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Letter: Will the Real Romans 13 Sword Please Stand Up?

The Temptation To Trust In Flesh Is A Powerful Riptide, One Requiring The Strongest Scriptural Condemnations To Fully Dislodge From Faithless Hearts.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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The opposing assessments of 9-11 by Rev. Knodel and his critic, Greg Welty , manifest the inherent fruitlessness that obtains when we argue across presuppositional systems. The core of each position involves the extent of extraterritorial state power. Welty sees an expansive role for the sword of Romans 13:4, whereas Knodel conceives of the intra-state context as the proper theater for governmental force. Both presuppose the sword of Romans 13:4, but they disagree as to how that ministry rightly extends beyond state borders. The Roman state's external bearing to other nations was that of oppressive conqueror - is Romans 13 defending Rome's brutal expansionism as God-ordained for the good of the conquered? What if America's sword becomes a terror to the innocent in Afghanistan? The sword will cut both ways if we fail to define it clearly. Both Knodel and Welty hold to the intra-state interpretation, but only one sees an unambiguous inter-state application.

Historically, if a fugitive flees to a country without an extradition treaty with America, our options have been limited - and we've generally not chosen the bombing option. Extradition treaties - which codify the principle that jurisdiction can be subordinated to principles of justice held in common by the parties - can be pretty tough to negotiate even when diplomatic relations are intact, let alone absent. Our inconsistency is culpable. (Of course, guerilla incursions into foreign nations to capture unextraditable fugitives has its precedents: Israel's hunt for Nazi war criminals is well-known, having achieved its goals without bombing Argentina.) In the 9-11 case, quite a few of the fugitives have fled to the grave, but God extradites from the grave by disannulling their covenant with death (Isa. 28:18).

If there is any hazard in adopting Knodel's view, it's probably the one that Ezra encountered (Ezra 7:23). After extolling God's power to protect the righteous and confound the wicked, Ezra was too ashamed to ask Artaxerxes for a contingent of soldiers to defend his entourage. Prudence dictated that he get the help, but Ezra had staked his case on God's omnipotence and covenantal faithfulness - he couldn't have it both ways without falling under the curse Jeremiah pronounced on those who trust in man, who make flesh their arm. Ezra proceeded unescorted, but his emotional turmoil in so doing was real, and he confessed as much. Perhaps his courage led Artaxerxes, in the next verse, to proclaim that God's house be exempt from taxation, establishing a principle that even shaped America's founding. The point is, doing the right thing can sometimes appear outright dangerous, and might violate common sense - but it may well bring long-term blessings.

I know competent scholars who would argue from the writings of Grotius and Puffendorf that there does exist a "law of nations" that justifies military intervention on numerous grounds. They often cite Abraham's rescue of Lot in support of this view. But is our situation truly analogous to Abraham's? Might it not be more akin to Josiah's situation? Josiah unquestionably played the international policeman. He worked wonders within his borders, being acclaimed the greatest king that ever reigned over Judah. But when he stretched his hand beyond his border to intervene in an Egyptian attack on Charchemish, disaster struck (2 Chron. 35:19ff). He believed that he alone had a monopoly on righteous militarism. Apparently, righteous action inside the borders couldn't be successfully transposed outside those borders. The situation was more complicated than Josiah had assumed, and comfortable pigeonholes proved his undoing. America has always had two choices in terms of national defense: (1) obey and honor God, living by His promise that the sword shall not pass through our land if we do so, for "upon all the glory shall be a defence" (Isa. 4:5), or (2) forget the first choice and spend trillions of dollars on the modern equivalent of "chariots and horses," which will provide partial protection at best (as we've recently discovered). If the Lord keep not the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. The temptation to trust in flesh is a powerful riptide, one requiring the strongest scriptural condemnations to fully dislodge from faithless hearts.

Welty assumes that Operation Enduring Justice constitutes a legitimate implementation of Romans 13:4 - but establishing this should entail contextually sound exegetical argument, not bare acclamation. The verses bracketing Romans 13:4 speak of intra-state matters (the paying of taxes to the magistrate by those under his sword, praise of the good by the magistrate, submission to the wielder of the sword) that are difficult to reconcile with the extraterritorial view. Nowhere do we read what ought to happen if two different swords, wielded by two different nations, are in the picture. Psalm 94:20 informs us that the wicked frame mischief with a law: extraterritorial prerogatives would require dismantling such a nation's legal system by force of arms, but the psalmist commends a different course with respect to those who condemn innocent blood (Psalm 94:21-23). If America plans to be a terror to evildoers everywhere in the world, irrespective of geography or national boundaries, Josiah might just shake his head sadly and say, "I thought the things that happened to me were intended as ensamples unto them."

To firm up Welty's position would require dealing carefully with Josiah's case without depicting it as a unique, never-to-be-repeated situation (an evasion arising out of Necho's claim to be, in effect, Joshua Redivivus). The extraterritorial aspects, if any, of Romans 13 would likewise require elaboration and substantiation. A high standard of Biblical proof isn't unduly burdensome to impose where lethal force is involved. Finally, the radically different presuppositions underpinning the exchange between Welty and Knodel probably explains what appear to be unnecessarily derogatory constructions put on Knodel's analysis. Even if Welty were correct, I'd be predisposed to entertain theological insights into the matter like Knodel attempted before I'd laud the U.S. State Department. If we abandon the praise of man in the process, so be it - that is a distraction we can do without.


Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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