What does the Bible say about crime and punishment?

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Few if any of us could have remained unmoved when listening to Lissie Harper's anguished statement last week. Lissie, the widow of PC Andrew Harper, spoke of her "heart-wrenching pain" because of the "brutal and senseless killing" of her husband, and her immense disappointment at the jury's decision to deliver manslaughter rather than murder verdicts.

I am not qualified to pass comment on those particular verdicts, but I do believe this tragic case should make us all stop and think again about the nature and purpose of punishment, as well as the role the Church should have in promoting a Biblical understanding of this.

The late, great John Stott summed this up nicely when he suggested that, "Relations between church and state have been notoriously controversial thought the Christian centuries," but if we reflect on Paul's teaching in Romans the best model is one of "partnership". Church and state should "recognise and encourage each other's distinct God-given responsibilities in a spirit of constructive collaboration".

In other words, our political leaders and policy makers need to be constantly reminded that their ultimate allegiance should be to God and not the vagaries of the political process or the most fashionable ideology. Those who hold political office need to be conscious of the fact that God expects them to operate as His servants, not least when it comes to matters of crime and punishment.

Paul is quite clear about this. Talking about "the one in authority", he writes, "He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer" (Romans 13:4).

There are two key thoughts here. The first is summed up in the Greek word "diakonos" (servant), which he uses elsewhere when referring to ministers of the church. The second is reflected in the phrase "an agent of wrath", because the two Greek words he uses speak of 'avenging' and 'anger'. Put simply then, the state has a God-given responsibility to punish wrongdoing.

Now the moment I make comments like this, some people immediately remind me that the Bible teaches us that it is wrong to seek revenge. To which I reply both the apostle Paul and I agree with that sentiment. Indeed, Paul makes that very same point just a few verses earlier in chapter 12. But in encouraging his friends to jettison any idea of personal revenge, Paul also tells them to "leave room for God's wrath" (anger).

It's important to realise then, that when the state punishes wrongdoers, it is doing exactly what God expects it to do. Yes, governments have a responsibility to restrain evil, and punishment can have more than one objective. Deterrence, reformation and protection should all figure highly in any understanding of the criminal code. But we should not ignore the importance of retribution either. Criminals need to pay for what they have done.

But I can hear the objections again. 'What about the Sermon on the Mount?' 'Didn't Jesus banish the concept of an "eye for an eye" to the dustbin of Biblical history?'

Well no, He didn't. When we think like that, we are merely demonstrating the fact that we haven't understood what He was really trying to say.

Jesus was condemning those who were taking the principle of just retribution (which belonged in the law courts) and were using it to justify the way they were treating other people. As a result, "This excellent, if stern principle of judicial retribution was being utilized as an excuse for the very thing it was instituted to abolish, namely personal revenge. Our Lord gives no hint that he wishes to see the magistrate relaxing his important social function of witnessing to the majesty of the Law and to the sanctity of justice, but he does discourage his disciples from appealing to justice when it is for the merely selfish purpose of gaining their own rights" (Wenham).

Put simply, Christians are challenged to walk the way of love, even if that sometimes means suffering injustice, but the state has a God-given duty to promote justice. It can only do that when everyone feels the punishment fits the crime and the Church needs to say that loud and clear.

Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.

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