I just finished reading Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum. The cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another is staggering. KGB agents in the USSR enforced laws against anyone disagreeing with the Soviet government. They stormed into homes in the middle of the night, dragged one or more family members away to interrogate them, subjected them to a charade trial, and shipped them like cattle in freezing train cars to toil in labor camps in sub-human conditions. Many of the prisoners died, while some lived through the ordeal. Millions, yes millions, of people were subjected to this treatment. The KGB agents represented the government. Were they “ministers for good?”
What I am referring to is the section of the Apostle Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome where he instructed them about their attitude toward members of the civil government. Here is what Paul said (emphasis mine):
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (NKJV, Romans 13:1-7)
This says a lot about human government and our relationship to it. I am highlighting just one part – the “minister to you for good” part. We Christians have little problem practicing this in relation to government leaders and officials we agree with, but we often struggle with submitting to and respecting those who have different values from us or even make life hard for us. But what about the agents of government who do wrong? Or those who make errors in judgment that have unintentional but tragic results?
A cop “bears the sword” (a death-dealing weapon) because “he is God’s minister” according to the above Scripture. But when he fires, or uses other lethal force, and the resulting death is unnecessary, is he a minister for good?
Let me make some things unmistakably clear.
- First, it is ludicrous to compare law enforcement officers in the USA to KGB agents in the USSR. I share that example because I thought of Romans 13 as I was reading the book, and because it is an extreme case in which we might wrestle with the application of Romans 13.
- I want to make clear, secondly, that I am 100% supportive of and grateful for law enforcement officers. These people risk their lives for our security every day. As I’m writing this, I am aware of two more instances of police officers being shot at and injured while making an arrest or without any provocation at all. A number of members in our church serve or have served in law enforcement. One of them is the head of our security team. In fact, he was honored by being selected to represent Greenville, SC at the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos in New York on December 27, 2014. Law enforcement officers deserve our support and our appreciation. Christians especially should not only submit to and respect cops but show them gratitude and pray for them and their families.
- The third thing I want to make clear is that this article’s point of view is not an assumption that cops were at fault in recent headline-filling events. I don’t presume to judge their actions based on the news or public sentiment. However, these recent events have provoked the cry of racism and injustice from some. Whether or not that charge is true in those cases is not the issue here.
There are great cops, good cops, and average cops. Unfortunately there are also cops who make mistakes, and sadly there are corrupt cops who perpetrate evil. That is reality. The question is, are they all ministers to you for good?
Paul’s letter to the Romans that I quoted above was written to people who lived under a government that was as corrupt and evil as it gets. And the whims of the Caesars and the Senators were enforced by the soldiers – the KGB of Rome, if you will. These were the people who persecuted the Christians until they literally had to live underground to survive, who hung believers on crosses, and who were entertained by watching ravenous lions tear apart and devour Jesus-followers, including women and children. I can imagine the reaction of Amplias, Urbanus, Stachys, Aristobulus, Narcissus, Tryphena, and Tryphosa (Roman Christians whom Paul greets in chapter 16) – “Wait a minute. Are you talking about Caesar? And those senators? And that Roman soldier over there? Ministers? To us? For GOOD???”
To compare the degree of evil in Roman “law enforcement” to whatever people think is going on in America today is, like with the KGB, incongruous. But there is a logical point here. If Caesars and soldiers were ministers to the Roman Christians for good (that’s what Paul was saying), then it is logical to say that your city policemen and policewomen are too, as are the sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen and other law enforcement personnel that you and I see every day. And it logically must include the ones who make errors and even those who, motivated by greed, prejudice, or hatred, do evil.
Before explaining more, let me quickly say that if an officer does wrong, there should be justice. With the role goes great responsibility. An officer must know the law, follow procedure, and make correct life-or-death choices in very intense situations. He or she suffers serious consequences when a wrong choice is made. But I am not talking about justice here. I am talking about the attitude and actions of a Christian toward a representative of civil government regardless of whether that official is right or wrong in motives, actions, or reactions.
The impact of errors in judgment, and especially of evil choices, is what throws us. If an officer makes a wrong choice that results in an unnecessary death, how is that good for those most affected by that death? If he is a minister for good, how could God have allowed that to happen, and how in the world is it good? That is one of the questions of the ages.
The answer is always the same: God, in His sovereign rule and according to His eternal purposes, allows evil to exist and terrible tragedies to occur until the day when He sets all things right. And because He sovereignly rules and is accomplishing His will through the eons of time, He is able to weave men’s evil choices and actions into His eternal purpose to produce good. The good may not be immediately apparent, but it will eventually bear out.
One example of this is Paul himself. He was subjected to wrongful arrest, harsh interrogation, brutal beatings, and years of unwarranted incarceration. He was probably beheaded by the very people he spoke of in Romans 13. Yet at every stage in the process he was used of God to plant seeds of gospel truth and to point people to Jesus that he would not have if allowed to lead a normal life.
Another example that comes to mind is Joseph. He was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. While there, he was falsely accused and imprisoned by the authorities. When Joseph was finally released and faced his brothers, he said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Here are my conclusions to wrestling with this question. Generally speaking, law enforcement officers are “ministers to you for good” because they protect you from the bad guys. When an officer makes a mistake or even does wrong, his actions may not be good and the impact may be anything but good. But God’s purpose always prevails, and He uses the mistakes of well-intentioned people and even the wrongful actions of evil people to produce what brings Him glory, fulfills His grand plan, and grows his people in the likeness of Christ. All of that is good. Even the person who perpetrates evil against another becomes an instrument of good. With these truths in mind, today’s Christian can view any law enforcement officer as a minister of good.