Nonviolence 101 – Submit to the Sword, but Do Not Carry One! [Romans 12-13] (part 5)

Nonviolence 101 – Submit to the Sword, but Do Not Carry One! [Romans 12-13] (part 5) February 14, 2011

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.


Perhaps the most appealed to text in the New Testament to call into question any nonviolent readings of Jesus is Romans 13.  When many Christians in the United States read–“…for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason”–it is common to make this a starting point for arguing “just war” principles.  But, if we take the passage on its own terms, such a leap is difficult to make.

Submit to the Sword, but Do Not Carry One!

Romans 13.1-7 is a problematic text for many who want to hold to the idea of nonviolent resistance as a normative New Testament teaching.  For so long it has been used to justify sanctioned violence in a society where Christians freely participate in government, that it is difficult to recognize how our experiences shape our interpretations.  It was this text that many Christians appealed to after 9/11 to support an immediate military strike.  The problem is that Romans 13 does not deal with the issue of war.

We must remember that Roman soldiers served as modern-day equivalents of both the local police and the national military.  We also must recognize that chapters 12 and 13 belong together, as Paul’s letter is one fluid piece of work and was never intended to have such divisions.[1] With both of these qualifiers, how is it that my position about the lack of war in this chapter is justified?  Well, because it is clear that “Romans 13 is dovetailed into an argument against the taking of private vengeance (12:14-21).”[2] What this means is that doing acts of violence in retaliation was not only against the way of Jesus, but that such would bring the punishment of the policing sword of the emperor’s soldiers and other authorities.[3] This is an entirely different issue being raised than that of “just war.”

The correlation to statements in the previous chapter (Romans 12) cannot be overstated.  In that context Christians are commanded to “bless those who persecute you” (v. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (v. 17); “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (v. 18); and as was already mentioned, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord (v. 19).  The following verse goes on to talk about actions of love toward enemies.  Paul clearly has in mind what he knows of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and is giving his commentary on such to the church in Rome.[4] The connection between Paul and Jesus helps us to see that there was continuity between the two regarding nonviolence.  Commenting on this association, Hermon A. Hoyt states (using the language of nonresistance as opposed to our preferred term):

It is amazing that the doctrine of nonresistance harmonizes with various commands that Christ gave to believers which otherwise could not be carried out…  [It] harmonizes with the command of Christ to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27; Rom. 12:20; 13:8-10), to return good for evil (Rom. 12:17, 21; 1 Pet. 3:9), to do good to all people (Rom. 12:17; Gal. 6:10), to make no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:13-14), and to follow after the things which make for peace (Rom 12:18; 14:19).[5]

Now that we have established the connections between chapters 12 and 13, and have treaded the needle from Jesus to Paul, it will serve as productive to finish our exploration of this passage of Scripture.  When Paul wrote Romans, Nero was emperor.  He would become one of the most infamous tyrannical leaders in all of history.  Even still, Paul writes: “submit to the authorities… as a matter of conscience” (13:5).  This clearly not a text that gives any governmental ruler a free pass, so to speak. In fact, by the time this was written, the emperor cult was growing at a rapid rate.  The emperor was worshipped as a son of god throughout the Roman world.  Paul reminds Christians of who God actually is and of who actually has all authority.  The Apostle states in a subversive fashion: “…for there is no authority except that which God has established” (v. 1).  This serves as a reminder that Jesus is the world’s true Lord and that Caesar will be subject to his judgment.[6]

Finally, we need to address the issue of government and its distinctness from the church.  It seems that American readers have a tendency to blur the lines between who can “bear the sword.”  Can Christians carry out the work of sword-bearing since this passage clearly justifies the need for such?  My answer to this question echoes what seems to be the witness of the New Testament as a whole and this text in particular: no!  This is because “it is quite plain that Paul envisages two quite distinct spheres of ‘service’ to God.”[7] The idea that Christ-followers would also be the ones carrying the sword goes against the logic of this literary unit.  John Howard Yoder describes it best:

Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath.  Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God.  It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another.  This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.  However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil for evil, such behavior is for men not complementary but in disjunction… it is a most likely interpretation that the “vengeance” or “wrath” that is recognized as being within providential control is the same as that which Christians are told not to exercise.[8]

[It needs to be added that Yoder’s theology is quite helpful here, but recently it has come to light that he failed–majorly–to live out his theology in his private interactions with several women. The quote is still true, and as this article was written prior to these allegations coming to light, the quote will remain. Even so, failing to mention Yoder’s own abuses of power towards women would fail in authenticity. If you are reading this, please know that many others have made this point about Romans 12-13 as well.]

Based on this reading of Romans 12-13, it is clear that Christians are called to be separate from the violent roles of the state and to avoid putting one’s self in a compromised scenario where violence could be employed.  “There is not even a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.”[9]

[1]. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), 197.

[2]. N.T. Wright, Romans, vol. 10 of New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 723.

[3]. Ibid., 721.

[4]. Ibid., 713.

[5]. Herman A. Hoyt, “Nonresistance,” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Winona Lake, Indiana: BMH Books, 1986), 42.

[6]. Wright, Romans, 719.

[7]. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament commentaries ;, edited by v, 13 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1978), 238.

[8]. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster, 199-200.

[9]. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 331.

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  • Kurt, I'd agree with you that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify war or violence in general as an acceptable Christian behavior. But Yoder's statement at the end creates as many problems as it solves. He basically equals the violence of policing and execution by the political authority with an act of God's wrath. What exactly does this say about the unjust use of violence by the Romans (possibly Nero himself in this case)? What does it say about God's own willingness to use violence, even if it were only limited to policing and incarceration in this indirect way? And can we really deduce from the text that Christians are forbidden to serve in any political function where they may be complicit in violent acts? Or is Paul actually talking about something very different here, namely relinquishing taking justice into our own hands when being wronged in a personal confontation?

    If I take Yoder's interpretation at face value, it sounds to me like: "God wants you to leave the dirty business of violence to the state, you yourself should not stain yourself by participating in it!" How does that jive with John the Baptist's advice to the Roman soldiers? Shouldn't he have made it clear to them that true repentance would involve leaving the army? Are we in the end casting judgment on every Christian who has resolved in their mind that they CAN be a Christian and at the same time a cop, judge, prison guard, or soldier at the same time?

    • Kurt

      Josh… I will try to deal with your questions during this week in greater detail… Short answer. Yes, you CAN be a christian and a cop if your worldview allows you to… but for me and this reading of the text, the answer is — a christian ought not put themselves in a situation where they would have to use the sword. "Pagan" state is given God's delegated authority to keep the powers of evil of the pagan realm at bay… so to speak. In God's shalom community we are called to a counter-cultural witness. In our community we deal with conflict through restorative justice not the sword. Not an answer that engages everything, but tonight is a date night 😉

      • Samuel Mathew

        Hi Kurt,

        We had a lively discussion at our church meeting today! One of the objections had to do with this very topic about Christians serving in a position of authority where they may have to use force (police, military, jury, judge) to serve ‘justice’, so that evil can be kept in check in society.
        The question specifically is that, if Christians were prohibited by Jesus in using violent resistance, is there any record in the history of the early church where Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity gave up their jobs? Thanks!

    • jason

      I think in regards to John the Baptists response to the roman soldier… one does not know everything he said to him. But, the fact that the first century church was undeniably nonviolent I think answers that question. If John the Baptist or Jesus was ok with involvement in the military I think we would have had at least some stories of early Christians involvement in the military (which there are none).

      But, I think that you bring up a good question that needs to be discussed, “God wants you to leave the dirty business of violence to the state, you yourself should not stain yourself by participating in it!” I think that is a very important discussion. I might vary with Kurt on exactly how far to take this but the underlying issue is how can one justify "carrying the sword" and being a Christian?

      I think we have more of a problem of simply not questioning the marriage of government violence and God's will. And, just letting that be the norm. Instead, swinging the pendulum the other way and asking how peaceful/just can I be? And, how can I show God's shalom on this earth?

      @Kurt, I am interested to read/hear more of this topic.

    • Jasen

      John the Baptist may have been a New Testament character but he was still an Old Covenant prophet therefore it’s not surprising that his advice to a soldier is in keeping with an Old Covenant understanding of Kingdom building.  Jesus is the one who brought the New Covenant with a new kingdom ethic and it’s Jesus we claim to follow not John the Baptist. 

      John 5:35-36

  • I would have to say that I agree with you Kurt. Paul does not seem to ever condone violence in the name of Christ or God. But, like Josh, I have some issues with the implied messages beneath it all; are we not to be soldiers, cops, judges, etc., when we say we follow Christ?

    And while we're on the subject, I've had difficulties understanding Luke 22:36 where Jesus says "Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy on." My ESV footnote says this is metaphorical for spiritual warfare, but when the disciples say "Look, Lord, here are two swords" Jesus doesn't correct them by saying "That's not what I mean," but instead "It is enough." So adding to Josh's comment, does a passage like this actually mean we can be in a profession that might require violence and still be a true follower of Christ?

    • "his cloak and buy one*."

    • Kurt

      Great question, I will deal with this text tomorrow morning. There is a great explanation. Also, I encourage you to read this text as it is translated in the NIV 2011 —

      38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

      “That’s enough!” he replied.

  • bigglesworth

    I find myself mostly agreeing with this post, and I like your ideas.
    The US government is of, by and for the people. Applying Romans 13 to the USA is to say that Christians ARE the government – the authority. We needn't join the military or be a police officer … just over the age of 18. When we vote, we don't (at least in theory) elect a government – rather, we elect REPRESENTATIVES. They are supposed to be merely those who have been hired to do our (the people's) bidding.

    So as Christian governors, Romans 13 actually expects us to defend the innocent from the guilty. Our constitution also calls for it when it begins that "we the people" and continues with the phrase "provide the common defense." Maybe being a Christian and an American are mutually exclusive (and logically must be, according to your post), but I think not.

    • Kurt

      bigglesworth, thanks for you complements,

      Christians are not the government. That is quite flawed logic on this. You are making a HUGE INTERPRETIVE LEAP that is not justified by the text or the New Testament as a whole. There is no such thing as a Christian nation. The bible never imagines it, except for the OT nation of Israel… and even that went bad. In the New Testament how can you have a christian nation if Christians by definition are from every nation? They are from Iraq, USA, Afghanistan, England, Germany, South Africa, Iran, Egypt, China, and everywhere else on this globe. The only kingdom that can truly be attested to in the NT is the kingdom of God which transcends borders!

      Think about this. The US (which is supposedly a Christian nation) goes to war against other Christians. If our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom first, how can US Christians kill other Christians and it EVER be justified? Well, it can't. Either our allegiance to the Kingdom of God really comes first or the empire of the US becomes our true allegiance. Please read about the "myth of a Christian nation" here:

      Finally, if Jesus teaches nonviolence here: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” (Matt. 5.39). Now, if Jesus commands this of all Christians, can we contradict this word by your suggestion above? Not only so, if you say yes… does scripture then contradict itself? By your reading of this passage, it just may.

  • bigglesworth

    No, my argument is not from scripture, and I am in no way claiming the USA is a Christian nation – on those things I agree with you 100%.

    What I'm trying to say is that according to our constitution (not the bible) – our government consists of the citizens of this land. I am a citizen, and I am a Christian. I vote and I pay taxes. Therefore, whether I like it or not, I am, in fact, a participant in the violent actions of this nation, because I am one of it's governors. By mutual agreement, even if I vote for purely pacifist representation and lose – I still go along with the majority's decision.

    Please don't think I'm claiming we're a Christian nation … I believe no such thing. But I do believe that we Christians who are also citizens of this nation are also it's rulers (according to the constitution, Ghettysburg address, etc.). We ARE Nero … unless we leave the US.

    Hope that's clearer, because I really am interested in your thoughts on that, fellow governor. 🙂

    oh, one more thing: I don't believe this necessarily is a contridiction of scripture. In my role as a Christian, I can try (through creativity, etc. as you suggest) to be nonviolent in all things. But by birth I'm also a governor of this land, and therefore put here by God, and He expects me to wield the sword to defend the helpless.

    my logic may be flawed, but here it is (for your dissection): Paul seems to endorse slavery (1 Corinthians 7.21, Philemon, etc.). But even a teeny bit of study shows that there was a big difference between the kinds of slavery in the first century, and the kidnapping and trafficking of humans we've had in the Americas – even though it's also called 'slavery,' it's really two different institutions. So I see no conflict in being anti-slavery and pro-scripture.

    In the same way, our governmental institution is different than a kingdom or dictatorship as they had in the first century. Under their system of government, one submitted to the government but (as you say better than I) remained nonviolent. But our government has placed the mantle of leadership on the shoulders of the citizens, and so God expects us to be responsible and wise governors, and therefore execute our responsibilities.

    I hope that's clearer, and look forward to your insights.

    • Kurt

      Bigglesworth, You bring some interesting logic to the table. I do not agree with such, but I can understand where you come from.

      1) I am a citizen of the US in the same way that Paul was a citizen of Rome. Yes the system was a bit different, but he was a citizen nonetheless – with all the rights and privileges that come with that. In some ways he could be considered a 'governor' to follow you analogy (well, in a different way in a different system). Nevertheless, it could be claimed that his privileged status of citizen (which was rare for subjugated peoples in the empire) would have meant that he, by paying taxes and participating in various ways, was also by extension guilty of the wars of Rome. There are a lot of problems if we go down that road, so I have to simply disagree and move on from this part of the convo. I am a citizen of the US and the only benefit that entitles me to are those which I yield for the Kingdom. When the US uses violence, representative of the people or not, it does not do so on my behalf as I would never vote for such. That is the work of empire. It is completely separate from anything having to do with Christianity (which, we seem to agree on somewhat 🙂 ) The bottom line is that all government is influenced by Satan (see the temptation of Jesus narratives). Therefore, we may have more or less of a voice, from nation to nation, but ultimately we are 'separate' from them. Use our voice. Call them to justice. But never join them in violence. If scripture doesn't condone violence then we must never participate in it.

      2) On your other thought on Paul and slavery. I would argue that in Philemon, Paul is actually pushing for the liberation of slaves on a local level. In fact, Paul uses language that indicates that Onesimus and Philemon are no longer on separate social levels, but are equals. After making this very clear, Paul goes on to say that he is confident that Philemon will "do even more than I ask"… in other words, free the slave. For a series I did on Philemon, go here:… So, I'd say that although Paul didn't confront the whole institution of slavery, he began to wrestle with it in Colossae and other churches. So, I think the movement of Scripture is headed towards anti-slavery.

      3) Even if the kingdom of this world (USA) gives us the task of being 'governors', the function of sword bearing – because it is forbidden by the New Testament – is off limits for believers (based on my interpretation). The state is the state and the church is part of the the Kingdom of God… never the twain shall meet. 🙂

      Thanks again for engaging my blogs in conversation. I hope to see you here more often. Peace.

      • Bigglesworth

        Thanks, Kurt. I need to consider this a bit more.
        As for Onesimus doing more than Paul asks, it probably has to do with the property that was no doubt stolen by Philemon when he escaped. Paul was returning Onesimus (part of Phil's property) and offering to make up for the rest.

        Either way, I don't think it could possibly be argued from that text that God was cool with American slavery.

        Thanks for indulging me … I'll be back. This is an interesting thing you have going here, and you're a gracious host.

        • Kurt

          It is Philemon who is charged with "doing more than asked" not the slave Onesimus. Blessings!

  • Thank you, Kurt for doing this series. I have called myself a sacramental Mennonite/Anabaptist (or a direct action nonviolent catholic), for 20 years. Most of the books you quote, when i run to my shelf i see I own and must have read (there are notes in them). Yet, if someone someone comes with the “but….” I cant seem to take that next step to support my belief. So I have been enjoying your work and also reading the comments.
    I have always admired raymond hunthausen, who during maybe the first Gulf war stopped paying taxes because he could not have his money support war.
    Its easy to have a bumper sticker saying “when Jesus said love your enemies I think he meant dont kill them” compared to picking up the cross and acting on it.
    Our country continues to use violence to try to bring peace. From the death penalty to War in Afghanistan, the Killing of Bin Laben, to  how police officers of late treat those marching in the Occupy wall street.
    I believe in the Third way Jesus calls me to, yet I can not seem to do more than say I follow the sermon on the mount, its not utopia and the cross is real, one I pick up daily. Easy to say, but when one asks me “but what about…” I seem to lack the ability to “debate” with any foundation at all. Much to my shame.
    Again, thank you for this series, and thank you to your commentators who challenge you and dialog in such Christian love… often missing in our “religious world”.

    • @facebook-1626356467:disqus … this is truly a refreshing comment.  Thanks for the encouragement and the reflections on this important issue of peace.

  • Gregory

    A debate with Francis Schaefer and John H Yoder is in order…..and as good Bereans we should test them with the New Testament and the Holy Spirit… Sermon on the Mount and the Book of Revelation…….