Throughout history, nations and states have legalized the killing of individuals as punishment. This has caused much division in society, and within the Orthodox Church. Because of the ambiguity surrounding the issue, the Orthodox Church holds no “official” (dogmatic) position on this issue. In this post, we explore different Orthodox Church’s positions both for and against capital punishment.
What is capital punishment?
Google defines capital punishment as, “the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime.” Nations have practiced capital punishment since ancient times (the Code of Hammurabi being a prime example). Christians living in the modern world often find themselves torn between whether capital punishment is right or wrong. The prime reason for this is the chasm between the Church and the State. In the end, the majority end up with a sort of pseudo-position on the issue, wherein many Christians (Orthodox or otherwise) find capital punishment (i.e. the death penalty) acceptable sometimes, but not always. Indeed, many Orthodox avoid taking a position at all.
Let’s unpack all this, and first look at the position in favor of capital punishment.
The Orthodox argument in favor of capital punishment
Those within the Church who support capital punishment do so on the following grounds:
- The Old Testament clearly dictates the use of capital punishment.
It is indeed true that capital punishment had its place within Israelite society. In Leviticus 20, God commands His people to put others to death for a variety of reasons. These include sacrificing children, cursing father or mother, committing adultery, engaging in homosexual acts, being a medium, or blaspheming the name of the Lord God.
- Saint Paul approves of the State’s use of capital punishment.
In Romans 13:1-4, Paul speaks on the authority of civil rulers. He says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves…For he is the minister of God to thee for good. 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.“
- The Gospels do not condemn or abolish the practice.
In the Gospels of Matthew (15:1-9) and Mark (7:1-13), Christ mentions the OT laws regarding capital punishment. In these passages, he does not condemn or abolish them. Further, in the Gospel of Luke, the crucified thief admits he and the other robber received just recompense for their deeds (Luke 23:40-41).
The Orthodox argument against capital punishment
On the other side of the coin, we have many laypeople and clergy in the Orthodox Church who strongly oppose capital punishment. Here is a quick list of their primary arguments:
- In the New Testament, Christ does oppose capital punishment.
In John 8, the Pharisees and scribes bring an adulterous woman to Jesus. They tell Jesus that the law says to have such a person stoned, and ask Jesus what He has to say about it. Rather than have her put to death, Jesus says: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” When Jesus and the woman are alone, he asks her if anyone has condemned her. She answers him no. Then Christ said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.“
Further, in Matthew 5, Christ explains He has come to fulfill the law, and that we must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees (following the law to the letter) if we expect to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ’s understanding of the law is far higher than ours, and essentially makes us all guilty of the death penalty, for having sinned against God from our youth.
- Just because it is the law, does not make it acceptable.
Unlike Israel, the United States is not a theocracy; instead, we are a representative republic. Human beings serve as our leaders in government, and our laws are created, passed, and enforced by fallen human beings. We cannot justify capital punishment simply because it is the law handed down by our government. In ancient Rome, it was law to execute practicing Christians. In many Islamic countries, it is law to execute homosexuals. One finds it hard to believe Saint Paul would support such practices, just because the governing authorities passed such laws.
- Killing someone takes away their opportunity to truly repent.
When we end the life of another human being, we immediately place that person’s soul at the Judgment Seat of Christ. In our attempt to exact justice, we may have just condemned someone to an eternity of condemnation, with no opportunity to live a life of repentance. Even the worst of sinners can repent and change their ways to live godly lives. We see this with David in 2 Samuel 11, who committed adultery and murder. We also see it with St. Moses the Ethiopian, St. Mary of Egypt, the Thief, and even Saint Paul himself.
We listed above some of the main arguments used by Orthodox on either side of the capital punishment debate. Because capital punishment evokes intense emotion on both sides, the Orthodox Church has yet to articulate her exact position on this issue. Generally speaking, as Christians, we view all human life as sacred, created in the image and likeness of God. As such, we will always pray for those who have sinned, and for those the State condemns to death.
The Church will always counsel mercy, compassion, and repentance for the offender, rather than another act of violence (killing him or her). But at the same time, the Church grudgingly recognizes that this authority belongs to the State, not the Church. Athenagoras puts our dilemma rather eloquently, “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
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