A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 24)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. How is the Magistrate a Minister?

In Romans 13:6 Paul used the title of “leitourgos” to describe the magistrate as God’s “minister.” In the ancient world this term was used for work done to promote the social order, work performed in the service of the divine state. So Paul used the term with a theological twist. The magistrate is not a minister of the divine state, but rather the state is the minister of God Himself. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), this term is used to describe the ministry of angels, priests and prophets, and yet it is likewise used for civil leadership.

In Romans 13:4 Paul’s term is “diakonos” or “deacon.” Outside the New Testament the term is used in the title, “deacon of the city,” an office which aimed at the education of good citizenship. Within the New Testament the term is clearly laden with religious connotation, being applied to the “ministry” of Christ (Mat.20:28), of Paul (I Tim.1:12), and of an office within the church (Acts 6:1-6). Even as there are deacons within the church, Paul declared that there are deacons within the state: namely, men who are appointed by God to minister justice in His name.

By utilising these two terms for “minister,” and by making clear that the ruler is a minister of God, Paul unequivocably teaches the religious character of the civil leader’s office. In the perspective of the New Testament, magistrates must be deemed servants of God. His rule is supreme, and their rules are subordinate. Civil magistrates must be understood to be deputies of God Himself, not free and independent despots who can simply do as they please (p.258-259).

  1. What about “the sword?”

The power of the civil magistrate, in distinction from all other authorities (the family, the church, the school, etc) is the power of compulsion; the civil magistrate has the right to punish those who do not conform to his laws, and punish them with external afflictions: financial fines, bodily pains (labour or scourging), and even death.

Other sectors of society may in various ways impose penalties on offenders, but never capital punishment. Parents cannot execute, pastors cannot execute, employers cannot execute, but the civil magistrate’s authority clearly stands out as the authority to execute criminals. The power of the magistrate is thus appropriately symbolised in the power of the sword. The most extreme penalty has been placed at the disposal of the civil magistrate, the death penalty. Paul speaks of the magistrate in Romans 13:4 as one who “carries the sword.” (For the meaning of this symbol one can consult Mat.26:52; Acts 12:2; Heb.11:37; Rev.13:10).

The civil magistrate, according to Paul’s teaching, must be seen as a minister of God, one who activities include the use of the sword in the punishment of offenders…It is here that we have to pay attention to Paul’s wording in Ro.13:4. He does not describe any and all uses of the civil sword as the ministry of God in a society. Paul rather distinguishes (implicitly) between a proper and an improper use of the sword, speaking of “bearing the sword in vain.”

Even as common sense and historical experience would tell us, some magistrates have wielded the sword in a way that is empty of value as far as a ministry for God is concerned… Over against such vain uses of the sword, Paul describes in Romans 13 the magistrate who truly ministers for God. Paul sets before us in Romans 13:4 the model of God’s civil minister, one who “bears not the sword in vain” (p.259-261).

  1. What about wrath?

Paul says that the minister of God is to be “an avenger for wrath to him who works evil” (Ro.13:4). Whose wrath is the magistrate to avenge? Surely not his own, for it is just in such self-serving displays of wrath that the sword has been vainly used throughout history. Rather, Paul indicates that the magistrate must avenge the wrath of God.

In his paragraph just preceding the one under discussion, Paul had exhorted believers to be at peace with men and not to avenge themselves of wrongs suffered. Romans 12:19 said, “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongs unto me; I will recompence, says the Lord.” Two words stand out here: vengeance and wrath. God Himself will avenge wrath upon offenders, so believers need not take such a task into their own hands.

But how will God avenge His wrath upon offenders? Romans 13:1-7 answers that natural question. God has ordained a ministry of the sword in society. Those whom he has placed in authority are to be “avengers for wrath,” that is, avengers of divine wrath for the One who declares that all vengeance belongs to Him. The minister of God in the state, the one who bears not the sword in vain, will work to avenge the wrath of god against evildoers, against “the one who practices evil” (Ro.13:4).

This is an important part of the description of the civil magistrate. He must see to it that good citizens have nothing to fear from his rule and that the criminal element in society has much to fear… The magistrate is under obligation correctly to distinguish virtuous and vicious activities within society. He must reward the one and punish the other…In Pauline perspective, the civil magistrate today bears religious titles, being called to be an avenger of divine wrath against law-breakers (p.261-263).

  1. Is there a time for resistance to evildoers?

When God’s law is put aside, and the politician’s law comes to reign in its place, we have “the beast” described for us by the apostle John in Revelation 13. Regardless of one’s eschatological school of thought, and regardless of the overall interpretive structure one has for the book of Revelation, all Bible readers agree that “the beast” is the wicked civil magistrate par excellence. He is the very opposite of what Paul described in Romans 13, and thus it comes to no surprise that the book of Revelation commends Christians for resisting the dictates of the beast, even though Romans 13 condemns resistance ordinarily.

It will prove insightful to note how John describes the evil magistrate known as the “beast.”  In Revelation 13:16-17 we read of  “the mark of the beast,” which must be placed upon one’s forehead and hand if he is to engage in commerce in the marketplace; the mark identifies the name or character of the beast himself. In order to have a viable place in society, the beast requires that his name and authority –his law- direct the thinking and behaviour (head and hand) of all citizens.

Those familiar with the Old Testament will readily catch John’s allusion to Deuteronomy 6:8, where God said that His law was to be found upon the forehead and the hand of His people. The beast is portrayed as taking away God’s law and replacing it with his own human law. Staying in harmony with this portrayal, Paul himself describes the beast in II Thessalonians 2 as “the man of lawlessness.”

The paradigm of a wicked political leader in the Bible, as we have seen, is one who rejects the law of God as the standard of public justice and turns to an autonomous standard instead. John makes it quite clear who can be counted upon to resist the beast, the man of lawlessness. Those who resist him are described in Revelation 12:17 as those “who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus,” and in 14:12 as those who “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” The opposition between the saints and the beast thus clearly pivots on the law of God (p.265-267).