But Seriously (9)… Romans 13 – General Thoughts about the Epistle.


(‘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….


But Seriously… (2) In which Pilate’s exercised!

In this episode we are looking at Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  The basic plot is that the Jewish leaders, having captured Jesus, drag him before the Roman governor not only to get the death penalty they, in an occupied territory, can’t legally exact for themselves, but also because in their eyes a Messianic claimant who gets killed by the Romans should be thoroughly discredited.  Pilate for various reasons refuses just to rubber-stamp their demand and actually examines the case and declares Jesus to be innocent as far as he’s concerned.  The High Priests and the Jerusalem ‘Rent-a-mob’ thwart Pilate’s efforts to free Jesus by a combination of political arm-twisting and by choosing the robber Barabbas for amnesty, following which Pilate orders the crucifixion but makes his opinion clear by the gesture of ‘washing his hands’ of the affair[i].

For Jesus to fulfil his role as a sacrifice for sin it was necessary for him to be innocent.  In relation to the Jewish charge of blasphemy, he appeared guilty in his claim to divinity but was innocent because those claims were true and were vindicated by the resurrection.  Appropriately he was unjustly put to death for what is really the root or basic sin of men, that we try to be our own gods, effectively stealing our lives from God; from that fundamental selfishness flow all our other sins, both the obviously evil and also sins like those of the Pharisees, superficially good but proud and self-righteous.

It tends to be overlooked that having been handed over to the Romans, Jesus needed also to be innocent and unjustly executed in Roman terms, which is why the gospel writers make such a point of Pilate’s verdict of innocence.  This mattered in two ways – firstly if Jesus was truly guilty in Roman terms, at the very least it confuses the issue of whether he died an undeserved death, and secondly a Jesus justly executed in Roman eyes would not be an easy ‘sell’ in the Roman Empire and would mean that Christians in turn would be deservedly persecuted by Rome for following a rebel.  This confusion and persecution of the Christians could still arise if you tried to make the case – as a more conventional messianic claimant might – that Jesus had been unjustly executed because the Roman law itself was unjust.  Pilate’s verdict of innocence followed by him crucifying an innocent for reasons of expedience avoids all such ambiguity.  Christians could claim that Jesus had died an innocent death in every respect and that persecuting them for Jesus’ claims would also be unjust.

But – how on earth did Jesus secure a verdict of innocence from Pilate of all people?  Pilate was a tough guy who had quite happily ‘mingled the blood of Galileans with their own sacrifices’, and executing messianic claimants was part of the job description for the governor of Palestine.  For Jesus to convince this tyrant would need exceptional circumstances.

I do suspect that the Holy Spirit did a bit of ‘overtime’ here to ensure that Pilate actually listened to Jesus rather than cursorily rubber-stamp the death sentence; but even so, Jesus would have to provide a credible argument for his innocence.  The answer, I believe, is to be found in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate recorded in John’s gospel[ii]

Then Pilate entered the palace again and summoned Jesus, whom he asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “Do you say this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered him, “I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.  What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would have struggled to prevent my being delivered to the Jews.  But really the source of my kingdom is not here.”

Pilate then said to him, “You are a king, then?”

To which Jesus replied, “You say correctly that I am a king.  For this purpose I was born and for this I entered the world, that I might testify to the truth.  Everyone who loves the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate remarked to him, “What is truth?”  With these words he went outside again to the Jews and told them, “I find him not guilty at all….”

The key sentence here is ‘My kingdom is not of this world’.  In many bible commentaries this is almost passed over as a bit of airy-fairy spirituality or vague philosophising; but come on, this is not a casual conversation between friends at a Socratic symposium; this is a trial on a capital charge requiring the accused to give hard-as-nails answers to the judge!  Yes, Jesus has said, I’m a king – BUT… I’m not the kind of king that concerns you, Pilate, not the kind of king who threatens your Roman rule with military rebellion and strife.  I’m a different kind of king, seeking a different kind of following, disciples who will act very differently from those of the usual ‘messiah’.   My followers won’t be fighting to save me from you; indeed if you check you will find that when one young hothead did draw a sword I stopped him and even healed the wound he had inflicted.  My kingdom is not one of armies and weapons, but of people who recognise the truth I proclaim and follow that truth.

Now Pilate may be a bit scornful of this, as his rhetorical “What is truth?” suggests; but it is clear that he believes Jesus, that he accepts that Jesus is not the usual violent rebel messiah, and he is at least willing to make some effort to avoid what he realises is an injustice, though not to the point of putting his career at risk.  As a result, the important point is made – Jesus is innocent and his crucifixion unjust.

What does this mean for the scriptural teaching about ‘established churches’ and ‘Christian countries’?  Well Jesus was on trial for trying to set up the most direct form of Christian country, with himself as king rebelling against Rome; and he disclaims any such intention.  Is it credible he intended his disciples later to set up such kingdoms in his name?  And in any case, if he would approve of his followers setting up Christian states, that would be just as bad in Pilate’s eyes as Jesus setting himself up as king.

Try a thought experiment; nearly 300 years later, Constantine took over the Roman Empire by force, conquering ‘in the sign of the cross’ and supposedly in the name of Jesus.  Imagine Jesus by a miracle showing Pilate that future episode and then saying that he approved of Constantine – could Pilate approve?  Or indeed imagine Jesus showing Pilate the English Civil War and telling Pilate he approved of his followers behaving like that in his name!!  I can’t see Pilate responding to that any other way than “If that’s the kind of ‘king’ you are … guilty as charged – to the cross with him!”

Take a modern example.  I found a book called ‘A Higher Throne – evangelicals and public theology’ which originated as papers at Oak Hill College’s Annual School of Theology.  In an essay advocating ‘Christian confessional states’ (with a marked lack of scriptural evidence for the proposal), one David Field cited with approval the Puritan Samuel Rutherford’s ‘defence of armed resistance against the tyrant’.  Again, what would Pilate say to that?  Surely his response would be, “Oh you messiahs and your followers always justify your rebellions that way!  Get the cross ready!”

That’s the problem; those who advocate ‘Christian countries’ are advocating exactly the kind of ‘kingdom very much of this world’ that Jesus rejected – and there would have been a verdict of guilty against him if he hadn’t rejected it!  A kingdom that may be set up by force rebelling against the existing government, and then defended by force.  A kingdom that might invade its neighbours in a holy war to impose the faith upon them, or externally encourage subversion and foment rebellion in the neighbours for that purpose.

In advocating a ‘Christian state’ such people think they are honouring Jesus, but in fact they are contradicting him at the key point of his declaration of innocence when on trial for his life.  If you think about it either they are saying

  • “Jesus meant what he said to Pilate about his kingdom not being of this world; but we know better what kind of kingdom Jesus should have”. Or they are saying
  • “Jesus intended kingdoms-of-this-world/Christian-states all along; but he misled Pilate about his intentions”.  Effectively they accuse Jesus of lying, yet of course can’t explain why Jesus would do so.

I’m not sure which of these options is worse.  The arrogance of claiming to know better than their Lord the Son of God, or the sheer blasphemy of accusing the Lord, the Son of God, of lying.  Perhaps the second, because although others are misled as a result, the arrogance in the first case mostly affects the moral position of the arrogant themselves; accusing Jesus of lying threatens the atonement itself, because if Jesus were a liar  that would make Him a sinner and therefore unable to die as an innocent sacrifice!

But what is arguably worse still is that the advocates of Christian states are generally not consciously saying either of these terrible things; rather, they so take for granted the idea of a Christian state that they have never thought through this issue at all, they have blinded themselves to it.

Pilate took Jesus seriously, that his kingdom is not of this world, and declared Jesus innocent.  The advocates of the ‘Christian state’ do not take Jesus seriously, and end up saying that Pilate should have found Jesus guilty!!   For faith in an innocent Jesus who can therefore save you, follow Jesus as Lord and follow what he said on this issue, and reject the ‘Christian state’ lobby!

[i] And of course ‘the Jews’ should not be held responsible for ever for the actions of a few leaders and what was effectively a ‘Rent-a-mob’.  Modern Jews are no more ‘responsible for the crucifixion’ than any Gentile unbeliever.  And in any case as Christians we are meant to follow the example of Paul who, far from wanting to persecute his fellow-Jews, said that if it was possible he would be prepared to lose his own salvation to save them!!

[ii] interestingly, a case where we very likely have more than usual ‘the actual words’, since the Koine Greek ‘trader language’ of the New Testament would be the common language of Roman Pilate and Galilean Jesus, whereas most of Jesus’ teaching  would have been in the Aramaic usually spoken among the Jews at that time, which Pilate would not have known.