Written by: George Brunk

The execution of Timothy McVeigh, June 11, 2001, created a “stir” of debate and discussion around the world which revealed how fickle and foolish most of the people seem to be. The talk shows were pathetic and confusing. Few seemed to have any understanding of what the Word of the Lord has to say. A Jewish rabbi made a valiant attempt to justify capital punishment but the “tide” was against him. The prevailing view in Mennonite circles seems to be in opposition to capital punishment. Here is the “case” for capital punishment as I see it. We maintain that capital punishment is a legitimate exercise of the authority and power of civil government. Any attempt on the part of the church to deny that right to the state is unfortunate and indefensible. Having stated our position on this question, we support it with the following observations:

1. God is the giver of life, and He has the right to take it. We assume that few persons will dispute that. Who could challenge the fact that God has the right to judge wicked men at the end of days? Those who would deny the right of the civil powers to execute criminals would seem to be only one step away from denying God the right of passing judgment on the wicked. How long will it be until someone has the audacity to make such a public declaration?

2. God not only has the right to take life, but He has the right to delegate that awful responsibility to whomever He will. It is the thesis of this editorial that God has indeed delegated that responsibility to the civil powers. According to Romans 13, the civil powers are a terror to those who commit evil. “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” (Romans 13:4). Reference should also be made here to the fact that God commanded His people in the Old Testament to take life. Many mistakenly concluded, on the basis of that fact, that the church in the New Testament is free to participate in this awful exercise of taking life. This leads us to the next observation.

3. In the Old Testament, we see a union of church and state in what is called a theocracy. In other words, Israel was a theocracy functioning as both church and state. This is a very fundamental truth that has been ignored by the mass of professing Christian people for nearly 2,000 years. This misunderstanding is perhaps more responsible than anything else for the confusion in the professed Christian community with reference to Christians participating in war. Such persons will say to us, “God commanded His people to take life in the Old Testament, so what is wrong with you?” We answer by asking why such persons are unable to recognize the principle of the union of church and state in the Old Testament and the separation of the same in the New. This leads us to the next observation.

4. In the new dispensation, church and state are divided, each having it separate assignment according to Romans 13 where Paul makes the clear distinction between “ye” (believers) and “he” (the civil powers). Some prefer to refer to the separate roles of the people of God, sometimes referred to as the church on the one hand and the civil powers or state on the other. To some readers, this may seem like an indefensible position for a nonresistant believer to take. Recognizing the difficulties and possible complications, we take the position without apology that, according to the New Testament, we believers cannot participate in the human butchery of war, nor could we participate in capital punishment. At the same time, we will not and cannot attempt to deny to the state, as a separate entity, that right.

In conclusion, let us make it plain that we are not arguing for the exercise of the death penalty nor are we urging the civil powers to take the lives of criminals. It is, however, the right of the civil powers to do so, and church people are out of order in their attempt to deny that right to the state or even expect the state to operate on the principles set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

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