Evangelicals, Militarism, and Romans 13 (Preston Sprinkle)

Evangelicals, Militarism, and Romans 13 (Preston Sprinkle) November 16, 2012

This post is the 3d in a series of three by Preston Sprinkle, whose information is at the bottom of this post.

In my last post, I showed that the Old Testament actually condemns militarism, even though it sanctions (on some occasions) warfare and violence. But most who defend militarism race past the Old Testament and camp out on Romans 13:1-7, a passage with a checkered, and quite frightful, interpretive history. Adolph Hitler, Robert Mugabe, and other recent “Christian” dictators have celebrated the passage as their divine ticket to execute justice on whomever they deemed to be enemies of the state. Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa, and as did American Christian leaders during the years of slavery and, nearer at hand, the years of segregation. If the state mandates that blacks can’t drink from the same water fountain as whites, they very well have the divine right to say so.

Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far. But only a bit. Wayne Grudem, for instance, says that the “sword in the hand of good government is God’s designate weapon to defeat evildoers” (Politics, 407), and goes on to apply this to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I don’t mean to keep singling out Grudem, but his views are recent and, from what I’ve found, representative of much of Evangelical thinking.) In fact, Romans 13, being ubiquitously cited throughout Grudem’s book, is given a near-John 3:16 status: the definitive lens through which Christians should think about war. The assumption, of course, is that America is the good nation and Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad nations. 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 validated Pakistan’s or Iraq’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes killing civilians and children, or wholesale slaughter of women and children in, for instance, southern Kandahar or Haditha, most would see this as a mis-reading of Romans 13.

However, although Romans 13 has been taken to celebrate violence, praise the government, or vindicate Just War Theory (or just warfare in general), the passage actually does none of these. Here’s why.

First, Romans 13 does not speak of Rome’s warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens. Paul’s phrase “bear the sword” (13:4) refers to police action within a government’s jurisdiction, not warfare outside its territory. Using this text to support, for instance, America’s war in Iraq goes beyond what Paul is actually saying. Waging war against another nation—even in the name of preemptive strike—does not reflect Paul’s point in Romans 13.

Second, the passage does not tell the church to “obey” governing authorities, but “submit to” such authorities. Now, submission sometimes involves obedience, and obedience sometimes involves submission; there’s an overlap in meaning. But it’s important to note that Paul does not use one of the typical Greek words for “obey” here (peitharkein, peithesthai, and upakouein). The difference is that Christians “obey” the law of Christ, receiving their moral marching orders from their King. And in as much as the laws of the state don’t conflict with the law of Christ, they obey. But they do so out of allegiance to God, not out of an uncritical allegiance to the state. Don’t revolt against the government, in other words. Honor it, pray for it, work for its good and pay the taxes that it demands. But always remember you are aliens living in exile in Babylon, Rome—or America. Or in the words of famed NT scholar, C.E.B. Cranfield: Submission to the state means “respecting them, obeying them so far as such obedience does not conflict with God’s laws, and seriously and responsibly disobeying them when it does” (Cranfield, Romans, 662).

Third, 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.” The phrase “God’s servant” doesn’t refer to Rome’s happy service to Israel’s God, but to God’s ability to use Rome as an instrument in His hands. 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—whether it be Assyria’s sadistic practice of skinning civilians alive, or Rome’s crucifixion of thousands of innocent people in the first century. God can still channel such evil to carry out His will (Gen. 50:20; Judges 14:4). This doesn’t mean that He approves of the evil itself.

Fourth, the main activity God does through governments is to punish evil and reward good. But what does Paul mean here? Does every government always justly punish evil and reward good? Ya right. Rome was the same government that beheaded John the Baptist, clubbed Paul on several occasions, and crucified an innocent Jew named Jesus. In fact, just a few years after Paul penned Romans 13, Caesar Nero would dip Christians in tar, light them on fire, and set them up as human illumination for his garden. All in the name of keeping peace and executing justice. So Paul doesn’t write Rome a blank check to do whatever it wants to do. Paul’s statement that Rome is “God’s servant for your good” and “an avenger who carries out wrath on the wrongdoer” must mean that God can and does work justice through governments, but not everything governments do can be labeled justice, as a quick glance at the morning paper will verify. Romans 13 does not sanitized all governing activities and it should be read alongside Revelation 13 and 17-18 to get a more comprehensive NT view on government.

The final point is the most significant for the church. If you miss this point, then you won’t understand what Paul is saying to citizens of God’s kingdom in Romans 13. When Paul says that God executes vengeance through Rome, it was to further prohibit, not encourage, 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.” (Rom. 12:19)

For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:4)

Paul makes the claim that God’s wrath and vengeance is carried out through Rome seconds after he commanded the church not to carry out wrath and vengeance. Vengeance is God’s business, not ours. We don’t need to avenge evil, because we believe that God will. And one way that God will avenge is through governing authorities. In terms of Paul’s actual argument, Romans 13 only confirms what he said in Romans 12: Bless those who persecute you, love your enemy, don’t avenge evil, and submit to your governing authorities. Far from encouraging Christians to kill in war, Romans 13 underscores the church’s peaceful posture in a violent world.

Romans 13 cannot be used to foster a militaristic spirit among citizens of God’s kingdom.

Dr. Preston Sprinkle is a best selling author and professor of Biblical Studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, CA. These posts stem from his work on warfare and violence in the Bible, which will be published as Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, by David C. Cook in Aug. 2013. You can visit Preston’s website (prestonsprinkle.com) or follow him on Twitter@PrestonSprinkle

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  • Excellent. A high view of the authority and accuracy of Scripture, alongside a clear expression of non-violence (which don’t always go together!) Thank you so much.

  • mason

    just a silly question..is it possible then that God is using the United States to bring justice to Iran and Iraq? Could one rightfully argue that God used the Allies to bring justice to Japan, Germany, Italy, etc during WWII? if that is the case, then why is war inherently wrong or evil? one could argue, ALTHOUGH I AM NOT, that to participate in the war against Nazis Germany Christians were actually caught up in the justice of God. how would you address that? Can Christian take up a just cause through violence (sometimes) to protect the innocent and administer justice when the state will not? i am becoming more of a pacifist as i get older, but i still struggle with a Christian’s responsibility to live in the world…i believe that God continues to use nations and his people however flawed to bring forth his purposes. if that is the case then why is it “evil” for Christians in the name of justice to use the sword? is it b/c we can never be certain that that is God’s will? or is it arrogance to even thing that we can still hear from God therefore if someone says..”God told me to move to Somalia and protect the innocent orphans from being killed and that requires me to use violence” that they are wrong or misguided…i am just confused as to how you believe God uses governments and if God is using a government or nation for his purposes then why is it wrong for the Christian to join in on what God is doing if he/she believes they are called to do that.i.e. Bonhoffer..sorry to ramble, i am at work and do not have time to edit…

  • Jim

    Thought provoking. On another note, I have often wondered whether what Paul wrote in R 13 is written with a wink and a nod. He is writing to a church in the shadows of Caesar’s palace about a government that, as the writer notes, has unjustly killed many or will including Paul himself. It sounds to me, especially in light of Romans 12, that Paul is encouraging the church to read between the lines.

    But…that’s just a thought.

  • Chris

    Ah, context. Amazing the light it sheds …

  • Luke 22:36 is also correlated as a proof-text for militarism. The context of Jesus’ use of irony by placing a question mark at the end of the verse (based on the context of verse 35), is rarely considered when this verse is cited.

  • This is good. Why are Evangelicals so selective in their use of scripture? Why apply Romans 13 to Iraq and Afghanistan and ignore Matt. 5?

  • Percival

    It is often easier to tell what a passage means than what it does not mean. Preston Sprinkle has done a good job here telling what the Romans 13 passage does not mean (in points 2-4), but what it means for us in a non-Roman world is not so easy to see.

    The first point that Sprinkle makes is probably the strongest, but there is a flaw within his assumptions as well.

    “First, Romans 13 does not speak of Rome’s warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens. Paul’s phrase “bear the sword” (13:4) refers to police action within a government’s jurisdiction, not warfare outside its territory. Using this text to support, for instance, America’s war in Iraq goes beyond what Paul is actually saying. Waging war against another nation—even in the name of preemptive strike—does not reflect Paul’s point in Romans 13.”

    The strength of Sprinkle’s point is that Roman’s 13 is not a justification for empire and non-defensive actions outside the borders. However, it overlooks the fact that Rome was originally a city-state in Italy and had spread its power throughout the world by offensive actions. This was “warfare far outside its territory” which is exactly what Sprinkle says Rom. 13 does not cover. What were the territorial limits of Roman jurisdiction? So Christians should submit to police actions within an empire?

    In an attempt to be relevant to American Evangelicals Sprinkle has chosen to refute Wayne Grudem. Grudem, however, does not represent the best attempt of non-pascifists to explain Romans 13. If this were a basketball tournament, I’d say Sprinkle has gotten past the first round and beaten his opponent. He has not yet reached the Final Four or maybe not even the Sweet Sixteen.

  • Percival

    Sorry, big goof in my first line above. It should read just the opposite.
    It is often easier to tell what a passage does not mean than what it means.

  • Paul


    “is it b/c we can never be certain that that is God’s will?”

    I think this is part of your answer…if you can’t be sure you are on “God’s side” in the conflict, are you sure you want to be part of it?

    Additionally, I don’t read the post as saying that Christians should never participate in anything that includes violence. As the post concludes: “Romans 13 cannot be used to foster a militaristic spirit among citizens of God’s kingdom.” I think the key is our support of militarism…and if the previous post is correct, then the OT cannot be used as well.

    I am now curious where that leaves us as Christians living in a very militaristic society. I ask this especially as a Christian living in a very militarized area of the country…

  • Norman

    Ok, let’s not pull out the Hitler card in trying to paint others interpretation of Romans 13 in the same vein. Bottom line is that bearing the sword whether as a local policeman, militia or regular army is not fully distinguished in Romans 13. It seems obvious that Paul is laying out the theoretical God instituted Government as it should operate not the deviant models that abuse their citizens or plunder other countries. We can take the government taxation verses found there in stride similarly; common sense dictates a government of responsibility that doesn’t plunder its citizenry.

    As I have stated in the previous post, I’m not going to argue against good pacifist common sense that most of us can agree with but I’m also not going to also go toward pacifist extremism that is taken too far regarding the responsibility of a country/nation to protect its citizens.

    I think the hard question we have to ask Preston is a theoretical one. Let’s say Preston decides he is called to run for President of the USA and wins. Now it seems to me he like Jimmy Carter is going to have to wrestle with how to manage the protection of his citizens in the spirit of his personal and conscientious pacifist declarations. Would Preston be such a good negotiator with other Nations, Drug Cartels and thugs that he can immediately disband the standing Army, Navy, Coast Guard and also completely rid ourselves of Nuclear weapons? In other words do Preston’s ideas match real world reality for a Christian who is leading a country? Or are they mostly theoretical utopian desires?

    I also believe there is too much of a straw-man argument that is being implemented in these discussions; probably on both sides. Common sense should dictate along with our personal journey as the faithful and if one is called to a pacifist leaning agenda then God can surely use that individual as leaven in a Nation that indeed is overly militaristic including evangelicals. Those points are well taken but the arguments are not always developed properly IMHO.

  • Percival (#7), thanks for the push-back. As always, I enjoy hearing potential flaws in my argument. Let me first say that I wish I had access to edit my post. The typos in this post and (especially) the last are killing me! Anyway, to your point.

    Yes, I have pointed out what Rom 13 does not say, because–alas–that’s exactly. the point of the post: to show that Romans 13 does not support a militaristic spirit. If it were a scholarly article and not a blog, I might have more room to argue for what Rom 13 is saying. As it stands I’m already 200 words over my intended limit.

    Now, to your main critique. Maybe I’m missing something, and I’ll let my logician friends jump in, but I don’t think that pointing out that Rome original was a city-states changes much of anything I’m saying about Rom 13, written as it is in the mid-first century. Paul isn’t using Romans 13 to identify Rome’s warfare policy and how it became an empire. You said: “This was ‘warfare far outside its territory’ which is exactly what Sprinkle says Rom 13 does not cover.” Exactly. Romans 13 doesn’t cover it because Romans 13 wasn’t intended to cover it. It’s talking about Rome’s current police action.

    And you’re right about Grudem. He’s not the best defense of a non-pacifistic reading of Romans 13. And perhaps I wouldn’t make it past the Sweet Sixteen. But Grudem does represent the 30,000 fans in the stands, who although they go to church also think that America’s excessive military prowess is a non-issue, if not the pathway to peace.

    For what it’s worth, brother, in the book, I will interact with the Dan Bells, Oliver O’Donovans and Peter Leitharts of the discussion.

    Thanks again for the helpful critique.

  • I would also contend the later after the submission word, the words for not being obligated to others, which would include government, is used. It states that we should “not be obligated to anyone, unless loving one another.” Just a thought towards the actual focus of that chapter.

  • Norman (#10),

    Very helpful comments! A few thoughts:

    I don’t think that Rom 13 actually refers to all the things you say it does (army, militia, etc.). Roman police officers were often referred to as “sword bearers” (e.g. in Egypt; see Philo, Special Laws, 2.92-95; 3.159-63). By extension, bearing the sword could refer to Rome’s military putting down a revolt within the empire, but isn’t the best word (machairia, not romphia) that would describe an army per se. The sword may include the idea of capital punishment, as it does in Acts 12:2. But in Rom 13, it probably refers more generally to God using the government to punish wrong-doing within its jurisdiction (so most commentators: Moo; Keck, Cranfield, et al.).

    As for “extreme pacifism” and my presidential candidacy for 2017, I’m not sure I actually disagree with you, though I’m still noodling around the very difficult dilemma of Christians in the government, which wasn’t in Paul’s mind when he wrote Romans 13. Of course, the extreme pacifistic (Mennonite) position maintains a very strict wall between church and state. Let the state be the state, and let the church be the church. But I’m not sure if I actually agree with this (again, I’m a reformed baptist [lower cases intentional], not a Mennonite). I’m not ready to pull all Christians out of the government, police force, or even the military. With every vocation, however, I don’t think our King’s ethics are not relative: try to live them out, but if your vocation doesn’t allow you to, then you may very well toss them aside as unrealistic. If a Lawyer would NEED to lie to be a good Lawyer, or a doctor would NEED to perform abortions to keep his job (give it 50 years…), I don’t think the church would be cool with her prioritizing the demands of her vocation at the expense of, say, Matthew 5-7. We must obey God rather than humans (Acts 5:29). Consistency and faithfulness demands that we take out marching orders from the King in every vocation. Even the government.

    However, I take more of a traditional Reformed position that the church should seek to transform culture not run from it. (I like much of what Niebuhr argued for, though I disagree with this view of pacifism.) This is the brunt of the problem in my own thinking! Call it a clash of trajectories…

  • Jeff (#5),

    Ya, I looked into Luke 22 a while back. It was funny that of the 15 different commentaries I looked at (most of whom were not pacifists), only 1 said that Jesus is encouraging self-defense in telling his disciples to buy a sword. And this commentator didn’t even argue his case. He just assumed it. All the other commentators didn’t consider this view as a viable option. This doesn’t settle the issue (maybe the 1 dude was right?), but it does make you wonder.

  • John I.

    In general, it seems that American evangelicals assume that their nation is different from others in that they are specially blessed of God. However, the Biblical evidence is that all nations other than Israel (before Christ) were under the power of the principalities of the air and this world (e.g., Daniel 10). This includes America. America is not under the special protection of an angel of God, but subject to, and subjected to–as was Rome–demonic powers of this world who have America as one of their principalities. This state of the world will continue until Christ returns and brings his kingdom in full. Until he returns, we are still in this fallen world. Although Christ has won the war, and his kingdom is even now breaking in, it has not fully come and the powers of this world are not yet destroyed–though their final end has been announced by Christ and his apostles.

    Hence God’s use of America to punish evil (e.g., WWII Germany, Soviet Union, North Korea, etc.) is the same as his use of Babylonia to punish adulterous Israel, and his use of Assyria. The fact that God can take any evil event(s) and twist them for his own purposes and make good come out of them, does not mean that those evil events are justified or blessed in the first place.

    Hence, there is no justification for America to play the world policeman, or to invade other nations to correct their alleged evils on the basis of America being able to justly determine who deserves the punishment of war. The principalities and powers of this world encourage nations to rise up in hate, avarice and war against each other and commit great evils. That God takes these wars to accomplish something in spite of the demonic goals does not justify the wars. God would rather there be no such evils, and that all his goals would be accomplished through love.

    America’s decisions about so-called “just war” are under demonic power, though particular Christian individuals may not be.

    Finally, given that America has now lowered itself to the killing of American citizens without a trial, and to the indiscriminate killing of women and children and other noncombatants in nations against whom it has not declared war, the torturing of people using the same methods it condemned in WWII (and executed those who used these methods), it has no moral authority left vis a vis any other nation.

  • Norman


    Thanks for the reply. Looks like you are about wrestling with the implications of your ideas as are many of us. I likely have very little philosophical difference with you regarding the importance of clarifying for evangelicals the importance of not being militarist which I believe you have correctly identified and labeled. I would just come at it from a different perspective or angle and not embroil scriptures where I believe we can misuse them in either direction.

  • Norman

    John I. #15

    John I grew up in Oklahoma around a lot of Indian history. They were Tribal in nature and protected themselves as best they could from other tribes. Some tribes were more aggressive and some attempted to go the peaceful route. There was a certain small tribe that had existed where I grew up at who tried to remain neutral and peaceful and gave themselves to farming but they were vulnerable to other warlike and marauding tribes. They are no longer in existence as they were eventually overrun and plundered as they had no means to properly defend themselves. The US Army attempted to provide some protection but it wasn’t enough in the long run. It looks like the survival of the strong won the day or the weeding out of the weakest one might even say. I guess that was God’s plan for those poor wretched Indians who tried to coexist peaceably, but there was no one really looking out for them and they are gone now from history. Those who could have helped didn’t really have their heart in it and decided that nature just needed to take its course perhaps.

    I think that is kind of the way we look at our world neighbors today; if they aren’t strong enough to defend themselves then so be it. We simply aren’t able to help our neighbors by helping them even though we might be the only nation capable of doing so. Perhaps it’s just not any of our business concerning our world’s neighbors.

    May the Lord have mercy upon us who can help our neighbor but fail to do so!

  • Adam


    This is a bit oblique, but you have made the distinction between internal and external militaristic actions. Police are internal and Iran is external. How do we account for militarism with the understanding that internal and external are arbitrary distinctions? (Iran is internal to the whole planet. The police are external to my house.)

  • Percival

    Thanks Preston for responding. The point I was trying to make was that Rome’s use of the sword was not as a police force as we usually think of police as coming from the citizenry, but as an occupying army of foreign invaders.

    I share Norman’s views here and I’m grateful that he can express them so well. I do think this is a much needed conversation for evangelicals to hold. Preston, as I stated before, I fully share your concerns about the misuse of the Bible for militaristic purposes. To make a persuasive argument against militarism shouldn’t be as hard as the current state of the church makes it. Even more difficult is to understand how we of the Kingdom are to interact with earthly kings. Like Norman, I think there is a place for a certain kind of pacifism. But more important than being mere pacifists is to be peacemakers showing love and concern for all our neighbors instead of wrapping ourselves in righteous non-involvement. From what I’ve read of your posts, I think you would agree with most of these sentiments.

  • John I.

    Re Norman, @ #17: America defending the farming Indians & “May the Lord have mercy upon us who can help our neighbor but fail to do so!”

    Oh, you mean like how the Americans deliberately gave Indians blankets infected with smallpox? Or deliberately provoked Indians to foster winnable battles? Or sided with Americans who broke the law and settled in Indian lands? Or how Americans overthrew a democratically elected government in Chile and then supported a dictator who tortured and killed his own citizens? You mean that use of the army? Or invaded a sovereign nation that had not declared war on America (Cuba). Or sold weapons to a dictator (Saddam Hussein) that they at first propped up and then removed from power when it became convenient for American interests? Or do you mean the hypocritical America that allegedly defended Kuwait from an invasion but did (and does) nothing officially for Tibet and does not recognize Taiwan as a legitimate foreign government? Or does nothing to stop the persecution of the tribes in former Burma / Myanmar? You mean, of course, the America that only defends the “defenceless” when it suits her economic interests and the furtherance of her political power.

    In any event, you only prove the point that police power is what is in view in Romans. The protection of the Indian farmers, though done by soldiers, was an internal issue of American jurisdiction, not the use of military force on foreign soil (i.e., war).

    Conservative American Christianity is largely militaristic, and blind to that fact.

    An example of that blindness is the belief, expressed in posts above, that pacifism is equivalent to non-involvement and is an unChristian self-righteousness, and that involvement necessitates the use of force, of death, of killing / murder: i.e., war.

    Involvement by disciples of Christ involves sacrifice to the point of death. Christ himself indicated that all law, all morality, flows from just two commandments of God: (1) love God with one’s entire being, and (2) love others as yourself. Christ then changed the second of these to “love others as I have loved you”. That is, love others by the giving of your life, by the laying down of your life, by enduring death so that others might live. This teaching is prominent among the early church who lived and died this doctrine as martyrs for Jesus.

    Christ’s sermon on the mount was not a treatise on just war.

    Involvement with those who are suffering is to suffer with them as Christ did. To go to them and help them grow and make food. To go where they are and help them make clothes. To go where they are being persecuted and deliver medical aid and drill wells. To go and teach their children how to read and write. To go to them and preach the good news of Jesus Christ who as God in love has come to save them (and not to blow them up with unmanned drones, as apparently believed by some Christians).

    Many Christians have done this and are doing this. Many Christians have died doing this and in so doing have lived and died as Christ would have them do. Before Christ’s judgment seat I don’t see him saying “well done my good and faithful killer, blessed are those who send unmanned drones that kill the children who should have climbed into my lap.” Really, should we aspire to be a Christian who fired a missile into a village and killed 20 women and children so that we can meet them in the new heaven and earth and be congratulated by them for how just our action was and thanked by them for killing them painfully as they suffered and died over the next few hours so that an anti-american terrorist who might be planning a bombing attack could be killed? When we meet in the resurrected life, let me know how that meeting worked out.

  • John I.

    Those who believe in Christian wars, should start a registered lobby group to petition congress to paint “Jesus Loves You” on every missile we fire over seas. That way, when the survivors sort through the wreckage, they can take comfort in the midst of their grief that America truly loves them and is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars (per missile) to show them how much we love them.

    Is our relationship to government, war and persecution really that simple?

    In a word, “yes”.

    It is only made complicated by those who need convoluted reasoning to justify to themselves the doing of what they want and the obtaining of what their flesh craves.

  • Norman

    John I.

    I thought you might go the hypocritical American route in your response. You won’t get much argument from me on that point. We abused the Indians in so many ways that it impossible to keep count. Some of the Indians of Alabama and the south were trying to adapt to the American way by taking up farming and wearing our clothing and taking on our Religion but no: we wanted their land for ourselves. Look what it got them: the trail of tears!

    My point however doesn’t have anything to do with the larger problem of ineptness, corruption or hypocritical manner in which we Americans ran roughshod over the Indians. My point was on a micro level of Tribalism which corresponds to the point of being willing and able to assist people in need whenever we can when it comes to saving lives. It’s not always possible and we have numerous limitations but we also have opportunities that need to be gauged on rational and reasonable guidelines. An honorable people just can’t carte Blanche ignore opportunities to assist when able no matter how hypocritical and perverse former and present participants act.

    Also part of my point was the abrogation of responsibility by those peace seeking Indians in defending themselves from marauders which gets to my point of realism and practical life existence. Pacifism has its limitations in reality. I would hate to have to be the people sitting next to the untold millions of massacred women and children and explain to God why I failed to lift a hand while they were slaughtered. That scene may not go well with the Lord when He asked us if our answer to them was only to take the offering of a cup of cold water and go and be well; yet failed to clothe and protect them and forgo the opportunity to save their lives.

    I don’t have a problem though with going to peoples and providing medical aid, sanitation, growing food more efficiently and drilling water wells. In fact I have been actively involved in just those things for many years with our church. We hope to make a difference in people’s culture so that they will acquire the sustaining methods of righteous living that will permeate their society and lift them up holistically. There is work to be done!

  • SamB

    I like John I’s comment at 20. So thanks John. I am trying to read D. Bonhoeffer’s works because there is something different about this man. I would say that he is a modern day prophet. I don’t yet understand how the man who wrote Discipleship could make the decision to join the plot to kill Hitler. Yet I know that it was a decision that he wrestled with greatly. To many it would seem an easy decision to reach. It was not for him. I think there is a problem that should be obvious but is often ignored by trying to answer questions that are too big, like can I defend my house and family from someone breaking in.

    This for me is an important question for evangelicals in the United States. In my experience which I am limited to (from Vietnam to Operation Freedom in Irag), there has been no serious examination by evangelicals of whether the military operations, both covert and overt, are just. It is assumed by evangelicals that they are because we do them. How did we get to where we are today from the first few hundred years of the church that were so characterized by non violence even as so many died unjustly to where we blindly support, even enthusiastically support, the violence of our nation? I believe this indicates how severly we have lost our way and despite all our efforts are failing to follow Jesus.

  • SamB

    Norman at 22. Your statement about just giving one a glass of water and wishing them well is not what I think of as pacifist action at all. I wonder if anyone that advocates from a pacifist postion does? One pacifist action I would offer as an alternative is the Christian Peacemaking Teams that went to Iraq prior to the beginning of the bombings we poetically referred to as Shock and Awe. They went to stand with the Iraq people at the risk of their own lives. Another example would be Oscar Romero and the pastors in El Salvador who stood with the poor people in El Salvador when they were being tortured and murdered. Or Martin Luther King Jr who risked his life many times before he was finally murdered by standing against injustice and oppression in the South. There are many people with names none of us would recognize who have been faithful with incredible courage to their understanding of Jesus’ call to love their enemies and to overcome evil with good. Also, how do you know the tribe in Oklahoma that didn’t defend themselves failed? I think we get confused on how we measure success or failure. I remember Jesus saying something about persecution and death. Something about rejoicing in it because even though the world doesn’t think much of it, he does.

  • Norman


    You may be right, they may not have failed even though they were mostly exterminated and their way of life ended.

    I guess what I have a problem with is illustrated by this example. There was a decision by American leadership to forego the opportunity years ago to stop the wholesale slaughter that occurred in Rwanda in the mid 1990’s. Ethnic Cleansing could have been curtailed and possibly saved 100’s of thousands of lives but we did nothing. Even today we have ethnic cleansing of Christians going on in other places as we speak such as in the Sudan and in Nigeria.

    Do Christian Americans care? What would you do if you were President and were presented with the opportunity to prevent ethnic cleansing in a country in which you could? Would your concern regarding American hypocrisy curtail you from intervening if there was a clear and present danger and you had the ability to save lives? Perhaps if you were to lead the USA in National repentance would it then allow you to save lives because we have been made righteous and now are worthy to defend the defenseless? I guess perhaps otherwise our sinfulness limits our practical responsibility.

  • Craig Wright

    Personally, I was able to deal with this issue during the Viet Nam war, when I applied as a conscientious objector. I was raised as a Baptist, but our government allowed this option, since I filled out an appellation. I got put as an army medic on the front line of combat.I would”t consider myself a hard core pacifist, but realize that each situation must be evaluated according the particular factors involved.

    I recently listened to an your interview on Beyond the Box about your co-writing “Erasing Hell”. I appreciate your re-looking at the use of Is. 55: 8 in the context of God’s showing mercy. Compare it with Hosea 11: 8-9. You might also want to consider how Is. 35: 5-10 affects the “eternality” of Rev. 14: 11, with the smoke going up forever and ever. Did you also consider that one of the views of Second Temple Judaism was on the term limits on staying in Gehenna? Another point to consider in looking at 2 Thess. 1: 9, the word “away” is not in the Greek. It has the same construction as verse 2, where from means to proceed from, not to be excluded from. I also think it is important to consider the importance of “death and Hades” being thrown into the lake of fire. In Rev. 6, they seem to be considered as two different entities, riding on the horses. If you get a chance, tell Francis Chan, that in responding to “Love Wins”, that Chan didn’t deal with that subject of love until a final question in the appendix. It was a superficial reply, and somewhat disappointing.

    I did greatly appreciate your tone and attitude in the interview.

  • Returning to Rom. 12-13, certain details there could help focus the context and application. One commenter noted Jesus’ command to love our enemies; this command is central to Paul’s words in 12:14-21 about dealing with persecutors by not overcoming evil with evil. Instead, if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone (12:18). And let everyone (especially those who do evil and persecute Christians, as in 12:18) be subject to the ruling authorities (and not to the revenge of persecuted Christians) (13:1). But if Christians decide to get revenge, this evil will also be punished by the authorities (13:3-5). So Christians should owe no one anything (no revenge), except to love one another (even enemies) (13:8).

    Like Jesus, Paul calls disciples who suffer persecution on account of their exclusive loyalty to one Lord, as part of his international kingdom of disciples, to patiently endure such evil by not seeking revenge. Since loyalty to Christ (as king) includes challenging the evil of other kings and their loyal citizens, speaking out against militarism could easily get one in trouble. Jesus’ little flock of disciples in every nation will not transform any nation, but it can confront every nation with its greed and violence–and call for repentance and faith in the one true Lord. Jesus said his disciples would be hated by all nations–and still sent them out to make disciples in every nation.

  • So would Dr. Sprinkle say that Paul is spelling out for Rome (just in case this letter were to end up in the hands of Christians serving in the offices of the Roman government or Nero himself) what she should look like? As I read the passage, I agree with everything Sprinkle says about militarism from Romans 13. It was just a curiosity.

  • Ian Thomason

    I will admit to finding the apparent fascination that many American Christians have with militarism and/or firearms slightly strange. I say this as an Australian who is a professional Army officer, and a PhD who teaches biblical studies at an evangelical theological college in his spare time.

    For what it’s worth my personal view is that war should be avoided when possible; conducted when necessary; and completed when feasible. In every case the prosecution of State-sanctioned violence should be seen as being the very last resort. Consequently, the notion that war is simply “… the continuation of (a nation’s) politics by other means”, to quote von Clausewitz; isn’t one that I believe can be supported by those called by the Peacemaker.

    I wonder. Would we Christians potentially benefit by spending time engaging in cultural exegesis as we do, biblical exegesis?

  • AHH

    John I. @20,
    While I agree with much of your characterization of horrible treatment of Native Americans, please don’t spread the myth about the US Army intentionally giving them smallpox blankets. That story is the product of irresponsible folks like Ward Churchill. The real history is bad enough without adding urban legends like that.

  • John I.

    Amen to Lucas Dawn’s comments.

    The powers of the air, of this world, still rule the principalities of this world–including the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., France, Brazil, etc.–but the kingdom of Christ has invaded them. Christ’s kingdom as of now exists in the hearts of those who are his disciples and follow him. For his disciples, Jesus is king, and we owe our allegiance to him. Where there is any conflict between our allegiance to him and our allegiance to a government of this world, we are to choose Jesus over them.

    This means that Christian soldiers in Stalinist USSR were morally wrong and responsible for their killings (Ukrainians, etc.), as were Christian German soldiers who obeyed orders in concentration camps, and American soldiers who direct drones and blow up innocent children. There are earthly orders that no Christian can obey.

    Re Norman’s response in #22: (1) pejoratively name-calling my response “going the hypocritical America route” is not only merely a dismissive knee-jerk, but it also fails to grapple with the issues I did raise and incorrectly characterizes my response. My response is that it is impossible for America or any nation to somehow rise above the powers of this world and act as a “christian nation”. America has been, is, and will be hypocritical and dominated by the powers of the air–just like every other nation that has existed or will exist until Christ returns. The issue is not, as you seem to perceive, whether and how a nation like America can militarily respond to accomplish love and mercy in this preresurrection life. It is impossible from the get go.

    (2) You are too limited in what you perceive as possible responses and as acceptable (to Christ) responses. I am not against action, against mercy, against love shown in this life and that can be held up to the dead and martyrs in Christ in the next. When I see them, I want to be able to talk about what I did, but I do not need to engage in war to hold up my head.

    (3) Your response assumes that it is somehow possible to weigh lives against each other, and come up with a metric that allows us to kill some in order that others might live a while longer in this life. There is no such metric. It is not given by God to us to even attempt such a metric. No war has ever been able to spare the innocent, the children, the babies, or the animals that God created. So American bombing of Pakistani and Afghan villages and the consequent inevitable killing of innocents is acceptable just so that some other sinners might live a while longer before they appear at Christ’s judgment seat? Do you really think that the dead whom we will see in the resurrected life will congratulate those who killed innocents in order to save them? Or be angry with those who did not kill innocents and so failed to save them?

    I don’t see that in the Scriptures God gave us. There will be no anger or disappointment at anyone’s failure to respond militarily, or at anyone’s failure to support or condone a military response.

    I do come from a peace tradition (Mennonite), but my disgust at militarism is not simply a Pavlovian response to my upbringing and heritage. It is something that I have come to own in the same way that I have come to own my faith and decision to follow Christ as his disciple. It is one that has come not only as a result of earlier more naive decisions or responses, but one that now also flows from a mature and reflective response and choice.

    Why do some American tourists where the flag of Canada on their backpack when travelling abroad? The repulsion against militarism is widespread, even among those whose response is not based on Christ and his love.

  • John I.

    re AAH #30 & smallpox.

    You will note that I didn’t say american “soldiers”, only “americans”. A number of other examples could be used to make my point, so your quibble is not relevant to the argument. However, my recollection was not far from the truth. The use of small pox infected items is primarily associated with Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a Brit, during the time before the colonies became America. His attitudes were typical of many colonists before the war of Independence (a war, by the way, that is contrary to Romans 13), who then became Americans after the war. Amherst’s letters still exist in print, and were also preserved on microfilm during the 40s. His letters document his discussion with Colonel Henry Bouquet concerning plans to infect the Indians with small pox, and the unfortunate lack of dogs to use in hunting Indians to death.

    Furthermore, one of the most direct statements about the use of small pox against the Indians comes from the journal of William Trent, who was commander of the local militia of of Pittsburgh. On May 24, 1763, he wrote, “we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”

  • John I.

    BTW, and before we become sidetracked on smallpox, I’d like to state that I’m not into revisionist history, that the only evidence of the smallpox blanket plan being carried out is in Pittsburgh, that there is evidence suggesting the plan worked in a limited way around Pittsburgh, but the vast and overwhelming number of Indian deaths from smallpox came as the result of other transmission routes (trading at infected forts, personal contact with infected persons, taking of scalps, etc.). Ignore the sentence on smallpox in my earlier comment; nothing is lost from the point I was making.

  • Norman

    John I,

    I’m not sure you paid close attention to what I wrote, here it is again: … “I thought you might go the hypocritical American route in your response. You won’t get much argument from me on that point.”

    My point was that I agreed that Americans were hypocritical in many areas you defined. But I guessed correctly that your response would be built around that argument which neglected to address the points that I then reiterated in my #22 response.

    Yes I do believe there can be deduced a metric for response to threats by others to Kill/murder. I believe I have the right to defend my family against murderers who break in my home and are in the process of attempting to Kill/murder my family. That’s metric #1.

    I’m in agreement with the Police having the right to use deadly force (sword) also to help protect me and my family from killers/murderers. That’s metric #2

    I’m in agreement with having trained militia that can come to my defense if my nation or region is in danger of being overrun by organized Groups that the police are not strong enough to resist. Think Mexico and the threat of the Drug mobs and anarchist. That’s metric #3

    I’m not about un-necessary offering my family/loved ones up as martyrs to murderers. Perhaps you have a different position which is your privilege.

  • SamB

    Norman, Your concern abot Rwanda is one I share. I believe we should have done something. Not we, as the United States, but we with other nations should have done something. I just don’t know what. Jesus’ teaching and example about not adding to the violence of the world seem straightforward to me. I know there are ethicists who are currently trying to modify just war theory to encompass situations like Rwanda. I understand that John Yoder believed that just war theory in the end supports pacifism or non-violent response. There should have been a rapid response in Rwanda – the non-reponse was horrible. I don’t know a lot about what happened in Rwanda. I have watched a couple of movies and read parts of several books. I will never forget the story I read of a pastor who commanded the bull dozing of his church because of the Tutsi’s seeking sanctuary inside who were members of that church. How does such violence become possible in a land that identified itself as Christian? Rwanda is difficult Norman. But that should not prevent us as citizens of anther Kingdom from recognizing that one is very justified in coming to the conclusion that our military actions, covert and overt, from Vietnam to Iraq are unjust and that the church has an obligation to carefully and exhaustively look at this evidence and if it is convincing to proclaim it as unjust and do everything we can to stand with its victims. From your thoughtful comments in the past, I think you agree?

  • Norman


    I agree, I would have liked to have seen us work with the UN with all our might to help save lives. Barring the slowness of the UN then we may have had to acted alone. You are correct it was a difficult situation but something should have been done. When it comes to Civil Wars among peoples then it becomes even more difficult to insert ourselves even to help preserve lives. The world is a tough place and there are no simple answers often.

  • Excellent and very helpful article, best summed up by that display of these two verses:
    ” 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.” (Rom 12:19)

    For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:4)”

    Christians are called to be the light of the world, not the sword of the LORD.
    And most Christians miss that point because, unlike above, they have no idea that Romans “13” is related to Romans “12” The spirit of the times in which Paul wrote a letter, not chapters, can be an eye opener.

  • Craig (#26),

    Sorry I took so long to reply to your comment. I’ve been traveling. Since my post wasn’t about Hell, I won’t respond to your comments in detail. But if you’re interested, I did a two part interview a couple months ago on “Rethinking Hell,” which if you Google you can find. Some of your questions are addressed there. I am sorry that our book disappointed you. But for what it’s worth, Erasing Hell wasn’t intended to be a point by point response to Bell (we never said we’re doing that, even though the media did). Bell isn’t even mentioned in the last 4 chapters. There were actually plenty of issues that we didn’t, or couldn’t, address within Rob’s book and stay under our 30k word limit.

    Thanks for dropping in. Hope you enjoy the interviews if you get around to it.

  • Craig Wright

    Thanks Preston. I downloaded those interviews to listen to while I jog.

    Another viewpoint from my Viet Nam era experience with evangelicals. Before being drafted, I attended Biola College a couple of years. At that time we could not vote until 21 years old, so the school held a mock election. In the general American public, Goldwater lost by a landslide to Johnson, yet Goldwater won by a landslide at Biola. Goldwater’s reputation was that he would drop “the bomb.” At this time Sen. Mark Hatfield (Oregon Republican), a member of the Conservative Baptist denomination, came out against the war. He was vilified by the church. Later, George McGovern opposed the war and lost by a landslide to Nixon, who was raised a Quaker. A lot of ironies here.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Preston, thank you for a thoughtful post. I was glad to see someone has addressed a couple stories from the scriptures that had been bearing on my mind regarding how best to get at what Paul is teaching in Romans 13. For instance, you bring up God’s use of nations like Assyria and Babylon. Wasn’t it a scandal to Habakkuk’s faith that God would use nations like these to punish Israel, even if Israel deserved that punishment? You see Habakkuk come to a position of faith by chapter three that reflects God’s ways in using a “crucified Messiah” to accomplish his purposes. I make that association since Paul uses Habakkuk to talk about his “not being ashamed of the gospel,” a gospel that glories in using the humble and humiliated to bring about salvation, and expects a faithfulness akin to Jesus’ from his disciples.
    In the same way, you have to wonder how some American Christians, who can so easily see where righteousness resides (I think it can be called rather “selective righteousness”), would think about someone like Jeremiah calling the “righteous” nation to surrender to those “wicked” nations, as Jeremiah told Israel it was God’s will to do in relation to Babylon. I already know the answer, as I relate this as an example of our inherent “exceptionalism” about America, the same thing that caused Israel to miss God’s will to see a way to repentance.
    Last, you mention John the Baptist being killed by Herod. Do you think John sending his disciples to Jesus, asking about whether Jesus actually was the one he had prophesied about, was a question of scandal in John’s mind that here he was, sitting in Herod’s prison and Jesus had not yet deposed him, taking his rightful place as Messiah? I ask because after Jesus tells them what to report back to John, he says “blessed is he who is not offended by me.” John was having the same questions of faith that Habakkuk was struggling with.
    Can we actually say we have faith in the Jesus of the New Testament if we so easily dismiss these kinds of challenges that either make or break faithful obedience to the one we claim is our lord and savior, and yet takes us in a entirely different direction?

  • John I.

    Re Norman # 34

    The reason I think we’re ships passing in the night on the issue of American hypocrisy, is not because I thought we disagreed on whether America was hypocritical. The hypocrisy of the U.S., or any other nation, is a given and also irrelevant to my point.

    Norman wrote, “I’m in agreement with having trained militia that can come to my defense if my nation or region is in danger of being overrun by organized Groups that the police are not strong enough to resist. Think Mexico and the threat of the Drug mobs and anarchist. That’s metric #3. I’m not about un-necessary offering my family/loved ones up as martyrs to murderers.”

    The use of an army to directly protect one’s own family and nation on one’s own turf is in a different category from intervention by one’s soldiers in disputes in other nations and on their soil. The first could possibly be justified by Christians as an extension of police protection, the latter could not.

    A sacrificing of one’s family could be supported from the teachings of Jesus; the killing of others cannot.

    My point about Roman 12 & America is that America is not a Christian nation, and never has been as there has never been any such thing as a Christian nation in the sense of one ruled by Christ in love. America is not under the protection of an angel, but is subject to the same powers and principalities and demons as all other nations. Being militaristic, as America is, is demonic. Christian just war theory requires or depends on a christological foreign policy and so is an impossibility to achieve (besides being false in and of itself). Even if a war on foreign soil could be justified on Christ’s ethic and on his commands to us (which I doubt), it could not be conducted in a manner that could be similarly justified.

    Police actions and police force do not in and of themselves involve assaults on, and death to, innocent bystanders such as children or non-criminal men or women (i.e., persons who are engaged in activities that warrant arrest and suspicion of guilt). Hence police actions defending the innocent are a world away from killing by soldiers. The purpose and goal of a soldier is to kill those who are defined as the enemy, even if innocents are killed in the process. Soldiers are not in the business of law enforcement. It is not the goal of soldiers to enforce either our civil and criminal laws on foreign soil, not to enforce the laws of the foreign country.

    The goal of policing is not the killing of the enemy.

    Indeed, policing is not primarily for our protection or the enforcement of morals or ethics. Policing is for the enforcement of laws that are applicable in a specific jurisdiction. It is the goal of the laws to provide for many things, including protection. Police are not authorized to “protect people” and to do whatever is necessary to do so. Police can only enforce laws (and that is why people complain that the laws do not do enough to protect marital assault victims, to protect people in drug infested neighborhoods, etc.) Police enforcement of the laws will result in safety, and so safety is a product of law enforcement.

  • Percival

    John I.,
    From reading your posts, I’m not sure that you are on the same page regarding definitions. You said, “A Christian just war theory requires or depends on a christological foreign policy.” How is that?
    There is nothing Christological about just war theory. Just war theorists, as far as I have ever heard, never claim anything Christological. It is simple moral theory that could be humanistic or even atheistic. These are the 4 points as traditional enumerated, (from wikipedia)
    1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
    2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    3) there must be serious prospects of success;
    4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

  • Lyndell Brown

    It appears that you continue to ignore Genesis 9 and also confuse the role of governments and of individual Christians. I think you should think about how to respect those Christian brothers and sisters who gave their lives so that you have the freedom to write this stuff.

  • Lyndell Brown


    I would also list Southern Sudan, where Christian hospitals continued to be bombed by the North. We did nothing for over 2 years because Madeline Albright did not think it would be popular with the American people. This, in the context of the many places the Clinton administration had us fighting, is ridiculous.

  • Bryan

    Where does the issue of civil disobedience fit into Paul’s notion of submission? Is it ever acceptable to actively break the laws of a country in order to do some good?

  • On Jesus and the Two Swords, despite our perplexity on first reading, the exegesis is straightforward with only two real options, neither of which condone wielding the sword.