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

What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018

What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.

Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.

The message of Jesus

The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.

Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics. Continue reading “What does Romans 13 actually teach?”