Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Do We Owe the State? Eller on Romans 13

Personally as Christians and together as Church, we may expect Jesus to invite us to witness to people in government (the state): rulers, bureaucrats, tax collectors, police officers, and soldiers. What concrete words and actions might Jesus invite us to say and do?

Let us look at the range of logical possibilities: attack always > resist mostly > tolerate > support mostly > obey always.

One biblical text often quoted to support the position of “obey always” is Romans 13:1-7.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (New Revised Standard Version, here and following).

Yet this biblical text is subject to diverse interpretations. Today we will look at the interpretation of it found in a noteworthy book, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, written by Vernard Eller. He expresses his point of view in Chapter 8, “Christian Anarchy and Civil Disobedience.”

1. Read Romans 13:1-7 in the context of Romans 12:14-13:8
Vernard rightly encourages us to keep Romans 13:1-7 in its biblical context. He wants us to read from Romans 12:14 to 13:8. In chapter 12:14-21, Paul tells us to bless those who persecute you (verse 14), live in harmony with one another (v. 16), do not repay anyone evil for evil (v. 17), live peaceably with all (v. 18), never avenge yourselves (v. 19), and in summary, do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good (v. 21). Paul’s main point in this introductory text, according to Vernard, is the same one made by Jesus: Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44).

Before 13:1-7 comes the invitation to love even our enemies. After it, in 13:8, comes this invitation: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. In other words, Paul’s words about governing authorities come sandwiched between words inviting us to love everyone unconditionally just as Jesus loves us (p. 197).

Paul’s point: we should love our enemies even if they represent an oppressive political authority and do terrible acts like unjustly whipping Paul and, much worse, crucifying Jesus. No one said witnessing to Jesus, in response to frightfully Olympian authorities, was going to be easy.

Vernard adds that Paul’s difficult point here is consistent with other New Testament texts. Speaking against Christians suing one another in Olympian courts, Paul says, Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Corinthians 6:7b). Even from his cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This was consistent with his earlier words concerning hurtful people: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:39, 41).

We witness to the unconditional love of Jesus, Paul tells us, when we give others things like taxes, revenue, respect, and honor even when they don’t deserve it. If we don’t love in this way, then we’re just like every other Olympian: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:43).

We might say that Jesus calls our Christian personality to respond creatively by appealing to the Christian personalities of all governing authorities. Jesus likes us to do this rather than abandoning our Christian personality and responding to their Olympian personalities with our own. Do not be overcome by [Olympian] evil but overcome [Olympian] evil with [Christian] good.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.