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Church and State pt 2: Subject to the Governing Authorities (a Christian Anarchist’s look at Romans 13)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 24, 2007

Today, I’ll beging to tackle Romans 13:1-7, the passage most often cited to support the idea that Christians ought to not only submit to the State, but be good, active, citizens of the State.  I’ll probably post several times out of this passage.  Before I dig in, I want to give you an extended quote from Romans 12:9-13:10, so that you can get a better sense of the overall argument Paul is making in Romans 13:1-7 (which is in bold text):

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Like I’ve said, I’ll be spending more time on this passage in future posts.  Since I’ve already given you a large chunk of Scripture to look over, I don’t want to give you too much to chew on at this point.  Instead, let me offer some initial thoughts:

1) Whatever Paul is saying here, he is decidely NOT saying that Christians should conform to the values of the Empire (religious idolatry, immorality, violence, inequality, etc.) This is obvious from the earlier chapters of Romans.

2) Any authority that the governments have, it comes from God and God alone (13:1).

3) If one follows Paul’s flow of argument, it is clear that the theme undergirding our relationship with the governing authorities is love.  Whatever Paul is arguing in this passage, it is part of our Christian duty to love (as Christ loves).

4) If we are going to take this passage and apply it to our current political system (representative democracy), we must be very careful.  Within the systems of the Roman Empire, the power of government was clear. And this power was excercised by a select few.  Most people in the Empire had little or no power.  It is unlikely, then, that this passage would have been understood as an invitation to participate in power structures.  Modern Americans read this passage as a sort of mandate for political involvement, but one must do some work to get from this passage to a robust Christian involvement in representative democracy.  It probably wouldn’t have even have occurred to Paul that he could exercise political power as part of his Christian mission. 

5) I’m not convinced that this passage argues for the “legitimacy” of governing authorities.  The passage needs to be read in light of the Sermon on the Mount. Paul says in Romans 12:14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” The notion that we ought to love our enemies is clearly on Paul’s mind as well.  Indeed, teh idea of “submitting” needs to be read in the spirit of “turning the other cheek” rather than as saying “accept and endorse.” When Paul launches off into submitting to authorities in chapter 13, it is clear that this is an extension of our command to love our enemies and to bless our persecutors.  While this understanding of the passage certainly doesn’t rule out the idea that the governing authorities are being legitimized by Paul, it does (at the very least) set up a stronger tension than is offered by most popular interpretations.  In other words, it is harder to say “part of being a good Christian is to be an active citizen who supports their government” when one also acknowledges that their government is their enemy and their persecutor.

6) The most difficult parts of this passage for my position is in verses 1a-2:

The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

And so, in my next post, I will unpack Romans 13:1a-2.  The following post will then articulate the flow of the argument as I understand it.  And then, my final post will look at implications for Christians living in the American Empire.

for further reading . . .

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Comments

5 Responses to “Church and State pt 2: Subject to the Governing Authorities (a Christian Anarchist’s look at Romans 13)”

  1. dlw on January 24th, 2007 5:22 pm

    1. is a given.

    2. I like the Holman Christian Standard Bible version better. It describes the authorities as instituted by God, not unlike how God instituted the passover meal and later in Peter, the authorities are referred to as human institutions.

    3. MVS:If one follows Paul’s flow of argument, it is clear that the theme undergirding our relationship with the governing authorities is love. Whatever Paul is arguing in this passage, it is part of our Christian duty to love (as Christ loves).

    dlw: I believe the issue here is that the mandate of the church and the state differ from each other and that we are to reject the use of rebellion to capture the state as incompatible with following Christ and overcoming evil with good.

    4. When one obeys those in authority, one does participate in changing the manner in which the sword of the state is wielded. It is easier to rule with less violence when a significant number of the people accept the rules. The question is does submission to those in authority rule out some additional participation in the ongoing decision-making? Do they contradict each other? Was Paul setting out the rule of faith for Church-State relations for once and for all here, or does this leave room for sanctified creativity, including acts of nonviolent resistance? To whom and for what do we owe taxes?

    5. I don’t think support is the word I used. I think the point is that the human institutions have a divine-intended purpose to constrain human sinfulness and abet the spread of the gospel. How well it serves this purpose is open to means-ends analysis and Xtn participation in altering the manner in which the sword of the state is wielded… I think it may be helpful to think of Isaiah 53 when we read the word submit.

    6. If it’s instituted by God, it cannot be against God ultimately. It is the failures of Christians that have allowed the state to be wielded to cause so much destruction and oppression in our world.

    dlw

  2. markvans on January 24th, 2007 5:38 pm

    dlw says:

    I believe the issue here is that the mandate of the church and the state differ from each other and that we are to reject the use of rebellion to capture the state as incompatible with following Christ and overcoming evil with good.

    This dual mandate view seems anachronistic to me. I believe you’ve pointed to exilic Israel as an Old Testament precedent for this, but I’m unconvinced.

    I agree that rebellion is out of the question. The fact that Paul is making sure that such an option is taken off the table at least shows that any sort of involvement within the State is an uneasy one at best.

    When one obeys those in authority, one does participate in changing the manner in which the sword of the state is wielded.

    Yes, technically. But I don’t want to take that very far. Jesus, after all, participated in both the Jewish and Roman legal systems when he was crucified…and I think that is an example for how we, the church, ought to participate in the political realm as well.

    If it’s instituted by God, it cannot be against God ultimately.

    That is a big statement that is too huge to grapple with here. That gets into theodicy. God did use nations to judge Israel and then judge those nations for it later. I’m not going to tip my hand too much now…but the manner in which the state is instituted by God and towards what end makes all the difference.

  3. dlw on January 24th, 2007 8:13 pm

    Anachronistic(Yoder would have disagreed)? The church’s mandate still is for us to overcome evil with good. The functional def’n of the state is the body that has a monopoly on the legit use violence. It is to provide “order”. How can that be anachronistic? Has the fear of death or injury changed significantly?

    Just like exilic Judaism, we live in under a system that is not under our control. It has its merits but still is more-or-less a “pagan” order that, in our case, has been affected some by the reforming power of Xty.

    MVS:The fact that Paul is making sure that such an option[rebellion] is taken off the table at least shows that any sort of involvement within the State is an uneasy one at best.

    dlw: I agree wrt Xtn involvement in the administration of the state or its reform, we must never lose track of its limited mandate and how our participation affects our mandate.

    MVS:Yes, technically.

    dlw:Matter of factly…the consequence of Xtn submission to the state is an alteration of how the sword of the state is wielded and so the question comes down to whether Xtns may also alter how the sword of the state is wielded in other peaceful ways that acknowledge the need for the state to provide order and rules for our lives.

    MVS:But I don’t want to take that very far. Jesus, after all, participated in both the Jewish and Roman legal systems when he was crucified…and I think that is an example for how we, the church, ought to participate in the political realm as well.

    dlw: Yeah, but it’s not exactly the sort of thing one would want to do more than once… I think we need to follow Jesus in disciplines, not try to be as Christ-like as possible. One can be self-sacrificial in showing love for others in many ways that’ll advance the kingship of God. This includes how we discipline ourselves in how we act politically. Martyrdom is itself something that shd not be sought out, only accepted if it becomes apparent that it is God’s will for our lives and would be God-glorifying.

    MVS:the manner in which the state is instituted by God and towards what end makes all the difference.

    dlw: it comes down to whether Romans 13 is seen as giving an ideal-type for the proper role or mandate of a state or a description of what it does in practice. I believe it is the former. When we confess Christ is Lord, we imply Caesar is not Lord or that the state is desacralized. This then opens it up to reforms to make it better fulfill its mandate, in ways that will complement the mandate of the church. We see precedents for this subsidiary role of the state in Missions, in the life of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.

    dlw

  4. Luke on January 25th, 2007 7:47 am

    Very interesting! I do love these series that take us inside your brain.

  5. jazztheologian on January 26th, 2007 3:21 pm

    It’s nice to have found someone who’s bookshelves look like mine.

    I look forward to interacting with your thoughts as time rolls on.

    jt

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