A Yoderian Reading of Romans 13

 

Romans 13, despite much protest to the contrary, does not legitimate Christian violence—nor is it a comment on Rome’s foreign policy. Paul in this particular phase of his discourse (chapters 12-15) advocates a policy of nonviolent ‘revolutionary subordination’ that relativizes the claims of all earthly polities. Paul’s point is one of Christian nonconformity to the diaconate of the sword. The ekklesia is an alternative polity whose own warfare is conducted exclusively through the ministry of nonviolent reconciliation. She is unable to be violent. Here is Ted Grimsurd with seven ‘Yoderian’ points on the text:

(1) Paul calls for a kind of revolutionary subordination in relation to government. These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience. The term here reflects Paul’s notion of the ordering of the Powers by God. Subordination is significantly different from unconditional obedience. For example, the Christians who refuse to worship Caesar but still permit Caesar to punish, are being subordinate even though not obeying.

(2) Paul rejects any notion of violent revolution. The immediate meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of anti-Semitism and the arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution. The call is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government.

(3) Paul also relativizes the affirmation of any particular government. While opposing revolution, these verses also do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13. But both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever powers that be—even while implying (certainly more clearly in Revelation) that this particular government is quite idolatrous and blasphemous.

(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers. God is not said to institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them. God does not take responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that God orders them, that by God’s permissive government they line them up with God’s purposes. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is much more indirect than often understood. All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes. However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.

(5) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. “The functions described in 13:3-4 do not include any service that the Christian is asked to render. The ‘things due to the authority’ listed in 13:6-7 do not include any kind of participation or service.” Whatever it is that the state does, Paul is not endorsing Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform those tasks—especially if the tasks violate the call to neighbor love.

(6) Paul calls for discrimination. The words of 13:7 echo those of Jesus. “Pay to all what is due them” reiterates Jesus’ call for discernment: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, being sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God. 13:7 says “render to all what is due them;” 13:8 says “nothing is due to anyone except love.” The claims of Caesar are to be measured by whether or not what he claims is due to him is part of the obligation of love.

(7) Romans 13 is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. The logic that uses Romans 13:1-7 as a basis for participation in coercive practices relies on a disjunction between Romans 13:1-7 and the Sermon on the Mount. However, both Romans 12–13 as a unit and Matthew 5–7 instruct Christians to be nonviolent in all their relationships. Both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in “vengeance.” Both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded bringing about a kind of order, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.

Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may best be understood as his response to this question: How might followers of Jesus living in the heart of the Beast truly witness to God’s healing love? They do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active pacifism. Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.

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