In my current efforts to lead a repeal of the death penalty in South Dakota, Christian friends quickly bring up Romans 13:4 to make a case that God is pro-death penalty. (I’ve laid out a larger Biblical and theological case against the death penalty here.)

Romans 13:1-4 has long caused Christians to squirm because it teaches that God is the one who sets guys like Nero and Hitler in power. However, it doesn’t say God agrees with their governing philosophies. And, it does not say God agrees with the death penalty, only that he gives secular governments the authority to use it.

In Romans 13:4 Paul was writing to believers in Rome saying they need to revere Roman authority as God gives governments even the authority of the sword. He was not telling Christians that they are justified to forsake the mercy path when they one day get in power. Why then are so many Christians today defending the values of the Romans and the ethics of Nero?

Shouldn’t governments in the Christian corners of the world be based on the ethics of Jesus instead of the ethics of Nero? It’s amazing to me how much weight Christians today give Romans 13:4. Somehow it outweighs fifty verses from Jesus on showing mercy. Even so, these verses are not in conflict.

I’m for a government that is more like Christ than Rome. Whichever government we happen to live under we are to live in submission to it, that’s the point of Romans 13:4. The leaven of the kingdom (the ethics of Jesus) should permeate society and government eventually and if we don’t contend for that now, when will we start?

We know what incarceration looks like under the value system of Islam and Sharia Law. However, what should incarceration look like in the Christian corners of the world?

Real prison reform happens when we view prisons as places of reform (and redemption) not retribution. Once behind bars what if we did more than punish their depravity? What if we introduced them to their dignity?

[See also: Cain, the Death Penalty and the Law of First Mention]