Few subjects have given rise to more controversy than the one suggested by the above questions. In recent years people with strong feelings on both sides of these issues have protested what they feel to be abuses of governmental authority and individual rights. Dealing with crime has never been easy. In the past, in some places, the punishment often exceeded the crime itself. In Assyria, for example, if a man flirted with another’s wife and touched her, his finger was to be cut off; if he kissed her, his lips were to be cut off. A man who slandered a woman’s reputation was to be castrated, flogged forty times, sentenced to work a month on the road and fined sixty shekels of lead. (Jerry Vardman, Archaeology and the Living Word) Other codes of justice sought to make the punishment correspond to the crime. The Law of Moses was such a system. We read in Ex 21:22-24 “And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound of wound, stripe for stripe.” In our country today, it seems that often the crime far exceeds the punishment. One may be guilty of killing several people and is given only a few years in prison.
Another may inflict cruel punishment upon his victim only to be given a slap on the wrist. Reactions to such examples of injustice have caused many to cry out for rein statement of the death penalty, with swift enforcement. In answering the above questions, there are two important points that need to be recognized. First, the Bible indicates that there is a standard of justice and morality that God expects of nations. “Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov 14:34). David declared “The wicked shall be turned back unto Sheol, even all nations that forget God” (Psa 9:17 ). Alexander Campbell, in his sermon on Capital Punishment, summed up the matter when he said “the Bible, in the name and by the authority of its Author, demands of all persons in authority that they protect the innocent, that they punish the guilty, and that they dispense justice to all.” (Popular Lectures and Addresses)
Secondly, we need to note that the principle of non-retaliation taught by Jesus in Mt. 5 :38 is an obligation of the individual Christian, and not a restraint upon civil governments, who are charged with dealing with those who are lawless (I Tim 1:9). The Christian is a pacifist. He does not kill, he does not go to war, he does not execute vengeance upon anyone. Capital punishment was an integral part of the law of Moses. Certain crimes were considered worthy of death as in Deut 21:22. We read in the law of people being stoned (Lev 20:2,27), executed by sword (I Sam. 15:33), and by burning (Lev 21:9 ). The general teaching of scripture is that in certain cases the government has not only the right, but the obligation to inflict the death penalty. During Paul’s day when he was on trial before Festus (Acts 25:1-12 ), he contended that he had neither sinned against the law of the Jews, the temple, nor Caesar. He declared “If then I am a wrong-doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die. .(Acts 25:11).
It seems that Paul acknowledges the fact that there are certain crimes “worthy of death.” In fact he says that if he were guilty of such a crime he would not refuse to die. In Romans 13:1-7 the Apostle discusses the relation ship of Christians to civil government. He makes the following points: 1. Every soul is to be subject to the higher powers. 2. These rulers are appointed of God. 3. To resist them (except in cases where disobedience to God is mandated, Acts 5:29 ), is to resist the Lord’s ordinance. 4. Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Herein lies the implication of their right to punish the evil-doer. 5. The civil magistrate does not bear the sword in vain. Sword is used as a symbol of the right to inflict capital punishment (Vincent). 6. The civil servant is the minister of God executing judgment upon those who practice evil. Those of us who are Christians must remember that the Lord’s Church is not a theocracy as was the nation of Israel. We are not in a position to seek vengeance upon anyone, nor are we to administer the punishments of government. The powers that be “wield the sword,” not the followers of the Prince of Peace. Our only weapon is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17; 2 Cor 10:4-6 ).
The following words from the pen of Roy Davidson seem appropriate here: “God has instituted governments to exercise capital punishment as a deterrent to crime (Rom 13:1-4; 1 Pet 2:14). God has also instituted His church and has forbidden Christians to exercise retribution (Rom 12:17-21; Mt 5:38-48). According to Romans 13:4 governing authorities are ministers of God’s wrath. According to 2 Cor 5:17-21 Christians are God’s ministers of reconciliation.” The answers to the above questions are: yes, capital punishment may be used, by civil governments whose obligation it is to maintain order and justice. Judicial killing, carried out by the state, falls within the frame work of God’s plan for civil authorities to deter crime and injustice. Christians, however, are not allowed to be executors of God’s wrath, and are out of place when they seek to do so. (For a fuller discussion of this subject, the reader is directed to an article by Wayne Jackson appearing in the book Moral Issues Confronting The Kingdom published by the East Tennessee School of Preaching, Knoxville, Tn.)
Published in the OPA June 1, 1998