VII. Bearing the Sword in Romans 13: What It Can and Can’t Tell Us

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on September 3, 2020
This week’s Sunday lectionary will give us most of Romans 13 but will omit what are some of the most hotly debated verses in the New Testament, Romans 13:1-7.[1]  These verses contain Paul’s injunctions to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God;” the governing authority “does not bear the sword in vain” because it is ordained by “God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:1 and 4).  This passage raises a number of topics for potential reflection and has been deployed in support of a variety of issues.  Today, however, I will pursue the more modest goal of showing one way this text cannot be used, i.e. to support capital punishment,[2] while also offering some context which will complicate any straightforward application of Romans 13:1-7 to our own volatile political climate. 
 
Paul makes strong claims in this passage: be subject to the governing authorities because they are instituted by God; the authorities are threatening to bad conduct, not to good conduct; and most important for us, “The authority does not bear the sword in vain,” executing “wrath on the wrongdoer.”  This talk about “swords” is not only symbolic.  In Paul’s day, swords were a fairly common piece of equipment used by civil guards and soldiers in a way analogous to the use of guns by police and soldiers in our own day.  And just as nowadays we have different words for different kinds of guns—sidearm, assault rifle, pistol, etc.—there were different words for different kinds of swords in Paul’s day.
 
In Romans 13, the word “sword” is makaira and in Greek it looks like this: μάχαιρα.  We might pronounce it “MAH-kai-ra.”  It was a short-sword, or maybe a dagger, worn on the belt and carried by a variety of guards: military police, civil guards, and most important, taxation enforcement officers.  This word is fairly common in the New Testament and, as far as swords go, seems to have been a common one.  For example, this is the kind of sword carried by Jesus’ follower who attacks the slave of the high priest; it is also the kind of sword carried by the crowd of folks who come to arrest Jesus (Mark14:47-48).
 
Given Paul’s context and the connection to the governing authorities, the sword Paul is talking about is the kind carried by a civil guard or taxation enforcement official.  It would be roughly equivalent to a police officer’s pistol in our own day.  Certainly it could exert lethal force, but this is not the lethal force of an execution pronounced as punishment for a crime. 
 
There was a different kind of sword used in an execution in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and it was connected not to soldiers and guards, but to magistrates who had the power to pronounce a death sentence.  The execution kind of sword is most likely a xiphos, which we might pronounce ZI-foss. (It looks like this in Greek: ξίφος.)  This word does not occur in the New Testament. [3]  Thus, it is unlikely that “the sword” in Romans 13 has anything to do with the death penalty.
 
So, when Paul says that the authority does not bear the sword in vain, he is talking about how governing authorities use force to keep the peace in the streets; he isn’t talking about a death sentence given as punishment for a crime.  In Paul’s own day, riots against Roman taxation were common, particularly amongst ancient Jews who had seen the worst of the Roman Empire.  Given that this passage includes injunctions to pay taxes to whom they are due (13:7), it may be that Paul is specifically encouraging the Roman Christians not to partake in violent anti-government tax riots.  If they do, Paul says, the tax enforcement authorities will show up with their makaira, and it’ll get ugly.  Paul is keeping his people safe.
 
There are numerous other reasons (practical, ethical, and theological) as to why capital punishment is a bad idea and inadmissible for Christians, but for the sake of staying with this particular text, we’ll save those for another day.  In what remains of this piece, we’ll take a fuller look at the language of “governing authorities” in Paul’s context and how it differs from our own.
 
When it comes to the relationship between Christianity and government, there are numerous and significant differences between Christians living in in Rome in the mid-50s CE and our own day.  This is so much the case that even if it were likely that the “sword” in this passage was the kind used for executions, it would not necessarily follow that Paul would condone capital punishment.  The main difference is this: it is beyond Paul’s imagination to think of a system of government that includes baptized Christians in high ranking public office, let alone a society like ours in which the overwhelming majority of public officials and citizens have been Christians (or influenced by Christianity) for generations.  For Paul, “Christians” and “governing authorities” are different groups of people.  For example, only a few verses before this, Paul enjoins the Church never to avenge themselves (12:19) and to bless those who persecute them (12:14).  This does not sound like a community he would encourage to “bear the sword” for any reason; bearing the sword is the kind of thing Roman tax enforcement officials do. 
 
There’s another context at work here, too: that of Paul’s other letters.  Despite the apparently favorable portrayal of authorities in Romans 13, Paul is no fan of the idolatrous pagan governments of his day.  This is obvious elsewhere in Romans itself.[4]  To Paul’s mind, an empire like Rome is a brute fact, a systematically sinful agent in a sinful world.  Thus, the rulers of his day are ignorant (1 Cor.2:6-8); at the end of days God will destroy them (1 Cor.15:24-26); and the “peace and security” proclaimed by Rome is a thin veneer over destruction (1 Thess. 5:3-11).  Thus, it is possible, and even likely, that Paul’s “be subject to the governing authorities” is not so much a full-throated endorsement of government’s use of force so much as it is a series of practical instructions designed to secure the survival of a vulnerable community (i.e. the Church). 
 
This last bit is important: Paul is a Christian writing to a vulnerable population of other Christians, and he’s writing as someone who has himself suffered at the hands of various non-Christian sword-bearing authorities.  He can appeal to his Roman audience on the basis of Christian love in witness to Jesus’ suffering on the cross: bless those who persecute you (12:14).  “Because this is our calling as Christians,” Paul says, “don’t get swept up into the anti-tax riots burning certain streets of Rome.”  It’s not that the anti-tax rioters are wrong about the injustice of Roman taxation; given Paul’s view of dominating pagan empires, he would agree that Roman taxation is unjust.  But for Paul Christian love goes beyond justice and does not include the violence erupting in Roman streets.  It does, however, include blessing those who persecute you.
 
In our own day, we’ve seen constant protests and nearly as constant rioting in American cities for months now, and this in turn has been in response to abusive sword-bearing of law enforcement (both in cases of actual abuse and those cases only perceived as such).  The turmoil in our cities has continued for so long now that for many, the issue of race is no longer at the forefront but has been replaced by concerns for public safety.  Regardless of whether this shift of focus is good, I think it is true.  So: what does Romans 13:1-7 have to say to us?  
 
I confess that I am just not sure, largely because of the magnitudes of contextual difference.  To recap: Paul’s injunctions to obedience are those of one Christian writing to other Christians, all of whom have suffered at the hands of sword-bearing authorities who are outside the Christian community.  But unlike Paul, many of us simply have not suffered and are not suffering, let alone at the hands of pagans who participate in a cult whose focus is the emperor.  Unlike Paul, for us, “Christians” and “governing authorities” are not separate categories of people.  Neither can we assume that “Christians” and “rioters” are distinct groups for that matter.  Furthermore, the notion of “peaceful protest” as we understand it, the right to which is actually protected by civil police like our own, would be a foreign concept to Paul.
 
Finally, and most difficult, the ancient world was one where governing authorities were almost always kings who ascended to power by way of inheritance or conquest or assassination.  These pagan kings with highly centralized power did not know God, but in Paul’s worldview God could nevertheless use them for His purposes.  This is the case with Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17) and the Persian King Cyrus (Isa. 45), for examples. 
 
But things are different in a democratic republic where governing authorities are elected and in which citizens hold a fundamental belief that government is “of the people by the people for the people.”[5]  Can we import Paul’s category of “governing authorities instituted by God” into our own context, and if so, how?  For Americans, would it be more consistent with Paul’s thinking to say that the governing authorities instituted by God are the folks currently in office in a given year, or would it be more consistent with Paul’s thinking to say that the governing authorities are “We the people: the citizenry who choose officials and to whom they are accountable?  The way we answer this question would seem to determine who it is who “does not bear the sword in vain.”  Either way, our answers are potentially troubling.
 
To put the matter differently: what would Paul have said to the colonial Christians who threw the Boston Tea Party?  Would he have said, “Bless those who persecute you and obey the governing authorities?”  Or would he observe that it is the people who are the real governing authorities in the modern West, and that these colonials are bearing the sword against wrongdoers as God intended?  What, if anything, does this example suggest about our own context?
 
The temptation is always to simplify: by making our own situation more like Paul’s than it really is, or by saying the myriad contextual differences render Paul’s thinking irrelevant.  We can do neither.  Roman Christians under Nero, Christian colonials under the thumb of Christian Britain, African-Americans under the historically racist policies of the United States: these are not identical situations, but neither are they unrelated.
 
For baptized people like us, what is constant is the call to Christian love.  The witness of a suffering, persecuted Christ on the cross is still our highest authority: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I cannot say that I am a sufferer who blesses his persecutors, for I have none and am not really suffering anyway.  I also cannot say that I see myself as a persecutor, though I doubt the world’s persecutors ever see themselves as such.  But I do feel like someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.  That much, at least, is honest.
 
If that is true for you, too, then perhaps our next question is whether our ignorance of what to do is itself evidence of something.  Perhaps when we repent of simplifying and let go of our smallest angers, we realize that our present ignorance is just a symptom of love we’ve yet to realize. 
 
Maybe clarity comes after love and not before.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] You may remember in June of 2018 when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions used these verses in his response to Christians who were expressing concern over US detainment practices with immigrants (especially kids) at our southern  border. I wrote a response in our weekly newsletter, including a second possibility of understanding Romans 13 in which Paul is being deliberately ironic.   While I still think this second, ironic reading is a legitimate possibility, I find it less convincing today when there is so much violence in our own cities.
 
[2] A recent book defending the death penalty has rekindled the debate, particularly in Roman Catholic circles.  See By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017).  Two of their most vocal detractors are theologians Paul Griffiths (himself a Roman Catholic) and David Bentley Hart.  See Hart’s criticism of the book here.  See also this rigorous response by Feser.  While I don’t find arguments in support of the death penalty at all convincing, Feser is right about some of the holes in Hart’s and Griffiths’ criticisms (and their condescending tones).  In what follows, I am indebted to Hart (cited above) for the analysis of what Paul means by “sword.”
 
[3] For an example of this word, Hart points to Philostarus’ Vitae Sophistarum
[4] See the list of sins attributed to pagan leaders like Caesar in 1:28-32. 
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