According to a recent Adventist Review article, some church officers in the South American Division (SAD) solicited an opinion from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) as to whether Adventists should promote the use of the death penalty. There was a specific situation in South America where the topic was causing controversy in some local churches.
The details of this situation are not divulged in the Review article, and hence crucial factual context is lacking. The article states that most South American countries do not provide for capital punishment in their criminal codes. Were these church members arguing that the law should be changed to provide for the death penalty? We are not told.
Whatever the situation that led to their involvement, the BRI did not take their task seriously. They did not attempt a thorough biblical study of capital punishment.
Instead, they produced a document, all of two and one-third pages in length, that spends much of its limited space arguing that the Christian Church should not itself impose the death penalty:
“Adventists believe that violence and capital punishment have no place within the Church. . . . Therefore, killing heretics, as practiced by some Christian churches in the past, is not only unwarranted but absolutely wrong and unlawful from a biblical perspective.”
How could this even be an issue? Where in Christendom may a church carry out capital punishment on its own authority? As one Review commenter asked, “How long has the church in South America been inflicting capital punishment?”
Were some South American Adventists arguing that the SDA Church should begin unilaterally enforcing the death penalty? And if so, what church leader would imagine he needed an opinion from the BRI to scotch such a preposterous notion?
The BRI paper then moves on from the non-issue of church-imposed capital punishment to a more real issue of state-imposed capital punishment. Here the BRI paper does real damage, because it denies that Scripture endorses the death penalty.
The world’s first murderer, Cain, was not put to death; rather, he was forbidden to farm and condemned to wander the earth, and was given a special mark to indicate to others who he was so that no one would kill him (Gen. 4:10-16). But this non-capital punishment of Cain did not stem the tide of murder that swept over the antediluvian world. To the contrary, the world of that time became so violent and lawless that God was forced to destroy it.
After the Flood, God pursued a different strategy: “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man” (Gen. 9:6). In other words, if you murder someone, someone else is going to take your life in turn, because that’s the only way to prevent human life, which is made in the image of God, from being cheapened and devalued far below its God-given dignity.
As Bob Pickle noted in the Review comment thread, Ellen White acknowledged the obvious meaning of the passage:
“How carefully God protects the rights of men! He has attached a penalty to willful murder. 'Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed' (Genesis 9:6). If one murderer were permitted to go unpunished, he would by his evil influence and cruel violence subvert others. This would result in a condition of things similar to that which existed before the flood. God must punish murderers. He gives life, and He will take life, if that life becomes a terror and a menace. Mercy shown to a willful murderer is cruelty to his fellow men." (2 SAT 186.4; Ms 126, 1901)
In the immediate aftermath of the Flood, the penalty was to be imposed within the family, clan, or tribe: “at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man” (Gen. 9:5). But by the Christian era, this task had been assumed by governments. The Apostle Paul teaches that governments are God’s ministers in enforcing the death penalty: “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Rom. 13:4. Note that the government does not bear the key to the jail cell; it bears the sword, and it does not bear the sword in vain but uses it.
The BRI acknowledges both Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 14:3, but breezily denies that their meaning can be reliably discerned:
“Currently, there is no agreement on the interpretation of these texts in the larger Christian community or in the Adventist Church.”
There’s not? Their meaning is clear, and Ellen White endorses that obvious meaning, noting that the failure to enforce the death penalty for premeditated murder will result in a condition “similar to that which existed before the Flood.” Pray tell, what might suffice to bring about agreement on the interpretation of these passages?
It’s sad that our Biblical Research Institute has no more confidence in a plain “thus saith the Lord” than is evidenced in its statement on the death penalty. But I am afraid this will not be a one-off. In an age in which 90% of the high officers of the church in North America see no biblical obstacle to female ordination and headship, we will soon find that nearly every doctrine of Scripture, be it ever so plain, is enshrouded in doubt and uncertainty.
Disclaimer: I am not arguing that the Adventist Church or individual Adventists should make it a priority to promote the death penalty. I do not think we should. We have a mission to spread the Gospel of Christ and preach the Three Angels’ messages, and political activism is likely to detract from that mission. However, Scripture does teach that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for murder, and the BRI should not denigrate that precept on the way to encouraging the SDA Church in South America to focus on its central mission.