A Thin Blue Line: Part Two

Having previously introduced the topic of the legitimacy of police and related professions within the Church of God community, I would like to take this time to discuss the nature of police action and how it appears within the Bible.  While there are no references to police officers specifically in the sense that we know them, the Bible is full of references to related professions that serve in the same way that police officers and other peace officers do today, and it is worthwhile to examine some of these, as well as some of the references to self-defense as they relate to the behavior of the police.  As is often the case, we get a sense of the Bible’s view of the profession by both explicit references as well as implicit context given certain professions.  For the point of this particular exercise, we will look at the Levite temple guards, biblical jailers, and the Roman centurions and other local soldiers mentioned in the Gospels and Acts as as being the biblical equivalents to police, and briefly examine what the Bible says about them as a way of providing the context to what the Bible would say about contemporary police.

First, though, it is important to recognize that in ancient Israel, a civilization much less professionalized than our own, that ordinary people had to do a lot of police duties themselves.  And similar to the United States, there was a high degree of praise for ordinary citizens being armed for their own protection.  Let us briefly note two such examples.  First, we see Exodus 22:2-3, part of the law of the covenant given at Sinai:  “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed.  If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”  Here we see a few things.  For one, a thief invading a home at night when everyone was assumed to be home and sleeping was assumed to be armed, and it was assumed that Israelites would be armed and able and willing to defend themselves from home invaders, and to be comforted in knowing that killing home invaders at night was not murder and incurred no bloodguilt, while killing an unarmed thief during the day would incur bloodguilt, since theft itself was not a capital offense, even if someone could be sold into slavery if they could not pay restitution to the victims they had stolen from.

The second reference is a more enigmatic one, in Luke 22:35-38:  “And He said to them, “When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?”  So they said, “Nothing.”  Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.  For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.”   So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”  And He said to them, “It is enough.””  Here the apostles are specifically told to make sure that they are armed, even if they have to sell their clothes to afford the price of a sword.  On the one hand, this was done to fulfill a prophecy, but at the same time, Jesus Christ had an expectation that his followers would possess swords and know how to use them, and the group already had a couple of swords with them without having to do anything special, and had never been rebuked about these swords by Jesus Christ in the scriptures.  Would a small traveling party of believers be so well-armed in contemporary times without people being too concerned about the violent intents of those who were armed for self-defense?  It is a fair question to ask.

One of the most notable deeds of the Levite temple guards was to overthrow Athaliah. I have already discussed this incident in greater detail [1], but it is worth briefly quoting 2 Chronicles 23:1-11 to note that the Levite guards of the temple were fully armed and indeed served as a local police guard within Judah under normal circumstances:  “In the seventh year Jehoiada strengthened himself, and made acovenant with the captains of hundreds: Azariah the son of Jeroham, Ishmael the son of Jehohanan, Azariah the son of Obed, Maaseiah the son of Adaiah, and Elishaphat the son of Zichri.  And they went throughout Judah and gathered the Levites from all the cities of Judah, and the chief fathers of Israel, and they came to Jerusalem.  Then all the assembly made a covenant with the king in the house of God. And he said to them, “Behold, the king’s son shall reign, as the Lord has said of the sons of David.  This is what you shall do: One-third of you entering on the Sabbath, of the priests and the Levites, shall be keeping watch over the doors; one-third shall be at the king’s house; and one-third at the Gate of the Foundation. All the people shall be in the courts of the house of the Lord But let no one come into the house of the Lord except the priests and those of the Levites who serve. They may go in, for they are holy; but all the people shall keep the watch of the Lord And the Levites shall surround the king on all sides, every man with his weapons in his hand; and whoever comes into the house, let him be put to death. You are to be with the king when he comes in and when he goes out.”  So the Levites and all Judah did according to all that Jehoiada the priest commanded. And each man took his men who were to be on duty on the Sabbath, with those who were going off duty on the Sabbath; for Jehoiada the priest had not dismissed the divisions.  And Jehoiada the priest gave to the captains of hundreds the spears and the large and small shields which had belonged to King David, that were in the temple of God.  Then he set all the people, every man with his weapon in his hand, from the right side of the temple to the left side of the temple, along by the altar and by the temple, all around the king.  And they brought out the king’s son, put the crown on him, gave him the Testimony, and made him king. Then Jehoiada and his sons anointed him, and said, “Long live the king!””   How comfortable would the people who are tasked with security in our congregations, who serve in a role akin to these Levite guards, be with weapons and the readiness to use them if necessary?  Likewise, how would these Levites have been proficient enough with weapons to overthrow a ruler without having had some experience in their home cities serving in some sort of security function there? 

There are times in the Bible where police action is implied if not directly stated.  Such is the situation, for example, in Leviticus 24:10-12:  “ Now the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and this Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought each other in the camp.  And the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord and cursed; and so they brought him to Moses. (His mother’s name was Shelomith the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.)  Then they put him in custody, that the mind of the Lord might be shown to them.”  Here we see that this custody was being put under guard, in a temporary jail sort of setting.  When the Bible speaks explicitly about prison, prison guards and wardens are viewed as being entirely legitimate professionals.  Witness, for example, the service that Joseph did to the prison warden in Egypt when he had been unjustly jailed in Exodus 39:20-23:  “Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison.  But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him mercy, and He gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.  And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; whatever they did there, it was his doing.  The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”  There are even times in the Bible when believers acted in a strikingly gracious way to avoid causing problems to prison wardens, as happened in Acts 16:25-34:  “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.  And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”  Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.  And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.  Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.”  Here we see that Paul and Silas and the other prisoners there in Philippi refused to escape to freedom, but rather saved the prison warden from self-destruction by remaining in prison and giving him encouragement about their refusal to escape when they had the chance to do so.  Would we be so willing to go out of our way to serve and encourage prison keepers if we were thrown in jail?

Likewise, we see the Bible speak consistently highly towards the Roman centurions, something I have written about previously at some length [2].  Indeed, the Gospels view Roman soldiers with a considerable degree of respect that is striking given the awkwardness of their position as the enforcers of a corrupt and unjust political order.  Luke 3:14 gives John the Baptizer’s sage advice to the soldiers who came to him seeking baptism:  “Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”  So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.””  This is good advice to contemporary police officers–to be content with wages and not strike, to avoid intimidating or making false accusations.  There is no hint here that it is unjust to be a police officer even as an occupier of a country as the Romans were in the holy land.  Paul shows himself to be skilled in dealing with the security forces of Judea when he was examined by the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem in Acts 22:22-29:  “And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!”  Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him.  And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?”  When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.”  Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?”  He said, “Yes.”  The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.”  And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.”  Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.”  Here we see Paul informing the officers of his rights and engaging in friendly and open communication with them, with mutual respect between them.  How many of us would be able to communicate with police officers with the same degree of graciousness in our own interactions if we were in the process of being arrested because some riot had developed around us?

Let us summarize the point briefly.  While the Bible does not speak directly of police officers, the Bible does speak of the functions of internal security that police are involved in at present in contemporary societies.  The Bible speaks of defending one’s home in an early example of the castle doctrine as being a legitimate use of deadly force.  The Bible praises Levite gatekeepers/guards who used deadly force in overthrowing the wicked Queen Athaliah.  The Bible consistently praises jailers and cooperating with them if believers should find themselves in prison.  Likewise, the Bible consistently praises Roman soldiers and urges them not to abuse their power, and speaks highly of centurions as well as being just people one can deal honestly and openly with.  And, lest we forget, the Bible gives the state the right to execute judgment on evildoers as a general principle, as it is written in Romans 13:1-5:  “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 on 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.”  There is therefore no place in the Bible for one to resist the just behavior of police, or to think badly of police or to view them as being illegitimate, for their behavior in defending internal order is given consistent biblical warrant and praise.  As it was in the Bible, in both testaments, so it is today for believers.

[1] See, for example:


[2] See, for example:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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