Digging in Deeper: Romans 13:4

“For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Romans 13 is one of the more challenging passages the apostle Paul wrote. Understanding exactly how we are to apply and obey it is tricky and often is inextricably intertwined with our particular political perspective. When the party in power happens to be the party we support, we agree with Paul heartily. When it’s not, we’re quicker to find exceptions and reasons Paul missed some things. Occasionally we’ll remember that Paul wrote this under the authority of an aggressively anti-Christian government. I don’t want to get into all of that today. Instead, I want to focus on just this part of the whole, and to do so through the lens of an experience I had recently.

One of the most famous stories from John’s Gospel is one he probably didn’t write. That doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen, but it was probably added in later by another author. The story isn’t included in our earliest and most reliable ancient manuscripts. But, because it is included in quite a few later manuscripts, most modern translations include it just to err on the side of caution. Often they’ll put it in brackets and include a footnote about its likely not being original to the Gospel.

The story, which begins at the end of chapter 7 and continues into chapter 8, is about a time when a group of scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. The Law of Moses stipulated that such a woman was to be stoned to death for her crimes. The authorities stand her in the middle of a circle which included Jesus, and with the crowds watching with interest, they asked Jesus what should happen to her.

The whole thing smells like a setup from the start. The fact that they claimed to have caught her in adultery always seemed fishy to me. And, while the Law did indeed specify a punishment of death by stoning for an adulterous affair, the man involved was supposed to be stoned to death along with the woman. There was no man being held accountable in this situation. The woman is essentially being used by these religious leaders as a tool to trap Jesus into saying or doing something incriminating.

As usual, Jesus doesn’t take their bait. Rather than responding to the accusers, Jesus bends down and starts writing something in the dirt. In spite of much speculation, the text doesn’t tell us what He wrote. All we know is that as the men in that circle watched Jesus, all the wind went out of their judgmental sails, and they started to quietly slip away, starting with the oldest, until it was just Jesus and the woman standing there. Jesus refuses to condemn her any further, but admonishes her to “go and sin no more.”

The story is a wonderful example of John’s earlier characterization of Jesus as being full of grace and truth. He never once backed down from holding fast to what was true, but He unfailingly used the truth as an invitation into eternal life and not a tool of condemnation. Failing to follow Jesus in getting this balance right in our own lives will invariably lead to trouble. Either we will become permissive of sin and leave people to wallow in it as future recipients of God’s judgment all the while telling them it’s not that bad or otherwise making excuses for them, or we will become pharisaical in our dealings with those around us. Both outcomes are ultimately a failure of love. We have to get grace and truth right.

Hold that thought for a second, and come back with me to what Paul wrote here in Romans 13. He said that the government does not carry the sword for no reason. This verse falls in a context of Paul’s calling believers to do what is right and live in a posture of humble submission to the governing authorities God has placed over their lives. Not a few folks will look at this verse and see a justification for capital punishment. And perhaps that is part of what Paul had in view here, but I think there’s something even more fully in Paul’s focus than that. We can get to this other thing by asking a simple question: What form does this sword take?

I think what Paul is talking about here is the government’s authority to actively enforce the laws of the land and to hold people accountable for breaking them. It is the only institution vested with the power and authority by God to uphold His justice by exercising judgment against those who would do evil. The ability to punish evildoers certainly includes something like capital punishment (at least in theory), but in terms of how we operate on a day-to-day basis, it takes on a much more common and recognizable form than that: policing. Police officers all over the country are the most direct and widely experienced application of Paul’s words here. The government has been given authority by God to regulate the lives of the people living under it in such a way that upholds and extends the reach of God’s righteousness, and the most local way this authority is exercised is through the sacrificial and hard work of police officers.

Police officers are a unique and important bunch. They are also a group that is under attack from a number of different cultural and political voices that are beholden to ideas of justice that often do not comport well with the Christian worldview. The nature of their work results in bonds being created that are incredibly strong. It creates a culture that is closed and inscrutable to outsiders. Because they spend most of their days wading through the muck of the absolute worst of our society, they tend to engage with the world around them with a strong, if totally understandable, vein of cynicism about people and their motives. This often results in a sense of humor that is hard for people on the outside of the LEO (law enforcement officer) family to understand. They may even find it offensive. They are typically wildly underpaid given the nature of the work they do. And while there are certainly communities (like mine) that have much love and respect for them, many work in communities where they are regularly vilified by the local political leaders and citizens alike, making their jobs fantastically more difficult than they otherwise need to be. Now, not every officer is a good one. They are people just like the rest of us, meaning some are truly outstanding public servants while some are little better than the criminals they are arresting. On the whole though, the vast. vast majority are wonderful men and women selflessly serving our communities to make them better places to live and work and raise our families. They get up each day and go to work to put themselves in between the worst of human ugliness and the rest of us so that we can pretend it doesn’t exist as we go about our lives in what is generally a blissful ignorance. And they do so knowing that one interaction going sideways for reasons that are entirely outside of their direct control could result in their lives being utterly ruined (not to mention the lives of their families) in the court of public opinion and social media.

Now, let’s tie these two seemingly different threads together. As the chaplain of our local department, I try to make sure I take time each month to ride along with some of our local officers to get to know them so that I can minister to them as they have need of that. And it never seems to fail that when I tag along, something exciting happens. At least, it feels exciting to me. For them, it is just another day on the job.

I recently rode along with one of our newer officers (new to the department only; he’s an experienced veteran). After sitting and working traffic for a little while (you wouldn’t believe how many drivers are on the road with either expired tags or suspended licenses), a vehicle passed with a tag that was obviously expired and possibly fraudulent. What I saw from there was a situation that was handled with consummate professionalism from start to finish. More than that, it was handled with a perfect balance of truth and grace. The situation wound up requiring that one of the vehicle’s passengers be taken to jail. That kind of a situation always has the potential for going sideways very quickly. This one didn’t. The officer I had the privilege of joining handled every single part of the interaction with care and humility. The individuals involved were all treated with the utmost of respect. They were approached with gentleness and consideration. Both he and the other officers involved showed them compassion. They took an interest in them as individuals rather than merely treating them as criminals. Throughout the situation there was great concern demonstrated for their well-being. And at the end of the day, the law was upheld. Truth was enforced, but with grace as its close companion.

Truth and grace working in harmony is a hallmark of God’s kingdom’s coming. Where His reign is present and honored, they will always be held in the same perfect balance that Jesus demonstrated for us. Law officers who do their jobs as well as this group did are actively bringing about flourishes of God’s kingdom in our sin-broken world. They are making our communities better places to live, pushing back the darkness that would otherwise smother us. They are a fitting fulfillment of what Paul describes here in Romans 13 and what Jesus demonstrated in John 8. The odds are pretty good that you will only ever interact with a police officer on your worst day. Officers like we have in my community can make your worst day just a little bit better by getting their work right. For this and more, we owe them a great debt of gratitude and appreciation. When you next get the opportunity, make sure that you pay this debt. When we support them in their efforts to serve us, everyone wins.

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