It’s always fun when Bible passages make it into the news cycle. This time we have Jeff Sessions to thank. As Winston Churchill once quipped, we should never waste a good crisis. I’d like to take the opportunity, then, to make a few remarks about Romans 13, though to do so, I’ll have to back up to Romans 11.
God and the Covenant
In Romans 11, Paul casts a new vision for the people of Israel. “If the root is holy, then the branches also are holy” (Rom 11:16). Here Paul draws on the image of Israel as a tree, a metaphor occasionally found in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 92:12-14 reads,
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap.
The root is God’s eternal covenantal relationship with Israel (Gen 17). God has not rejected Israel, Paul insists (11:2). Rather, God has selected a remnant of the people of Israel (those who understand Jesus to be their Messiah) in order to form a bridge between Israel and Gentiles. Paul is adamant that in Jesus Christ, God has not obliterated the covenant with Israel, but allowed Gentiles to participate in it.
It’s worth noting that, in order to describe the remnant within Israel, Paul refers back to the example of Elijah (vv.2-4).
Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Elijah, you may recall, was very much at odds with the ruling authority of his day, King Ahab.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals” (1 Kgs 18:17-18).
As this passage suggests, the Old Testament displays considerable ambivalence toward kingship. It is not the ideal form of government, though a righteous king may bless Israel and honor God. Nevertheless, most kings were not righteous, and even David, Israel’s ideal king, had significant moral failings.
But back to Romans…
God, Paul says, has reconstituted Israel. He likens Israel to a domesticated olive tree, and the Gentiles to branches of a wild olive tree. God has grafted these wild branches onto the domesticated tree of Israel, and thus connected them to the life-giving root, a covenant relationship with God. Without rejecting Israel, God has opened up the covenant to Gentiles as well. Thus, as we read in Ephesians, “In his flesh [Christ] has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
There is only one people of God, and the root of that people is the Abrahamic covenant. It was given first to Israel, but God opened the way for Gentiles through Christ.
Being part of this newly constituted people of God means that we don’t live simply according to our own desires. Rather, we live in keeping with the will of God. In Romans 12, Paul sketches out what that new life looks like in concrete detail. Life in the covenant is a moral life, characterized by humility and love, including love for one’s enemies. It is also a life in which God gives us gifts for the building up of the church. Our part is to accept and live into those gifts that God has given us, and to understand that they are given for the church, and not simply for the building up of the self.
Now… to Romans 13….
Being a part of this newly constituted people of God does not mean that we are exempt from civic responsibility. At one level, there is simply the practical matter that if Christians reject the law, life will be much harder for them, and this will hinder the work of God in building up the church.
The Roman historian Suetonius reports that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome over disturbances related to someone called “Chrestus,” which is probably a rendering of the Greek Christos. This expulsion took place in 49 AD, and it is probably the same expulsion referenced in Acts 18:2. The Romans would have made no distinction between Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not, and so the Jewish Christians of Rome had to leave as well. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written around the year 58. By this time the Jews had been allowed to return, but the expulsion would have been in the living memory of the churches in Rome.
In addition to the negative consequences of civic unrest, Christians also had to reckon with the fact that at the center of their belief was a crucified man whom they believed to be God. Crucifixion was a form of state-sponsored terrorism. It was generally reserved for people who disrupted the social order, such as slaves who rebelled against their masters or political insurrectionists. Simply by affiliation with such a figure, Christians brought suspicion upon themselves.
Additionally, Christians did not participate in many civic festivals and activities that were tied to Roman religion. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular in the Greco-Roman world. Everything political was religious. Everything religious was political. The traditional gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were believed to uphold the wellbeing of the empire. Those who did not worship these gods or participate in festivals honoring them were suspected of disloyalty.
Thus, Paul says, be careful how you behave with regard to the governing authorities. It’s already hard enough for us out there. The people of God which God has brought together have been divided once before, only nine years earlier. They have come back together again, Jews and Gentiles at one within the body of Christ. Why now endanger the mission of God, carried out through the people of God, by acting in ways that will provoke the wrath of the civil authorities? For that matter, why engage in activities that could be seen as treasonous, and even result in your own death (13:4)? Don’t make things harder for yourself, says Paul.
Does Paul think that God has put these rulers in charge? Yes, he does, but that doesn’t mean that their rule is always in keeping with God’s will. We know that Paul was deeply influenced by Jewish Wisdom literature, and the Wisdom literature does at times indicate that God has placed rulers in their positions of authority (e.g., Prov 8:15-16; Sir 10:4-5). In the Wisdom of Solomon, however (not part of the Protestant canon but influential upon Paul), kings are warned to act justly:
Listen therefore, O kings, and understand;
learn, O judges of the ends of the earth.
Give ear, you that rule over multitudes,
and boast of many nations.
For your dominion was given you from the Lord,
and your sovereignty from the Most High;
he will search out your works and inquire into your plans.
Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly,
or keep the law,
or walk according to the purpose of God,
he will come upon you terribly and swiftly,
because severe judgment falls on those in high places.
For the lowliest may be pardoned in mercy,
but the mighty will be mightily tested (6:1-6).
The authority of rulers is not unqualified. God is watching, and rulers are expected to behave with wisdom and justice.
Paul, then, believes that rulers rule by divine authority, but he is also cognizant of the fact that rulers may rule unjustly. His primary concern in Romans 13 is not for the authority of the rulers. It is for the mission of God. Paul is encouraging these Roman Christians not to do anything that will endanger the mission God as it is carried out through the divinely constituted body of Christ in the world. His admonitions are to promote the mission of God by allowing it to flourish in the midst of a hostile and dangerous world.
Thus Romans 13 does not encourage blind obedience to governing authorities. In this chapter, Paul offers fatherly advice to a people whose relationship to the civic society was strained at best. It’s as if Paul is saying, Don’t allow yourself to be divided again. Don’t do anything that will endanger the mission. Keep your eye on the ball. Pay your taxes. Show respect to those in charge. God has allowed these people to rule for a time, but their time will not last forever. Christ is going to return (13:11), and when he does, God will finally be king. Then we will know what real justice looks like, and the things that seem so troublesome now will be a distant memory of a broken world.
So here’s what all of this has been leading up to: Romans 13 is about advancing the mission of God in the world. For Paul, that is all that matters. It matters more than his reputation, his possessions, even his life. Romans 13 does not provide a license for the government to engage in unjust practices. It does not give Christians license to support unjust practices or look the other way when they can prevent them. The real message of Romans 13 is that we should do what we need to do to promote the mission of God. Blind allegiance to governing authorities will not serve this end.