It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do. Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and other “Christian” dictators have celebrated the passage as their divine ticket to execute justice on whomever they deemed enemies of the state. Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation. If the state mandates that blacks can’t drink from the same water fountain as whites, it very well has the divine right to do so, according to certain interpretations Romans 13.
Most people today would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far. But only a bit. Theologian and scholar Wayne Grudem, for instance, says that the “sword in the hand of good government is God’s designated weapon to defeat evildoers” and goes on to apply this to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The assumption, of course, is that America is good and Iraq and Afghanistan are bad. Maybe they are, but who gets to determine who is good and who is bad? Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians or wholesale slaughter of women and children in, for instance, southern Kandahar or Haditha, most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13. But I digress.
Even though Romans 13 has been taken to empower Christians to kill their enemy, or praise the government, or vindicate the just war tradition, there is nothing in this passage that commands Christians to use their guns to confront evil. Nothing. Here’s why.
First, Paul’s statement reflects a widespread truth in the Old Testament about God working through secular nations to carry out His will. For instance, the Old Testament calls many political figures “God’s servant,” such as Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa. 44–45); Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Jer. 27:6; 43:10); and the ruthlessly wicked nation of Assyria (Isa. 10:5), which God calls the “club of my wrath” and the “rod of my anger.” Please note: Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar were pagan dictators.
The phrase “God’s servant,” therefore, doesn’t refer to Rome’s sanctified service to Israel’s God, but to God’s sovereign ability to use Rome as an instrument in His hands.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Just because God uses secular—and sometimes quite evil—institutions to carry out His will does not mean that God approves of everything they do. Much of what they do—whether it be Assyria’s sadistic practice of skinning civilians alive, or Rome’s crucifixion of thousands of people in the first century—does not reflect the law of Christ. But God can still use such godlessness, because He channels evil to carry out His will.
The so-called government’s “right to bear the sword” is not a moral “right” at all, any more than Assyria had the “right” to slaughter the Israelites in 722 B.C. Assyria and Rome (and America, and North Korea, etc. ) are objects under God’s sovereign control. That’s all Romans 13 says.
If you want to serve as God’s agent of wrath, well, you better watch your back when God’s through with you.
Second, Romans 13 says that God uses governments to punish evildoers and reward the good. But what does this mean? Does every government always justly punish evil and reward good?
Rome was the same government that beheaded John the Baptist, beat Paul on several occasions, and crucified an innocent Jew named Jesus. Just a few years after Paul penned Romans 13, Caesar Nero dipped Christians in tar, lit them on fire, and set them up as human illumination for his garden, all in the name of keeping peace.
Romans 13 can’t be a rubber stamp on all of Rome’s attempts at punishing evil. Paul doesn’t write Rome, or America, a blank check to do whatever it wants to do in the name of justice.
Paul’s statement that Rome is “God’s servant for your good” and “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” must mean that God can and does work justice through governments but that not everything governments do can be labeled just. Romans 13 does not sanitize all governing activities. Flip through Revelation 13 and 17–18 to see that the New Testament actually condemns much of what the government does.
The final point is the most significant. If you miss this point, then you won’t understand what Paul is saying to the church in Romans 13.
So, third, Paul says that God executes vengeance through Rome after he prohibits Christians from doing so. Compare these two statements, which are only a few verses apart:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (12:19)
For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (13:4)
Linguistically, there’s a contrast. An intentional one. One that is unmistakable. Yet missed by so many bible believing evangelicals.
What Paul says about God’s use of the government in Romans 13:4 is stated in direct contrast to what he commands the church to do in Romans 12:19
No Christian can claim to carry out Romans 13:4. It’s not a command. It’s a statement about God’s sovereign use (not approval) of secular governments. The command given to Christians comes in Romans 12:19.
Romans 13 is all about vengeance. And vengeance is God’s business, not ours. We don’t need to avenge evil, because God will. And one way that God will is through governing authorities. Moreover, the command to submit to governing authorities in Romans 13:1 is the last of Paul’s litany of commands in Romans 12:9–21. Bless those who persecute you, love your enemy, don’t avenge evil, and submit to your governing authorities.
Far from allowing Christians to kill their enemies, Romans 13 underscores the church’s submissive posture in a violent world.
Romans 13 cannot be responsibly interpreted to prove that Christians should use guns to kill their enemies. Quite the opposite.