Ethics: Government and Citizenship (Part 4)

This world is filled with evil, and it can be a very dangerous place. April 04, 1965: U.P.I. reported, “For the past 5,500 years, the world has known only some 300 years of peace. Since 3,600 B.C, there have been more than 14,000 large and small wars in which 3.5 billion people have been killed” (Alan Isbell, War and Conscience, p. viii). Do governments have the right, even the duty, to protect their citizens from violence and molestation?


Genesis 14: A confederation of kings from the east invaded the area around the Salt Sea. Goods were plundered. Lot, Abram’s nephew, was abducted along with others. Abram took 318 of his servants (14:14), and certain allies (14:13 cf. 14:24) and went after these invading kings. An attack was made by night. Lot was liberated and the goods regained (14:13-16). In this case, a righteous man took military action against aggressors.


Self-defense: “If the thief is found breaking in and is so struck that he dies, there shall be no blood quilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him there shall be blood quilt for him” (Exodus 22:2-3a ESV). The E.S.V. Study Bible comments, “This condition distinguishes between what is permissible retaliation when a thief is caught breaking in during the night (v. 2) vs. during the day (v. 3). The stipulation protects both the one who is surprised by a thief at night (v. 2) and the thief himself, who could be identified during the day and should be brought to the judges for punishment (vv. 3b-4). It is evident that the law of Moses recognized the right of a man to defend himself and his property with force, even with deadly force under certain circumstances.

The death penalty was a part of the law [see Ethics: Government/Citizenship (Part 3)]. Robert Morey has written, “If five men acting in a group murder one victim, all five deserve to die. The death penalty can thus be legitimately applied to armies which are invading, raping, robbing, beating, and killing. It makes no difference in principle whether an army or an individual is guilty… Once we admit the justice of killing a murderer for his crimes, then, in principle, we will have to admit the justice of destroying an entire army” (When is it Right to Fight, p. 22).

All is not fair in love and war. [Let’s dismiss the war the Israelites were to carry on with the Canaanites (God ordered the Israelites to be his instrument of wrath on the Canaanite people, much as the Great Flood was upon the ancient world)]. Here was God’s rules of warfare for the Israelites: (1) Cities (with the exception of the Canaanites) were to be provided opportunity to surrender (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). (2) There was to be no scorched earth policy (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Moreover, we know that unjust practices were frowned upon by God earlier in history (Genesis 34:6-30a cf. 49:5-7): (a) Shechem alone was guilty, not the entire people. (b) They lied to those people.

God at times instructed the children of Israel to go to war, even against non-Canaanites (see Judges 20:18, 23, 28). God could never order what is intrinsically immoral. Therefore, war itself must not be intrinsically immoral.

New Covenant

Acts 23: A band of more than 40 Jews conspired to assassinate Paul. They vowed that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul (Acts 23:11-15). Some way, this plot became known to Paul’s nephew ([(Acts 23:16). Was this discovery by God’s providence? List of plots discovered in the book of Acts: (1) Acts 9:23-24; (2) Acts 14:5-6; (3) Acts 20:3; (4) Acts 23:16-ff; (5) Acts 27:30-31]. Paul appealed to the government for protection (Acts 23:17-22). A change of venue occurred. A total of 470 men were involved in moving Paul [(Acts 23:23). This included: (1) 200 foot soldiers; (2) 70 horsemen; and (3) 200 spearmen]. All of these men escorted Paul out of Jerusalem and for a distance of about 40 miles to Antipatris. The 70 horsemen continued on escorting Paul another 26 miles to Caesarea (Acts 23:23-25).

Paul also recognized the government’s right to wield the sword (Romans 13:4). It’s to be an instrument “for good” (Romans 13:4). This passage is not dealing with the subject of war. However, it does indicate the government’s right to use force to keep peace and protect citizens.

Three Views

1. Some believe that the use of force is unauthorized. They believe that God uses modern governments, just as He did Nebuchadnezzar, without approving of their deeds. It is true that such is the case with Nebuchadnezzar (Habakkuk 1:5-11; Jeremiah 25:9 cf. 25:12). However, nothing in the context of Romans 13 indicates that what the government does is evil.

2. Some believe that the use of force is authorized for the government, but not for the Christian. The difficulty with this view is amenability. Aren’t all amenable to the same standard? This setting of the government on one side and Christians on another seems difficult to argue. The Bible is filled with examples of righteous men and women working in government: (1) Patriarchy—(a) Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18); (b) Joseph (Genesis 41:41-ff; Acts 7:10). (2) Mosaic System—(a) Daniel (Daniel 6:1-3); (b) Esther (Esther 2:17; 4:13); (c) Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11b-ff; 5:14). (3) New Covenant—(a) Erastus (Romans 16:23): (b) There is nothing said about a centurion or a jailor being told to leave their jobs (Acts 10-11, 16).

3. Some believe that the government is authorized to use force, and that the Christian may be a part of this. All men are amenable to the same standard of God.


1. We are to be a peace-loving people. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you. Live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Also read, Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 5:9.

2. We are to be long-suffering. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39). Slapping one on the face does not represent a life-threatening situation, or even, necessarily bodily injury. Robert Morey writes, “Jesus specifically referred to the right check as being slapped instead of the left cheek because the slap of the right cheek by the back of the left hand was a personal insult and not an act of violence done in context of war. Slapping the right check was not a life-threatening attack. It was a personal insult, like spitting in someone’s fact” (p. 45).

3. As Christians, people who want to please God, we should be very careful in what we involve ourselves. Some wars involve a clear evil aggressor and an innocent people. Many other wars involve murky situations, and circumstances in which it is not so easy to discern the good guy from the bad guy. Moreover, one’s own countries propaganda and the truth may be two different things. We should: (a) Be cautious about putting ourselves under another’s control (1 Corinthians 7:21-23); (b) Not violate our conscience (Romans 14:23).

4. Governments should protect their people. This means bearing the sword. John F. Kennedy said, “We dare not tempt them with weakness” (Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, p. 256).

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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