Does Romans 13 Teach That Christians Have Permission to Kill For Their Government?

It is my conviction that since the fourth century AD, the frequent misinterpretation of Romans 13 has done more to harm the reputation of Christianity than perhaps any other misinterpreted scripture.

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. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 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; 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. – Romans 13.1-4

This scripture is used to support the idea that Christians have a “dual citizenship.” That is, since God set up government, and since they do not bear the sword in vain, Christians have obligations both to God and to the government. These obligations do not conflict with one another since government authorities have different responsibilities than private individuals.

According to this view, when a Christian is acting as an agent of their government, they may bear the sword against their enemies, but when they act as individuals they are to love their enemies. Therefore a Christian may bear the sword against evildoers without sinning if they are doing so as an agent of the government.

This has been the dominant way of understanding Romans 13 ever since the Catholic Church came into political power in the late 4th century. But this is not what Romans 13 actually teaches. In fact, Romans 13 teaches nearly the opposite.

What is Wrong with the “Dual Citizenship” Idea?

Before looking at Romans 13, these three things should cause us to pause before accepting the dual citizenship interpretation.

  1. The way the New Testament describes Jesus

Jesus didn’t have divided loyalties. Rather, Jesus was executed by the Jewish and Roman authorities because they viewed Him as their enemy. Jesus did have lots to say that should impact the way a Christian approaches politics, but Jesus never sought a political office or political reform. Jesus served only one Master.

Also notice the language that the early Christians used to describe Jesus. In the early Roman Empire, the unifying slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord”, this not only made a statement about Jesus, it also made a statement about Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  They didn’t have two sets of loyalties; they had one. This was the primary reason Christians were thrown into prison and persecuted by their government.

  1. What Jesus taught about love for enemies

Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies rule out any possibility of allowing that love to be qualified by anyone or anything.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.43-45

Christians are to love the way the Father loves, and the Father doesn’t pick and choose who He is going to send rain and sunshine to. Just as the Father has no exception clause when it comes to His love for enemies, likewise Jesus offered no exception clause for Christians when they love their enemies.

This rules out any possibility of Christians saying “I’m going to love this kind of enemy, but not that kind of enemy”, or “I’m going to love my enemies in these circumstances, but not in those circumstances.”  The command has nothing to do with the nature of our enemies or our circumstances.

This undermines the idea Christians must do good to their enemies, unless they are acting in the political realm, in which case they are allowed to bear the sword against them. Unqualified, enemy-love, is the identifying mark of those who are sons of their Father. As soon as we look for a time when it is “okay” to not love our enemies, we have ceased to love the way our Father loves.

  1. What Jesus taught about resisting evil

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.38-39

When Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person,” He didn’t mean Christians are to be passive and do nothing in response to evil.  The Greek word translated “resist” specifically refers to violent resistance. It means that Christians aren’t to respond with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bullet for a bullet, or a bomb for a bomb. Christians can and should resist evil by getting involved and even laying down their lives if necessary, but they aren’t to respond to violence with violence.

Just retaliation was the principle upon which all the Old Testament scriptures about punishing violence were founded (Ex. 21.24), and it is likewise the principle of justice that underlies our modern social system. Jesus said, “You have heard” that principle of justice, and then immediately instructs his followers not to follow that principle. Disciples of Jesus cannot use the principle of justice to justify violence against enemies.

Supporters of the “dual citizenship” idea sometimes look to the Old Testament to defend their position. Jesus recognized that the Old Testament commanded just retaliation. But Jesus commanded His followers not to follow that principle, but rather to love the way the Father loves.

Does Romans 13 Make An Exception?

Romans 13 is often used to make two closely related points. 1) While God doesn’t approve of private retaliation, He does approve of governments when they bear the sword. 2) Therefore, when Christians bear the sword against evildoers as agents of the government, they are not sinning.

Next time you hear Romans 13 used in this way, consider these three points.

  1. “Institutes” does not mean “approved”

The Greek word translated as “institutes” is “Tasso”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines Tasso as “to arrange in an orderly manner.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “To place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint.” “Tasso” cannot be translated as “created” or “approves of”.

When a librarian arranges books, it doesn’t matter whether the librarian likes a book or despises a book. To arrange those books in a certain order doesn’t infer that the librarian approves of what is written in those books.

Romans 13 builds on the Old Testament teachings about how God uses pagan governments to accomplish His will. God used nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians as His ministers, but continually made it clear that He did not approve of the violence of those nations.

Romans 13 doesn’t teach that God “approves” of governments. Rather it teaches that God takes them as they are, whether good or evil, and arranges them in a way which serves His purposes. God arranges them to avenge the one who practices evil for the good of His children. Therefore governments do not bear the sword in vain.

  1. Not bearing the sword in vain is not the same as “not sinning”

In this context, when Paul writes that governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, this means that when governments wield the sword of violence, God arranges them to ensure that their violence is not without purpose.

God can make all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28). In the context of Romans 8, this includes persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. No one would argue that persecution “is good” or “has God’s approval”, but God can use horrible things to work together for the good of His children. They are not in vain.

In the same way, governments do not bear the sword in vain. But there is not one word in Romans 13 that can be used to suggest that Christians have permission to bear the sword against their enemies without sinning.

  1. Context, Context, Context

If we read Romans 13 in context we can see that Paul is actually teaching something opposite of the “dual citizenship” idea.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyoneNever take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 14, 17, 19-21

Like Jesus, Paul offers no qualifications to enemy-love. We are to love all of our enemies, all the time, without exception. Christians are to leave all vengeance to God. This is the same Greek word (ekdikeos) used in Romans 13.4 to describe what God uses governments to accomplish.

Never take your own revenge (ekdikeo), beloved. – Romans 12.19a

Why? Because…

Vengeance (ekdikos) is mine”… says the Lord.” – Romans 12.19b

How does God execute vengeance on our enemies?

[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger (ekdikos) who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.4

God uses governments to do the very thing He forbids Christians from doing. Christians are never to execute vengeance. We aren’t allowed to do that.

Conclusion

Romans 13 must not be used to encourage Christians to bear the sword for their government against evildoers. First of all Romans 13 does not teach God’s approval of governments when they bear the sword. And even more importantly, no Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ. As Christians, we have sworn off all vengeance against our enemies. Vengeance belongs to God, and God uses governments to bring it about.

Christians do not have dual citizenship with dual allegiances and dual sets of responsibilities. Yes, in a legal sense, we do have citizenship in an earthly country. But when it comes to our allegiance, we are to proclaim that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).

War by Tolbert Fanning (Abridged Version)

Editor’s note: The following article has been abridged to provide a brief overview of Fanning’s arguments. The original article first appeared in the Christian Review, March 1847, and can be read in full here.

Does the Christian Institution Permit Its Subjects To Engage in War?

We will submit such arguments to the candid, as satisfy us that Christians, as a nation, church, or individuals, have no divine authority for engaging in war, offensive or defensive, for fame, plunder, revenge, or for the benefit of themselves or their enemies. Under this head, we shall adopt the following order:

The Prophecies

The prophecies, in reference to Christ and his kingdom, clearly teach that, the whole tendency of the new institution, was to put an end to war. Isaiah said, when speaking, as all the world agree, of the gospel age: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4). Again he says: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9). To the same effect, he says: “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land; wasting nor destruction within thy borders” (Is. 9:18).

Ezekiel writes:

 And I will set up on shepherd over them, and he shall feed them; and I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; and I will make with the a covenant of peace; and will cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land; and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods.

Ezekiel 34:23-26

Jeremiah writes:

Behold! The days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers; I will put my law into their inward parts, and write them in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, know ye the Lord; for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive them their iniquities, and their sins I will remember no more.

Jeremiah 31:31-35

In Isaiah, 35th chapter, it is written:

And a high way shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the way faring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come unto Zion with sons, and everlasting joys upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Jeremiah 34:8-10

More prophecies would be superfluous.

We have been asked the question: “Why are we not authorized to go to war as well as Joshua, David, etc?” The times have changed. God has established a new dispensation, in which the subdued heart alone have an inheritance… Swords and spears were not to be the weapons of the citizens of this new dispensation. “They shall not hurt, nor destroy, in all my holy mountain” says the Lord.

We would now, most respectfully, ask the lovers of truth, if these plain and pointed declarations do not fully establish the point, that the reign of Messiah was to be one of universal peace? We believe all that is necessary to convince the world of the truth of the proposition, that – Christians are not permitted to engage in the bloody conflicts of the infidel nations, is to let those scriptures have their wonted influence upon the mind.

The New Testament Teachings

The New Testament teachings will next be considered. To get fairly at the point, it will be necessary to notice again, briefly, the Jewish polity. It was a national and worldly institution, to serve – “Till the seed should come”, and then it was to be rolled up, as a vesture, and laid aside. “The law of commandments” which tolerated war, was “the enmity” between Jews and Gentiles; but Christ “took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross”, and, according to Apostolic teaching, there was “a change made in the law.”

Again: we wish it clearly understood that, Christ’s kingdom was not to be propagated by flesh and blood relations…. The kingdom of Christ then, it will appear, was to differ very widely from the bloody church of Moses. Now it remains to be shown that the differences are so great in the two institutions, that war could be tolerated in the former, but not in the latter. Before, however, offering our arguments, we wish to say to those who may desire to find fault with us, we are not contending that war is never justifiable in the nations of the earth. Indeed, we doubt not, it is often Heaven’s policy, to regulate nations by the sword; but we wish our readers to understand us to say, that the Almighty acknowledges no nation as peculiarly his, at this day; yet he has “a peculiar people”, selected from the nations, and peregrinating “as strangers and pilgrims in the nations”, but who have nothing to do with national policy and revolutions.

Our remarks, then, upon war, we wish to extend no further than the boundaries of Christianity.

We proceed to give… a few reasons, drawn directly from the gospel, for believing that Christians have no right to engage in war.

Christ Did Not Appeal to Arms to Establish His Kingdom

If the spirit of war had existed in the government of Christ, we might reasonably suppose he would have appealed to arms to establish it. So far, however, from being the case, the Apostle applies the language of the Prophet to him:

He shall not strive, nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.

Matthew 12:19-20

His laws were to be rendered triumphant and glorious, without the aid of earthly weapons. Not so much as a tender reed was to be disturbed, or the smoking flax quenched, for his cause to be victorious. The exhortation to the Apostles was: “Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” The whole doctrine of Messiah was, to conquer the world by love. This was contrary to the experience and philosophy of mankind, and it is perfectly antipodal to the sentiments of the world, and even to nine-tenths of the religionists at present day.

Christ’s religion has extended to every nook and corner of the earth, where human beings have been capable of receiving it, and in his transcendent love, and matchless kindness, and he has done every thing without an appeal to arms.

Resist Not Evil

A distinguishing feature of Christianity is, the abrogation of the lex talionis, by the gospel.  The law said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”: but not so in Christ’s kingdom. “If ye be smitten on one cheek, turn the other”, is the teaching of the New Testament religion (Mt. 5:38-39). How the command “Resist not evil” is to be reconciled with the spirit or practice of war, we are not prepared to see.

Love Your Enemies

In the law of Moses, and amongst most partisans of the earth, the doctrine and practice are: “Love your brethren, or party, and hate all the world besides”, but Christianity says:

Love your enemies; bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:44-45

We observe that being children of the Heavenly Father, is put upon the condition of “Loving our enemies, and praying for those who despitefully use us, and persecute us.”

No people have engaged in bloody deeds, without transgressing this precept. Christianity is so unlike the religions of the age, that few of its striking features can be inferred from the institutions which are said to be modeled after it. We solemnly appear to those professed Christians, who think it is right, and obedient to the cause of God, for them to take the life of their fellows, to say if such things are done in love to their enemies? God has promised his protecting power to his saints, and when we take up arms to defend ourselves, we show very clearly that we lack confidence in our Father in heaven.

Do Not Avenge Yourselves

With regard to vengeance, the Apostle says in Romans 12:19, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.” From this, it appears, that the idea of revenge, is wholly incompatible with the spirit and genius of Christianity. The doctrine of Christ is, “Overcome evil with good.” “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head” (Rom. 12:20). The reader will keep in mind, that these things are to be observed towards enemies.

Follow Peace With All Men

We are commanded: “To follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which, no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Eternal life here, is placed upon the condition of following “peace” with the world, and “holiness” towards God.

The Fruit of the Spirit

The Spirit of “Joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, meekness, forbearance” etc, which Christians are commanded to cultivate, forever precludes the spirit and practice of war. The servant of God, should desire above all things, the conversion of his fellow creatures; and labor to “pluck them as brands from the burning”, but this cannot be done, with swords and staves.

A Kingdom Not of This World

Christ’s declaration, “That his kingdom is not of this world, for if it were, his subjects would fight for it”; is demonstrable evidence that Christian war had no countenance from the Savior. His kingdom was unlike all others: it was spiritual, and to be built and defended by spiritual men and spiritual measures.

Closing Remarks

Had we space, we would be pleased to answer all arguments upon the subject of Christian wars; but we must bring our remarks to close, without recapitulation… If we had taken the right view, Christians are in great error and must reform. If we are mistaken, we would gladly be corrected.