Ah, Romans 13. One of the most-misused and misunderstood sections of the Bible. Also, historically speaking, probably one of the most damaging.
For two thousand years, every power-tripping tyrant has justified his authority by invoking the Apostle here, quieting the protesting masses by simply pointing out that he was appointed by God, because Paul said so, very explicitly.
Very often, the Church has backed up such claims and reasoning’s.
In modern usage, it is more often used as a clobber verse against those who don’t like whatever government is in power, telling them that they better get in line, because God said so.
In their combined work “The First Paul,” (which I just started reading and now wish I would have started before this study) John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg call Romans 13 “one of the most imprudent passages in all of Paul’s letters. Looking back on how it has been used throughout Christian history, Paul might surely wish he had never written it.”
Can I sign on to that sentiment?
But there has to be some utility here, right? There has to be something constructive we can use in today’s world of democracy and dissent, something that isn’t along the lines of “you’ll take it and you’ll like it. Or else.”
Let’s put things in context here, both Biblical and historicals.
First, imagine the Bible didn’t have the chapter and verse divisions. This makes us look at it like it was written, as one part of an unbroken letter. Romans 13 falls in amongst a whole string of instructions for the church at Rome. Remember how chapter 12 ended?
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
So, in light of that, verse 13:1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” – seems to make sense as the next in a line of instructions.
And then, it seems, Paul feels the need to expound upon this thought. That makes sense; this verse by itself would seem confusing to the early church, who was dealing daily with a governing authority who wanted to put them to death. Why in the world should they submit?
So, Paul explains, if you live right and keep quiet and stay out of sight, you shouldn’t have much problem. And then he tells them, pay your taxes. Don’t refuse to do something as simple as that.
I think this gets at the heart of Paul’s intentions. The church at Rome, the individuals who made it up, probably felt like sending a portion of their hard-earned and meager earnings back to Caesar was not only a terrible hardship on them and the church they supported, but probably unnecessary, as they believed Jesus was coming back soon. They may have even felt like violent resistance would be a smart tactic!
And so, Paul invokes the imminent return of Jesus in verses 11-14 to make the exact opposite point the Romans were making. Instead of refusing to pay taxes because of Jesus’ coming return, they should instead pay their taxes, because at his return, that money would be of no use anyway!
So, in this total light, this all makes sense. Nothing overly objectionable here; Paul, in a bit of a rhetorical panic, may have overstated this case he was trying to make here, but he was concerned with keeping the church and Christians in Rome safe. So we can forgive him.
Another reason to forgive: Paul probably didn’t have any inkling that his words would be passed down for 2,000 or more years and read in a way that misconstrues them as the Directly-Dictated Word of God Never To Be Disputed Or Questioned. Remember, this was a letter written to the church at Rome. He had the reasonable expectation that it would be shared among Christians in Rome, and possibly beyond into Italy, during his lifetime. He may have even expected it to be circulated in some circles after his death by his churches to stake his claim.
But 2000 years of infallibility? I’m sure he never expected such a thing.
Paul had, as I’ve described before, an overwhelming Eschatology of Immanence. I mean, he thought Jesus was coming back to judge within his and his follower’s lives. All instructions he gave must be read in this light.
Paul didn’t want his churches trying to overthrow the Roman government. In fact, he didn’t even want them drawing undue attention to themselves. Go with the flow, he said, because Jesus is coming soon, and really, none of this matters at that point.
Now, Paul was wrong about the imminent return. And Christians for 2000 years have been wrong to forget this context. It is crucial to reading and understanding Paul.
Paul wasn’t justifying corrupt, tyrannical, unjust worldly governments. Paul was concerned with mercy and love and justice and a universal church of equality. None of that would lead him to prop up any worldly government, much less an unjust one. Paul I think would have been quite on board with attempts to defy and overthrow them, if he had lived for two millennium and shed his eschatology.
But he didn’t.
And we need to remember that.
And we owe it to him to do so.
Next: Romans 16
For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.