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

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.

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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.