Romans 13:1-7: Paul has been writing about life together in Christian community. He has ended the previous chapter by encouraging those of Christian faith to overcome evil with good. He now shifts attention to a different context – the Christian community in the context of the larger world. Here he encourages this Christian community to be subject to the governing authorities, to appreciate the ordering function of government, and to pay taxes. While many of us might have a degree of comfort with what Paul writes, it does lead us to ask whether and in what ways it may be appropriate to oppose government, even work for its overthrow in situations where it becomes extremely unjust. It may even lead us to ask whether it is appropriate for the church to encourage its people to be politically active. One reading of this passage would seem to caution against such activity. We need to look more deeply at what Paul writes and at the context in which he writes.
Allow me to offer some insights and then look to other sources for even more illumination. Much of what Paul has already written in Romans indicates a concern about the violence of the empire and about some of the practices that are a part of imperial culture. Paul’s use of the term, “Lord,” for Jesus has within itself an anti-imperial tone. The values Paul argues should characterize Christian community – love, a lack of revenge, mutual affection, are counter-cultural values. Why, then, does Paul write so approvingly of government power in this section of his letter? I think that while Paul is critical of many imperial values and believes that Christian faith and Christian community should be counter-cultural, he is both aware of the useful ordering function of government and of the context in which he writes – where Rome is extremely powerful and has a history of putting down rebellions. Rome is often quick to oppress any group that even appears to challenge its authority. If the Christian communal alternative is to truly become a counter-cultural force, it will need time to grow and develop and it would not benefit from a premature confrontation with Roman authorities.
On the first point, that Paul has an appreciation of the ordering function of government, I would cite the text, where Paul argues that government is a “servant of God.” While I think Paul goes out of his way to make this point, and overstates his own case, given both his previous critique of imperial values and the fact that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities, he is on to something. To say that God gives every state as it is its authority is going too far. To say that in the course of history, the God of history uses the state for good ends seems more appropriate. We should grant the institutions of the state the respect and honor they are due. My doctoral dissertation on Christian political ethics argued for a certain conception of political democracy as the most morally legitimate form of the state from a Christian perspective. Underlying that entire argument is an assumption that the state matters and “that the state’s functioning well has some kind of theological importance attached to it” (J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics, 45, which I quote in my dissertation). My dissertation advisor, Joseph Allen, in his major work in Christian ethics wrote, “in any effective program for social justice toward the most needy, government will necessarily play a key role” (Love and Conflict, 177). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life ended in a Nazi concentration camp because he had been part of a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, wrote in his own work about the importance of the state. “Government has the divine task of preserving the world, with its institutions which are given by God, for the purpose of Christ. Government maintains created things in their proper order” (Ethics, 344). I sometimes encounter persons protesting the actions of government using language that seems to delegitimate government. Paul will have none of that. Government has a place, has a role and it needs to be respected. However, that is not all Paul has to say. It is clear in other places that Paul recognizes that government can overreach and claim more than it should (claim it is lord rather than Christ) and that may call for a different kind of response. I turn now to others for additional guidance.
Paul is not writing an essay on church and state or general instructions for all times and places, but a letter to a specific situation. The disturbances in Rome of 49 CE were a matter of recent history. Christians in Rome were already suspected by the government…. In such a situation Paul wants to make it clear that the Christian life does not call for resistance against government authority or withdrawal from public life. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
Paul’s teaching on obedience to rulers must be read in the light of political realities of the 1st century CE. The success of the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century BCE and the rise of the Zealot party in the 1st century CE raised aspirations of Jewish autonomy throughout the Roman world. In the 1st century such sentiments incited Jews to tax revolts, riots in Rome and Alexandria, and protests against Emperor Caligula and Pontius Pilate, prefect in Palestine. Less than a decade before Paul wrote Romans, Jews were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius; less than a decade after Paul wrote Romans, Jewish Zealots would launch a major war in 66 CE against Roman occupation of Palestine. In the light of such political restiveness, Paul urges believers to honor and obey just governing authorities as “God’s servants for your good.” Christian political responses should be informed by discernment of the will of God and expressions of genuine love. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
Romans 13:1-7 is not an abstract theology of civil authority that can be generalized to all Christian situations, but rather concrete and prudent advice for Roman Christians… not to rebel against civil authority for what happened to them under Claudius and for what awaited them when they returned a decade later under Nero…. There are, however, two deeper contexts for understanding Romans 13:1-7. One is the hierarchy of the negative – there is a time and a way to obey, a time and a way to disobey…. On June 17, 1940, according to Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, when the fall of France made everyone around him jump up to give the Nazi salute, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did likewise, saying, “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” Another and even more profound context is the primacy of the positive…. Both Jesus and Paul are not so much trapped in a negation of global imperialism as engaged in establishing a positive alternative here below upon this earth. (John Dominic Crossan, Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul, 394, 409)
Paul is writing for a particular community in a particular context. We take his points seriously, but in that context. Paul is not willing to dismiss all government as pointless, and has an appreciation for the ordering function of government, especially good government. Pauline principles can also be used to critique government, and government policies, and perhaps even to oppose government. One must always read one’s context, however. As Christian in the United States, part of our context is that we live in a society governed by democratically elected leaders. Such a system invites participation, criticism of government policy, proposals of alternatives. In such a system, we should offer criticisms of and alternatives to government policies we don’t believe reflect love and justice. We should also work diligently and imaginatively to build alternative social realities within our church communities.
Romans 13:8-10: Paul cleverly shifts back to his conversation about love. Yes, we may owe taxes to the governing authorities, and in fact, the payment of taxes for programs that benefit the less well-off and contribute to the common good of society may be seen as a form of love, but our basic obligation, our fundamental “debt” is to love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love fulfills the law; it does no wrong to the neighbor.
Romans 13:11-14: Love is our basic reason for doing what we do as people of Christian faith, at least when we are living out that faith. Paul also believes that a great change is coming soon to the world. Whether that great change is really near is not the important point. The important point is that the change God wants for the world is a change in the direction of love. To live in love is to work with the grain of the universe. So we put off the works of darkness, among which Paul includes drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy – an interesting combination and meant to be illustrative and not comprehensive. Instead, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Romans 14:1-12: Paul now addresses more directly potential conflict within the
Roman Jesus community, the Roman Christian church – the relation between those who are strong in faith and those who are weak in faith. In Paul’s view, those Jews and Gentiles who as Christians continued to observe their former religious scruples were not yet strong enough in their faith to see that Christ had liberated them from their previous laws, and unless or until they came to this conviction themselves, their views and practices should be respected (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Christian community should be a welcoming community, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Paul’s image is of a welcoming community that welcomes a diversity of view points. In the Jesus community we should avoid both disdaining others and passing judgment on them. God has welcomed us all, and it is before God that we will have to judge our own actions and consciences.
While we may have our own opinions and need to examine our own consciences we still belong together in the Christian community. We do not live to ourselves, and in both our living and our dying we are accountable to God and Christ.
Romans 14:13-23: Not only should we refrain from judging others but we should actively seek to be helpful to others and not put things in the way of their faith. Paul is here primarily addressing the strong in faith. Even if we feel free to engage in certain actions, we need to take into account the affect this may have on those “weaker in faith.” Paul’s focus here is on food and drink. Much of the food and drink sold in the markets had its origin in pagan temples and thus could be a source of stumbling for the weak in faith. Of course, there may be limits to the principle of modifying one’s behavior for the sake of others, but in our individualistic day and age, it may seem strange that such a principle is even a part of Christian community – but it is. “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” For Paul, these are part of the alternative society that is the Christian community of faith. This is a kingdom that is an alternative to the empire. It seems counter-cultural in our day and time, as well.