do not conflict with our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; and specifically Acts 5:29). Whether we find ourselves in a democratic, socialist, or communist country, we are to pray for our leaders and seek to live in peace in that country (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We are, in a word, to be good citizens of whatever version of the kingdom of the world we find ourselves in.

    But we need to know another important dimension of the biblical teaching about the kingdom of the world. While God directs governments for the good of fallen people, Scripture also teaches that another cosmic force exists, one that is hostile to God and influences governments to accomplish evil…

    Along these same lines, Jesus three times refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The term “ruler” (arche) was a political term used to denote the highest ruling authority in a given region—and Jesus applied it to Satan over the whole world! Functionally, Satan is the acting CEO of all earthly governments. Paul agrees, for he refers to Satan as “the god of this age” and as “the ruler of the power of the air” (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). We see, then, that while God ultimately gives authority to government to preserve law and order in a fallen world, and while God orders and orchestrates governments as he finds them to his own providential advantage, Satan—“the destroyer” who “deceives the nations” (Rev. 9:11; 20:3, 8; especially 13:14)—is heavily involved in all of them works at cross-purposes to God.

    I know of no way to resolve the ambiguity involved in this dual analysis of the kingdom of the world—but simply recognizing that there is, at the very least, a strong demonic presence polluting all versions of the kingdom of the world has to significantly affect how followers of Jesus view earthly governments. Minimally, this recognition implies that we can never assume that any particular nation—including our own—is always, or even usually, aligned with God.

    So, just as Romans teaches us that governments are ordered by God, so many other places teach that Satan is influencing them in major ways also. But, regardless of how we view the government in which we live, our role as kingdom people is clearly and unambiguously defined in the verses that immediately precede the section we have been looking at:

    Romans 12.9-1
    10 [L]ove one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 13.1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

    The follower of Jesus never takes vengeance in his adversaries, but rather leaves room for the wrath of God. The governments of the world are intended to wield the sword to execute God’s wrath on the wicked, and to the degree they do that they are the servants of God. But to the degree they conquer nations unprovoked, build empire, oppress the poor, and do evil they are the servants of Satan who rules over them until the kingdom comes. Even so, as Christians, our role is clear: we are to love our enemies, be at peace, and overcome evil with good.

  3. Hey Sean,

    Thanks for the reply. I haven’t finished the copy of Boyd’s book you gave me, but I did get so far to read his comments you posted above. I think they are accurate, but I still can’t quite grasp what all of this looks like.

    I guess the situations that I’m struggling to understand involve the government’s use of force. Let me give an example and see if that can help me communicate myself a bit.

    As typical in a non-violence hypothetical, someone breaks into my house. I am not to use violence on this person to get them to leave my house or cease threatening my self/family. However, because it is the government’s role to bear the sword against evil, I can call the police and have the police (who must be non-Christians) come to my house and use (or threaten) force to protect my self/family? Does calling the police count as the Christian (myself) resorting to violence, because I am using the force of a policeman’s gun, or because this gun is not in my own hand, is it acceptable?

    In the case that it IS acceptable (given that the authorities are established by God and ordained to use the sword against evil), does it not seem strange that a Christian could effectively tell another man (who is not a Christian) to shoot his intruder/attacker, but would be wrong in either doing this himself or pursuing the role of that God-ordained protector?

    In the case that it is NOT acceptable, what do we do with this passage in Romans 13?

    Another question: If it is acceptable for the police officer to use force on your behalf to protect you and bear the sword against those doing evil, then how far removed is that from obeying the laws of a governing authority regarding self-defense, when a governing authority in a mostly free society as ours has invested its power in the people?

    I am not having trouble accepting an absolute non-violence conviction because I have problems taking Jesus at his word. I am having trouble because other passages (such as this) seem to muddy the waters a bit. I also had some thoughts on the three examples you expounded upon in your recent paper, but I’ll have to dwell upon those and find the proper place to address them.


  4. P.S. Thoughts on ‘evil’ and ‘revenge.’

    Do not repay evil for evil does not necessarily mean one cannot strike a man who is attacking his wife, does it? These passages often used as non-violence clinchers seem to often be in the context of not seeking revenge. Revenge would be striking someone back in the lip because they struck you in the lip and you thought you had a right to quite them. Striking someone on the lip because they are pointing a gun at your wife does not fit into that category of revenge (does it?).

    Just trying to mull this all over.

  5. Christopher:

    I can relate to your posts and understand your difficulty grasping Sean’s argument against the use of force.

    It appears to me that Sean and John Paul’s definition of violence seems to change depending on their post and their argument. Some posts, such as the ones in “Why did Jesus use Violence to Cleanse the Temple?” seem to condemn all violence, across the board; no exceptions. The argument given is that if violence is committed then we have broken the commands of the Lord. And if we break His commands is he really our Lord? (See Sean’s 08.27.08 post in “Cleanse the Temple?”) Also in “Cleanse the Temple?” John Paul appears to support strict non-violence until his 09.03.08 where he states that he would have no problem hitting a perp over the head with a cast-iron skillet! Would that not be an act of violence? Is that showing love to an enemy? According to the supporters of strict non-violence would that not be evidence against the Lordship of Jesus in ones life?

    In the posts in this topic they also seem accept some forms of violence – i.e. defensive wars, etc. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where their justification for some forms of violence comes from.

    On to the topic of this thread . . .

    I have trouble with the logic used by Sean for Romans 13. Using his logic we have to conclude that the whole of government is evil and is run by evil individuals. Despite its “evilness” we are commanded by God to subject ourselves to their authority (unless it contradicts the laws of God).

    Why would a holy God command us to subject ourselves to the unholy (1 John 1:5; 1 Thess. 5:22; Ps. 97:10)?

    Doesn’t make sense. (Matt. 7:6)

  6. PC,
    Can you point me to where you got the impression that violence is condemned across the board by me? “no exceptions”
    I have reread the posts i wrote and I seem to have come up with many exceptions where a “violent” act seems acceptable and maybe even appropriate given certain circumstances. I can’t seem to find my blanket statement against violence. (Though I feel I must state, we as christians must lead peaceable lives.) In the Cleanse the Temple thread I was the one who was stating what Jesus did was a violent action, wouldn’t I be condemning him with such a statement?

    You seem to again confuse pacifism with passiveness. Passiveness is not something I believe anybody on this site is an advocate of.

    and back tot he topic of this thread, what do you do with Romans 13 if it doesn’t make sense to subject yourself to the unholy authorities?

  7. Martin Luther is the originator of the “Two Kingdom” Theology. With regard to war, according to Martin Luther, a Christian is required to participate in war when directed by the government, i.e., God’s “earthly” kingdom, but outside of that a Christian is not to participate in war.

    The Anababptists for the most part adapted this to a misreading of Romans 13:1-2. Most Anabaptists posit that God grants the government the right to make war in Romans 13, but they also say that Christians are not allowed to participate. Interestingly, this gives the Anabaptist the OK to support the war making by the state in any way except to directly participate in it.

    However, some Anabaptists, i.e., the Church of the Brethren, hold that “all war is sin”. Their understanding of Romans 13:1-2 takes into consideration the full import of the words. Here they are (NIV):

    “1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

    So, each and every government on earth has been established by God. And God says that anyone who opposes any of those governments is opposing what God has put in place and by such opposition will subject themselves to God’s judgment.

    That’s all it says, right?

    So, tell me, where is this exception that most “Christians” want to claim for one government attacking another government? THERE IS NO SUCH EXCEPTION!!!!

    Mennonites and Amish are making expedient excuses – they are “going along to get along” with supporting the idea that they can support the state in making war. And they are in essence paying other people to assuage their own fear for their physical lives and earthly possessions, forgetting that this world is not the true Christians home, and that it is not possible to love both this world and God.

    • It is really a pretty big leap to think that Paul was saying much more to his community in Rome beyond, “Hey guys, settle down and live within society. You don’t need to fight Roman authority to be Christian. Rebels will bring judgement on themselves. (The Roman will arrest them and do what they do to Christians.)”

      Somehow, churches in every country, including those that were in Nazi Germany, have used this line to show that their war was ordained by God.

  8. The government is upon the shoulders of Christ, therefore we are to obey him (our governor). We obey government through obedience in the kingdom of God. Another way to look at things, I like looking into spiritual truth.

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