“for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Verse 4 gives us several important concepts:
- The governing authority is God’s servant. Paul says this twice. It’s significant. This reinforces what we previously learned that the governing authority serves as a steward God’s authority in society and, as such, is himself under God’s authority and subject to God’s law just like the citizens he “rules over”
- The governing authority serves for our good. He does not serve for his own good. He is not to lord his authority over his people. He is to see himself as being in a symbiotic relationship with society. His authority does not exist because he is somehow better than them. Rather, his authority exists because the people in society need someone to wield authority in the way he does.
- The governing authority bears the sword. This means governments have the authority to exercise coercion justly. GASP! i tHoUgHt tHiS wAS aN aNaRcHiST pAGE!!?!?!?!?! Yes. I’m an anarchist, but as I’ve tried to stress repeatedly, anarchy for me does not mean there should be no rule of law and no person in society with the authority to exercise just coercion. Coercion is not always unjustified. Every good Rothbardian knows that coercion is justified in defense and punitive response to aggression.
Authority, as a general concept, is inseparable from the idea of coercion. Authority, in general, may accurately be defined as the right to coerce those under the domain of authority in order to follow some standard. It’s no wonder libertarians and anarchists have this hydrophilic relationship with the concept of authority wherever it is found. But consistent libertarians understand that society cannot function without authority. Indeed it’s not authority that we despise. Authority is not evil. The abuse of authority is.
As a father, I have the authority to coerce my children to do their school work, to clean their rooms, to not hit each other. And I’m not even talking about spanking. Even if I use time out, or grounding, or sticker charts with rewards and lost privileges attached to them – all of these are forms of coercion because I am using them to try to manipulate my children into doing what they would not naturally do. This is perfectly fine because, as their father, I do this for their own good, and I have the proper authority to do so. I also have the proper authority to coerce someone who’s trying to kidnap my kids to leave my house or else.
Paul teaches us in Romans 13 that God has entrusted authority to certain “governing authorities” to use the sword to exercise coercion in society.
This should never be in dispute. Where the dispute lies is over what this does and does not imply. As has already been stated here and in earlier verses, this does not create a “ruling class” of people who are above the law and have a divine right to lord their authority over people in society. Neither does this require that there be a single monopoly provider of this service. All it means is that since there will be people in society who commit κακον, God has provided society with avengers.
This concept of “avenger” rhymes with the end of Romans 12. “Repay no one evil for evil… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” This chapter division is not inspired, so it’s no stretch to suggest that Romans 13 is a continuance of this thought.
At least part of Paul’s message here is: “We are going to be persecuted in this world. We are not to exercise vengeance on our own behalf, but take heart! God has appointed avengers who exist to protect us.”
The ironic reality that these so-called avengers will often be the ones enacting the persecution should not be lost. The Christian must remember that even in that situation, God is the ultimate avenger and he will repay.
So again, I find myself perplexed when people suggest to me that there is no instruction given to the governing authority in Romans 13. Whenever anyone says that to me, it convinces me that they simply have not read it very carefully. Granted there are no direct commands stated in imperatives clearly directed to the magistrate, but the indicative statements in this passage give us a clear picture of what God says the government should be. This is enough to draw moral implications.
The governing authority should take care that he uses his sword according to God’s standards in service of the mission God has given him. A good governing authority will give thought to when God thinks coercion is justified. Can we know this? We certainly can. Romans 13:3-4 give us the answer!
Coercion is justified against those who do κακον, and not against those who do ἀγαθὸν (remember back to verse 3).
This harmonizes very well with the non-aggression principle! Coercion is only to be used in response to aggression!
We should note that not only does the government wield a sword that they can at times use, but the sword is the only tool at the government’s disposal. This doesn’t mean that they are directly violent in everything that they do, but everything they do involves the sword at some level. There is violence or the threat of violence behind everything they do. Just take any government program and break it down. You will always find that there is some law, regulation, or court order that carries fines or imprisonment as a consequence of disobedience. And of course, the entire program is funded by taxation, which is theft – but I’ll cover that when we get to verse 6.
So we have here a very clear statement in the indicative of what legitimate government is supposed to be and what they’re not supposed to be. There is a clear limitation of how they are to use their sword and how they are not to use their sword. And since everything they do involves the sword in one way or another, it follows logically that the most the government has authority to do is to investigate and punish crime (including defensive warfare where necessary). Anything beyond that is one form or another of tyranny in which the government abuses their authority by using their sword to tyrannize good conduct.
So I’m sure some of you will want me to turn in my anarchist card. I’m ok with that. In fact, I want you to feel this tension. If we are not careful to conform our thinking to God’s word, it will be conformed to the world around us. There are plenty of secular libertarians who are cagey about the entire concept of authority because they believe all authority is an illegitimate grab for power that man does merely to subjugate other men.
Of course that happens, and it is always evil when it does. But it does not disqualify authority as a category. Rather it is an abuse of authority. We must form our thoughts around Scripture. When we do, we find that proper authority is a positive good gift given to us by God that should be treated as precious, and for that reason, abuse of power should be called out for what it is. It is for that reason that I don’t lick boots or believe in the goodness of the State. The State is a usurpation of what good government is. By enforcing their monopoly, the State is engaged in activity not related to punishing those who do evil and instead are terrorizing good conduct. My opposition to the State is not an opposition to authority but to the State’s abuse of authority. Their evil is not just that they abuse their citizens, but also that they prevent their citizens from being well served by good government. Some states are worse than others, but all States have this problem at least to some level.
Thus, I believe that people who need avengers will be better served by a free market of avengers than a monopoly – not only because of the economics involved but also because monopoly avengers end up living long enough to see themselves become the villain.
Did I just mix my metaphors? I think you get the point.