There is a certain type of person in this world, generally one greatly attracted to libertarian political causes, that believes in the illegitimacy of coercion for any kind of authorities. Unfortunately, to determine what precisely is meant by coercion is a difficult task, especially since most libertarian thought seems to show a ferocious hostility to the term at all, without being so generous as to provide a definition of what behavior is to be considered coercion. For example, some libertarians consider both “hell” and “jail” to be examples of coercion, and consider both to be illegitimate on principle. This would appear, on its face, to deny the right of government to punish crime or the right of a church or any other institution to punish sin, and it would also appear to deny God the legitimacy to punish sin Himself, because punishment is coercion.
A larger question, and one that appears to be rather unanswered, is how anyone can be a Christian and believe that coercion is wrong. This is a matter of considerable seriousness. Obviously, people who do not believe in the Bible do not have to wrestle with that contradiction, but there is a deep contradiction between the political worldview and the religious beliefs of Christians who make blanket statements on the illegitimacy of coercion. And this contradiction is deeply troubling. After all, there are people who call themselves Theonomists, who often closely study penology and examine biblical punishments (whether fines or stonings or anything in between) with a rhetoric that ranges from dispassionate to seemingly bloodthirsty, but yet who consider it illegitimate for civil governments as they exist now to punish rebellion and sedition.
So, for those people who claim to have a biblical worldview, we must wrestle with the biblical case for coercion. For the purposes of this brief examination (it could easily be much longer), we will consider coercion to be any action that is viewed as a punishment by an institution, whether it is a church or a civil government. These punishments would include fines, imprisonment, and even death. What we find is that the Bible has a consistently strong defense of the legitimacy of coercion against evildoers in order to restrain their evil. Likewise, we find that this defense of the legitimacy of coercion even extends to corrupt authorities, whose right to punish is granted even given their corrupt and ungodly behavior, both in the religious and civil realm. Shockingly, rather than rebel against corrupt authorities, we find the early Christians rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for righteousness’ sake, something that would be unthinkable and unfathomable to many believers today.
Since the punishments in the supposedly harsh Law of Moses are fairly well known, if not well-regarded, it is not necessary to spend a great deal of time here dealing with such matters, except to note the wide range of punishments that are included, lest we think of the Law of Moses as being a brutal and harsh law. Let us note that in addition to the stoning and the fines and the sin and trespass offerings and the “cutting people off from the people” that appear frequently in the law, there was also a short sort of lock-up where criminals were placed temporarily pending the direct word of God on their punishment. An example of this is Numbers 15:32-36, which reads: “Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.”
Here we see one of the major problems that a Christian (or a believer in the Bible in general) must deal with when it comes to the question of coercion. That problem is that much of the harshness of the punishments and coercion of the Law is God’s own harsh judgment against sinners. If we believe the Bible, as we possess it, is the inspired word of God, and if we take that word seriously, then we must recognize that God desires coercion against those who violate His laws. This is not merciless punishment accompanied with tyranny and a desire for harshness, but rather those who violate God’s legal order, in whatever sphere they do so, are to be sanctioned according to the very word of God Himself. Often it is He who specifies those sanctions, so that they are not arbitrarily given by human beings. But if jail is coercion, certainly the death penalty is also coercion, and God clearly sanctions such punishment when someone has been duly convicted of some sins.
It might be mistakenly thought that if there is clearly coercion on the part of civil (and religious) authorities in the Hebrew scriptures, that the New Testament is surely free from such matters. Unfortunately for those who are opposed to coercion, this is not the case. We find coercion regularly practiced, and endorsed by Jesus and the apostles, both in the civil and religious sphere. Just as in the Hebrew scriptures there are many examples of coercion, the same is true within the New Testament. Nonetheless, while only a small selection of references can be shown, at least it is easily possible to show the wide range of coercion that is commanded and endorsed by the apostles and by Jesus Christ Himself, which provides us with the fair biblical standard for sanctions from religious and civil governments.
To start with, let us examine merely one example, among many, where Jesus Christ Himself preached coercion against evildoers. Closing a long statement about sheep and goats, our Lord and Savior says in Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Surely the threat of eternal punishment would be considered coercion, and yet Jesus Christ had no qualms about providing such a threat. And what offense earned the goats eternal punishment? We read of their offenses in Matthew 25:41-45: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ Then they will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'”
Let us note that this passage is damaging to the libertarian case against coercion on at least two grounds. First, this passage gives all believers the obligation to support the less fortunate (especially among believers, but including whoever is considered the least important for anyone) with material goods and outgoing concern. Most libertarians would dislike considering charity as an obligation, but this passage is very plain that it is. And, even more strongly, if someone is unwilling to show love through generosity to those they consider the least worthy, they are promised the worst sanction of all–eternal judgment–from the lips of our Lord and Savior Himself. This is no idle threat. Even if Jesus Christ does not put his hand in your wallet and take out money to give to the supposedly undeserving poor, He promises that those who harden themselves against those less fortunate are sinning against Jesus Christ Himself and will be judged accordingly. There will be blessings for those who love God and love their neighbor, and coercion for those who do not.
Let us also look at an example of coercion that was given by Paul in the early Christian church, as an example of the sort of coercion that is sometimes necessary even among Christians. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 reads: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles–that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
Here we see that for what a libertarian would consider a matter of personal morality that is not the interest of anyone else, namely sexual immorality, Paul had (and used) the authority to disfellowship a member and deliver him over to punishment from Satan for his sins. Clearly, the tolerant attitude of the Corinthian brethren toward sin, as if the sins of others is not our concern, was not acceptable to Paul or to God. Of course, it should be noted that this coercion was only directed at unrepentant sin. Once the believer in question ceased his sin, he was restored to fellowship and grace (see 2 Corinthians 2:3-11). The same out to be true of us. Coercion from religious authorities is not an opportunity for someone to show someone else who is the boss, but to seek the spiritual health of a congregation and all of its members as well.
And, clearly, the leaders of the early Church of God (like Paul) clearly saw coercive power to restrain evildoers in the hand of the state. The clearest example of this is in Romans 13:1-7, which reads: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
Here Paul, speaking under the inspiration of God, writes that civil authorities are servants of God with the divine mission to restrain evildoers by the power of the sword (coercion), and that we are commanded to pay taxes to these authorities and honor them so that they can do their God-given task. And we should not honor and respect authorities merely out of fear, because we are afraid of conversion, but because we are commanded to show honor and respect to leaders, even corrupt ones, simply because the offices they hold are divinely appointed, however unworthy their occupants. Needless to say, this is an immensely difficult task, and I do not pretend to do it perfectly, but like many other commands of God we are duty bound to obey if we are truly followers of God and seek His will instead of our own.
And not only did the apostles of the church give coercion to others but they also suffered coercion from others. In Acts 16:16-34, we read that Paul and Silas, two Roman citizens, were beaten illegally, thrown in jail under false charges, and their response was to sing and praise God rather than groan and complain about coercion. When an earthquake provided them the opportunity to escape, they chose not to take it, and saved the Philippian jailer who beat them from killing himself, who then washed the stripes he had given but hours before after converting to Christianity. This is the Christian response to coercion–praise to God, love for one’s enemies, and setting a godly example of endurance through trials and adversity, particularly if they are undeserved.
Let us close with one additional reference to the coercion suffered by the early apostles as well as the response of the apostles to it. We find this example in Acts 5:40-42: “And they agreed with him [Gamaliel], and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”
Here we see that the apostles suffered coercion from the hands of the Jewish authorities for preaching Jesus Christ, and that they accepted the coercion, and rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake. This is an attitude toward coercion and suffering that seems very unthinkable today given our sensitivities. How to acquire the ability to suffer wrongfully without complaint or bitterness is something that might need to be learned, if times are as evil and difficult as many of us believe. And as terrible as we feel when we suffer wrongfully, we ought to rejoice that we are considered worthy to suffer as Christ did, without murmur or complaint, and that God will reward us later, with interest, because of our present trials and sore tribulation. Thank God for that.
So, what this short examination has sought to do is frame the question of coercion within the biblical context, both in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the renewed covenant text, both in terms of physical sanctions and eternal judgment, both in the civil and in the religious sphere. In so doing, we can clearly see that everywhere one looks, one finds biblical support and endorsement of coercion for evildoers who rebel against God’s ways. If one does not want to deal with coercion, the only way to avoid it is in the development and practice of virtue, a difficult but rewarding path. And even then we may at times have to suffer wrongfully, in the knowledge that Jesus Christ suffered without any blame, and most of the time we have at least some blame in the matter. But no Christian can remain a Christian without believing in the propriety of coercion, because God’s dealings with mankind have always included grace for the repentant, and judgment (coercion) for the rebellious and wicked. Let us not harden our hearts in rebellion against our Creator, unless we want to see the most serious sort of coercion imaginable.