THE Prayer Book Epistle reading for today, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, is vital for a Christian understanding of the God-given role of secular government.
The New Testament passage is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christian Church in 1st Century Rome, chapter 13:
‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
‘For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
‘For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour’ (Romans 13v1-7 – King James Version).
The Emperor Nero was three years into his reign when Paul wrote this letter in around AD 57. Nero went infamously toxic later on and his misrule destabilised the empire.
Paul’s teaching here about the Christian’s relationship with the secular state is not all that the New Testament has to say about this subject. It also teaches that when there is a clear clash between the commands of God and a man-made ruling Christians must disobey the authorities. The Acts of the Apostles records that Peter and John refused to obey the ruling council in charge of 1st Century Jerusalem when they were told ‘not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus’:
‘But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4v19-20).
Nevertheless, Paul’s teaching makes an essential contribution to the Christian understanding of the divine intention for temporal authorities in a fallen world. Personalising political authority, Paul taught that ‘he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil’.
Roman rule, for all its faults, did punish evil-doers under a civilised legal system. The Roman authorities were prepared to execute murderers, unlike the successive governments in charge of Britain since the 1960s. In an article for Christian Today back in 2011, when Paul Staines of the Guido Fawkes political blog was spearheading his Restore Justice campaign for the death penalty for convicted murderers of children and police officers, I tried to make the Christian case for capital punishment.
I did not suggest that support for capital punishment is a cardinal doctrine of Holy Scripture. ‘The Bible is centrally about eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins he died to bring all mankind, including those guilty of murder,’ I wrote. But I did argue that the Bible leans strongly towards the death penalty for murderers.
I pointed out that in Genesis chapter 9 God established a binding agreement, a ‘covenant’, with Noah, in which famously the rainbow was the sign that God would not destroy the earth again by flooding. That covenant included the following stipulation: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’ (Genesis 9v6).
‘The sword’ which the powers-that-be wield in today’s reading appears to provide New Testament support for the continuing validity of this Old Testament directive. The sword was an instrument of execution upon Roman citizens, of which Paul himself was one. The Apostle apparently believed that the Roman imperial government, which he regarded as the ‘minister of God’, had a God-given responsibility to enforce the death penalty.
The Collect for today is a prayer for divine protection amidst the dangers and temptations that all Christians face in the world of sinful humanity: ‘O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’