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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