Obedience to the authorities and Romans 13

Romans 13 was for a long while held to support the divine right of kings.  But does it? It is certainly a command to be a good citizen and one cannot easily object to that.  But the idea that one should just accept anything that any government does is surely troubling.  Even more troubling is the idea that all governments, however bad, were put there by God. So let's see where Paul may have been coming from in writing that.

I have previously suggested here and here that some of the commands to Christians given in the NT were not meant as instructions for all times but rather for the very transitional period when the first flowering of Christianity was in danger of being crushed under the feet of the established authorities, mostly Roman but also more local.  The imperative was for the faith to survive but once that was firmly in place "normal" rules could apply. That helps us to understand the most disobeyed instruction in the Bible:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Matthew 5:38

That advice runs against all nature.  No-one naturally behaves that way.  It is anti-instinctual. So it must have been designed for a very special occasion.  And it was.

It seems to me that these were instructions Jesus gave in full knowledge of the hostility that already existed towards him and the great danger his followers would be in after his death.  He wanted his teachings to survive his death and the disciples were to be the vehicle for that survival.  So he gave them instructions which would minimize hostility towards them.

How do we know that these instructions were for a transitional period only?  Easy.  Many of his other instructions were quite martial. "He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.".  Again: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword".  And Christ himself drove the moneychangers out of the temple. And when Simon Peter cut off the servant's ear with his sword, Jesus did not say that the use of the sword was wrong.  He simply said that the time was wrong for that -- John 18:10.

And Romans 13 is clearly an elaboration of the instructions in Matthew 5. Paul was a good apostle. It reads:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Paul was writing in the very beginning of the Christian expansion and there was already hostility to their "strange" beliefs in the Greek cities where they were mostly to be found.  So he wanted to instill attitudes of non-resistance to make them safe.  That both he and Christ saw non-resistance as powerful was in fact amazing wisdom for the time.  It was brilliant advice on how to survive hostility and danger. Psychologists these days teach "de-escalation techniques" for dealing with conflict but Christ and Paul taught such techniques 2,000 years ago.

But are we certain yet that the desire for a peaceful life lay behind those instructions?  I think there is one more piece of evidence that clinches it. It is in I Timothy 2:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty

So it is clear that deflection of aggression from the authorities is the single theme of Matthew 5, Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. And in those times deflecting hostility was vital if the faith was to survive.  Being known as good people would help them survive.

But what if the survival of the faith is no longer threatened, as is the case in the modern world, with its billions of Christians?  I think in that case the instructions continue as useful tools but they are not something mandatory.  They were instructions for a particular time and circumstance.  So we may no longer use swords but armed self-defense is allowed. But Christian forgiveness still is a wise response to many conflict situations in 1 to 1 relationships.

So was Paul pulling a fast one in telling us that all governments were ordained by God?  Was he telling a white lie in order to get the early Christians to behave?

He was not.  He was simply re-iterating the doctrine of predestination, as found in Ephesians chapter 1.  John Calvin was much taken by that doctrine and did much to elaborate it and it survives as an official doctrine of Presbyterian churches to this day.  It is even preached in the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England, albeit in a rather strangled way. That does however raise new issues so I will leave a discussion of it for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Father, Forgive Them, They Know Not What They DoApril 17, 2019 at 3:33 AM

    Turn the other cheek, I used to loather that phrase for a reason; I mistakenly thought it was designed to encourage victimhood and enlist victims. But if there is a common theme with victims it is that they are unable to forgive, but instead hold on to hurt, resentment and sin. If they were to forgive, good will would be able to flow freely.

    If we want others to suffer, then it is clear that we do not forgive. It is what forgiveness removes from others and then from ourselves, suffering.

    As a punishment for his trickery, King Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder endlessly up a steep hill. Without forgiveness the steep hill is indeed endless.


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