Paul’s discussion on governing authorities is essential for understanding the profession of arms. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul issues a litany of imperatives for how believers should operate in the world: love, compassion, hospitality, honor, fervency, joy, patience, generosity, unity, and humility are the marching orders of the saints (Rom 12:9-16). When facing evil, believers are to overcome it with good as they leave vengeance to God and refuse to repay wrongdoing themselves (Rom 12:17-21).
The call to leave vengeance to God in Romans 12 is the contextual bridge linking the reader to Romans 13. One might think that God’s vengeance must wait until his return. Paul says differently: the governing authorities placed in power by God are commissioned as agents of his vengeance (Rom 13:4). The sword has been placed in the hands of the governing authorities to deter evildoers and protect the innocent (Rom 13:3-5).
The call to submit to governing authorities is followed by the exhortation to love one’s neighbor, defined by fulfilling the ten commandments and doing a neighbor no harm (Rom 13:8-10). In this context the punishment of law-breakers is an expression of loving one’s neighbors by protecting them against those who would do them harm. Neighborly love is bound up in the vocation of the sword, which includes justice systems, law enforcement, and the military. As extensions of the governing authorities, these vocations are imbued with putting down evil and protecting the innocent.
Romans 13 provides six important points for sword-bearing vocations. Inferentially, these principles should inform one’s biblical framework for the profession of arms:
- God appoints sword-bearers (13:2).
- Sword-bearers are divinely ordained to execute judgment on wrongdoing (13:4).
- Sword-bearers are considered God’s servants and ministers (13:4, 6).
- Sword-bearers exist for the good of the people (13:4).
- Honor is due to the sword-bearer (13:7).
- Sword-bearers love their neighbors by preventing harm from coming to them (13:8-10).
As extensions of governing authorities, warfighters are appointed servants and ministers of God, selected to do good to their neighbor. As warriors, they love an entire nation of neighbors by providing a protective umbrella over them, executing justice on those who would do them harm, and ensuring them the inalienable right of freedom.he risk of life and limb are required for such a love, and the cost of this task places a debt of honor in the account of every citizen.
“‘Wrath’ (ὀργὴ) is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4-5. The concept of vengeance appears in 12:19 and 13:4. In 12:17-21 Paul insists that Christians should not avenge themselves and leave vengeance to God’s eschatological judgment. In 13:1-7, however, he qualifies 12:17-21 so that the latter verses are not misunderstood. Even though believers are not to avenge themselves, it does not follow from this that the government abstains from punishing those who violate the law. The ruling authorities have a responsibility to correct those who practice evil.” Thomas Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998). The important distinction between private and public in this textual unit is made by J Daryl Charles, “The combined teaching of Romans 12 and Romans 13 is that there exist different authority spheres; that is, there is a well-defined difference between the private and the public sector. In the private realm, we are not commissioned to take justice into our own hands; justice after all, is committed by God to the public or civil realm. In the public realm, not only is justice permissible; it is required…in the realm of private relationships, justice is illegitimate and proscribed; in the hand of the governing magistrate, however, it is prescribed.” J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 263, 269. Erwin Ochsenmeier, “Romans 12:17-13:7 and the Justice of God: Two Neglected Features of Paul’s Argument,” Ephemerides Theologicae, 89, no. 4 (2013), 382.
“Not only has God appointed them (v. lb), but he has also entrusted to them an important role in maintaining order in society. By punishing those who do wrong and rewarding those who do good, secular rulers are carrying out God’s purposes in the world…At the same time, this suggests that the ‘wrath’ that the governing authority inflicts on wrongdoers is God’s wrath. When the civil authority punishes wrongdoers, the authority, acting as God’s servant, is ‘an instrument of vengeance’ through whom God is executing his wrath on human sin.” Douglas Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 800, 802. Andy Olree, “Government as God’s Agent: A Reconsideration of Romans 12 and 13,” Stone-Campbell Journal 8, no. 2 (2005): 197; James B. Prothro, “Distance, Tolerance, and Honor: Six theses on Romans 13:1-7,” Concordia Journal 42, no. 4 (2016): 299-301.
Though the reference to the “sword” in this text is debated, Moo’s assessment is correct: “Paul uses the phrase to refer generally to the right of the government to punish those who violate its laws. For the purpose of his argument at this point, Paul is assuming that the laws of the state embody those general moral principles that are taught in the word of God. The ‘evil’ that the civil authorities punish, therefore, is evil in the absolute sense: those acts that God himself condemns as evil. Only if this is so can we explain how Paul can see the government’s use of the sword as a manifestation of its role as ‘God’s servant.’” Douglas Moo, Romans, 802. Calvin elucidates the text further, “It is another part of the office of magistrates, that they ought forcibly to repress the waywardness of evil men, who do not willingly suffer themselves to be governed by laws, and to inflict such punishment on their offenses as God’s judgment requires; for he expressly declares, that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they may smite evil-doers.” John Calvin, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999), 346.
Frederic Godet argues that the thematic link between Romans 12:1-7 and 12:8-10 is justice expressed through love. Refusing to harm one’s neighbor is the other side of executing justice for neighbors who have been harmed or are threatened with harm. Love is always at work to ensure harm does not come to one’s neighbor. Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications), 446. Calvin sees the contextual link between love of neighbor and submission to the governing authorities: “I think that Paul meant to refer the precept respecting the power of magistrates to the law of love, lest it should seem to any one too feeble; as though he had said, — ‘When I require you to obey princes, I require nothing more than what all the faithful ought to do, as demanded by the law of love: for if ye wish well to the good, (and not to wish this is inhuman,) ye ought to strive, that the laws and judgments may prevail, that the administrators of the laws may have an obedient people, so that through them peace may be secured to all.’ He then who introduces anarchy, violates love; for what immediately follows anarchy, is the confusion of all things.” Calvin, Romans, 348. By inference, the one who puts down anarchy and ensures good order does not violate love, but expresses it.
“In fact the paragraph about the state is wedged between two commands to love our enemy (12:20) and to love our neighbor (13:9). The fact that the state is charged with the administration of justice is in no way incompatible with our obligation to love…even in loving and serving our enemies, we should still be concerned for justice, and also remember that love seeks justice for the oppressed.” John Stott, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 345, 348. Calvin speaks in the same vein, “What else does the whole law forbid, but that we do no harm to our neighbor? This, however, ought to be applied to the present subject; for since magistrates are the guardians of peace and justice, he who desires that his own right should be secured to everyone, and that all may live free from wrong, ought to defend, as far as he can, the power of magistrates. But the enemies of government show a disposition to do harm.” Calvin, Romans, 349. In Calvin’s thought, governments and the sword are designed to do good toward one’s neighbors and protect them from harm, an expression of love. For Francis Schaeffer, love is the opposite of pacifism, “to refuse to do what I can for those under the power of oppressors is nothing less than a failure of Christian love. It is to refuse to love my neighbor as myself…pacifism in this poor world in which we live—this lost world—means that we desert the people who need our greatest help.” William D. Barrick, “The Christian and War,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 11:2 (2000), 217. So also C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper One, 1980), 64-90. The foundation of Lewis’ argument against pacifism is the duty placed upon individuals to love and protect their neighbor.
“War is in itself right and godly. What the Word of God calls ‘the sword’ (Romans 13:1 ff. and 1 Peter 3:14 ff.) was instituted by God to punish the wicked, protect the innocent, and maintain peace. These passages alone are powerful enough proof to demonstrate that waging war, killing, and whatever the course of war might take, have been established by God. What is war other than the punishing of injustice and evil? Why is war waged unless peace and obedience are desired? Even if killing and destroying do not seem like works of love, they are in reality nothing else…When I consider how war protects the pious, how it preserves and guards spouse and child, home and business, goods, honor, and peace, war turns out to be a precious and godly work.” Stott, Romans, 344. Luther agrees, “Those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police, social workers or tax collectors are just as much ‘ministers of God’ as those who serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists or administrators.” Martin Luther, Can Christians Be Soldiers, 14-15. This clearly includes the warfighter whose role is to promote and reward the good and to restrain and punish evil.
Luther introduced the concept of God’s mask and concealment in the vocations of mankind. “Instead of coming in uncovered majesty when he gives a gift to man, God places a mask before his face. He clothes himself in the form of an ordinary man who performs works on his earth. Human beings are to work, everyone according to his vocation and office; through this they serve as masks for God, behind which he can conceal himself when he would scatter his gifts.” Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1957), 57, 138. God masks himself in the warfighter to spread his sacrificial love, secure justice and provide his sure defense and protection…God conceals his work of love to men in cross-marked vocation which is really of benefit to the neighbor.
Connecting this text to Romans 8:35-39 is helpful when thinking about the costliness of the warfighting vocation. Warfighters risk all for love of neighbor. For the believer, undergirding this sacrificial love is the ever-present assurance that danger, sword, and death are no threat to the sure love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39). The language of war and death are chosen to convey that even the most hellish activities on earth, whether one is an actor or victim in them, have no power to separate one from God’s loyal love. There is profound hope in this text for the warfighter. James D.G. Dunn provides evidence that war is envisioned in the text, “μάχαιρα, ‘sword’ is an obvious metonomy for violent death or war (cf. Gen 31:26; Matt 10:34).” James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 505. The language of sword (μάχαιρα), distress (στενοχωρία) and death (θάνατος) in this text summarize the hazards of warfighting. When viewed through this lens, the text is an all-encompassing promise for the believing warrior.