Church and State—and the Sword

James M. Arlandson

Confusion too often prevails over discussions on the relation between the Church and the State. Things get even more complicated when the sword—military and law enforcement—is brought into the debate.

Should the Church be a State of sorts, as it has in some parts of its history? Should the Church wield the sword in the name of God? We have already seen in previous articles that Jesus separates the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar, but what are the teachings and practices of the early church? Do they hint that the New Testament church took a slightly different path?

This article, Part Four in a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament, aims to answer these questions, examining passages in the Epistles.


The Epistles were primarily written to explain pressing, practical needs, as well as to introduce new Christian theology. In the Mediterranean world, while Christians traveled, they were sometimes subjected to violence that everyone also suffered from, such as banditry (2 Corinthians 11:26). This was a pressing, practical need. But no ecclesiastical policy of carrying swords can be found in the New Testament documents. Though the motive and need existed to write such a policy, the New Testament authors do not take that opportunity.

Additionally, swords, even small ones, were expensive, so how could the fledgling Church buy them for the fast-growing number of disciples? Leaders needed to take care of the poor with food distribution (Acts 6:1-7). But is it conceivable that some prosperous recent converts to the new Jesus movement owned swords? Yes. However, the enemies of the Church would have accused it of violence if it had ever used swords regularly or as a policy.

By analogy, history says that the early Christians were (falsely) accused of cannibalism, a deliberate distortion of the Eucharist in which they spiritually partook of the blood and body of Christ. Why would not their enemies accuse them of putting society in danger, if many Christians carried swords and killed their persecutors, especially as a matter of ecclesiastical policy? On the contrary, Christians were sometimes persecuted and even martyred by unjust civil authorities.

Though the background to the epistles is, in part, an argument from silence (what a text or history does not say), the silence is significant. The logic of history requires us to assume that if the early Christians had an opportunity and a motive to retaliate with violence as a matter of church policy, but the records demonstrate that they did not do this, then we can be certain that they in fact followed the path of peace and nonviolence.


As noted in Part Two, on the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Jesus told the disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword (Luke 22:36). Then the disciples show him two swords, and he said the two were enough. Part Two explains why Jesus never intended that the two swords (no more than that) should be used during the events in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was arrested. There his commands teach the Apostles nonaggression. He said to Peter: "For all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Peter and the others heard those words.

However, Jesus also said to Peter in the Garden, "Put your sword back in its place," meaning, back in its scabbard or holder or in Peter’s belt or another article of clothing. He never said to throw the sword away, off to the side at a distance. So it is entirely possible that he and another disciple carried the two swords after the crucifixion and burial when they lived in hostile territory, and maybe some did after the Resurrection and Ascension.

Therefore, I would not deny that an individual Christian today may own a weapon to defend his home, for example. But he must obey the law and avoid vices like machismo and recklessness. Also, he owns a weapon privately. He does not officially represent the Church as an institution. In his ownership, he is a citizen of society. We must follow the New Testament teaching on the separate kingdoms of God and of Caesar. Then we will have clarity. Alternatively, a Christian is certainly free not to own a weapon. The New Testament offers a choice and therefore freedom. But this must be emphasized: Christians who opt to own a firearm must follow the law.

It is important to understand that later reliable tradition says that none of the Apostles fought or even tried to fight their way out of fiery trials with swords, as some sort of misguided, twisted, violent martyrs. Instead, tradition says that all of the original Apostles but John were martyred as a direct result of persecution (John died from natural causes in old age, but even he was heavily persecuted). In fact, Peter was martyred in Rome. He requested that he should be hung upside down, since he was unworthy to be crucified "properly," as Jesus was—right side up. Therefore, a lifestyle of the sword was never part of the disciples’ new walk with the resurrected Christ, as they preached his message of hope. Evidently, the example of Jesus throughout his life and in the Garden of Gethsemane made an impression on them.

In the previous section, it was noted that the silence of a text or of history may be significant, and the same can be applied here. The records do not show a widespread policy of violence in the Church, as Christians moved about in the Roman Empire, preaching the message of God's love. Peter used the sword only once, but this was before Pentecost when the Church was formally born (Acts 2). And Jesus rebuked him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Therefore, it would be misguided to build an entire church policy on this one action by a man in the heat of the moment.

Paul confirms this nonviolent policy with positive evidence.


His Second Epistle to the Corinthians reports on his own trials during ministry, which led to "beatings, imprisonment, and riots." Even though he suffered much unjust violence from his persecutors, he does not lash out with swords, raising a small militia or sending an assassination hit squad. Per contra, he speaks of these weapons:

"Weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left" (2 Corinthians 6:7, emphasis added).

Physical weapons do not occupy either hand. To strengthen this interpretation of hands empty of physical weapons, he also says in the same epistle:

3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

In these two passages Paul seems glad to contrast divine and moral weapons with physical and worldly ones. He explicitly denies worldly weapons and explicitly affirms divine or moral ones in his ministry. Jesus set the example, and Paul followed him, or perhaps he followed the policy commonly practiced among other leaders in the church who knew Jesus. This indicates that the widespread use of swords in the Church never took root.

In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians he repeats the notion that the Christian’s weapons are not physical, but spiritual. Paul borrows from the image of the Roman soldier and explicitly says that the true sword is the Word of God (cf. Hebrews 4:12). Paul writes:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Paul completely agrees with the kingdom message of Jesus, which involves spiritual warfare, such as fighting Satan (who is a real spirit being, contrary to the assertions of rationalistic theologians). Also, his Epistle to the Ephesians was probably an encyclical, meaning it was intended for several churches. This confirms, again, that the use of physical weapons was not widespread in the early church, according to apostolic teaching.

The State

Though neither Peter nor Paul endorse the sword for the Church as a policy after Pentecost (and Paul openly disconfirms its use), they teach that God endorses agents of the State, who carry the sword and who bring peace and justice to the world. Paul assumes that the military is part of this world system (1 Cor. 9:7, 14:8; 2 Tim. 2:4), and so does Jesus, incidentally (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). But we now look at passages in the Epistles more carefully.

To begin with, Peter writes that civil authorities may punish those who do wrong:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14; cf. Paul's similar declaration in Titus 3:1-2)

15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. (1 Peter 4:15)

Significantly, Peter also teaches in his epistle, near those two passages, that the State can go awry and persecute Christians, even though they may live a godly life. So the State does not receive unquestioned, unchallenged permission to do what it likes. Since the State does not receive direct revelations from God nor is it drenched in the revelations of a theocrat, this means that we can use reason to shape the State. Of course, the Church should offer its guidance, but ultimately the State does not have to listen to it. It would be wise, however, if the State recognized that it receives its ultimate ordination from God, so it should not oppress people.

Be that as it may, Paul, agreeing with Peter, writes that God establishes, in general terms, civil authorities who are God's servants and who bear the sword:

1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. (Romans 13:1-6)

All of these passages are full of truths, but five stand out for our purposes.

First, God ordains the State to impose order on the world, even by the sword. But the State must follow justice, not excessive policies that oppress religious or political freedom.

Second, the believer and unbeliever alike should submit to the governing authorities so the citizens can enjoy a peaceful life. This is especially incumbent on Christians who have to maintain their witness to the world, living a godly life.

Third, the agents of the State punish the wrongdoer and commend the good. Historically, punishing criminals was harsh in the Roman Empire (too harsh by today’s standards), but we can use reason to craft the State to follow justice. Regardless of the particulars, the timeless principle behind the history and the text says that punishment of wrongdoers is a God-ordained option.

Fourth, the words "judgment," "sword," "terror" (= "fear" in Greek), "wrath" and "punishment" are found in Romans 13:2-4. In the Old Testament, God does not shy away from executing justice on the surface of his planet, against his highest creation, humans. Thus, the so-called "God of the New Testament," so wrongly separated from the "God of the Old Testament," does not teach only peace and love—though that is the main message. With that said, in the New Covenant God uses primarily the State to bring about justice and judgment here on earth.

The interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments is complex, and readers may go here to study this topic more thoroughly.

Fifth, if a Christian becomes a soldier or a police officer, then he officially and publicly serves the State. But his private faith and religion will make him a better servant because he strives to act with integrity. Ultimately, the Christian soldier or officer serves a just and loving God, so he follows and obeys justice and love (not one without the other). All of this depends on fluctuating circumstances. The soldier or officer must exercise wisdom as to when and how to apply love and justice. This is why he must stay in Christian fellowship, so he can ask for counsel from the body of believers. Fellowship is so essential that it is a matter of life and death—spiritually mainly, but also physically. He must also know the law, which provides a lot of guidance in difficult situations.

Public and Private

However, it may be objected that the distinction between the public and private is too complicated. After all, the agent of the State works in a God-ordained institution and becomes a servant of God. So how can the two be separated? The reply is simple.

First, Christians are in the world, but not of it (John 17). Every one of us Christians feels the two-sided pull in our minds, between a good conscience and the Spirit on one side, and the world, the flesh, and the devil, on the other. Christian servants of the State, because they wield extra power, feel the internal struggle more strongly.

Second, related to the first point, the Christian’s allegiance is first to the Lord and to God’s Church, and sometimes the internal tug-of-war is hard in the fallen world. For example, if a Christian serving in the State sees any corruption, he must take appropriate action, especially if the corruption hurts people. He may have to pay a price for his integrity, but he will be rewarded by God, if only with a good conscience and divine gratitude at the end of his life (but hopefully with human gratitude down here on earth also). He did the right thing, regardless of the rewards.

Third, God ordains the government as a whole institution, but that does not mean that it receives direct revelations from God. Sometimes parts or all of it can go astray (e.g. a tyranny). So only in an indirect sense or in the big picture are members of law enforcement and the military servants of God (members of other religions working in law enforcement and the military also become servants of God). But Christians should not believe that these institutions are infallible. Therefore, in a direct and more significant sense Christians are servants of the Lord in their personal walk with him.

Fourth, to blend the two spheres of private and public, Christians witnessing about the gospel while they are on duty should do this discreetly, tactfully, and wisely. Boasting of their status as God’s servants or excessively sharing their faith is wrong. As the old saying goes—share your faith, and use words only if you have to. That is, actions speak louder than words. Only by their good conduct do Christians earn the right to be heard.

Thus, in private, Christians working in law enforcement and the military serve the Lord (as all Christians do at any job). In public, the ones who serve in law enforcement and the military have a higher responsibility due to more power than their fellow Christians who work at ordinary jobs. So it is best and less complicated to maintain the difference between the public and the private while serving in the State.


To answer the question in the Introduction, the early church did not take "a slightly different path" from the kingdom message of Jesus.

Neither Peter nor Paul, the two main leaders of the early church, bloodied people with swords after Pentecost, the formal creation of the Church (Acts 2). It would be unwise to build an entire doctrine of violence on one action of a man in the heat of the moment, during Jesus’ arrest before Pentecost. At least, this study shows that sword use does not become a church-wide policy. So the New Testament church followed the path of Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God. But both Apostles write that the State is ordained by God to use swords, in accordance with justice.

The following is the main idea threaded throughout the series, and the evidence brought forward in this article confirms it. Jesus separated the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar. Also, he did not try to reestablish the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7). Peter and Paul follow Jesus.

This implies that the Church is not the State, and neither is the State the Church. The two must be kept separate in their roles in society. This is the wisdom of God, because when the two institutions were fused or confused, trouble erupted sometimes (not always) in church history. Seeing itself as a State of sorts, it sometimes became arrogant and resorted to violence to stamp out enemies and nonconformists. On the other side, too often the State encroached on Church jurisdiction, interfering in appointments of leaders and even attacking the Pope, more than once in church history (e.g. the Avignon Papacy and the sack of Rome in 1527). The Church and State were not adequately separated in history

From the Age of Enlightenment to the present, the United States has learned that hard lesson of separation, and that hard-learned lesson explains why its citizens enjoy religious freedom and tolerance. The government must not impose one or any religion or denomination on the people. And the Church must not force itself on the government. However, the Church by its very nature and purpose may counsel and guide government leaders and advocate policies, but the leaders are not obligated to obey the Church. It may even peacefully protest when the government passes unjust legislation. But may we never again see a church denomination raise a militia to attack, torture, or execute dissidents and nonconformists!

Therefore, the Church as an institution (also distinct from the kingdom of God, which creates the Church) is "pacifist" only in its own actions and internal policies, because it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God, his active rule and dynamic reign. And Jesus the King waged only spiritual warfare, and the Apostles followed this path in early church history. But the Church violates its own Scriptures if it transfers this kingdom policy (only pacifism within itself) to the State, because the New Testament ordains that (only) the State may use the sword, if necessary and lawful. However, church leaders in the name of the Church or of God should never convene a council or general assembly in order to raise an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and sinners to conform.

The complete series of articles:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:    
Part Eight:
Jesus, Pacifism, and the Sword
Pacifism and the Sword in the Gospels
Soldiers, Officers, and God
Church and State—and the Sword
Should the State turn the other Cheek?
Questions and Answers on Pacifism and the Sword
Addendum—Fight or Flight?

The New International Version has been used throughout this article, but other translations may be read here.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
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