The Christian and Civil Government

Mike Willis

The following true cases all involved Christians and families of Christians:

• A husband learns that his wife is having an affair with another man. After efforts to get her to cease her affair with the man fail, he files divorce papers against his wife to divorce her for the cause of fornication.

Does the husband violate 1 Corinthians 6? Does the husband cause the grief that his wife and children may have to endure? Is the husband somehow the "guilty party" in the above case because he turns the case over to civil courts for their adjudication?

• A young man and his wife decide to murder his father and mother in order to receive his share of the family inheritance. The father and mother fight off the attack on their lives. The mother draws a pistol from her night stand and threatens to shoot unless they stop their bloody attack. Having subdued the young couple at gun point, they then call the police. The son was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of attempted murder.

All of those involved in this incident were Christians. Should that change the response and the reaction of the victims? Is it biblically authorized for the world to act in this way in this case, but wrong if Christians are involved?

• A young man in his early twenties molested several children in the church of which he was a member. The members reported the case to the police. The man was arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

Did the one who reported these crimes to the police violate 1 Corinthians 6? Was he responsible for the suffering of the molester because he reported this to the police?

• An accountant embezzled money from his employer. After efforts to have him repay the money failed, the company reported his crime to the police. The police examined the evidence, filed criminal charges against the man, the man pled guilty, and is now serving time.

Is the one who reports this crime to the police guilty of violating 1 Corinthians 6? Is he responsible for the suffering of the one who embezzled the money? Suppose this accountant (a Christian) had come to the store in a clever disguise and robbed that same employer (also a Christian) with a gun. However, his voice gave him away, and the employer called the police who arrested him a short time later at his home. Would that change the response? Would reporting the crime committed at the barrel of a gun differ from that committed at the click of a computer key?

All of the above cases actually happened. This article addresses whether it is scriptural to report such crimes to the civil authorities. Of course, if it is not scriptural, it is sinful. Some brethren would argue that, at least in the last case, sin was committed because one Christian reported a crime to the police that another Christian had committed. The charge is made that reporting the crime to the police is a violation of 1 Corinthians 6 which condemns one Christian taking another Christian to law.


In a personal conversation with the brother who charged that sin was committed in the last case (but not in the others), I asked him, "If a Christian man entered your house and began raping your wife, could you call the police?" His reply was, "Yes, but that’s a criminal act." So is stealing!

The idea that one Christian cannot report to the police a crime that is committed by a Christian can be reduced to absurdity, showing its logical fallacy. Suppose a Christian is walking toward a bank and sees that someone is in the process of robbing it. Can he take out his cell phone and call the police? If the man who is robbing the bank is a Christian, has he violated 1 Corinthians 6 by calling the police? Should he approach the robber and say, "I need to know whether or not you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, I can’t call the police lest I violate 1 Corinthians 6; if you are not a Christian, I am going to call the police."

Think about the ramifications of this idea. A Christian is president of a local bank and oversees other Christians in that bank. The president discovers that a Christian is embezzling money. What should he do? Has he violated 1 Corinthians 6 if he reports the crime to the police? That seems to be the logical conclusion to which some are forced.

In another case, some Christians own a local bookstore and one Christian oversees other Christians in that bookstore. The owners become aware that one of the Christians is stealing money from the bookstore. What should they do? Have the owners violated 1 Corinthians 6 if they report the crime to the police? That seems to be the logical conclusion to which some are forced.

What say the Scriptures? "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20).

Do Not Exercise Personal Revenge

In laying out what the Scriptures teach about handling matters such as have been described above, the Scriptures forbid personal revenge. Paul wrote,

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).

An individual does not have the right to "take the law into his own hands" and retaliate against those who sin against him. Nor does he have the right to allow hatred, bitterness, and wrath to consume his heart.

Government: God’s Instrument for Avenging Criminal Behavior

Having forbidden personal revenge, Paul immediately moves into the following discussion about the role of civil government in the very next verses.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour (Rom. 13:1-7).

Notice the following points observed from this passage:

• God instituted civil government. The "powers that be are ordained of God." Government exists by divine arrangement.

• Government is in place for the purpose of protecting those who obey the law and punishing those who violate it. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." The governmental powers are "the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

Those who assert that one who calls the police to report criminal behavior has been guilty of violating a divine prohibition against personal vengeance have completely overturned Paul’s teaching. Calling government to punish criminal behavior is put in juxtaposition to exacting personal vengeance. Using government to protect the innocent and punish the violator is God’s means of controlling criminal behavior and to prevent personal revenge.

Do the principles taught in Romans 12:18-13:7 apply only to the world, to the Christian versus the worldling, and not to such matters between two Christians? Is there one law for the children of God and another law for the world with reference to vengeance? Is Paul saying that a Christian can take personal revenge against a non-Christian (by reporting his crime to the governmental authorities) but not take revenge on a Christian? Are two Christians excluded from the provisions and principles of "the powers that be" as they carry out the ministry of God in their realm? Was the Christian who reported the child molester "guilty" of sending the molester to jail? Did he violation 1 Corinthians 6? No, the punishment of the wicked is the realm of civil government. Is the Christian who reports stealing, whether done at the point of a gun, the click of a computer key, or with the pen to write unauthorized checks to himself, guilty of sending the thief to jail? No, again. His own crime is what sends him to jail and it is the realm of the "powers that be" to punish such criminal behavior.

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

Peter also instructs that governmental authorities are put in place "for the punishment of evildoers." He goes on to say, "If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters" (1 Pet. 4:14-15). The point is that, if someone suffers as a murderer, thief, or evildoer, he is suffering deservedly. There is no virtue in suffering the punishment that God has put in place for the punishment of criminal behavior.

I understand that the Old Testament is not our authority, but that I am using it to establish certain principles and distinctions as are relevant, as per Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11. Consider what the Old Testament shows about this subject. The distinction between the proper use of civil government and personal revenge is demonstrated for us in the following passage:

If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft be certainly found in his hand alive, whether it be ox, or ass, or sheep; he shall restore double (Exod. 22:1-4).

Notice the distinctions in this verse. A man who kills a thief breaking into his home is not guilty of murder. However, should he go after him and kill him the next morning (take vengeance), he has been guilty of murder and should be punished for murder. (Note the distinction between self-defense and murder.) However, the thief does not escape without punishment. If he is caught, he should make full restitution – five oxen for one ox, four sheep for one sheep. If the item stolen is still in good condition when he is found out, he shall restore double. These judgments of the court were not personal vengeance, but were divinely legislated punishments for the wicked.

Since that was true then, is it not still true today? Both were children of God in the case above. So, today, a case involving children of God may involve and include the same principle. It is not vengeance that the bank president or the store owner seeks; it is justice as assigned to those who are established to render it.

The Christian’s Right To Appeal To Caesar

That the Christian has the right to appeal to Caesar should be obvious on the surface. God instituted government for the purposes of protecting those who obey the law and punishing those who disobey the law. Why should it be judged sinful that one should use what God himself instituted? Nevertheless, some brethren have such reservations. Consider the following examples of a Christian who appeals for government to punish criminal behavior or to protect the innocent:

1. Paul appealed to higher government to protect himself from the actions of lower government. In the case when the centurion was about to beat Paul after he was arrested in the mob scene at Jerusalem, Luke records:

The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born. Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him (Acts 22:24-29).

Though Paul was a citizen of the kingdom of heaven (Phil. 3:20), he was also a Roman citizen. His citizenship in the kingdom of heaven did not preclude his authority to exercise his rights as a citizen in the Roman kingdom. On this occasion, Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship to prevent the centurion from beating him as an uncondemned citizen of the Roman Empire. Can a Christian follow an apostle’s example? If not, one has undermined apostolic example as a way of learning the Lord’s will.

2. Paul appealed to civil government to protect himself from the Jewish (his racial brethren) mob.

While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all. But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me? Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. 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. Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? Unto Caesar shalt thou go (Acts 25:8-12).

Again, a Christian appealed to government to protect him from unlawful conduct. He recognized government’s obligation to punish criminal behavior and expressed his willingness to submit to it. Can a Christian follow an apostle’s example? Have we not argued that one learns the will of God through command, example, and necessary inference? We have God’s direct statement that he established government for the protection of the law keeper and for the punishment of the law breaker. We have an apostle’s example of using the law to protect himself from law breakers. We should be able to infer what is taught by necessary implication, that a Christian can use civil government for the purpose that God created it to be used by man.

The Things That Are Caesars

Jesus recognized the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and civil government when he was asked whether or not one should pay tribute to Rome. Matthew records the exchange as follows:

And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way (Matt. 22:16-22).

Notice Jesus recognized the distinctive realm of two kingdoms: Caesar’s kingdom and God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom pertains to salvation, worship, and other spiritual things. Caesar’s kingdom involves armies, building roads, governing men, and other such things. There are some things that the divine kingdom was never set up to adjudicate such as taxes (sales taxes, property taxes, gasoline taxes, etc.). Were the church to try to adjudicate such matters, she would be operating outside the realm in which God established her to function. The church is not qualified to adjudicate many issues such as the judgment and punishment of criminals, property lines disputes, whether or not a medical doctor committed malpractice, who is at fault and has liability in an automobile accident, and paternal issues. (Remember that King Solomon adjudicated between two Israelite women who fought over parental guardianship of a child [1 Kings 3:16-28]. Did the two women sin in bringing their case before Solomon?)

Roy E. Cogdill, besides being an effective gospel preacher, was also an attorney. With this background his comments on the subject of a Christian’s use of criminal and civil law are interesting. I have a photocopy of the following handwritten comments from Roy E. Cogdill on this subject:

Civil & Criminal

Jurisdiction under government jurisdiction. Christians have recourse to these and their benefit.

Because a man is a Christian does not give him an understanding of legal matters as procedure and would not qualify him to adjudicate them.

No comparison between civil courts and heathen judges in Corinth.

Brother Cogdill obviously did not see an inconsistency between using the civil and criminal courts and being a Christian. Nor do most other Christian lawyers who naturally have had more opportunity to think through this matter than most of us.

Old Testament Examples

When Israel existed as a nation, Moses instituted civil judges under divine inspiration. Notice these divine instructions to bring such matters to civil government to have them adjudicated:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine (Exod. 21:22).

If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man’s house; if the thief be found, let him pay double. If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges , to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods. For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn , he shall pay double unto his neighbour (Exod. 22:7-9).

And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him (Deut. 1:16).

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates , which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment (Deut. 16:18).

If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges , which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition : and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you (Deut. 19:16-19).

If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them ; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked (Deut. 25:1).

God instituted the judicial system for man’s good and gave instructions for his people to use them for settling matters between Jewish brethren and to submit to their decisions. The purposes of government are to protect the righteous and punish the wicked through its legislative, judicial, and executive branches.

Unlawful Sympathy

Sometimes men have unlawful sympathy for the criminal. God intentionally made the way of the sinner hard so that those who might not learn from divine instruction might learn from suffering the consequences of their crime. The wise man wrote, ". . . the way of transgressors is hard" (Prov. 13:15). God expressly condemned as unrighteous that sympathy which tries to prevent the criminal from being punished. Read the following:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him : But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (Deut. 13:6-10).

The instructions given here pertain to the punishment of a false prophet who leads God’s people into idolatry. The Scriptures instructed that such men were to be publicly executed (Deut. 13:5). The Lord then described a situation in which one’s kinfolks – one’s brother, son, daughter, wife, or friend – were involved. The Lord said that one should not pity the one who was being punished for his crime: "neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him." R.M. Edgar said, "Not only is the insinuation to be put away, but the person making it, no matter how nearly related, is to be treated as a public criminal, and put to death. All the sympathy which blood relationship ensures is to be set aside before this crime of appalling magnitude, and the relative is to cast the first stone at the apostate, the execution being completed by ‘the hand of the people’" (The Pulpit Commentary: Deuteronomy 234). The relatives had to be the first to bring judgment because they were the witnesses to the crime. How tragic is the situation when relatives know about their kin’s crime and then cover it up because they are "blood." It is not only tragic, it is sinful.

The same principle forbidding sympathy for those who are justly punished for false prophecy is applied to other crimes in the following passages:

But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him , but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee (Deut. 19:11-13).

If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity ; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:16-21; cf. 25:11-12).

In the cases cited earlier above, it must be determined if the child molester committed the crime. It must be determined whether or not certain brethren lied and falsely accused him. The bank president’s charges must be examined. Has embezzlement actually occurred? Once the guilt is determined, let us say that the offended admits, under oath, in court that he did, indeed, commit the crime for which he is charged?

Can he later charge his accusers as being the cause of all his problems? Are his victims somehow to be seen as the "culprits" in the above mentioned cases? Who, but only the most blind partisan, could accuse the parents of the molested children, the bank president, and the store owner if the one they charged admitted his guilt and agreed to accept its consequences?

Those who defend the guilty might need to be asked if they are seeking some sort of "vengeance." What is their motive in charging the victims of a confessed felon?

Many of us have witnessed unlawful sympathy at the protests against the executions of murderers. Such actions undermine the effectiveness of the punishment of the criminal by encouraging men to think that criminals should not be punished for their crimes. These actions ultimately fall back on the head of the criminal to his own harm. Instead of his crime effecting repentance to the salvation of his soul, he is encouraged to deny responsibility for his crime and to burn in his hatred against those men who discovered his crime, those who reported it to the police, and those government officials who prosecuted him. Should this be no less the case when the punishment of "Christian" child molesters, bank robbers, and store bandits is carried out?

1 Corinthians 6

The Scriptures forbid a Christian to take some matters before the civil courts when those matters could be handled by the local church. The context in question addresses a case in which all participants were members of the same local church. This was not a case in which one brother was in Athens and the other in Corinth. In what local church should these matters have been handled? Which local church has jurisdiction over, for example, Guardian of Truth’s business affairs? Are these who object calling for a brotherhood court? Who is trying to activate the church universal?

Albert Barnes made the following very pertinent remarks about the proper use of courts:

Where a Christian is injured in his person, character, or property, he has a right to seek redress. Courts are instituted for the protection and defence of the innocent and the peaceable against the fraudulent, the wicked, and the violent. And a Christian owes it to his country, to his family, and to himself, that the man who has injured him should receive the proper punishment. The peace and welfare of the community demand it. If a man murders my wife or child, I owe it to the laws and to my country, to justice and to God, to endeavour to have the law enforced. So if a man robs my property, or injures my character, I may owe it to others as well as to myself that the law in such a case should be executed, and the rights of others also be secured. But in all these cases, a Christian should engage in such prosecutions not with a desire of revenge, not with the love of litigation, but with the love of justice, and of God, and with a mild, tender, candid and forgiving temper, with a real desire that the opponent may be benefited, and that all his rights also should be secured. . . .

Barnes has correctly assessed the Christian’s relationship with the courts. The courts are not to be used for trivial controversies that can be settled by judges within the local church, but they are established for an ordered society and Christians sometimes have need of them.

Again, we consider the parallels mentioned by Barnes to a case in which a brother rapes a Christian woman. Many women who were raped make a choice not to report it to the police to avoid the public scrutiny and humiliation which inevitably follows reporting the rape to the police. She has a choice of whether or not to call the police. But, should she choose to call the police, has she violated 1 Corinthians 6? No! 1 Corinthians 6 is not dealing with a situation in which civil law has been violated. That issue is addressed in Romans 13.


The courts of the land are part of the governmental system which God established for man’s good. They are not to be abused as a means of taking revenge against another (Christian or non-Christian) and should be resorted to only after every other effort to settle differences has failed. However, one would be drawing a wrong conclusion to assert that every time a Christian reports a crime to the police or participates in a lawsuit he is guilty of sin.