Monday, November 07, 2005

Romans Thirteen

Paul’s letter to the Romans has an important teaching about the role of civil government sandwiched within a discussion about the meaning of love. At the end of the Romans 12, Paul is expounding Jesus message about “turning the other cheek”. He explains that we must not use force against those who harm us, but wait on God to provide justice. We must overcome evil with good.

Paul then answers a question that he had probably been asked many times when talking on this topic. Does the injunction to turn the other cheek apply to the civil authorities? Was Jesus saying that they should turn the other cheek to those who break the law instead of punishing them? Was Jesus advocating absolute pacifism? Paul gives his answer to this important question in Romans 13:1-7. He then goes back to talking about love for the remainder of the chapter.

The heart of Paul’s message is that Christians should submit to the civil authorities because they have been instituted by God.

Everyone must submit himself 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, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom 13:1,2).

This passage has been used to justify various forms of political control. The common argument is that Paul was writing to the church in the Rome at a time when Nero was Caesar. If a terrible ruler like Nero was instituted by God, then all forms of political power are justified and Christians must submit to whatever political authority they face.

The problem with this argument is that it does not define the “governing authorities” that Paul is writing about. In my view, the entire passage has been badly translated into English. Translators of almost every English translation have translated it in a way that gives the greatest possible power to political leaders. This is odd given that we are supposed to be submitted to God and that Paul got into trouble with the political authorities throughout his ministry. The assumption that Paul is commanding us to submit to every political authority including dictators and tyrants is totally wrong.

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