The Deacons of Wrath

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So then, there has been a little Internet dust up over the death penalty, involving The Atlantic, Al Mohler, Jonathan Merritt, and Rachel Held Evans. Why should I stay out of it? Not being able to answer that question adequately, here goes.

Before getting into the false dilemmas that regularly get posed on this question, let me begin by saying that all such discussions should assume, at a minimum, fair trials, just convictions, and competence in the executioners. Nothing I will argue below should be taken as a defense of killing innocent men, or of causing them to suffer a lingering and painful death. And in giving this disclaimer, I do not assume that our criminal justice is fine as is — far from it. I am simply pointing out that it is a separate discussion.

I am tempted to let it all go simply in order to enjoy — for a bit longer any way — the prospect of Merritt and Evans urging us all to a straightforward reading of the text of Scripture. If we let that go on, who knows what might happen? But duty still calls.

That said, on to the false choices that get served up to us. The first is between Jesus and the Old Testament, or between Jesus and Paul. How about between Jesus and Jesus?

So who would Jesus execute? How about someone who cursed his father or mother?

“And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death . . . Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye” (Mark 7:9-10, 13)

This is ironic because people like to cite the Mosaic treatment of surly teenagers as one of the passages we should all be most embarrassed by, at least if we are followers of the Flower Child Messiah, when it is actually one of the Old Testament texts that the Lord Christ cited and defended, straight up. It turns out that if you are a red letter Christian, the Bible still gets embarrassing.

What about the refusal of Christ to let them throw rocks at the woman caught in adultery? Let us just say that the arraignment was suspicious. They caught her in “the very act” of adultery, which she somehow managed to do all by herself. Where was the man? The Old Testament law had no double standard here, unlike the scribes and Pharisees in this story. And because they refused to put the adulterous man on trial, Jesus put them on trial.

In the Old Testament, if a man suspected his wife of cheating, he would bring her down to the tabernacle for a trial by ordeal (Num. 5:11-31). Unlike a Monty Python witch trial, the unusual thing had to happen in order to secure a conviction. The priest would write the charge against her, take some of the dust from the tabernacle floor, and make her “drink” the charges against her. This ritual put her accusing husband on trial as well, because if she was acquitted, he could not divorce her. Two out of the three elements are here in this story — Jesus writes, and He writes in the dust of the floor of the Temple. He emphatically puts her accusers on trial, saying that the one who was innocent of sin — I believe He is referring to the sin in question, adultery — should cast the first stone. They all skulked away, the oldest lechers going first.

Jesus knew she was guilty because He told her to go and sin no more, but He also threw the case out because the rabble making up the judge and jury were fully as bad as anything we might find in the 9th Circuit. This case does not reflect on the death penalty. It reflects on the death penalty administered by lynch mobs via sham trials.

Just a quick note in conclusion on Romans 12-13. If you read through chapter 12, you will see Paul following the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount very closely. Bless those who persecute you, and so on (Rom. 12:14). He then says not to take vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong, but rather because vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:19). Leave room, he says, for God’s wrath. Now recall that in the original book of Romans, we did not have a chapter break here, but moved naturally into Paul’s discussion of the civil authorities, armed with a sword, a lethal instrument. These men, Paul argues, were deacons of wrath (Rom. 13:4) — they are the ones we are to leave room for, back in the previous chapter. Don’t go home and get your gun, Paul says. We are not fans of vigilante justice. Leave room for God’s wrath. Call the cops. Call in the deacons of wrath.

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JohnM
JohnM
8 years ago

“He also threw the case out because the rabble making up the judge and jury were fully as bad as anything we might find in the 9th Circuit” – Which experience is showing to be something like what we can expect from the American criminal justice system. At least often enough to bother conservatives like me. Trouble is: Do we really want to throw cases out as a matter of course? After all, not all the people who end up arrested and on trial are nice people, or, more to the point, innocent. Not even most of them. I don’t… Read more »

Nathan E.
Nathan E.
8 years ago

“It reflects on the death penalty administered by lynch mobs via sham trials.” I agree. Especially in our present malaise, this is very important. The worldview expressed throughout the Bible is utterly foreign to our times, and this is but one example. Somehow we have gotten it in our heads that everyone is the judge. However, the Bible’s message pretty much throughout is that lynch mobs and people appointing themselves judge is a bad thing. Those are the actions of hypocritical and lawless people. This is exactly what happened in the pericopae adulterae, and it is in perfect keeping with… Read more »

Darren
Darren
8 years ago

“It reflects on the death penalty administered by lynch mobs via sham trials.”

Are you saying then that if the crowd had of been a righteous group of men, Jesus would have let them proceed with the death penalty?

Help me understand.

Paul
8 years ago

Capital punishment was instituted by God in Genesis 9:6. This pre-dates the civil law given by God through Moses to Israel by hundreds of years. Therefore, capital punishment for murder is universal in application in all of time. Indeed, the apostle Paul accepted its legitimacy in respect of himself, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.” (Acts 25:11).

bethyada
8 years ago

Until Doug gets the links in… Mohler, Evans, and Merrit seems to have written several articles on this recently, the Atlantic one here.

bethyada
8 years ago

Test

bethyada
8 years ago

Well it seems I’m in moderation despite having posted here for some time. Probably due to the links. Let’s see if it works without the hyperlinks:

Mohler: religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/01/why-christians-should-support-the-death-penalty/
Evans: rachelheldevans.com/blog/jesus-death-penalty-al-mohler-sarah-palin
Merritt: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/jesus-death-penalty/361649/

bethyada
8 years ago

On the Pericope Adulterae there are 2 further problems. Is it Scripture? Now I admit it reads like Scripture in a way that, say, the Didache does not; but it does shift around and many argue including conservatives argue that it is not Scripture. Perhaps an original story such of the type that Luke collected? Secondly, and more relevant here, is that the Jews were forbidden to execute under Roman occupation. I believe that Annas may have been removed from the highpriest office for ordering executions. Thus the request for Jesus to pronounce judgment was a set up in much… Read more »

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

I have a sincere question to those who support the death penalty. I am very conflicted on this issue for a number of reasons, but here is my main rub. It does not take long to look at scripture and see redeemed murders doing amazing things for God’s Kingdom. If the death penalty were applied consistently we would not have the following giants of the faith: Moses, David, and Paul. We would not have the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or the Pauline letters of the NT. How can we jive this seeming contradiction? I see the verses supporting the death penalty,… Read more »

Eric B
Eric B
8 years ago

The other side of the coin is that the agents of wrath actually have to do their duty. Lawmakers must make just laws. Judges must declare proper sentences for the wicked. When we have mass murderers avoid harsh judgments due to mental illness claims and prolong trials for years, where is the justice for the afflicted? We have men who prey on the women and children in our society and we turn them loose again after a few years in prison to do it again. Lynch mobs – bad. Rulers not executing justice – equally bad. The threat of lynch… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

When the mob who tried to shout you down at Illinois becomes the official ‘Deacons of Wrath’ what will you do? Will you fight back or submit?

Doug Shuffield
Doug Shuffield
8 years ago

Darren, check out The Adulterous Woman for a good discussion about why Jesus did what He did.

– Doug

Matt
Matt
8 years ago

The OT law was for a barbarian people who had been slaves for hundreds of years and picked up who knows what practices from the Egyptians. Is there or has there ever been any other society which executed people for cursing their parents? You only need be embarrassed by this if you are embarrassed that the Israelites were barbarians at one time. But we can respect our own and others’ barbarian ancestors without emulating them. In reality, punishments are something to be decided by circumstance as much as by principle. Barbarian peoples execute offenders because they lack the means to… Read more »

Eric B
Eric B
8 years ago

BJ,

I am opposed to the death penalty for these reasons, but I am also willing to rethink this position in a reasonable manner. Would anyone be willing to engage?

I would be willing to make a humble attempt at this discussion if you would be willing to endure my slow response times.

Johnny
Johnny
8 years ago

It seems likely to me that the sin of which the crowd was guilty was their bringing her alone to the Temple to an itinerant rabbi for conviction and execution. All of that is contrary to the law and Jesus’ reference to the trial of bitter waters is Him calling them out on THAT. “Oh, you want her judged here in the Temple?” And His letting her go shows His total obedience–in His humanity, He was in no position to condemn her.

Stan McCullars
Stan McCullars
8 years ago

BJ, Should I assume that you are against sending people to prison as well? Prison does limit the “possibility of redemption.” Life expectancy decreases. Personal contacts are severely restricted. Free time is limited. What about access to solid preaching and theological books? Some people even commit suicide just contemplating prison time. Most people come out of prison hardened. If prison and the death penalty are out, what is left? Public flogging? Is public humilation conducive to redemption? Might people be more prone to depression after such a flogging? Ultimately, God is going to accomplish his purposes in whatever manner, and… Read more »

Tim Mullet
Tim Mullet
8 years ago

BJ, The purpose of the death penalty is so that “all Israel would hear and fear” and “never again do such wickedness.” In this sense, the death penalty serves as a curb to immorality. The Law of Moses was given in history at a specific point in time. Therefore, the Israelites did not gather up all of the murders, adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, and defiant children and have a mass stoning upon the giving of the Law. They had been given a code of conduct that would govern their future actions. Obedience to the Law would result in the prevention of… Read more »

Bereket Kelile
8 years ago

Deacons of Wrath. That sounds like a name for a band.

Bert Perry
8 years ago

Regarding the examples one gave:

Moses did his murder in hot blood because the foreman was abusing a Hebrew. Our verdict; maybe not worthy of death.

Paul was an accomplice, not the guy throwing stones.

David was forgiven by God with the forgiveness granted by no less than a prophet.

Does that say anything, really, about the godless murdering in cold blood without any sign of repentance? I would think there’s some happy medium between the Roman model of crucifying people for mere theft, and refusing to execute someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, no?

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

Thanks for all of the responses so far. I will respond to each below: Eric B, Yes, but let’s do it off forum. Send an email to [email protected] (it is encrypted and secured), and I will follow-up with another email we can use. Stan McCullars, Thank you for the thoughts, I am not sure how to respond. First, you did not address my point about the Scriptures being written by convicted murders (my main contention). Secondly, no I am not against prisons. If you cannot see the difference between prison and death, I am not sure what to say. I… Read more »

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

BJ, The fact that good may come out of something that is against God’s commands in Scripture doesn’t mean that not keeping God’s commands is in itself now good. That is not a Christian/Biblical way of thinking. For instance, Joseph became a savior to the world after his brothers sold him in slavery against Ex 21:16 and Dt 24:7. Jesus became the Ultimate Savior through being murdered (Ac 4:27; 7:52). The goodness of being able to save many people doesn’t uphold so that we can disobey Scripture by now selling into slavery and murdering or anything else evil that is… Read more »

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

Brian, Thank you, as well, for your response. It seems like you really put some thought into this, so I am grateful. I can honestly say that I have been accused of many things since I became a Christian. I have been accused so many times that I cannot count of being willingly blind and anti-science for being a creationist (the young-earth kind). I have been accused of being a theocrat for being postmillenial in my eschatology. I have been accused of being anti-Semitic for being a covenant theologian. I was once told that I was a homophobic bigot for… Read more »

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

Also, BJ, if God through His word says/clarifies that some portion of His word has not been given/revealed with the intention of not being applied to some individual, then the audience of that revelation is still obeying the Word of God. To do otherwise would disobey subsequent revelation that clarifies the intent/scope of the previous revelation as it applies to a particular situation/person) would be disobedient to God(‘s word). Yet, even in this case, we would not now have the moral right to autonomously (on our own arbitrary pretended authority) to set aside and not obey God’s word in Scripture… Read more »

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

Brian, again, thank you. You have given me much to think about. I assure you I will ponder your response.

However, I still do not think it is that simple, biblically speaking. I still think that there is some serious thinking to be done when we have murderers who should have been killed (according to this view) writing Holy Writ (Romans 12:17-21).

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

BJ, take out the first ‘not’ in my first sentence of my previous comment. Also the sentence: But, since not all commandments are fulfilled in such a way so as to be abolished in the sense of not being observed in the letter, if we do not obey them according to the original letter, then we have a subsequent word from God, then we would be arbitrarily and thus disobediently on our own insufficient “authority” setting aside God’s commandments/instruction throughout “all Scripture” (2 Tim 3:16). should read (corrections in CAPS) But, since not all commandments are fulfilled in such a… Read more »

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

BJ, I presume that you understand that the human author of your Romans quote recognized and submitted to the possibility of CP for himself. Exceptions granted by the Sovereign Creator do not nullify His prescriptive law. As the Author, He has full authority; we do not. I want to advance good faith toward your sincerity, just not your argument. Finding vague that which God has made clear is not humility, it is arrogance. It sometimes clothes itself in troubled emotional responses to that which we find unsettling. God is not squeamish whatsoever; life is not “sacred”. Instead it has dignity… Read more »

Bert Perry
8 years ago

Brian, it occurs to me that the nuance in the death penalty comes directly from Scripture, which differentiates premediated murder from manslaughter, and the like. If we apply, among other things, a hermeneutic of “Scripture explains Scripture”, then the Mosaic passages about city of refuge and the like allow us to apply Genesis 9:6 in the spirit in which He intended. No? And if indeed Nathan spoke with the Holy Spirit’s prompting, well, again, that is every bit as authoritative as Scripture, no? Again, God explains to us how He wants this to be handled. And it was Christ Himself… Read more »

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

Bert,

Did you actually mean to address your comment to BJ or me?

Honestly, it seems more like you meant to address it to BJ.

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

It’s one thing if BJ is arguing that the death penalty should be suspended while we labor under a civic authority that is so confused on the subject that they see the unborn as ripe candidates for the death penalty. It is very reasonable to question the use of the death penalty under such a broken condition. But if BJ is arguing against the death penalty in principle, as if it has somehow worn out its original intent, then he has a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, the New Testament certainly doesn’t support the notion that… Read more »

Ellen
Ellen
8 years ago

Is it possible to understand the death penalty in Scripture to be the maximum rather than the mandatory sentence? That is, that murder is a crime worthy of punishment up to and including the death sentence, where other crimes are not.

BJ
BJ
8 years ago

Hey Guys, Thanks for another round of thoughts. See below: RFB, I am trying very hard not to be arrogant. Yet, that seems to keep coming up. Let me clarify. I am not forwarding an emotional argument. I don’t like the idea of Hell (on an emotional level), but I teach it, believe it, and confidently assert that it is moral and justified. So no squishy opposition from me (not intentionally anyway). The fact that Paul did submit himself to this authority and was granted clemency should allow us to see that a carte blanche approach to this is wrong.… Read more »

Bert Perry
8 years ago

Brian, quite right, and hope I didn’t waste your time.

BJ, quite right, but regarding the “problem” of execution precluding further chances of repentance, that would apply back in Genesis, too, wouldn’t it? And in Romans 13, no?

God obviously doesn’t take that objection seriously, and He speaks in His Word of the fact that His Spirit will not abide with us beyond a certain time, and of killing Moses and Aaron when the time was right. So if God doesn’t take that objection seriously, should we?

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

BJ, Since God teaches/commands us that (we ought to believe that) a murderer ought to be put to death, who “with sin” (vs. “without sin” per Jn 8:7) in vigilante fashion (Ro 12:21; John 8:3,4,7; 18:31; Ro 13:1,2) took his “own revenge” (Ro 12:19) in contrary disobedience against Nu 35:22,23 after learning of adultery instead of relying/waiting (Ro 12:19) on God’s decretive/providential vengeance through His sword-bearing ministers (Ro 13:4,1,2; Dt 22:22; 17:6,9,10,11,12,13; Nu 35:30). Likewise, since God also teaches us in His word that a hitman is deserving to be put to death for also shedding bled apart from the… Read more »