(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’. Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)
Romans 13 is regarded as a prime text for ‘state-and-church’ issues; but of course it is important to deal with the chapter in context, not in ‘splendid isolation’. I’ve already pointed out that the chapter is continuous with chapter 12 and should be interpreted accordingly; but as I thought through my main post interpreting it I increasingly realised that we need a grasp also of the wider context in the epistle – what’s the purpose of Romans as a whole, why was it written.
Contrary to one long-standing tradition, the Christian church in Rome was almost certainly not founded by the apostle Peter, and he probably wasn’t even the first ‘bishop of Rome’; at least one list of Roman bishops has Peter preceded by a guy called Linus (yes, like the Peanuts character!) and apparently there’s a tradition that Linus (or ‘Llyn’) was actually a Celtic Briton possibly connected with or even related to the exiled king ‘Caractacus’. In fact the church was probably founded quite soon after Pentecost when ‘visitors from Rome’ (Acts 2; 10) returned home, while merchants and others from the eastern Empire who had become Christians found their way to the imperial capital. So the situation was that a growing church in the most important city in the Empire consisted of just ordinary people with no apostle or similar to guide them. It was clearly important that the church in Rome got things right and knew what they were talking about; if they gave the wrong impression to the Roman authorities it could have serious repercussions for the church throughout the Empire.
So Paul wrote to them a letter unlike most of his others. It contains far less personal references than other epistles, and it’s not called forth by some urgent specific problem like the issue over circumcision that led to the Galatian letter, or the misunderstandings about the Second Coming which needed sorting out for the Thessalonians. Instead it is almost a basic theological textbook, a guide to some of the basic ideas of Christianity. The early chapters deal with the Christian view of the human plight as sinners, Gentile or Jewish, facing a God who cares, then move on to explain the way God has dealt with sin ‘through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe’, a Christ who ‘at the right time died for the ungodly’, a section which concludes with the wonderful statement ‘I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (ch 8; 38-39)
Then come chapters 9-11, dealing with the relationship between the Jewish and Christian faiths, establishing that the Christian community, as heirs of the promises to Abraham, is in continuity as God’s people with the Jews of the old covenant, and what Paul clearly sees as a tragedy that so many of the Jews have rejected their Messiah Jesus and the way of salvation through faith in his atoning sacrifice. These are chapters that modern Christians should consider deeply. The era of ‘Christendom’ resulted in terrible and unChristian treatment of the Jews in the nominally Christian states of Europe; as we disentangle ourselves from that way of thinking we need to seek reconciliation with the Jewish people, and to find ways of communicating the gospel to them in love. Paul said that if it were possible he would give up his own salvation to save his fellow Jews and bring them back to their Lord and Messiah; even if not ourselves Jewish, we need his deep concern and care for Israel.
Next our particular concern for the moment, chapters 12-13, dealing with how Christians are to live in the world, how we are to relate to the non-Christians among whom we live, and the governments we live under. The important point to make here is that Paul is not putting forward a theory of ‘Christian states’ – in line with Jesus and other NT teaching he didn’t believe in such a thing; for him the world’s only ‘Christian nation’ was the Church itself, the worldwide body of believers. Rather he is giving guidance on how Christians should live under pagan and potentially hostile governments.
Chapter 14 deals with some of the problems of living between pagan society and Judaism; how seriously do you take pagan idols, how do we deal with different views on diet, or on observing special days etc. Paul seems to advocate a robust but also loving approach, on the one hand not being needlessly bound and restricted by these issues but on the other hand being sensitive towards those with tender consciences; former pagans who worry about eating meat that had been dedicated to pagan gods, former Jews who still worry about kosher legislation or Jewish festivals, for example.
Chapter 15 moves towards the end, and mentions Paul’s own future intentions such as going eventually to preach in Spain, in line with his desire to break new ground for the gospel; we don’t know for sure whether that intention was fulfilled. Chapter 16 has all the personal greetings to the people at Rome who Paul knew.
This quick survey brings out one point for me; too often we read Paul’s epistles – and other biblical texts – as if they were academic study texts. We chop them up into small sections and then discuss them in enormous depth. I won’t deny that there is a place for such study; but we can I think forget that these were first of all letters written to churches of quite ordinary Christians, and they would have been read out to those congregations as such, not dissected and in small bits, but as a whole. A few years ago, in the era of cassette recordings, I had a recording of Romans just read out loud by an actor called Max something-or-other, and hearing it like that was quite a revelation. Now I’m in the CD era I’m afraid I disposed of that cassette, and I’m wishing I hadn’t.
I seriously recommend that you should quite often read Romans, and other biblical texts, complete or in large chunks – whole epistles or several chapters of gospels, OT historical books, or the longer prophets like Isaiah – and get a feel for how they may have come across to those who first heard them. Also even on your own, read them aloud. It’s worth saying that reading aloud can really help understanding – if you haven’t understood it properly that is likely be revealed because your tongue will probably stumble over the words. And as a congregation, churches should occasionally make time to hear Romans and other books of the Bible as a whole read aloud and again get as near as you can to that original fresh experience – just listen instead of analysing!
Principles of Interpretation
First thought here is that if Paul’s purpose in writing Romans is to equip the Roman church to live in the pagan society, I mustn’t interpret it in a way that would instead create unnecessary conflict between the church and the state. Obviously there will be occasions of “We must obey God rather than men”, but we need to be careful to get that right both ways! And if we are indeed to live at peace with all men so far as it’s up to us, we must be at least somewhat reluctant to choose interpretations that threaten to break that peace.
Second thought, we must not interpret Paul in such a way that we make him contradict himself. If in chapter 12 we are ‘in no case’ to repay evil with evil, then surely there is a ‘prima facie’ case that we shouldn’t interpret chapter 13 in a way that allows us to do just that! Likewise if Paul says (II Corinthians 10; 4) ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ it surely can’t be right to interpret Romans 13 to justify a war with weapons… and so on…. We should also not interpret Paul to clash with other New Testament teaching, particularly not with the teaching of Jesus. So for instance when Jesus tells Peter to put up his sword and teaches that they who take the sword will perish by it, perhaps we should not interpret Paul as teaching us to use a sword!
Third, because of its place in Paul’s theological treatise, Romans 13 has perhaps been regarded as too primary in church and state issues. Actually because of its place in Romans it is quite a short and summary account of the principles. I’d suggest that in many ways Peter says more in his first epistle (again well worth reading as a whole) and goes deeper and wider in instructing us not only about governments but society in general as well. I’ve already said that you mustn’t read Romans 13 in isolation from the rest of Romans and chapter 12 in particular; you should also read it in the context of I Peter for an even more rounded view.
We should also be aware of the historical context. Paul was well aware that the ‘authorities’ he wrote about were the likes of Caligula and Nero, and he was writing to help the church cope with that reality, not just with some abstract cosy ideal government. As we know from Acts and various references in his epistles, Paul was no stranger to imprisonment, flogging and other persecution, and in the end would suffer a martyr’s death. Our interpretation of Romans 13 must be consistent with that reality, and more. Because of course Paul was massively aware that in the past those ‘authorities’ had included one Saul of Tarsus – that is, Paul was himself a former persecutor…!!!! He knew all about ‘church-and-state’ from the other side as well. Again, an interpretation which cosily and academically ignores that is likely to be wrong!!
I should now be able to tackle directly interpreting Romans 13 – it probably won’t be my next post, but it should turn up in the next few weeks, subject to those pesky workmen in the flat and my involvement in the charity model railway show at Romiley Methodist Church near Stockport on Saturday 7th September….