Delegates from the eight countries that make up the South American Division (SAD) church region voted to accept an opinion statement on capital punishment and its promotion within local churches at the regional year end meetings in Bahia, Brazil, in early November. The statement was drafted by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), the world church’s advising body on theological matters, after a specific request from the regional church.
The document contextually discusses biblical texts and passages that seem to support the application of the death penalty by governments, to conclude that “Adventists believe that violence and capital punishment have no place within the Church. In other words, it is not the task of the Church to take human life.”
The statement of opinion by the BRI shed light not only on the topic of capital punishment but on how biblical doctrinal studies should be tackled, said some of the theologians attending the SAD year end meetings.
“The document is interesting not only for its contents but for the hermeneutical principles it explicitly states,” wrote South American Publishing House editor in chief Marcos Blanco in an email exchange with Adventist Review. “We should never react to isolated texts without their wider theological context…. Against that background, I think the document agrees with the general nature of Scriptures and historical positions of the Adventist Church on similar topics.”
The Crafting of the Document
BRI associate director Ekkehardt Mueller, who coordinated the BRI Ethics Committee (BRIEC) team that drafted the voted statement, sent Adventist Review an email detailing the crafting process of the document. “This is not a full-fledged approach to the issue of capital punishment,” he wrote.
“Adventists believe that violence and capital punishment have no place within the Church. In other words, it is not the task of the Church to take human life.”
Mueller explained that it was written after a request and in response to a specific situation in South America, where the topic was causing unrest among members in some local churches. Most South American countries do not contemplate capital punishment in their legislation, except for specific military charges in times of war.
The opinion nature of the document, however, does not mean that the BRI took its assignment lightly. Months before the BRIEC meeting, members received reading materials on the topic by different authors with different positions, explained Mueller. BRI director Elias Brasil de Souza also prepared a paper that was read before the committee. “We spent about half a day discussing the topic, and substantial time the next day to discuss and modify the statement/opinion that was written overnight,” shared Mueller. “After the meeting, BRI members continued to tweak the document before sending it to the SAD.”
What the Document Says
The document states that even though the Bible does not ignore the suffering of those affected by heinous crimes, the question is raised whether capital punishment is an appropriate response. The application of capital punishment “is often fraught with procedural difficulties,” and “is irreversible,” something that “should make us very cautious.”
As the document states, however, the key task is to get to know the biblical view of capital punishment by studying biblical texts on the topic in various contexts. It is also important to understand it from “a robust biblical anthropology,” as over the years, the Adventist Church has issued official statements “against violence, war, and euthanasia, and in favor of tolerance and noncombatancy,” it reads.
“The Church shares the biblical teaching of the immense value of all life and the sanctity of human life especially, which was created in the image of God,” reads the statement. Accordingly, “[it] seeks to preserve and protect human life.”
After explaining that under the Old Testament theocracy, “the death penalty is mentioned in a variety of cases,” the statement goes on to read that “in the New Testament [the capital punishment] legislation is not applied to the Christian church.” And it adds, “with His first advent, Jesus brought to an end the Jewish theocracy and established His kingdom ethics.”
Citing a specific example of an incestuous relationship mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5, the document states that in the New Testament, “capital punishment is no longer practiced by the people of God.” Within that context, “killing heretics, as practiced by some Christian churches in the past, is not only unwarranted but absolutely wrong and unlawful from a biblical perspective,” the document reads.
Governments and Capital Punishment
The statement goes on to discuss two specific biblical texts—Genesis 9:5, 6 and Romans 13:4—that are commonly used to support the execution of the death penalty by governments. After a contextual analysis, the document voted acknowledges that “currently, there is no agreement on the interpretation of these texts in the larger Christian community or in the Adventist Church.” And it adds, “Consequently, there is also no agreement on the issue of whether, from a biblical perspective, governments are allowed or even required to institute capital punishment.”
Despite that lack of agreement on the specific role of governments on the application of the death penalty, the voted document states that the church should not adopt an active role in promoting it. “In view of the fact that capital punishment has no place in the Christian church, it is not right for the church to be seen as a quasi agent in advocating capital punishment, even though the state might carry it out,” it reads.
In the closing paragraph of the document, BRIEC members recommend church members not to get involved in campaigns promoting the death penalty. “The mission of the Church is not to promote death but to announce life and hope,” it states.
To read the original English version of the document voted, click HERE.
The South American Division News Agency contributed to this article.