Sunday, March 02, 2008
Brian Walsh: To Hell With Romans 13
I was greatly impressed by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat's book Colossians Remixed and especially how it illuminated the counter-imperial message found in that letter of Paul's. It opened the door even wider for me in a lot of ways to see how so much of scripture contains this theme that God is our true Lord and Master, not the human created systems that so often stand in opposition to the ways of God. It helped me see that as followers of Christ we are to live lives of counter-cultural subversion and redemption of the imperial systems in which we are embedded.

However, whenever you start talking this way it is almost guaranteed that someone will bring up Romans 13, you know the part that says everyone should submit themselves to the governing authorities. This one passage is often used to justify a kind of passive submission to the status quo, no matter how unjust or oppressive it might be, and no matter how many other passages seemingly to the contrary one can find elsewhere in scripture. Well, Brian Walsh is fed up with this approach, with what he considers to be a misinterpretation of Romans 13, and he's not going to take it anymore. He has an excellent post detailing his frustration here.

Here is some of what he writes:

To hell with Romans 13 read out of context of Romans 12, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the life of Jesus, and the whole prophetic testimony of the Hebrew prophets... let’s assume that Paul is not an idiot and that he doesn’t go about blatantly contradicting himself.

Here he has been writing a letter to a community at the very heart of the empire and from the get-go it has been clear that this is a counter-imperial gospel that he proclaims. It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that these Christians are called to submit to.

It is the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Caesar that is to shape their lives together as a unified community of Gentiles and Jews. And it is in Jesus Christ our Lord that we are more than conquerors when that false Lord Caesar imposes on us hardship, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril and the sword.

“For we are convinced,” the apostle writes, that “neither death…nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Let the rulers and powers throw at us what they will, we have the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No, says Paul, we are not to be conformed to the imperial realities of the present age, because we live in anticipation of the age to come. Our passage today starts at Romans 12.2 – do not be conformed to this age – and really ends at 13.12 – “the night is far gone, the day is near.

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the question that Paul addresses in these verses at the beginning of Romans 13 is, “how do we live wisely as children of light in the midst of an age of darkness?

If we are not conformed to this age, to the rulers and authorities that are the cause of our persecution, then how do we relate to these authorities in the present, before the full dawning of the day of our Lord’s coming?”

He goes on to suggest an interpretation of the passage the casts it in light of this context, and sees it as a subversive, veiled way of reminding the Roman Christians who their true "governing authority" is. Subversive and veiled precisely because this is a letter to a persecuted community in the midst of hostile territory. In this, Walsh suggests, Paul is being "wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove".

This article caught my attention because just today in church we were discussing the passage in Acts 4 where Peter and John are dragged before the Jewish authorities and basically thumb their noses at them. "Which is right in God's eyes: to obey you, or him?" they ask, in defiance of an explicit command by their "governing authorities" to not preach about Jesus. Not very submissive of them. And yet it's a good question. If Paul says "submit to the governing authorities", he can't possibly mean that we should do this blindly or in all circumstances, otherwise Peter and John would have been obliged to obey men rather than God.

So what is more likely? That Paul was giving a command in Romans 13 that had not been followed by the other apostles and that could not be followed by Christians without violating their ultimate obedience to God whenever God's commands and the demands of the empire happened to conflict (which was and still is quite often)? Or that Paul meant something else in Romans 13 and that we may need to read his words in context and with an eye to more subtle meanings in order to really understand what he was getting at? You decide.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:46 PM | Permalink |


At 3/03/2008 11:51:00 PM, Blogger Kristina

Mike, I know this is a little off-topic but I was wondering from a pastor's perspective why the Nicene Creed is held to such a high degree with all of the other Christianities that were birthed during this time period. How did Paul's works come to be seen as more valuable than others?


At 3/04/2008 05:27:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Kristina, I'm probably not the best person to answer that question since I'm not extremely well versed in the history of other early Christianities. However, from the little I have read my feeling is that the prominence or legitimacy of alternative early Christianities is sometimes over exaggerated. I've often heard it presented as if groups like the gnostics or their collections of books were merely alternate but equally legitimate interpretations of the Jesus tradition - as if the difference between them and what became orthodox Christianity was no more significant than the difference between say, Methodists and Baptists.

In reality however, many of these sects were not just alternate Christianities, but really radically different religious belief systems that merely borrowed certain Christian texts and terminology. For instance, when I read the Nag Hammadi texts I am struck by their utter dissimilarity from anything you find in the Hebrew scriptures or the canonical New Testament writings. The closest analogy I can find is the difference between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity these days (though even that's not perfect since even the Mormons are probably closer to mainstream Christianity than the gnostics were). Maybe an even better analogy would be some of the New Agey cults out there that try to paint Jesus as some type of Higher Consciousness guru or swami, but with almost zero connection to the Jesus of history.

The other point to remember is that many of these early sects are much later developments. While all of the canonical gospels and the letters of Paul, John, and Peter can easily be shown to have been written in the first century, and usually within a generation of Jesus' ministry; the gnostic gospels and other non-canonical texts cannot be shown to be any earlier than the late second century (i.e. over 150 after Jesus) and most from he third or fourth century. It is for this reason primarily - i.e. the historical proximity to Jesus and the first apostles - that the canonical writings were preferred by the early church and were listed by such by many early Christian writers.

Of course, groups like the gnostics, whose theology was so far different from orthodox Christianity as to be a different religion entirely, are somewhat different than early Christian groups like the Arians, Nestorians, or Copts who were not outside of the mainstream of the Christian church, but who had differing ways of understanding the divinity and humanity of Christ. While I wouldn't say that these differences are unimportant, I would say that the disagreements between these groups were more akin to the denominational differences we have today, than they were to the radical differences between gnostics and Christians.

So why did the Nicene view triumph? I'm not entirely sure. There is the traditional answer, which is that it is the correct view, so the Holy Spirit directed the church to accept it.

Then there is the cynical, DaVinci code type answer, which is that political pressures by Constantine and powerful bishops conspired to supress alternative views (though this answer conveniently ignores the facts that 1) Constantine himself preferred Arianism, and 2) that there really weren't any such thing as politically powerful bishops at the time of Nicea, as Christianity had only recently gone from being a persecuted minority religion to being at least permitted (though not yet officially endorsed) by the Edict of Milan.)

Personally I take a different view than either of these, which is simply that this is how the church decided things back then, through these sorts of ecumenical councils, and this is what they decided. There was a lot of argument and disagreement but in the end they reached a statement that most, if not all, could agree to. Since almost all currently existing churches today are descended from those who accepted the creed formulated at Nicea, that statement is still held in high regard today. Though I suppose if someone wanted to make an argument that the Arians or Nestorians or whomever actually had a better way of looking at the dual nature of Christ than Nicene Creed does, and suggest that we ought to adopt that instead, they could certainly attempt to do so.

But for more details you'd probably be better off picking up a reputable history book about the early church and the formation of the canon and the creeds. (Stay away from the sensationalistic, DaVinci code-ish, ones... you'll want real scholarship, not speculation and conspiracy theories.) I'd recommend one but I don't know of one right off hand that deals specifically with your question.


At 3/04/2008 07:37:00 PM, Anonymous Random Lurker

Very off-topic, but there are still Nestorian churches to this day -- the Assyrian Church of the East is still alive and well, if not particularly well-known or popular.

And I am not particularly familiar with Brian Walsh, but anybody who actually advocates looking at Scripture in context these days is a friend in my book. ;)


At 3/05/2008 01:29:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I didn't know that the Nestorians were still around Lurker. I knew the Copts are still around down in Egypt and Ethiopia. And the Jehovah's Witnesses Christology is essentially Arian, though there isn't a direct historical connection.


At 3/07/2008 12:05:00 PM, Anonymous Andrea

Why not say to hell with Paul altogether? He didn't even know Christ, and he was just a guy who had opinions, much like you.

Sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong.


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