Romans 13

Bible opened to Romans 13 with Equal Exchange Panama Extra Dark Chocolate and glass of milk

WARNING: Uneven Chocolate Break detected. Please dispose of chocolate as quickly as possible in the nearest approved  Chocolate Disposal Receptacle.

proper chocolate disposal technique using an approved chocolate disposal receptacle

Today’s Passage: Romans 13

Here’s another of Paul’s passages that is a hard pill to swallow, especially for us Americans. The ideas of submission to authority expressed in this passage form an important part of the Medieval world-view, and as proponents of democracy, many of us would rather leave it behind. Shouldn’t the authorities answer to the people, instead of the other way around?

I’m not here to try and convince you of Paul’s ideas. But I don’t think he’s arguing for the infallibility of government or saying, “God instituted our leaders so they must be good!” Nor do I believe he’s setting up submission as a rule with no exceptions. He predicates his argument on rulers being “not a cause of fear good behavior, but for evil” (v.3). We shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that we know right from wrong perfectly, and the government is wrong wherever it disagrees with us, but when the authorities are punishing good behavior and rewarding bad, we shouldn’t be deterred from doing what is right.

Paul, a Jew, is certainly familiar with the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, and he wouldn’t for a second advocate that we worship anything or anyone other than God, even if some king or general or president tells us to. But in the case of civil disobedience, like Martin Luther King, Jr., we should still follow the principle of submission: rather than rising up violently, French-Revolution-style, against those in power, we should be willing to suffer the consequences for breaking an unjust law. I think the idea is that our example of confidence tempered by respect and humility will provoke the consciences of our oppressors, where violence would betray the very principles on which our civil disobedience was founded. It’s also worth noting that Paul appears to be on the same page as Peter in this matter.

Like I said, this ain’t easy, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with it. But if you’re going to disagree with Paul, it’s important to actually disagree with him, and not a strawman caricature of his views in which we’re expected to bow down to every oppressive ordinance and injustice. There’s a time and a place for standing up and saying “no.” There’s room for considered civil disobedience here. And let’s recall that Paul practiced what he preached.

Today’s chocolate, as usual, is Panama extra dark chocolate from Equal Exchange. We had an uneven break on the bar, but fortunately we were able to contain it before any further damage was done.

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2 thoughts on “Romans 13

  1. Usually the balance passage brought in for Romans 13 is Acts 5:29.

    Romans 13 is interesting because it tends to evoke very disparate responses. A lot of folks base theonomy/theocracy on Romans 13–if God is punishing evil and rewarding good, doesn’t this require strictly Christian categories of good and evil (shouldn’t the state punish homosexuals or idolaters, for instance?).

    On the other hand, the passage immediately preceding Romans 13 seems to separate Christians–who do not revenge–from the state, which does. The state may perform this task imperfectly (they are distinguished from Christians so must be pagans after all), but they still do so in service to God whether they want to or not (much like Babylon in Habakkuk). As such, the opposing view reasons, Romans 13 is Paul saying that the church and state are completely separate, but God is sovereign anyway.

    On a scale, I tend to lean more strongly to the latter perspective, but I don’t think it requires Christians have absolutely nothing to do with the state.

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    1. But Paul didn’t have the benefit of Acts 5:29, did he? It had not yet been canonized, and thus it was not part of his Bible! Just another reason to conclude that Paul is unbalanced! ;)

      Facetiousness aside, I see a fair bit of room for Christian political involvement even in the boundaries set by Romans 12-13. The tail end of Romans 12 seems to prohibit taking personal revenge, i.e. looking to harm someone when they have harmed you, rather than doing good to them. I don’t think that Romans 13 necessarily precludes a Christian acting as a judge or law enforcement agent, as an executor of justice for wronged parties and administrator of corrective discipline/punishment to deter law-breaking.

      That said, I think it’s important for Christians to be cautious when holding and exercising political power. The fact that Paul’s audience by and large didn’t hold political offices in the Roman Empire in no way makes his words any less clear about the need for humility. I guess I’d tend a bit more toward the center than you on the spectrum you described, at least in theory–but I’m still wary of imposing religious morality on secular society. And I’ll come right out and say that the Christian Right’s abuses of power have been both disappointing and alarming.

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