Sunday, July 17, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 13

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.

Romans 13:1-6 ~~ Now this is a problematic section. Just as submission to each other is treated as a necessity of our faith and mutual love in Ephesians 5:21-31, so these verses treat our subjection to the government as mandatory. However, this apparently unequivocal command is couched in language that gives some leeway for later philosophers and statesmen. Yet it remains incredibly problematic, even given my own political predilections.

Romans 13:1 ~~ Two points. First, note that the exhortation is "to be in subjection" to the governing authorities. This will be expanded in v. 7, but I think it's important to point out that this "subjection" is distinct from total and unwavering obedience. Second, note that the initial exhortation is grounded in the next part of the verse: "for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God" (KJV). The rulers and authorities are defined explicitly in the context of God's justice.

Romans 13:2 ~~ "Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God...." Here again, rulers stand as the agents of God's own authority.

Romans 13:3-4 ~~ "For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good." Here again, rulers appear almost in persona Dei, just as priests speak in persona Christi. The governing authorities exist as "a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." But there is the crux of the matter: how should we respond when rulers fail to act in light of Christ? What is they fail to uphold justice? What if they defy it, and become "a cause of fear for good behavior"?

Romans 13:5-6 ~~ "Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake." The wrath refers the judgment we would incur by defying God's chosen agents of justice; the conscience refers to the duty and love we bear to God, and therefore the fidelity we owe to His ministers. Indeed it is for conscience' sake that we pay taxes: it is the duty we owe them, to support their labors.

Romans 13:7 ~~ "Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." As I pointed out above, it should be noted that obedience is conspicuously absent from this list. "Subjection" in Romans 13:1 is distinct from "submission" in Ephesians 5. At the same time, I have to point out what an excellent general exhortation this verse is. "Render to all what is due them." It's also an effective transition into the next series of exhortations.

Romans 13:8-9 ~~ "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves the other fulfills the law." Good verse, with very interesting phrasing. After "render to all what is due them," Paul seems to encourage his fellow Christians to owe little that must be rendered. Indeed, since the only exception is "to love one another" and love is by nature a grace, Paul seems to be encouraging Christians to owe nothing to one another, that nothing must be rendered as a duty.

Romans 13:10 ~~ "Love works no evil to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law." I honestly don't know what to make of this verse. The previous verses serve as antecedents to the same conclusion, but this verse seems to be framed as a syllogism on its own. Technically, this verse is an enthymeme, with an omitted major premise: "if X works no evil to a neighbor, X is the fulfillment of the law." That's what disconcerts me: I don't know where Paul derived this major premise, and I'm not sure how well it fits with the rest of his (or my own) theology.

Romans 13:11-13 ~~ In addition to God's wrath and our own conscience, eschatology is the third reason for acting rightly: for we know that our salvation approaches daily.

Romans 13:14 ~~ "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," and make no provision for sin. That sounds easy, right?

Romans 13 is one of a few extended passages in the New Testament that speaks of the relationship between the Church and the state or "governing authorities" (1 Peter 2:13-14 is another). It is problematic for the same reason it is so easily set aside: Paul treats authority almost as a Platonic Form, a perfect and uncorrupted manifestation of the divine Ideal of justice. I imagine we are all cynical enough to laugh at this image, and wonder where Paul got the idea that such untainted perfection was ever the case. But I hope we are historically minded enough to not laugh too long, and I suspect we won't if we remember that Paul was born and raised a Jew. He was a low-class citizen in a lower-class region, and the Romans were not terribly fond of the early Christians. Paul was beaten many times, imprisoned many times, yet he still manages to speak of the authorities as though they acted for the cause of justice. What do we do with that information, I wonder? How do we cope with the knowledge that Paul spoke (and indeed, spoke infallibly, for this is Scripture) in exhorting his fellow Christians to be in subjection to the governing authorities, even though those very authorities were persecuting the people of God?

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