taking the words of Jesus seriously

Until speaking with Columbus megachurch pastor Rich Nathan, I never knew about the “gloomiest city in America” list. I live in Charlottesville, VA, which regularly makes the “happiest city in America” list. But Columbus, Ohio’s largest city, gets less sun, more rain, and more snow than Seattle. Gloomy. 

Nevertheless, Rich Nathan has brought the light of the gospel to this city as a pastor for 34 years, until stepping into a pastoral training role in 2021. His journey to a large and thriving 8,000-member congregation spans four decades, and part of that story culminates with a staunch advocacy to repeal the death penalty.  

In our conversation he mentions the 190 people exonerated from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973. This means 190 people were spared from being wrongfully executed, and those were only the mistakes we caught. “That’s stunning,” he says of the number. “That in itself should stop anyone in their tracks. That’s just not a price that America ought to pay. That’s not acceptable.”

But it was only seven years ago that he deeply began to consider what he thought about the death penalty. The road there was long, one that Nathan urges all evangelicals to consider. 

Vineyard Columbus, where Rich Nathan pastors, is part of the Vineyard movement – a denomination of thousands of churches worldwide that places the kingdom of God at the center of their theology. His congregation “began to explore the various rooms of this huge kingdom house.” Their theology allowed them to apply a kingdom mindset to a number of matters, including immigration and racial equity. 

Vineyard Columbus has been a “pro-life church from the beginning,” Nathan says, one “wrapped up in a commitment to life – life that begins with conception.” This was not a partisan matter for them but simply a result of how “our concerns flow from our theology.” 

Life is a key theme in Christian Scripture. “Everything about God is associated with life!” Nathan insists. He then lists several examples: God speaks and there is life; God breathes life into the dust of the ground to make humans; there is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; Jesus came so people can “have life and have it abundantly (John 10); Jesus calls himself the “bread of life”; Jesus offers the “water of life.” Nathan concludes, “To know Jesus is to know life. Salvation is all about life, and condemnation is all about death.” 

As Nathan saw the truth of this, so too did his congregation. If God is a God of life, “Then it’s natural for us to protect life… Life in the womb, life on the margins.” 

For life on the margins, Nathan was approached by people in Ohio who asked him to consider a deeper theology of the death penalty. He would have said he held to a position of caring for life from “womb to tomb” – Vineyard Columbus spoke about and worked within abortion and euthanasia spaces – but it took a specific call to see that caring for those on death row is a “natural extension of our consistent pro-life stance.” Not only was this extension logical – life is life – but it is theological. “God’s salvation plan is to restore everything,” which means that “part of the restoration is the restoration of justice.” 

The death penalty is not a restoration of justice but rather a gross application of injustice. Nathan spoke on this at length:

“The death penalty is nearly exclusively applied to those who are poor than to those who are wealthy. It is applied to Black people more than white. It is applied in far more cases per capita involving white murder victims than Black murder victims. When we consider the ultimate penalty of capital punishment, we Christians should care about the inordinate weight of injustice that is present.” 

But the death penalty is “not even on the evangelical radar screen,” Nathan observes. Why not?

First, many evangelicals – and that’s 90-100 million Americans, Wheaton College estimates – think of being an evangelical as a political or cultural matter, while, Nathan insists, being an evangelical “is a theological stance.” 

The word “evangelical” is 500 years old and is based on the Greek word evangelion, meaning the “good news” of Jesus coming to defeat Satan, sin, and death. Being an evangelical means loving Scripture, centering the crucifixion of Jesus, wanting others to be “born again,” and being socially active. “Most people don’t start with theology,” Nathan argues, but rather begin with their political affiliation. “Political affiliations are a better prediction of our views regarding the death penalty than our theology.”

Since many political conservatives support the death penalty – though increasingly fewer and fewer – evangelicals often just go along with fellow political conservatives.  

A second reason evangelicals land on a pro-death penalty stance is a “natural read of the Bible.” Nathan talks about how the death penalty seems to have biblical approval, especially in the Old Testament, and that the New Testament does not seem to reject it. A deeper read of Scripture requires more effort and time, and “there are only so many things people can hold in their head.” Nathan says to think of it like holding bowling balls in your arms. You can only hold so many before dropping some. And the death penalty often gets dropped. 

But the death penalty is not a bowling ball. What’s being dropped from the evangelical agenda by their failure to talk about this in the church is not just an issue. This is about fellow human beings who are made in the image of God. 

Since historically evangelicals have cared about the poor and more recently about racial equity, they can extend this to repealing the death penalty. Aside from the myriad reasons for repeal that are data-supported and reasoned (i.e. the death penalty is racially discriminatory, expensive, arbitrary, fails to maintain public safety, inflicted upon innocent people, and unfairly applied to those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness) many Christians take theological issue with the state meting out death. “After all,” Nathan points out, “we evangelicals worship someone who was falsely arrested, tortured, illegally tried, unfairly sentenced, and executed by the state.”  

Nathan is determined to build a theological space for this logical, theological, neighborly approach to death penalty repeal. “As pastor I must pull on as many doors of this big house as I can, and then instruct others to explore these rooms.”

The biggest barrier is not legal – 23 states have repealed it already, with more on the way – but what Nathan calls “tribal identities and badges of belonging.” While “evangelicals claim that we’re shaped by Scripture,” the reality is that “all of us are shaped by things way beyond Scripture.” A rule of thumb for Christian pilgrims and exiles living in a strange land is to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Christians “ought not to fit comfortably in any pre-packaged political box.” Nathan literally wrote the book on this. In fact, “if you feel really comfortable, there’s something wrong” and one’s political ideology is trumping one’s theology. 

He exhorts congregations to “have discussions about these public policy issues beyond Sunday mornings.” Sunday is a rich space for dialogue, yes, but we need to extend our evangelical fervor beyond a pulpit pronouncement and into our homes, the streets, and legislatures if we are to care for life comprehensively.   

For fellow pastors, who too often solely focus on individual holiness, they must remember that they are also “responsible for discussing the other side of the coin – social holiness.” The pastoral goal should be “to create full-orbed disciples with a thoroughly Christian worldview who approach all of life through the lens of Scripture.”

As evangelicals we regularly pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. For that prayer to be realized God has work for us to do. That work is the construction of spaces, rooms of hospitality, where we welcome people and offer life, both spiritual life that is eternal and physical life that is just. 

After all, we serve a Savior who invites us into the “many rooms” of his house (John 14), a God who “tabernacles” with humans (John 1), a God who welcomes every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 7) so that they “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10). 

That is evangelicalism. That is the good news.

About The Author


Sam Heath leads EJUSA’s engagement with evangelical people and spaces. His faith background enables him to tell stories about the realities of justice and injustice in America and hold together a view of the world as a place both exceptional and exploitative. Before coming on board with EJUSA in 2021, Sam taught high school history for 10 years in North Carolina and Virginia. He has a B.A. in education and psychology from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a master’s in theology, ethics, and culture from the University of Virginia.

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