Jesus said

Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt 5:39)

This raises the question as to whether "turning the other cheek" is the standard for civil authorities. This does not make sense because "turning the other cheek" would prevent the civil authority from functioning. The unique characteristic of a civil authority is its authority to use negative sanctions to force or coerce people to do things against their will. "Turning the other cheek" does not make sense for the civil authorities, because it is inconsistent with this use of force. They would be limited to giving advice.

If "turning the other cheek" is the universal standard, all civil government would be immoral, or at best amoral. This would prevent Christians from being part of the civil government. That would be okay, if Christians were in a minority, as getting involved in government would be a waste of energy and may lead to compromise. However, if Christians are in the majority, they would be foolish just to leave the role of governing to non-Christians.

"Turn the other cheek" is God's standard for individual Christians, his standard for civil authorities is different. This is clearly explained in Romans 12 and 13. The practice of "turning the other cheek" is clearly set out in Rom 12:9-21. The break between the chapters prevents us from seeing it, but Rom 12 is directly connected to Rom 13:1-7, which gives God's standard for rulers. In fact, Romans 13:1-7 is just a parenthesis, as Paul goes Back to talking about "turning the other cheek" in Rom 13:8.

Power of the Sword

Paul saw a direct connection between "turning the other cheek" and "power of the sword". It is almost as if Paul was teaching about "turning the other cheek", when he remembered some questions he was always being asked, and decided to answer them for the Romans.

  1. Are the governing authorities bound by "turning the other cheek"?
  2. How does God execute judgement on evildoers?

He answers these questions in Romans 13:1-7 by explaining the role of the state.

Paul explains that legitimate authorities have been established by God and are his servants/ministers. (The irony is that they are in full-time ministry). The civil authorities have the "power of the sword". The sword symbolises force or coercion, so legitimate civil authorities can use force or coercion. In fact, the civil authorities have a monopoly on the use of force and coercion.

Individuals cannot use force against evildoers, as they are required to "turn the other cheek". Individuals are not allowed to punish evildoers, so personal revenge is ruled out. However, some form of coercion is needed in a fallen world to maintain order (1 Tim 2:1-3). If good people continually "turn the other cheek", evil men will prosper. Governing authorities have authority to restrain evil by punishing those who do evil. They can use force to protect their people from evil. This authority is the "power of the sword".

God has given authority to deal with two types of evildoer.

  1. Citizens who commit crimes (justice).
  2. Armies that invade the nation (defence).

A civil authority is dangerous when it goes beyond defence and justice (punishing crime). It changes from being a servant and becomes a tyrant. For example, a civil government that uses its authority to force people to become Christians is acting wrongly. It has failed to understand its role.

1. Crime

The civil authorities have authority to punish crimes. This places a restraint on evil. If a person keeps on stealing or assaulting people, that person will eventually be dealt with by the civil government. Therefore, "turning the other cheek" will not lead to the triumph of those who are violent. They will eventually be punished by the civil authorities. This is how God uses them to avenge evil (Rom 12:19).

This "power of the sword" is not an absolute power, but must be exercised in obedience to God's word. The governing authorities are his servants, so they must obey him. They can only punish acts that he has specified as crimes. They must also punish crimes with the penalties that are mandated in his word.

The governing authorities are not able to punish all sin or evil, but only those that God has specified as crimes. A crime is a sin, which the civil government has been given authority to punish. Only a small subset of sins are defined as crimes. The main sins that the Bible defines as crimes are theft and murder. These are the two main crimes that the civil government has authority to punish.

The civil authorities are required to keep order and restrain evil by punishing crimes, but this "power of the sword" is a limited power. The civil authorities place a restraint on evil, but they cannot remove it (only the cross can fully deal with sin and evil).

2. Defence

An invading army has two goals: to kill any people who oppose it and to steal their wealth. The army is intent on murder and theft, so the civil government has authority and responsibility to defend against it.

The "power of the sword" is not an absolute power. When defending the nation, the civil authorities are still servants of God. It must comply with the principles of defence and war as specified in the Bible.

Christians in the Civil Government

In Romans, Paul is quite clear that individual Christians are required to "turn the other cheek". He does not relax the standard at all in Romans 12. This does not mean that Christians should reject all civil authority. Paul acknowledges that civil government has a specific role that means it cannot "turn the other cheek". Therefore, a Christian, who is part of the civil government (a soldier, a judge or a prison officer), must behave differently while acting in that office. When acting as an official of the governing authorities, they are required to defend the nation and punish crime. When acting as individuals they are required to always "turn the other cheek".

For example, a prison officer who is assaulted by a prisoner that he is escorting is not required to "turn the other cheek". He has authority to use force to restrain the prisoner. However, it is not lawful for him to seek revenge or to use excessive force. However, if on the way home from work, he is struck by someone, he is required to "turn the other cheek", as he is now accountable as an individual Christian.

If the same man goes home and sees a child being beaten up by some youths has a responsibility to use force to protect the child. He is acting as the agent of the civil authorities in enforcing justice (this is the basis for "citizens arrest"). However, he must not use excessive force or attempt to punish the youths.

A parent has authority to use force when disciplining children, provided it is controlled and for a legitimate purpose. If a child kicks his father on the shins, when asked to do something, the Father does not have to "turn the other cheek". He has authority to discipline the child. Having said this, I believe that most Christian smack their children too much. Corporal punishment should be reserved for very serious rebellion, so it should be very rare.

Force and Violence

Force and violence are different. Force is exercised by a legitimate authority in a controlled manner. Violence is not exercised by a lawful authority and is often unrestrained. When force is exercised by a person without authority, it becomes violence. When a person with authority, exercises force in an excessive manner, it becomes violence. This important distinction not well understood. Many people describe all force as violence, yet they want the protection that the law provides. These two ideas are inconsistent. If there is no legitimate force, there can be no protection from violence.

Return to Defence and War.

For more see Submitting to Politcal Power.