Perhaps one of the most difficult subjects to broach in conservative Christian circles today is the reform of law enforcement and criminal justice. In Gallup polls ranking honesty and ethics in professions, police perennially rank near the top, along with nurses, doctors, and dentists—higher even than clergy on average. (By contrast, the bottom of the list features car salesmen, just above the very bottom, Congresspersons.) Any perceived criticism, therefore, of police automatically runs counter to general social sentiment.
Christians, however, are not called to judge the world according to general social sentiment—which can suffer malformation for a number of reasons—but according to the Word of God. So, what does the Bible say about law enforcement and criminal justice?
Civil authorities in general
By far, the most common scripture referenced in this regard is Romans 13:1–4:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
It is certainly true that the civil authorities that exist are ordained of God and are God’s ministers. This means that law enforcement, too, may fall within this category.
By far too many Christians, however, cite Romans 13 as calling for blanket submission to civil authorities in all circumstances. “If a police officer tells you to do something,” they would say, “you should obey.” Submit, always, submit. Does Romans 13 teach unlimited submission in this way?
A Christian who argued that we should submit absolutely in this fashion would unfortunately force him- or herself into an awkward position. Unlimited submission would mean that we must submit even when civil authorities enforce unrighteous laws, or otherwise assume unrighteous powers. It would mean we not only should have stood idly by as a Nazi regime, for example, rounded up its victims, and worked them and gassed them to death, it would also mean that when the officers showed up at our own door demanding we turn over any “political undesirables” in our household, that we should have cheerfully submitted and handed them over to the slaughter.
No Christian, we would hope, would hold this position. In denying it, however, they must therefore admit the principle that when any civil official attempts to enforce an unjust law or policy, they are not automatically to be obeyed. Why not?
Because God’s law is always higher than man’s law, even regarding the functions of civil authorities.
Romans 13 itself implies this in stating that the civil authority is God’s minister to enforce God’s vengeance—not his own, and not anyone else’s. Further, therefore, since the civil authority is ordained to punish “evil,” by who’s standard of “evil” is he to judge? If it is man’s standards, then we are right back at the problem of the holocaust, etc. Likewise, we would today find ourselves having to endorse the Federal government’s decision to punish Christian bakers who refuse to serve a homosexual wedding as a good judgment in punishing real evil. In effect, this would force us to say that good is evil and evil is good.
But if the civil authority is to enforce God’s standards of good and evil, then we are forced to look to God’s laws to determine what acts our civil government should punish as “evil,” and to find the righteous standards of exactly how to go about that process.
Law enforcement in particular
So, what about law enforcement officers in particular? What does God’s law prescribe for the establishment and limits of their authority and practice?
While the Bible mentions some subjects pertaining to law enforcement in general in several places, it gives very few direct prescriptions for this particular office and power of government as we know it. Most appearances of related ideas (such as weapons, armed officers, guards, or prisons) appear either as divine prerogatives (not man’s), in the context of warfare (not peacetime law), apply to all citizens equally, or are products of pagan nations, laws, and governments.
God’s law, for comparison, gives explicit mention and detail for the establishment of a judicial government: judges, some basic court procedure and protections (For example, Ex. 18:13–23; 21–23; Deut. 17:8–13; 19:15; Deut. 17:14–20), as well as laws for warfare (Deut. 20). It gives countless prescriptions for how to handle specific cases of law: sexual offenses, thefts, violence, torts, murder, etc. It prescribes all the vital aspects of a nation of law and order. It is, in fact, the sole case in all of history in which God Himself revealed a blueprint for civil government. In all this detail, however, one substantial feature of modern nation-states receives no prescription whatsoever: police officers.
Does this mean that biblical law does not support law enforcement? Hardly. Biblical law still had law enforcement, but instead of a standing (roving and patrolling) force of executive agents with blanket privileges and immunities, they would have been agents of the judiciary, empowered only temporarily and by specific court warrants. Once warranted, such an officer would have been authorized to arrest and, if resisted, at some point to use force.
It does not mean, however, that just because police in some form show up in Scripture—whether as Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, or Roman officers or soldiers—that we can immediately claim a biblical justification for modern police practices. Rather, Scripture often portrays such forces as examples of tyranny, judgment, or what not to do. When God gives His people the freedom and opportunity to impact society, they should seek to institute his laws and limitations on government, not copy those of pagan tyrannies.
Obviously, the topic of criminal justice in general is far too broad for a brief position paper. Whole large tomes have been written on the subject, and smaller volumes such as my The Bounds of Love touch on it as well. In general, the Bible teaches that the principle of “love your neighbor as yourself” applies to all people and all positions, and thus to civil government officials in their capacity as officials, as well as to the law itself. This means that all abiding biblical laws apply to in these regards as well, and where they apply to criminal justice, they should be acknowledged, studied, and applied. Where the system does not conform to these standards, it must be reformed before it can be called faithful and acceptable to God.
All the strictures upon government traditionally considered as American liberties are derived ultimately from biblical law as well. This includes such things as representative government, the consent of the governed, elected officials, the castle doctrine, accountability for rogue agencies and agents, the right to privacy, the right to remain silent, presumption of innocence, and more.
While a few readers have mistakenly assumed an “anti-police” tendency in some American Vision articles on law enforcement and criminal justice reform, this is not the case. The Bible does not support anarchism or the abolition of law enforcement, but it does require the reform of law enforcement. We, therefore, call strongly for the establishment of biblical law, its equal application to all citizens and government officials alike, and thus for a number of significant reforms to all aspects of criminal justice, including the role of law enforcement officers, SWAT, peace officers, prosecutors, and much more.
The American Vision past, present, and future
Is this view a departure from American Vision’s past? Not at all. In fact, the most immediate point of departure for us, in addition to biblical law itself, is best represented by comment from Gary DeMar’s foundational God and Government: “Police and fire protection could be financed through a service fee, similar to insurance premiums” (p. 324). This comes in the context of a discussion of how the funding of public services—police, fire, education, etc.—through property tax is invalid from a biblical law perspective.
Likewise, Gary has always upheld the right and/or duty to resist officials who enforce unjust laws:
I don’t see how protesting the actions of a civil government is a violation of the biblical command to submit to civil authority. When a civil ruler operates outside his jurisdictional limitations, it is not wrong for the people to call him to account. A civil ruler only operates legitimately in those things over which he has jurisdictional authority. He can’t claim that because he’s a king that whatever he does is the result of his office. An elected official that lies, cheats, steals, and murders is not doing God’s will in his civil capacity. He can and should be called to account.
This, of course, was the view of Calvin and most of the Reformed tradition since, as well as many other prominent leaders in Christian history. Likewise, it was the view of civil government carried into the founding of America, as already mentioned. In particular, it was a standing police power—blanket search warrants—that was initially opposed by John Otis, Jr. in 1761 that John Adams himself said was the beginning of American Independence. Fierce opposition to powers such as this became the motivation behind our Fourth and Fifth Amendments, among other things.
We affirm the need for law enforcement. Law without sanction is no law at all, and thus law without law enforcement is dead. But while we oppose the abolition of law enforcement, we do affirm the need for substantial reform of it—reform according to biblical law, and the abolition of pagan forms of police and the injustices that occur because of it. There is, of course, much more to be said on the subject, and there is plenty of room for disagreement over not only specific laws and procedures, but also specific cases. But there is no room for ignoring or denying biblical law or its application to all citizens and offices equally.
We need to quit assuming and start challenging many other aspects of this discussion. It is not “anti-police” to ask what the Bible says about police; nor is it “anti-police” or anarchism to acknowledge that biblical law would demand reforms. Some people, it seems, think any reform of law enforcement is an attack on law enforcement, which is, of course, nonsense. Instead, it may actually be anti-biblical merely to assume that modern forms and practices of police are automatically to be assumed as acceptable and submitted to without question.