According to the Scriptures, God sovereignly establishes governments and places government authorities in their positions (Romans 13:1). God is a just God, so God’s divine purpose for governments and leaders is to establish, maintain, and exercise justice. As they do this, they’re meant to do it in such a manner as to reflect the just character and nature of God.
In order for the government and its leadership to fulfill their God-given purpose, God has granted them a measure of authority. The citizens of a nation are commanded by God to submit to the government due to the authority it’s been given as long as that government is not going against God’s law. When evil doers rebel against the government, law, and morality, then the governing authorities have the right to utilize force against them (Romans 13:4).
The sword in Romans 13:4 refers to the use of force against evil doers and law breakers in a society. Use of force is the God-given right of governing authorities to utilize the necessary physical power in order to stop an actual threat and overcome resistance. The proper use of force will vary depending on each situation, but it must always seek to reflect God’s just, patient, and merciful nature. When governing authorities use force in a just manner against those who commit injustices, they are acting as God’s agents of wrath by bringing God’s justice upon law breakers. Therefore, God Himself authorizes the use of force by governing authorities (such as police officers) when necessary.
That being the case, what is the appropriate use of force? To answer this, authorities must utilize a use of force continuum, which is a framework that provides guidelines for the appropriate use for force in various scenarios. Here are three key biblical-theological concepts that must inform a use of force continuum.
One, a use of force continuum must keep in mind that human beings are made in God’s image. To be made in God’s image means to represent and reflect God on the earth. The image of God gives mankind an inherent sense of worth, value, and dignity. Therefore, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and handled in a just, equitable manner.
That means there must be no partiality when police are utilizing force against citizens (Romans 2:11, James 8-9). Partiality is when one who is called to give judgment does so in a biased manner based upon outward circumstances instead of intrinsic worth. These outward circumstances that can lead to partiality can be race, ethnicity, class, gender, etc. It can lead police officers to treat one ethnic group in a more favorable manner as opposed to another ethnic group. This must not be the case, since police officers are dealing with image bearers who have intrinsic worth regardless of skin color or other external distinguishing factors.
Two, a use of force continuum must reflect the just nature of God. God is just, so the use of force against image bearers must be just. In a broad sense, justice means to give people what they are due. If a person breaks the law, then they deserve to be punished, because that’s what they’re due according to their wicked actions. Exercising a just use of force means not using excessive force, because that would not be giving a person what they’re due.
This means that police officers should meet each threat with the necessary amount of force to stop the threat and not go beyond that. For example, if a person has broken the law and is resisting arrest (without any weapon or threat of murder), then police officers may use necessary force to take him down and detain him. But they should not go beyond that to the point of murder. The principle of justice must be applied in every scenario in order to utilize a just degree of force.
Three, a use of force continuum must keep in mind that God is patient and merciful. Through the Scriptures, we see a refrain that refers to God’s character as being merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6, Nehemiah 9:31). God is not quick to exercise His wrath, so police officers (and other governing authorities) must not be too hasty with their use of force and must not overreact. They need to exercise appropriate patience and mercy in every scenario as they deal with image bearers.
The church must speak up and advocate for these principles to be applied to the use of force continuum that is practiced by police officers in our communities. If excess force is being used (unjust) against people based on external factors such as race (partiality), then the church must correct that (Isaiah 1:17). In calling for a proper use of force, we’re calling the police officers and other governing authorities to reflect the just nature of the God who has put them in position and authorized their use of force.