Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Misuse of Romans 13

1. I've heard some misuses of Romans 13:1-7 in the past, and I've recently been hearing some that probably haven't seriously been used for a long time. The main two misuses I've heard recently are:
  • The use of Romans 13 to argue that almost the sole function of government is to punish criminals and restrain evildoers. (often used to argue that government shouldn't be involved with helping those in material need)
  • The rise again of a kind of "divine right" thinking. You can't disobey the king because God has installed him and given him absolute authority no matter what he does. This was really popular (among kings at least) in the 1600s. (recently revived to argue that Christians need to shut up and go along with whatever the new president might want to do)
2. So here's a translation of Romans 13:1-7:
Let every person submit themselves to higher authorities, for there isn't authority except by God and the ones that exist have been ordered by God. Thus those who oppose authority resist the command of God and those who resist will receive judgment on themselves.

For rulers are not a fear to the good deed, but to the bad deed. Do you want not to fear authority? [Then] do the good, and you will have praise from it, for it is a servant of God for you, for the good. Fear if you do the bad, for not without cause does it bear the sword, for it is a punishing servant of God leading to wrath on the one doing the evil.

Therefore, it is necessary to submit yourselves not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

For this reason also pay taxes, for they are servants of God, attending to this very [task]. Pay your debts to them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom is due, fear to whom fear is due, honor to whom honor is due.
 3. With regard to the first misuse at the top, we can quickly dismiss the "government can only be involved in punishing criminals" view out of hand. [1] Romans 13 is not an exhaustive statement on the good those in authority can do. The Old Testament celebrates kings who take care of the needy among the people (e.g., Ps. 72) and condemns the nations who let the plight of the poor and weak go unaddressed (Ps. 82).

Romans 13 tells us one of the good functions of the highest authorities, maybe even the primary one at the time God inspired Paul to write Romans. It does not tell us all of the good that those in authority can do. And it does not prohibit governments from doing other things that are good. Silence does not imply a prohibition, or, as Wilbur Williams always says, "Absence of presence is not presence of absence."

So we will have to slog out the actual merits and detriments of specific kinds of governmental involvement in those sort of things. We can't dismiss the possibility with a proof-text. [2] We'll have to make actual arguments using our knowledge of history, political science, sociology, etc, steering those arguments on the basis of our values and theology.

4. I'm a little taken aback to hear the old "divine right" argument resurrected--submit entirely to the king because God has chosen him. I thought it only existed among some really radical hyper-Calvinist sects and only with immense inconsistency there. [3]

What I mean by inconsistency is this. I sure didn't hear a single soul saying such things when Obama was president. And I would have soundly disagreed with this thinking then too. Are we then to say that the Founding Fathers were wrong to rebel against King George?

5. As a side-note, I have actually wrestled with the question of whether the Revolutionary War was wrong on the basis of passages (note the plurality) like Romans 13. As a result, I have played out the following scenario, which I think would be biblically allowable:
  • 1) You speak truth to power--"This is inappropriate. This is wrong!" 
  • 2) The king rejects your protests, commands you to submit or face the consequences.
  • 3) You do not comply because the king is asking you to do something wrong.
  • 4) The king moves against you with force.
  • 5) You defend yourself.
Now I doubt this scenario gets all the Founding Fathers off the hook, but it might do for some. But that's a different question.

6. Now to the punch. Here are three key reasons why the divine right interpretation doesn't work:
  • 1. It takes a statement that was never meant as absolute and makes it into a philosophical proposition.
  • 2. It does not take into account the context for which God inspired Paul to write Romans.
  • 3. It is "single verse" theology, while we have to take the whole Bible into account when we are trying to appropriate a specific passage for today.
7. Most biblical instruction was written on the level of "most cases," not on the level of "there are never any exceptions to this statement in any time or place." For example, in Acts 4:19, Peter pretty much flat out tells the Sanhedrin that he's going to obey God and disobey them. Obviously, there is a time not to submit to those in authority over you. The instruction was never given on an absolute level.

8. It was common in earlier centuries to view Romans as a "compendium of Christian theology." [4] However, we now understand that Romans was not first written to give us a theology textbook. It was written 1) for Paul to introduce himself to the Romans, 2) for him to give his side of the story in terms of the bad-mouthing of his opponents, 3) for him possibly to gather support for a mission into Spain, and 4) possibly for him to address some issues he knew were in play within the Roman church itself.

So why did God inspire Paul to write Romans 13:1-7 to the Romans? We cannot fully answer this question, because we do not know all the details. This is one of the reasons why you should be careful about jumping from a single passage to today. Not only is there the possibility we have misinterpreted it, but there is also the fact that we always lack full knowledge of the context.

I personally am sympathetic to the idea that there is at least a "look good in front of the Romans" element to this passage. The Christian message was a deeply politically subversive one. After all, Paul believed that the real king, Jesus, was soon going to return and fry kings like Nero. It was good for a statement like this one to be read publicly in the churches at Rome. They didn't want another incident like the conflict of 49, when Claudius kicked the Jewish Christians from the city.

I am not in any way suggesting that this passage is not true--for me it is the starting point for how we relate to those in authority over us. We are to respect those in positions of authority and we should have a bias toward choosing to submit to them even when they are unjust or incompetent. Nevertheless, context colors the passage and how we might best appropriate it.

Paul was certainly under no misgivings about how unjust the Roman government actually was. After all, how many times had they beaten him with rods? At least three times before the time he wrote 2 Corinthians 11:25. He knew their frequent injustice when he wrote here that you don't need to fear authority when you do good. You should mainly fear them when you do wrong.

Obviously that had not always been his own experience! He had been punished unjustly by authority many times.

9. Finally, we should not appropriate any passage without taking into account the whole counsel of God. There are many models for how to engage political authorities in the Bible. Here are some:
  • Peter says to submit to authority, even when it is unrighteous (1 Peter 2-3), written during a time when God wanted accommodation and submission.
  • Peter tells authority he is not going to submit to them, because God's command conflicts with theirs (Acts 4:19).
  • Stephen speaks truth to power, implying that they are murderers (Acts 7:52). He is stoned to death.
  • Paul regrets (does he seriously not know which person is the high priest???) calling the high priest a "whitewashed wall" (Acts 23:3) because it is disrespectful to authority.
  • Moses speaks truth to power (Pharaoh) in Egypt.
  • Samuel secretly anoints David as king even though Saul is still king, a deeply seditious act.
  • David does not kill Saul when he has the chance, because Saul is God's anointed.
  • Ehud assasinates King Eglon (Judg. 3). Samson kills a mess of Philistines.
  • Elisha puts in motion a coup in which Jehu will take over the kingdom from King Ahab (2 Kings 9).
Wisdom is knowing which model is God's will for the times.

Of course there is also the question of Old Testament-New Testament. Would God really have any Christian engage in a coup today, like Jehu did? He certainly didn't go about it the right way, based on Hosea 1:4. What about Bonhoeffer's support of the plot to kill Hitler? [5] Was he wrong?

10. What time is it? That wasn't my purpose in this post. My purpose was to debunk the misuse of Romans 13 to say that governments aren't supposed to be involved in helping people or that we should just shut up and submit to whoever the "king" might happen to be.

Of course that last one wouldn't work in America anyway, because a President is not a king. Some would say that we are a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." And the power of a president is supposed to be balanced between the three branches of government. In that sense, the Constitution is more of a king than a president anyway.

[1] I wrote on this a few years ago here.

[2] A "proof-text" is when you take a single verse or passage, read it out of context, and then think that you have settled some issue without consulting the rest of Scripture.

[3] This is entirely a Calvinist, determinist argument. Wesleyan-Arminians have never believed anything like this because we believe that God grants us a good deal of freedom of will. Wesley did not think the American Methodists should revolt against the king, but his argument was not that one must always submit to the king because God has predestined everything he commands.

[4] Melanchthon in the 1500s.

[5] Some have recently denied that he did. I suspect this is wishful thinking.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for posting this!

reubster said...

"So we will have to slog out the actual merits and detriments of specific kinds of governmental involvement in those sort of things"

So very much agree with this. The bible doesn't provide much in the way solutions, it sends out principles of relationships. We're supposed to wrestle with ethical dilemmas - humbly working through the alternatives WITH God. Situation by situation.

Patrick Bowers said...

I think is shouldn't be a surprise that this has crept in as an argument because it rumbles on the edges in the mythology of America's divine right. I think you also overlooked one important point and that is the connection of Romans 13 with Romans 12.

Ken Schenck said...

Good addition Patrick. Romans 13 is the continued outworking of the "renewed mind" of Romans 12:1-2, most typified by the love command in mid-13. It continues not repaying evil for evil but letting God take care of wrath...