Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves condemnation.
Remember last week I pointed out that the last section of Romans chapter 12 answers the question: How should the Church and her children behave in a world that is incapable of sharing our horizon? At issue was Christian behavior in the pluralistic neighborhoods in the city of Rome; but of course you can apply Paul’s directives on Christian behavior to neighborhoods our families inhabit as well. Keep in mind that Rome was a city of around 1,000,000 people and there were only a handful of Christians at the time of Paul’s epistle and most Roman citizen, if they had ever heard of a Christian much less seen one up close, did not distinguish them from Jews. Jews were strange and Christians composed a strange little group of Jews. But where as there was only a handful of Christians, there may have been as many as 40,000 Jews in the Rome. So when the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the city around 49 AD Christians who happened to be Jewish were also forced to leave the city. The exact cause of the expulsion is hard to pin down, but it certainly had something to do with a large Jewish threat to the peace of the city of Rome. That very event is cited by Luke in the Acts when he introduces the reader to Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, who were living in Corinth and running what appears to have been a very successful tent making business. The city of Rome was the hub of their operation where they owned a home in which Christians frequently gathered. But, being Jews, they were expelled and they relocated to Corinth another major hub of commerce and that is where they teamed up with St. Paul. After Claudius’ death in 54 AD Priscilla and Aquila returned to Rome and once again began gathering Christians in their home. In Romans chapter 16 Paul sends his greetings to Aquila and Priscilla as well as those who were meeting in their home where he says that both of them had “risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.” The epistle to the Romans was written around 56 or 57 BC and it is worth keeping in mind that the Emperor who had succeeded Claudius was none other than Nero Caesar and the great fire in Rome and the subsequent execution of some Christians occurred in 64 AD only 7 or 8 years after they had received Paul’s letter. Why am I going over this ground? I think that will become clear as we move through the text.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves condemnation…
These 7 verses have been used to defend just war, capital punished, the separation of Church and State, as well as the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. According to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms we serve both God and Caesar; God rules the spiritual kingdom by grace while Caesar rules by law and the sword in order to restrain evil in a variety of ways. Furthermore, God has ordained this order and he stays in his domain and he doesn’t micromanage Caesar. If one resist the government one is resisting God who has ordained the power of the secular state. But that is not what St. Paul is saying in this passage. Why? Well, first of all because there is no such thing as “secular.” The notion that reality is divided up into the sacred and secular is a myth and no one has ever believed that including Caesar. Furthermore Paul is not saying that the little band of Christians in Rome should do all they can to support all of Nero’s policies because he has God’s approval, God’s backing, and God’s authorization to use the sword. I have one word for that: Codswallop.
What Paul is doing is presenting a piece of classical Jewish thinking on how to live under an alien and potentially malicious ruler. Romans 13:1-7 is a purely practical blueprint for Christians making their way through life in a potentially belligerent political environment. And for that matter it is a way for Christians to make their way through life in what appears to be a benevolent political environment. St. Paul well knew that appearance and reality frequently did not coincide. And keep in mind that the lion’s share of hostility against Christians recorded in the New Testament was waged by Jews, sometime the chief rulers, sometime by lesser officials who were fearful, and sometimes by gentile gangs worked up by synagogues officials. Whatever government, as in a restraining force upon mobs, outlaws, and gangsters, Jewish or gentile, could potentially fit St. Paul’s description of ruling authorities.
And yes, there is a sense in which God has put ruling authorities in place and they do function to restrain disorder and evil, but that does not mean that everything that a ruler does is God’s will or that God approves merely because it is the action of the ruler, even if the “ruler” happens to be “we the people.” Paul is no more saying that this present regime, this present system of government rules perfectly any more than Jesus is saying to Pilate that he, Pilate and Caesar are right in sending him to his death because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him dead in order to keep peace:
Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, And said, Hail, King of the Jews! And they smote him with their hands. Pilate therefore went forth again (to the people), and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him… (Then) Pilate went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer. Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin. (John 19: 8-10)
How political can you get? If it was not enough to indicate the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah by putting a purple robe on him, the put a crown of thorns upon his head, kneel before him, and say, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Pilate and St. Paul are not saying the same thing at all because Pilate believes that his authority is derived from Caesar whose own authority is derived from the senate and the citizens of Rome. The point that Paul is making is the very same point that Jesus made to Pilate and that is not that since Pilate and Caesar are ruling authorities whatever they do, whatever they decree is to be obeyed because it is God’s will. That is not the case; rather, both Paul and Jesus are making the very simple statement that the God who is God has willed his creation to be ruled over, to be ordered, to be fostered and nurtured by human rulers and the people of the God who is God, the people of the Messiah Jesus ought to respect, to honor, and to obey those human rulers with an appropriate honor and an appropriate obedience. If we think of temporal authorities in this manner, if we think of them as instantiations of Adam’s God given duty to rule and foster creation as God’s vicar then what Paul says is not as nihilistic as it may sound at first. The ruler is to foster good works and the avoidance of evil works in his or her domain. Paul says that the ruling authority is ministering on behalf of God and that is for the good of his creation and in particular his rule is to bring about the good for human beings. Thus what Paul is describing is a vocation from God that may be understood as an elaboration of Adam’s vocation to husband creation.
Paul learned from our Lord that respect for the ruling authorities works hand in glove with our knowledge that they have a vocation from God and they will give an account of their behavior and their rule to the God who is God. And earthly, ruling authorities should look upon their vocation as one that reflects the coming Kingdom of the God who is God and his Son Jesus Christ. Toward the end of chapter 13 Paul reminds the Christians at Rome of this certainty:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11-12)
There is no doubt that the early Church understood and practiced obedience to the true God of the universe whose authority is not derivative and whose Kingdom is surely emerging and will one day burst upon our life like the break of day after a long and cold night. St. Paul is emphatic that our citizenship is Heaven and we wait for the coming our only Lord Jesus the Messiah.
Let me sum up what Paul is getting at in this passage of Romans when it comes to the way Christians are to behave toward the ruling authorities. Paul is not supporting some medieval notion of the divine rights of the king that places him in a category in which he is exempt from the moral life expected from all Christians. The ruler’s vocation is to embody godly virtues and to love creation and the people he governs. Evil rulers and evil rules and evil laws are at odds with the God who is God and his finality for creation. An immoral ruler and immoral rule is not pleasing to God and such a ruler is not doing God’s will. The sort of laws that were past in New York and nearly past here in Virginia that liberalize what is already an immoral law with regard to the life of the unborn corrupts even more this culture of death that reigns in our nation.
What Paul absolutely affirms is that the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah subverts, undermines, and invalidates the gospel of the ruling class, including that gospel that claims to derive its promise and authority of, by, and for the people. Any governing authority that follows Caesar’s path of laying claim for allegiance, an allegiance that requires the citizen to act on behalf of the ruler is antiChrist. Nations have a habit of making themselves into rivals of the God who is God but that is coming to an end according to St. Paul.
After his urban renewal project that rebuilt large portions of Rome after the great fire, Nero erected a great bronze statue of himself, Colossus of Nero, right in the middle of the new construction across from the Colosseum. It not there today because it was torn down and scrapped in the sacking of Rome in 410 AD. Arrogant human rulers may build great monuments and great cities like Rome, and Washington, and London, and Peking, but these new kings of the world will aways fail, while the Seed of Abraham, Jesus the Messiah is accomplishing the true work of Adam. But Paul shows us a way to cast off the darkness of this world and of the rulers of this world in a revolution not made with human hands. The end has come and it is reshaping humanity and will reshape it into the image of Christ our Lord. This is an unusual, a new kind of revolution made without human hands. And that is enough for today. We will get back to the revolution made without human hands next week and examine it in some detail.