Harold S. Martin writes…
The capital punishment debate continues. When dealing with the issue, the media often focuses on cases involving heinous crimes, and as a result, the debates can be very emotional. Humanitarians of whatever.faith (or of no faith) argue that capital punishment has no place in an enlightened society. They say that it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.
Many Christians believe that the Bible condemns capital punishment. The Ten Commandments speak of respect for life and simply declare, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). But an equal number of Christians defend capital punishment as a legitimate part of the civil order, and point out that capital punishment is supported in the Bible. They say that one who wrongfully murders another, must sacrifice his own life, because in killing a human being made in the image of God, the murderer demonstrates contempt for God’s creation and for God himself. Genesis 9:6 in the Old Testament and Romans 13:4 in the New Testament are used to support the belief that civil governments have the authority and the responsibility to carry out capital punishment.
Much of the difference of opinion among Christians, about capital punishment, stems from a wrong understanding of the New Testament teaching about the two kingdoms. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my, kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight…but now my kingdom is not from here” (John’ 18:36);.
A “kingdom” is a domain over which a king rules, and spiritually speaking, Jesus says, there are two kingdoms. Jesus is Lord over the church; Satan is the god of this world. Each kingdom operates by different ethics and assumes different responsibilities. Jesus says that the nations of this world do fight. But He says, “My kingdom is a different kingdom; my kingdom operates by higher laws; those who are members of my kingdom operate by a different ethic.”
We believe that the church and state are two separate entities, and that each has a separate assignment. The state is the group of individuals which actually runs a nation, makes its laws, and punishes those who violate its rules. The officer of the state is “the minister of God to you for good” (Romans 13:4). Civil authorities protect our rights and guard our liberties, and therefore they serve God in an important way; If there were no policemen, no penal institutions, and no civil authorities–the world would see nothing but chaos and disintegration. The church itself, a peculiar people, would ‘: be unable to exist. It is our Christian duty to obey the government, unless obedience to civil authorities requires disobedience to the clear revelation of God in His Word (Acts 5:29).
By way of contrast, the church is God’s agent to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. The “Gospel” is the message about God’s love and Christ’s death which becomes the means by which sinful humans can become reconciled to a holy God. The Christian, while a citizen of the land, is not an agent of the state, nor does he enforce the law and inflict penalties. The church is God’s redemptive arm; it does not have the right to take the life of offenders; Christians are not to “avenge themselves” (Romans 12), and surely they cannot be executioners. Yet the sword-wielding officer of the state is called a “minister of God” (Romans 13), and is an avenger to execute punishment on wrongdoers.
The real issue for the Anabaptist oriented believer is, “What does the Bible say?” All other arguments about whether capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, or whether it represents cruel and unusual punishment, or whether it brings financial relief to society–all such contentions are irrelevant.
The execution of criminals by the state is not clearly prohibited in the Bible. In Old Testament times, capital punishment was ordered for those guilty of certain crimes;’ These include kidnapping, witchcraft, sexual intercourse with animals, adultery, and a host of other misdemeanors. In the New Testament, the officer of the state “does not bear the sword in vain;” he is appointed to “execute wrath on those who practice evil” (Romans 13:4b). But the Christian is not an agent of the state. Romans 12 is addressed to the Christian and uses the pronouns “we” and “us.” Romans 13 refers to the officers of the state, and uses the pronouns “he” and “they.
The agent of the state should always be careful in the use of capital punishment. By far the majority of those who take the Iast steps to the death chamber, are poor and friendless. The rich often go free because they employ the services of high priced lawyers. Sometimes the death penalty has been handed down unfairly, and innocent persons have gone to the chair. As a result, many of us hold the view that while God permits the death penalty, He does not mandate it. And while the offender should be held accountable, preserving the life of the wrongdoer may provide opportunity for the remaining parties involved, to ultimately be restored into a right relationship with God. We hope you will read the further insights from the pen of Craig Alan Myers.