Government authorities execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers and thereby carry out a task of retribution. This is explicit in Paul’s statement as the “ruler does not bear the sword in vain, “but as the servant of God” he functions as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).
The Greek word translated “avenger” is ekdikos, meaning “agent of punishment.” The idea is reinforced by the other uses of this word (as in 1 Thessalonians 4:6) and the related verb “ekdikeo” (to inflict appropriate penalty for wrong done, punish, take vengeance for, as in Revelations 6:10; 19:2 as well as the related noun ekdikesis (vengeance, punishment,” as in Acts 7:24; Romans 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 10:30).
This indicates that the purpose of civil government is not only to prevent further wrongdoing, but also to carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoing, and that this will include bringing actual punishment – that is, some kind of pain or hardship to the wrongdoer, a punishment that is appropriate to the crime committed. This why Paul can say that the government authority is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
This is significant especially in connection with Romans 12:19, which is only three verses before Paul’s discussion of civil government beginning in Romans 13:1. (In the Greek text as Paul wrote it, there were no chapter or verse divisions, so this verse is very close to what we now refer to as Romans 13). Paul says this: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
While Paul tells Christians not to take personal vengeance when wrongdoing has been done to them, he tells them they should allow the wrongdoer to be punished by “the wrath of God.” Then in a few sentences later (in Romans 14:4) he explains that “God’s wrath” against wrongdoers is carried out by civil governments when it inflicts punishment on them. This means that it is often right for Christians to turn to civil government to ask for justice to be done when they have suffered wrong at the hands of others. The civil government, in this life, is the means that God has established to carry out justice in such cases.
Peter has a similar view of the role of government in his epistle. “Be subject for the Lord ’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Peter, like Paul begins with a command to “be subject” to human institutions such as the emperors or governors. He also says that they are to restrain bad conduct and give praise and encouragement to good conduct, for they are “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (v 14). The idea of the government being established by God is not made explicit, but is hinted at when Peter says that Christians are to be subject “for the Lord’ sake” to every human institution (v 13), and Peter explicitly includes the idea of retribution against wrongdoers when he says that governors are sent “to punish those who do evil.” (Punish is the Greek noun ekidikes, related to ekdidos, as we saw in Romans 13:4. And the idea that they should “praise those who do good” give additional support to the goal of promoting god of society.
What about “turning the other cheek” as in Matthew 5:39?
Some Christians today strongly object to the idea that government should punish wrongdoers. They say government should instead try to correct the causes that lead a person to commit crime – blaming the society much more than the person who did the wrong. Such people will often appeal to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:39: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Does this prohibit even government from executing punishment on wrongdoers? Not if it is rightfully understood.
This “turn the other cheek” verse should be understood within its proper context. Here Jesus is not talking about the responsibilities of government, but is giving some principles for individual personal conduct. In addition, in this section of Matthew, Jesus is not giving absolute requirements that must be followed in every instance, but is rather giving specific, concrete illustrations of what personal conduct will often look like in the life of a Christian.
Governmental use of force and retributive punishment on wrongdoers are responsibilities of government that are explicitly taught in other passages of Scripture.