Church and State: Romans 12-13

Excerpt from: “The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity,” Consistently Pro-Life by Rob Arner, p 34.

The government is used providentially by God to restrict evil so that his people can live faithfully with at least a modicum of safety.

Romans 13:4b reads:

“He [government agent] is God’s servant, an avenger (ekdikos) of wrath (orgēn) to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

These words are important, because looking back in the passage, 12:19 explicitly denies the prerogative of vengeance and violence to God’s people using the same words:

“Do not take revenge (ekdikountes), my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath (orgēi), for it is written: It is mine to avenge (ekdikēsis); I will repay, says the Lord.”

It will not do, as the tradition since Augustine has suggested, to posit the denial of revenge to be binding on Christians in the sphere of “private morality” while claiming that Christians acting as governmental agents are required to carry out God’s vengeance in the sphere of “public morality.” This is because such dualistic designations are the product of philosophical innovations attempting to confine religion’s applicability only to one’s “private” life.

Similarly, Martin Luther’s “two kingdom” theology had the unfortunate effect of planting the unbiblical notion that Christians can serve two masters simultaneously at the very heart of Reformation theology. These thought patterns are entirely foreign to the world of the biblical writers.

That God can take the evil of human beings and turn it around for his own glory and the outworking of his providential purposes is not in dispute; indeed, we see it at work as far back as Joseph’s recognition of this fact in Gen 45:5-9 and 50:20. What we must come to realize is that Romans 13 was written with this idea explicitly in mind.

While God uses the evil of state violence to restrict the domain of human evil in the world, the vocation of the Christian church is not to fight evil through these evil means; rather we are called to transform evil into good with the prophetic voice of the Word of God and the suffering love which he modeled for us.