Let's Get Better at Reading the Bible: Romans 13 Edition
Sometimes I wish they woulda never gave us this letter, cuz people do too much.
Every time some wildy shocking, wholly unqualified candidate gets elected to some office in these here United States, we can be sure of exactly one thing:
Somebody is gonna quote the thirteenth chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. They might do it from a pulpit. They might do it on Facebook or Twitter. But, believe me, that thang bout to get quoted. Probably at least some of this passage:
13 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 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.
And just like that, we’ve taken a letter authored by a man who’d come to believe that God was embodied in a man who was executed by agents of the Roman Empire, and presented it as a defense of the divine authority bestowed upon those agents of the Roman Empire. That seems weird to me. But it happens. It gets quoted. Every single time. Like clockwork. Never mind that Peter makes a similar statement in a way that is probably much better suited to the point that people are trying to make here (though he does it immediately before a passage imploring slaves to obey their masters I really wish he hadn’t written). People keep coming back to this passage in Romans. Maybe it’s because, unlike Peter, this one says that God is the one who instituted the authority. You see, if God is the one who puts these people in charge, who are we to question them? Who are we to take the streets in protest over injustice, carried out by representatives of the state? It says it plainly in that text. We’re rebelling against God if we do that. The fact that we supposedly live in a democratic republic where the electorate selects its own leaders and representatives is almost entirely irrelevant. God put these people in place. Somehow directed all of our votes to put the exact right person in place. That is what Romans 13 says.
Except… “Romans 13” doesn’t really exist. Don’t get me wrong, chapter & verse addresses are helpful for us when it comes to needing to find your place in the text on the fly. But sometimes? They can be a hinderance. Paul was not drafting a book. He didn’t sit down and write “Romans 13” as a chapter with a separate thesis from the rest of the “book” of Romans. It is one part of a pretty long letter. And for the first 1,000 (or more) years of that letter’s existence, people understood that. Because it wasn’t until the 13th century that the Bible was divided into chapters, and it would be another 3 centuries before verses were added.
Removing this passage from its isolation paints a very different picture. A picture that, if given serious consideration, could change the way we view how the Church ought to operate.
Paul spends the first 12 “chapters” of this letter laying out a rather complex theological argument which aims to answer one major question: how does a community composed of Gentile believers and observant Jewish people work?
This is not a minor issue, and I imaging that is why so much time is spent addressing it. Paul is speaking to Gentiles who have come to fear the God of Israel and appear to have taken the Good News of salvation for the nations as evidence that Israel’s identity as the chosen people of God has changed. And Paul lays out how that is not the case.
In Romans, Paul says that God chose Israel, not because of their own righteousness, but as a display of God’s own grace that would serve as a witness to the nations. It is only because of Jesus’s identity as a faithful descendent of Abraham through Israel that Gentiles would come to know salvation through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul goes on to argue that none of this removes Israel’s status as God’s chosen people.
With all of this as a preamble to this 13th “chapter”, it would seem a really odd time to insert an advertisement for the Roman Empire.
What if Paul was not speaking about the governing authorities of the empire at all, but the governing authorities of the Jewish communities in which these Gentile believers had this increasingly tenuous relationship?
What if Paul was saying, “In light of the fact that you have come to know the grace and faithfulness of God in Christ because of the grace and faithfulness of God towards Israel, you should not bear any sense of arrogance or stubbornness when you participate in their communities…”?
What if Paul was admonishing these gentile believers in community with these Jewish people (both believing and non-believing, as this letter addresses) to not let their faith lead them to a posture of discord sowing superiority within the assemblies of these Israelites in diaspora?
Humble yourselves to the structures they already have. Yes, God has saved you, but God also put these communities and their leaders in place. If you go in there thinking you know better than them just because of what you’ve found in Jesus, you are thinking you know better than the God who first called them a nation. They are not there to police you when you’re doing right. They’re there to call you in when you’re living wrong. You want to make sure these leaders stay off your back? Then do justice. They’ll do right by you. That’s why God put them there. They don’t have this authority for nothing. God has always used servants to judge righteously. So listen to them. Not just to avoid God’s anger, but because it’s good to do right. That’s why they take up collections. Because God charged them with doing right. So give everyone what they need. Give money to those taking up the taxes. Pay people what you owe people. Respect respectful people. Honor honorable people. Make sure you don’t owe nobody nothin… except for love. Because if you really love people? Then you’ve done all that is required of you.
What if that’s what Paul was saying?
What if Paul was not declaring that the Roman Empire was put in place by God… but the very Jewish communities of Israel in diaspora?
I think that might change a lot for readers of this passage today.
What if when we quoted this passage in today’s context, we stopped doing it after elections?
What if we started quoting it during cross-cultural discussions?
What if Paul is really issuing an invitation for Gentile Roman citizens (who have encountered a new revelation of their place in God’s Messianic age) to submit themselves to the leadership of a people society has suggested belong beneath the Gentile populace? A people they now suspect may have been erased from God’s Messianic age? What if Paul is saying that God’s will for them is to know what life is like when you allow yourself to be led by those on the margins?
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