Feast upon the Word Blog

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Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the problem

Posted by cherylem on October 14, 2007

Probably very few passages of scripture have confused people more than Romans 13:1-7. Read this here in the KJV, NRSV, and NIV.

Since I am basing these posts on Neil Elliott’s LIBERATING PAUL: THE JUSTICE OF GOD AND THE POLITICS OF THE APOSTLE, I’ll address his take on this first, and then I’m going to add some comments from Raymond E. Brown’s: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT. This is my fifth post regarding Paul’s legacy.

I’m going to divide my comments into a three posts:
1) The problem
2) the confusion
3) some comments regarding a possible resolution, which may – I warn you – not be entirely satisfying.

THE PROBLEM
The problem with these verses is self-evident: they appear to be commanding all Christians to obey their governments, whether or not those governments are evil and cruel. Paul seems to be saying that all governments are instituted by God, and that all rulers are servants of God, and all their punishments are just.

In terms of Paul’s legacy, these verses have led to some truly terrible outcomes. Elliott’s first example of the misuse of this scripture relates to a situation in Guatemala in 1982, when a prominent pastor “supported his decision to lead the congregants into the arms of the Guatemalan military [a military that massacred, starved, tortured its people] by reference to the Bible. “We kept remembering that the Bible says we should obey the President . . . ”

Elliott claims that “The usefulness of the Pauline letters to systems of domination and oppression is nevertheless clear and palpable (p. 9).” Elliott says that his purpose is: “to describe what I see as the most important feature of the situation in which Paul is read today: the empressment of his voice to serve ungodly and inhumane forces, what the baptismal rite of my church calls the ‘evil powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.’”

Regarding Romans 13:1-7, Elliott gives further examples, which I wish I could quote in full but instead which I will list, with some accompanying documentation:

The reaction of the churches to Hitler (including, I add, our own branches in Germany at the time)
Ernst Helmreich, in THE GERMAN CHURCHES UNDER HITLER, writes: “What government actions are unlawful and what position an individual should take against such actions has long been controversial within the Christian church. Hard as these questions are for individuals, they are even more difficult for the church as an organized body, since it is bound by creedal statements, and the necessity of following established procedural methods. The churches, Protestant and Catholic, were haunted by the words of Paul in Romans 13:1-7 on the duty of obedience to those in authority.”

In South Africa Paul was used in 1985 official declarations of the Dutch Reformed Church to support apartheid. Opposing theologians wrote that State Theology “is simply the theological justification of the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism. It blesses injustice, canonizes the will of the powerful and reduces the poor to passivity, obedience and apathy. How does “State Theology” do this? It does it by misusing theological concepts and biblical texts for its own political purposes . . . The first would be the use of Romans 13:1-7 to give absolute and ‘divine’ authority to the State.”

In 1989 third world theologians from Asia, South America, and South Africa issued THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS: KAIROS AND CONVERSION:
“One of the characteristics of this new heresy [the idolatry of imperialist theology] is that it denies Christian freedom by insisting upon blind obedience to authority. The famous text from Romans 13 is misused to demand unquestioning and uncritical allegiance to the political authorities who exercise the politics of death and deception.”

This use of Paul in the service of death is funded, Elliott says, with millions of dollars of support, especially from American interests, but also from other sources.

Elliott gives a personal example of his own minister father, in Gallup New Mexico, during the era of the struggle for civil rights in our own country: ” . . . my father repeated drew the congregation’s attention to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his campaign of nonviolent resistance in Mississippi and Alabama. Despite a sympathy with African Americans that left a lasting impression on me, my father found in Romans 13 the clear biblical mandate for the Negro to submit to civil authority, even if that meant quiet acquiescence in the face of segregation laws, contemptuous court injunctions, or police brutality. The Negro’s proper hope, as my father read the Pauline letters, was to wait for just changes through the grindingly slow process of legislation.”

Elliott claims that “The apostle is perhaps never closer to the hearts and minds of the American people when war must be promoted . . . Again and again I heard Christians respond that they were content to ‘leave politics to the politicians,’ since, after all, Saint Paul commanded us to be ‘be subject to the governing authorities.’”

Elliott asks why “a scrap of a letter from Roman antiquity holds such sway” on our thinking. He doubts it is because we understand Paul, or even that we, as a people, are devoutly biblical. He writes: “Powerful political and economic interests are served, to murderous effect, whenever Romans 13 causes Christian populations to acquiesce in well-mannered and pious docility. Where the social machinery of war is concerned, the canonical Paul is simply good for business.”

To belabor the point, perhaps, some pages later Elliott quotes Christine Gudorf in VICTIMIZATION: EXAMINING CHRISTIAN COMPLICITY when “she asks her readers to imagine the effect of Rom. 13:1 or Titus 3:1 ‘on Salvadoran peasants jailed and tortured for participating in literacy drives, or agricultural cooperatives, or human-rights marches, or on the black Christians of the South who risked their lives in the civil rights campaign, or on German Christians who conspired against Hitler.’ They would, she suggests, hear these words as ‘divine betrayal’; and she ask ‘how many more would have joined them in their work for justice had they not been reminded of these passages and similar scriptural messages?’”

Almost 100 pages later Elliott returns to this theme:
“. . . If we add to this judgement G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s remark that Paul proceeded to write those same powers ‘a blank check’ in Romans 13, with which they could consolidate their power in the subsequent centuries, or George V. Pixley’s comment that Paul offered Rome’s subjects ‘a religious opium’ that ‘enables a suffering people to endure, by offering private dreams to compensate for an intolerable public reality,’ we begin to understand why modern Jews who have come to accept Jesus as ‘one of our own’ nevertheless see Paul as ‘the real villain of the piece.'”

Elliott asks:
“Did Paul, who devoted himself to proclaiming ‘the word of the cross’ in the cities of the Roman Empire, through that very proclamation betray the cause of the one crucified by Rome, his own oppressed people, and the other victims of imperial power?

“In my judgment, he did not . . . ”

Ah, and with that teaser, I will end this long post.

13 Responses to “Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the problem”

  1. cherylem said

    Please note that this is NOT a post on LDS belief regarding governments, which discussion would include D&C 134, Article of Faith 12, 1 Nephi 13:15-19 a well as Acts 5:29 and 4:19 (though the verses in Acts will be part of following posts). However, if you want to address LDS belief, feel free. Just be aware that I’m also aware of these scriptures, but the post is on Paul and Romans 13:1-7.

  2. Robert C. said

    This is great, Cheryl—only you’ve set the problem up so nicely that I’m very, very impatient for your follow-up posts! I’ve read about this by some other commentators, though only a very little bit. I’ll be very interested to see where Elliott goes with this. I’ll try to study up some more so I can engage meaningfully Elliott’s response.

  3. Jim F. said

    I’m anxiously anticipating your next post, Cheryl. This is a verse that bothers me considerably, but for which I don’t have any good response. (I’ve got several responses, but none of them are good enough.)

  4. Idahospud said

    Cheryl, tho’ I pretty much just lurk around here, I wanted to thank you for this series of posts. They have given me a lot to think about.

  5. Mark N. said

    Read the JS Inspired version of Romans 13. For me, it clears everything right up.

  6. Robert C. said

    Thanks for highlighting the JST, Mark. Here is a link to the Inspired Version which seems to make the declared allegiance to church ministers (v. 1 “For there is no power in the church but of God”) as opposed to secular leaders. Also, the added words, “But first, render to all their dues” in verse 7 seem important—monetary allegiance is owed first to secular powers and second to the church, or something like that.

    This raises all sorts of questions for me regarding the Inspired Version, and I’d be curious how well this could be integrated into the overall epistle (b/c it seems rather awkward in context, on my thus far rather superficial reading). Interesting to me that Joseph seems to have altered the text so dramatically from the abusive way Cheryl has outlined for how this text has been historically abused. In many ways, I think Joseph’s changes provide a strong incentive for us to consider alternative interpretations from the traditional ones. My sense of many JST changes is that they are not so much a restoration of an original text (at least sometimes it seems the change doesn’t fit an ancient mind set or a larger context for the text) as they are an effort to preclude bad theology based on misreading an easily misinterpreted passage. But surely others here have studied the JST much more carefully than I have, so I would be curious to hear how others understand the Inspired Version, or the the JST clips included in the Church’s current edition of the scriptures. (Also does anyone have any idea which foreign languages the JST or Inspired Version has been translated into? We were still waiting on the D&C in Russian when I was a missionary—I know the D&C and I think the POGP are in Russian now, but I’d be surprised if any of the Inspired Version had been officially translated by the Church….)

  7. Cherylem said

    Karl posted an excellent summary on the JST at http://ss.diether.org/?p=24#more-24

  8. cherylem said

    It is inevitable that we will all measure what our church teaches against the backdrop of this discussion.

    I love the JST changes for these verses, actually. In response to those changes, I am thinking about two things:

    1) how consistently are these changes understood within the Church? Of what value is the JST translation if the changes in such an important passage are not well-known?
    Does the 12th Article of Faith etc basically say the same thing as Romans 13, without taking into consideration the JST translation? Do other writings also basically reinforce the traditional reading of Romans 13? For instance, while the JST is footnoted in this section, so is this (re v. 7):

    “D&C 134: 6.
    6 We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men show respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.”

    So, according to our own scriptures, is Romans 13:1-7 about church government, or civil government?

  9. Rick said

    It seems to me that the current position of the Church is analogous. Perhaps Paul is saying that “for the time being and in the present circumstances, this is our policy: support the government.” The early Christians certainly had enough trouble without being thought of as seditious. In our era, the Church has encouraged members to obey the laws, even in societies that we would think of as oppressive. It was a policy that I wondered about, but which has shown itself to be beneficial in terms of eventually opening doors to missionary work and temples. At one time, the Lord obviously thought that not being protected in certain rights justified the Revolutionary War. However, that was not the policy during the Cold War, and perhaps during Paul’s time. Maybe this is evidence that we must follow living prophets because only they can speak to our specific time.

  10. Karl D. said

    Robert,

    Cheryl was kind enough to link to my discussion of the JST in comment 7, but I think you might find that the references I list at the end of the lesson are the most helpful:

    1 Matthews, Robert J., December 1972, The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Ensign, 61.

    2 Millett, Robert, 1985, Joseph Smith and the Gospel of Matthew, BYU Studies, 25:3, 68.

    3 Matthews, Robert J., 1971, The “New Translation” of the Bible, 1830:-1833: Doctrinal Development During the Kirtland Era, BYU Studies, 11:4, 400.

    4 Jackson, Kent P., and Peter M. Jasinski, 2003, The Process of Inspired Translation: Two Passages Translated Twice in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, BYU Studies, 42:2, 35-64.

    5 Barlow, Philip, 1990, Joseph Smith Revision of the Bible: Fraudulent, Pathological, or Prophetic?, Harvard Theological Review, 83:1, 54.

    You might have read most of these, but I thought I would point them out. The nice thing about this set of articles is that they are all available online (#5 is only available on jstor but that works for you).

  11. […] Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the problem […]

  12. Robert C. said

    Rick #9, I think you’ve put things very nicely—to bad so many people in history have read into Paul’s text a universal politico-theological claim that I don’t think he intended!

    Karl #10, thanks for both your post, which I found very helpful, and esp. for the references which I’ll be slowly working through.

  13. […] Paul’s legacy: Romans 13:1-7, the problem […]

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