The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 2 (Romans 13) [Peaceable Romans #7]  

Ted Grimsrud—February 22, 2022

The Apostle Paul was a follower of Jesus. And his social views actually complement Jesus’s rather than stand in tension with them, contrary to how many Christians have believed. Part 1 of this two-part series of posts sketches a summary of key elements of Paul’s views, leaving for this second part a more detailed look at the infamous passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that, one could say, has launched many ships and other weapons of war. Romans 13, specifically 13:1-7, often serves as a counter-testimony in the Christian tradition to the idea that Paul may have taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire. As well, Romans 13 is often seen to go against the idea that Paul understood Jesus’s peaceable way as normative for Christian social ethics.

Setting the context for Romans 13:1-7

However, I will show that those verses actually are fully compatible with the peaceable way of Jesus. Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with reading these verses in light of their broader biblical context. From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible shows empires rebelling against God and hindering the healing vocation of God’s people. The entire Bible could appropriately be read as a manual on how people who follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor negotiate the dynamics of hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.

Romans 13:1-7 stands in this general biblical context of antipathy toward the empires. If we take this context seriously, we will turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor? Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a direct servant of God. Paul, of course, was well aware that the Roman Empire had unjustly executed Jesus himself. As evil as the they might be, though, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes—nations that also remain under God’s judgment.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul surely had this biblical sensibility in mind as he addresses Jesus followers in the capital city of the world’s great superpower—the entity that had executed Jesus. Paul begins with a focus on the perennial problem related to empires—idolatry. He discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry).

However, Paul believes these universal problems provide an opportunity for him to witness to the universality of God’s healing response. Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Nonetheless, all may find found salvation in Jesus. The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love. In Romans 4–8 Paul further develops this message of the mercies of God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model (chapter 4), in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies (chapter 5), in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence” (chapter 7), and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves (chapter 8).

Chapters 9–11 involve Paul’s deeper wrestling with his own experience as a Jew who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus. However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) ultimately did not stop the revelation of God’s mercy. God’s electing mercy will have its merciful conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the elect people. Finally, in chapters 14–16, in response to this certainty about God’s mercy, Paul sketches the practical outworking of living in light of this mercy—all for the sake of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth (i.e., “Spain,” 15:28).

So, the two chapters I didn’t mention, Romans 12 and 13, should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book. They make up a single section in the structure of Romans. Chapter 12 begins with a call to nonconformity, motivated by the memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian community and, with regard to enemies, in suffering. The concept of love then recurs in 13:8-10. Therefore, any interpretation of 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context.

Reading “Romans 13” against the tradition

So, let us look more closely at the actual passage, 13:1-7, itself. In general, I think we should pay attention to what these verses do not say—and recognize the importance of the verses that come immediately before (“overcome evil with good,” 12:21) and after (“owe no debt but love,” 13:8) in providing positive content for what Paul thinks about the governing authorities and how Jesus followers should respond to them, remembering that the words Paul originally wrote had no verse or paragraph notations—those were added later. So, actually, 13:1-7 is not an autonomous section but should be read together with the verses immediately before and after.

(1) Paul calls for a measured subordination (not unilateral submission) in relation to government. These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience. The term here reflects Paul’s notion of the ordering of the Powers by God (see the previous post for a short discussion of the Powers in Paul’s thought; here I will note that as one of the “Powers,” human government is meant to serve an ordering function and is an inevitable part of human social life; it’s neither inherently good or inherently bad—but it can turn bad). Subordination is significantly different from unconditional obedience. For example, Christians who (like Jesus) refuse to worship Caesar and even actively resist Caesar’s oppression but still accept Caesar’s unjust punishment may be said to be subordinate even though not submissive or obedient.

(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution. The immediate concrete meaning of this text for the Christians in Rome (Jew and Gentile), in the face of official anti-Semitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of violent revolution or insubordination. We should remember that at the same time that Paul writes these words, Jewish Zealots were actively and violently resisting Roman rule—leading ultimately to Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Paul, in contrast, calls for a nonviolent attitude toward a tyrannical government.

(3) Paul also intends to relativize the affirmation of any particular government. While opposing revolution, these verses also do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13. Both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever governing authorities are in place—even along with the implication (clearer in Revelation) that this particular government is quite idolatrous and blasphemous and the implied affirmation of nonviolent resistance to the injustices of the governing authorities after the fashion of Jesus.

(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers. God is not said to create or institute or ordain any particular governments, but only to order them. What the text says is that God orders them, uses them to provide stability in human life, that by God’s permissive government God lines them up with God’s purpose. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is much more indirect than often understood. All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes. However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives, least of all the Empire that executed Jesus.

(5) In “executing wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4), the governing authorities are part of God’s providential work. However, this work is indirect and does not imply anything morally positive about such a role. As the biblical story throughout makes clear, the working out of wrath does not mean that those who are faithful won’t be hurt by the governing authorities. These dynamics are imprecise and often also serve the purposes of evil. At the same time, in a general sense, it does serve human wellbeing when the governing authorities discipline genuine wrongdoers.

(6) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. The functions described in 13:3-4 do not include any service that the Christian is asked to render. The “things due to the authority” listed in 13:6-7 do not include any kind of participation or service. Whatever it is that the state does, Paul does not endorse Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform those tasks—especially if the tasks violate the call to neighbor love. This point becomes clearer when we ignore the chapter division that was not part of Paul’s original letter and note that 12:19 insists that the taking of “vengeance” is not for Jesus followers —the very work the governing authorities are said to perform in 13:4.

(7) Paul calls for discernment. “Pay to all what is due them” (13:7) echoes Jesus’s call for discernment. His “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” tells us to be sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God. In 13:7, Paul writes, “render to all what is due them” followed in 13:8 by “nothing is due to anyone except love.” Clearly, Paul’s intent here is to emphasize that the only criterion that truly matters in discerning Christian ethics is the criterion of love of neighbor. Only when what Caesar claims is due to him is part of the obligation of love does it become a legitimate task for Jesus followers.

(8) Romans 13 is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. The logic that uses Romans 13:1-7 as a basis for participation in coercive practices relies on a disjunction between Romans 13:1-7 and the Sermon on the Mount. However, there is no disjunction. Both Romans 12–13 as a unit and Matthew 5–7 instruct Christians to be nonviolent in all their relationships, including the social. Both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in vengeance. Both call Christians to respect and be subordinate (in the sense of not resisting with violence) to the dynamics in our fallen world where governing authorities might use the sword to bring about a kind of order amidst disorder. However, both texts make it clear that Jesus followers are not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own calling of bringing healing to the world.

Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the critical subordination of Christians contributes to Christ’s victory over the Powers. Christians do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active pacifism. Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.

Living free from idolatry

Such communities empower a freedom from the Powers idolatry. These are some of the guiding convictions from Romans 12–13 that may shape how we live out such freedom:

  • Nonconformity to the Roman world fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”
  • Humility and shared respect in the ministry of the faith community that recognizes and affirms all the gifts of those in the community.
  • Active love for one another leading to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.
  • Respect for God’s ordering work in human government that, fallen and rebellious as it may be, still serves God’s purposes.
  • A commitment to do good (and follow Jesus’s model that recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross) and to repudiate temptations to seek to overcome evil with evil through violent resistance.
  • Work at discerning what belongs to God and what is allowable to be given to Caesar.
  • An overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor (13:9). Here in Romans 13, as in Jesus’s Good Samaritan story, loving the neighbor includes loving the enemy.

Paul’s peaceable politics in a fallen world

I want to close with a few brief reflections on how this analysis of Paul might be applied to our present.

(1) No to Empire. We are challenged to apply Jesus’s radical ethic to our political life. With the awareness of Jesus message as political, we are sensitized to see the entire Bible from the creation story to the New Jerusalem as a critique of Empire and as a guide to faithful resistance to Empire. We seek to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to Empire and commitment to pacifism. Resistance without pacifism ends up only heightening the spiral of violence and serving the domination of the fallen Powers. Pacifism without resistance validates the stereotypes of the cultured despisers of pacifism—parasitic, withdrawal focused on purity, irresponsible.

One key lesson to learn from Paul, Jesus, John of Patmos, and the other prophets is how to discern, how to recognize the self-serving propaganda of rulers, how to recognize the dynamics of “lording it over” and to insist on the norm of servanthood as our key criterion for political discernment. Such a criterion should foster a sense of profound suspicion not only toward the more obvious imperial moves of the overt militarists but also of the liberal “soft imperialists” and their “humanitarian interventions.”

(2) No to violent resistance. We must not let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance. We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, add to the evil ourselves. We learn from Paul that for those who would walk with Jesus, what should determine our agenda in relation to Empire should not be anger and hostility. Nor should it be a desire to wrest the steering wheel from the right-wingers through force and get the U.S. Empire back on track as a benevolent superpower.

The true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself. So, ultimately whatever resistance to Empire that hopes genuinely to operate in harmony with God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself. Resistance that leads to more domination but with different figureheads on top ultimately is not nearly radical enough.

(3) Yes to communities of resistance. According to Paul, what God brings forth in response to human brokenness and the oppressions of the nations and their empires are communities of people who know God’s peace and share that peace with all the families of the earth. The formation and witness of these communities leads ultimately, in the biblical story, to the healing of the nations. Paul especially emphasizes the significance of these communities being made up of reconciled enemies. In his response to Rome’s hegemony, Paul works tirelessly to create an alternative social reality, the ekklesia (Greek for “assembly” or “church”), that practices the way of Jesus within the Pax Romana. These communities, made up of reconciled Jew and Gentile alike, provide a context for human flourishing.

This kind of politics remains the call for we followers of Jesus today who live within the Pax Americana. Perhaps the most politically responsible work we can engage in is the work of sustaining communities of healing—be they overtly religious or not. Places where enemies are reconciled, where prisoners are set free, where Jesus’s triumph over the Powers is truly embodied.

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One thought on “The politics of Paul and the way of Jesus, part 2 (Romans 13) [Peaceable Romans #7]  

  1. Whilst there is plenty of good points about what Paul didn’t say, the analysis of what he did say misses the essential logic and Paul’s contextual development of Deut. 32, the Song of Moses, which he quotes in Rom. 12:19.

    The context is that the Christians in Rome, as in the rest of the world of the time, were being persecuted by the Jews, not by Rome. Thus, the persecution Paul refers to in Rom. 12 can only be of one kind and source: unbelieving Jews persecuting Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles.

    Paul’s response to those persecuted and suffering Christians was pacifist, yes, but also he gave them the prophetic and biblical and eschatological context for their then-present suffering at the hands of wayward Israel: God will repay them, i.e. God would repay Israel, he would avenge their suffering by destroying Israel, not Rome.

    Deut. 32, the Song of Moses, addresses Israel’s fate and destiny and hope and salvation. In her last days, after many generations, would come a final utterly corrupt generation of Israel, a crooked and perverse generation. At this time, and in this generation, Israel would be repaid and destroyed by God, by means of the sword, such that he would avenge the blood of his servants that had been shed on the land. By means of this vengeance:
    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
    for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
    and make atonement for his land and people. (Deut. 32:43, NIV)

    The law of blood atonement, whereby the human blood shed on the land and polluting it could only be atoned for by shedding the blood of the blood shedders (Gen. 9:5-6; Num. 35) was to be fulfilled not in the judicial death penalty meted out to individual murderers, but rather upon the beast, the empire, the political power that was held accountable and liable for this blood. As the Flood judgement was a mass judgement event, so would be the holding to account the “beasts” in the second mass judgement of Gen. 9:5-6. This political power was not Rome, it was Israel, as taught in the Song of Moses in Deut. 32. And as taught in Is. 2-4; 24-27 and 65-66. And as taught by Dan 9 and 12 when Israel’s sin is brought to an end by the destruction of the Second Temple and when “the power of the holy people has been completely shattered.” And as taught by the Lord in Mat 23:29-38, when all the blood shed on the land was to be avenged against Israel and Jerusalem of his generation, at the desolation of her ‘house’ the Second Temple.

    Paul is not singing from a different hymn book! He has not switched from Israel to Rome as the persecuting power, and as the target of the judgement for shedding the blood of God’s servants. Rather, he is AFFIRMING what Moses and Isaiah and Daniel and the Lord taught concerning Israel’s judgement which was to be poured out on her, destroying her, as per 1 Thes. 2:14-16. Israel’s filling up the measure of her sins by persecuting the Christians, to be followed by God’s judgement on her to the uttermost is what Paul affirms in 1 Thes. 2:14-16, the same as the Lord taught in Mat. 23:29-38 and as taught by the Old Testament.

    Paul’s introduction of the governing authorities in Rom. 13:1 is exactly what we should expect: Rome was appointed as the rod of God’s anger to destroy Israel. But why would Rome destroy Israel? Israel’s provocation and rebellion is an Old Testament prophecy from, for example, Is. 66:24, where Israel rebels against God, and is destroyed by God and the righteous survivors of the bloodbath “go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Likewise, in Dan. 7, we have the rebel figure arising from the Fourth Beast (Israel, not Rome) overthrowing the earlier rulers before being destroyed along with the Fourth Beast. This rebellion the Lord predicted with the following words:
    ‘”For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Mat. 24:7)
    in the context of the destruction of the Second Temple in the Lord’s generation. How was this destruction and judgement and wrath effected?
    ““But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24)

    Putting the elements together we have:
    1. Rebellion
    2. Jerusalem is surrounded by armies
    3. Jerusalem will be trampled by the gentiles.

    It doesn’t take a lot of speculation or understanding to see that the scenario being predicted is Israel’s rebellion against Rome, followed by Rome’s response and Jerusalem’s fall which destroys the Second Temple. The Old Testament background for this is often overlooked: the resurrection of the unjust in Ez. 38-39 and in Dan. 12:2 are political and military resurrections, and the bad guys, the rebels, are arising from within Israel (Gog and Magog are code for Israel as a wayward empire, as is Babylon in Revelation).

    Paul picks up on this in 2 Thes 2, where we have some who thought that the Day of the Lord (i.e. judgement day) had already come in 51 A.D.. Paul insists that this cannot be, because The Rebellion has not yet taken place (it did happen in 66 A.D.). Paul understood The Rebellion in Jerusalem as a precondition for Judgement Day upon Israel, when Christ would be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, destroying those who did not know the true God and who did not obey the gospel (including its warning to flee Jerusalem). Paul explains that the lawlessness of the rebellion was then suppressed and was working covertly. It would be revealed publicly by means of The Rebellion, when the rebel leader made his move and take over the Jerusalem Temple. Naturally, Paul argued, the Day of the Lord cannot have happened if The Rebellion had not taken place and the Temple was still standing and had not be destroyed along with the rebel government.

    Rom. 13:2-4 has exactly the same elements and 2 Thes. 1-2. They are:
    The wrath of God being poured out on those who were persecuting the Christians (i.e. the Jews), (1 Thes. 2:14-16; 2 Thes. 1:5-10; Rom. 13:2-4)
    The Rebellion (2 Thes. 2:3; Rom. 13:2)
    The judgement upon the evildoers / persecutors by God (2 Thes. 1:6-8; 2:8 Rom. 12:19; 13:4).
    The parousia, that is the return of Jesus Christ in flaming fire to destroy his enemies, as the son of man coming on the clouds destroying the Fourth Beast of Dan. 7 (the day of salvation of Rom. 13:11-12, when Satan, the adversary, that is wayward Israel, would be crushed under the feet of the saints, Rom. 16:20, and when Israel would be a clay object of wrath, “prepared for destruction” Rom. 9:22).

    In Paul’s writing, it is Israel, not Rome, that is the new Egypt, the Pharaoh of Rom. 9:17 raised up in rebellion only to be the revelation of God’s power and the status of his Son destroying her, see Gal. 4:21-31.

    When are you going to stop doing what Jesus and the New Testament writers NEVER did? Attributing the death of Christ to Rome is something they NEVER did. It is ALWAYS Israel and Jerusalem that is attributed the blame, liability and punishment for killing Christ, e.g. Mat. 21:33-45; 23:29-38; 26:64; 27:15-25 and more just in the gospel of Matthew alone! How about 1 Thes. 2:14-16 which I referred to before, and which says “the Jews, who killed … the Lord Jesus”? How about Peter who said:
    “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, YOU [Jews] crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [i.e. Romans who are merely their agents, and were not expected to have any discernment about the matter]” Acts. 2:23. And again, in case it isn’t clear:
    “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom YOU crucified” (Acts. 2:36). And again?
    “And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, … YOU denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and YOU killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (Acts. 3:12-15)

    I have pointed this out to you many times before, but you continue to trot out the same line that Rome killed the Lord. No, Israel did. And Israel was repaid for that, when the tribes of the land mourned and when Israel, the Fourth Beast was destroyed when the Son of Man came on the clouds in fulfillment of Dan. 7, as stated in Rev. 1:7.

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