The older translations of Romans 13 tell us the government does not bear the sword in vain. In more contemporary language, we would read that phrase as “without purpose.” One noted translator rendered that portion of Romans 13 to read “'not to hide it (sword) in the scabbard, but to draw it.”
The rule of law is in place so we can endure the violent swings of culture and remain intact as a society. As those swings take place, a government will attempt to keep social order. If you have never lived in the middle violent social disorder, it is hard to imagine what that feels like. While missionaries serving overseas, Jan and I lived through situations where social disorder had broken down to such a degree that we worried about our safety, and in a couple of cases, our very lives.
Jan had this happen to her as a little girl. Her parents were missionaries in Central America. Rumors had been circulating through the small town where they lived of a violent uprising coming against them as Protestant missionaries. One night, a large mob assembled in front of their home carrying torches, Molotov Cocktails, and machetes intent on killing her family and destroying their home. Just as the mob was about to carry out their deadly mission, soldiers arrived with bayonets fixed and pushed the crowd back bringing an end to what would have been the scene of multiple grisly murders.
Social order is more than speeches, kind gestures, and political promises. Order must be maintained at times by force. Force can seem rough and out of proportion to those watching the news from the comfort of a living room sofa or from within the insulated halls of debate. When the “sword” of government is wielded, it is not a pleasant thing to behold. But at times, it is necessary. To those whose neighborhoods, businesses, and even their very lives are in danger from a spirit of anarchy, the arrival of those assigned to defend life and property is a welcome sight.