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Excerpt From Romans – The Heart Set Free, by Gordon Ferguson

According to Romans 13:1-4, rulers protect society by punishing wrongdoers and rewarding those who do good (verses 3-4). Notice “bear the sword” in verse 4, which seems to be a reference to capital punishment. In many countries today, discussing this topic produces controversy. Certainly the controversy is understandable, especially in America where the rich often find a way to avoid capital punishment and those without substantial financial means are the ones most often executed. Add to this the fact that the minority races most often fit in that latter category, and the discussion becomes even more emotional.

Capital Punishment in the Old Testament

Regardless of what we feel about capital punishment, the Bible must determine our ultimate conclusions as disciples. We know for sure, at the outset, that God approved of many kinds of killing in the Old Testament, including capital punishment, under the legislation he inspired. For example a whole host of sins and crimes elicited the death penalty in the Mosaic Law.1 Several modes of carrying out the death penalty are mentioned in the Old Testament, including burning (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14, 21:9), stoning (Leviticus 20:2, 27; 24:14; Numbers 14:10; 15:33-36), hanging (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Joshua 8:29) and death by the sword (Exodus 32:27-28; 1 Kings 2:25, 34, 46).

At times, the executions were carried out by the authorities, as would be expected, but at other times, by the witnesses of a crime (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, 17:7). At still other times, executions were performed by the people as a whole (Numbers 15:35-36, Deuteronomy 13:9). In no instance was capital punishment to be inflicted on the testimony of less than two witnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). Coming into the NT era, we read about the Roman forms of capital punishment, notably beheading (Matthew 14:10; Mark 6:16, 27-28) and crucifixion (Matthew 27:35-38, Mark 15:24-27, Luke 23:33). What are we to make of all of this? Only that God believes in capital punishment and commanded its practice on a fairly broad basis in the OT period.2

Capital Punishment in the New Testament

As we move to the teaching of the New Testament about capital punishment, we must dig a bit deeper. The heretic, Marcion, dug in the wrong direction, concluding that the God of the Old Testament (the Father) was harsh, while the God of the New Testament (Jesus) was full of grace. This solves no problems, for Jesus as the eternal Logos (the eternal Word in John 1:1) was with the Father from the beginning. Whatever the Father did in the Old Testament, Jesus did. Whatever Jesus does now, the Father does with him (John 10:30). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and so is the Father. God is God and cannot be otherwise. Therefore, Marcion’s “god” was not the God of Scripture.

To begin our consideration of the NT teaching on the subject, Romans 13:4 clearly indicates the legitimacy of capital punishment. It might be argued (though it is not my persuasion) that like polygamy in the Old Testament and slavery in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God allowed a practice that he knew would eventually be largely phased out by his deeper principles to the contrary. But even now one cannot be dogmatic in opposition to any of these three practices, however unnatural and distasteful they may be to our modern thinking. Both polygamy and slavery have again become issues in some societies into which the gospel is being sent¾calling for wisdom, rather than rigid opinions, on the part of church leaders.

In his book, Questions and Answers, Douglas Jacoby makes the point that Romans 13 answers the question about the right of a state to enforce capital punishment, but when we ask should a disciple ever be in the role of taking the life of another person, we are asking a different question. In the next chapter of Romans Paul will show us that we sin whenever we go against our own conscience. Therefore, a disciple might conclude that the state has the right to carry out capital punishment but not be able to participate in its implementation.3

As a citizen of a country, we have some governmental rights that we cannot as disciples exercise. I assumedly have the legal right to view pornography, commit immorality and drink alcohol to excess. But as a disciple, my higher allegiance to God’s spiritual laws supersede what government allows. In other words, what the government does or allows is not the end of the matter for me personally as a disciple.

Acting As an Agent of the State

The more sensitive issue is the possibility of a Christian acting in this capacity as an agent of the state. In other words, can a disciple of Jesus destroy life as a member of the military or other branch of law enforcement? I see some differences between the two. Those with whom law enforcement officers deal are supposed criminals, while those in another country’s military force may be innocent pawns of their own government.

As this book goes to press, the military issue now looms very large in our minds following the heinous terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. It did not take long for our nation’s utter shock and unbelief to become anger and the desire for vengeance. Many disciples, if they are honest, have struggled with the same attitudes. What answers does the Bible offer in this emotionally charged area?

In the Old Testament, wars were commonplace for the Israelite nation. However, we must remember that civil and religious laws were intertwined for them, since they were the nation of God (a theocracy). Also, they most often went into battle after being directed to do so by God. In the New Testament, there is a separation of church and state, which ushers in some different principles. While we are citizens of two kingdoms at once, our higher calling is to the kingdom of God. Certainly we are to be under the authority of our government, but only as long as it does not violate the authority of God (see Acts 4:18-20, 5:27-29). The Old Testament predicted this difference in passages like Isaiah 2:1-4, in which the prophet said that in the new kingdom, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (v4).

Jesus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred in 70 ad and warned his disciples to flee, rather than to fight, when it happened (Luke 21:20-21).Jesus told Pilate that the kingdom he was bringing was not of this world, and had it been, then his servants would have fought (John 18:36). Read Matthew 5:38-48 and Romans 12:17-21 carefully. If we are persecuted for our spiritual convictions, clearly we cannot fight fire with fire. We are to love our spiritual enemies, not hate them. God hates those who love violence (Psalm 11:4-7). Vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19), and we need to trust him with it¾whether in this life or on Judgment Day.            What the government does, it does. Governments are agents of God to deliver justice, but that does not automatically grant a disciple the right to participate in that process. My participation or lack thereof is another matter, since my highest allegiance is to God’s law.

The question of whether a Christian can engage in military service has been an issue with which I have wrestled since I was a teenager. At age eighteen, I had to register with the American Draft Board. Then I had to make a choice about my willingness to bear arms and possibly take another’s life. We have many brothers in different countries who are required to be in the military. We also have police officers and other similar agents of the state who are converted while serving in these capacities. What should their position be about these matters as new disciples?

My understanding is that the early church solved this dilemma by allowing those converted to remain in military or law enforcement roles until they could get out of them gracefully, but disciples did not accept such roles after conversion. At age eighteen, in an unusual move for people in that cultural setting, I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, meaning that I would be willing to serve in the military in a capacity that did not require bearing arms. Although my religious commitment was severely limited in general at that point of my life, I did have convictions in this area. These convictions have remained the same in the fifty years since, although I do think the complexity of the subject makes it a personal matter of conscience. When my son was concerned about the possibility of the draft being resumed during the Gulf War, I shared my thoughts with him and then encouraged him to talk to some of my spiritually mature friends on both sides of the issue.

In light of the recent calamitous events in America, the subject is no longer an intellectual issue¾it is a very practical one. Even the fact that we have now planted churches in all major nations of the earth demands that we proceed with Biblical caution and not be carried away by emotions. I do not intend to shoot at someone on the other side who might be a brother in Christ, and I am thankful that the American government allows young men and women that choice. Other governments may not, and no matter what the country, we must struggle with our own consciences and convictions. As with all difficult subjects, I respect your right to come to a different conclusion than I have come to.

Even though I am settled in my conclusion, the most difficult aspect of it comes by recognizing that two principles can be in conflict, thus prompting a choice between them. For example, love for God supersedes love for family, and we may have to choose him over them (Matthew 10:34-37). Similarly, love for family supersedes love for enemies, and we may have to choose the former over the latter. What would you do if an intruder broke into your home and threatened the safety of your family? Use force, perhaps killing in the process? If you answered “possibly” or “probably,” you assumedly would answer the same way if that intruder was a member of an enemy military group. Then, some would argue, why would you not go abroad as a member of our military forces and protect your family before the enemy made it to your front doorstep?

Hopefully you can see that this topic is not easy for any of us. I am glad that God promised that we will not be tempted with anything beyond what we can bear and that he will provide the way to endure trials (1 Corinthians 10:13). Let’s study the subject, ask counsel of many advisors, make personal decisions about how we are going to deal with the subject and then extend grace to those who come out on the other side of the issue. A preacher supposedly said something to this effect over a century ago: “Remember that while we may disagree in the hundredths, we agree in the thousands.” Amen to that!

1 Murder (Genesis 9:5-6; Numbers 35:16-21, 30-33; Deuteronomy 17:6), adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:24), incest (Leviticus 20:11-12, 14), bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:15-16), sodomy (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), lack of virginity discovered on the wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:21-24), rape of an engaged virgin (Deuteronomy 22:25), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7), immorality of a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9), witchcraft (Exodus 22:18), offeringhumansacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5), striking or cursing father or mother (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9), flagrant disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11-16, 23), desecration of the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36), false prophesying (Deuteronomy 13:1-10), sacrificing to false gods (Exodus 22:20), refusing to abide by the decision of the court (Deuteronomy 17:12) and treason (1 Kings 2:12-46; Esther 2:21-23).

2 In an interestingly related vein, Douglas Jacoby, in his book Q & A: Answers to Bible Questions You have Asked (Billerica, Mass.: Discipleship Publications International, 2001, p. 162), spoke about the punishment of the wicked in eternity. In the essay entitled “Reexamining the Biblical Doctrine of Hell” under the section “Heaven and Hell¾Terminal Punishment,” he wrote this : “The terminal view is simply that after a period of torment (‘corporal punishment’) suited to the individual, God destroys him or her (‘capital punishment’).”3 Douglas admits that his terminal view has not been the traditional view in our movement and might not be the view held by the majority even now. However, if it is true (and I personally am persuaded that it is), capital punishment, even of an everlasting nature, would need to be seen as godly and righteous. In that sense, God’s own practice would have to influence what we think about what he ordained governmental authorities to practice.

3 Ibid, 132-133.