Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Occupy Wall Street (Part 2)

In the previous post, I showed that Paul commands obedience to the government.  I pointed out that the Roman government at the time was as oppressive as any in history and permitted any number of practices that we modern American Christians would not put up with more a moment.  Yet Paul said quite clearly that the Christian was to submit to the government because it was God’s appointed minister of justice!

I think that over all the Occupy Wall Street is a law-abiding and legal protest.  Most of the time the people involved work with city officials, obtain permits, etc.  The issue that they are raising is important as well – America is incredibly rich and ought to do more to care for the less-wealthy.  There is no way anyone in America should be hungry, malnourished, uneducated, or lack access to health care.

Despite the fat that Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the OWS, that the government do something to spread the wealth.  It is not a capitalist / socialist issue, it is a matter of responsibility.  The responsibility party for caring for the poor in a society is not the government, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net, only that they ought to enforce law and keep the peace.  The church is to care for the poor and needy, so that there are no more poor and needy.

I hinted at the end of the last post that Paul did in fact have rather subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire.  Like Jesus, Paul is interested in transforming people from death to life.  These members of the new creation will then transform society.  Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.  All shared food and fellowship equally.  That all are equal in the Body of Christ is amazingly subversive in a society which was predicated on social strata and inequality.

An example of the sort of subversive action which had an impact on poverty in the early church is found in 1 Clement 55.  In this letter written at the end of the first century, Clement praises Gentile Christians who have risked plague in order to save fellow citizens, allowed themselves to be imprisoned to redeem others, and sold themselves into slavery in order to feed the poor.   I cannot imagine anyone in the twenty-first century taking out a second mortgage and donating the money to a local inner city ministry that cares for the poor.  Someone may have done this, but it is exceedingly rare.

I think the church does a good job on social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, so much more could be done.  I am not necessarily talking about throwing money at the problem.  There are many creative low-cost efforts to relieve the conditions which cause poverty.  What would happen if the Church dedicated itself to solving poverty in the inner cities of America instead of building big glass churches? What if a single mega-church dedicated their offerings to poverty relief rather than building improvements?  What if we spent as much on helping African orphans as we do on the sound systems for our churches?

What Paul started in Acts 13 brought down the Rome.

19 thoughts on “Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Occupy Wall Street (Part 2)

  1. I have to say, I’ve loved your blog posts on this passage. I completely agree with you and thought it was articulated well. I’ll definitely be sharing this with a few friends that I’ve been dialoguing with about the occupy Wall Street protests. “Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself. Polhill said it this way, “Paul felt that the Christians needed to be especially careful not to appear seditious.” (298). The Christians involved in these protests definitely could be considered seditious. However, If Christians truly worked to serve the poor and needy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have these protests. I would agree with your statement, “The responsibility party for caring for the poor in a society is not the government, but rather the Church.” This is a bold statement, but I think perhaps Paul would have agreed. He said, “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” (Romans 13:3). Perhaps Paul is talking about a government that “functioned as instruments of God”, (298) but even so, if Christians were working to end poverty in the country and the world (as many already are) I doubt that the government would oppose of such a thing. The scripture is laced with a call to justice, to serve the poor and needy: Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 58:6-7, James 1:27, to name a few. If we did more to follow this call to care for the marginalized in society, there might not even be a protest happening right now.

  2. If I have understood you correctly, you are suggesting that government should not provide a social safety net because Paul says nothing about a social safety net in Rom 13. This seems to be a very very weak argument from silence. If the Romans provided a social safety net, we might possibly expect Paul to have mentioned it, but they did not. Also, if Paul were writing to the Roman government we might possibly expect him to have asked them to provide a social safety net, but he was not writing to them. So why would he raise the issue?

    I fully agree with your point about the responsibility of the church. One way that the church can exercise that responsibility is to urge government to do more. This option was not available to Paul because he did not live in a democracy.

    I take it that you don’t buy the theory that Rom 13 contains a hidden transcript.

    • Good question – I am *not* saying that the “safety net” is illegitimate on the basis of silence in this text, no. I think that if the government of a particular country decides that a safety net is important, then so be it. It is neither required nor forbidden using Romans 13. Maybe my use of the safety net as a foil has obscured the issue, Romans 13 is commanding obedience to a government, not demanding that the government do what is the job of the church.

      BTW, as an American, I think that it is my right to protest, complain, write letters to the editor, write protest songs, and vote the scoundrels out of office. But that is the social contract under which I am living. If I lived in Tehran, things might be different.

      On “hidden transcript,” not really. I might be convinced, but I have not really done the work to judge it one way or the other with fairness. What should I be reading?

  3. ‘As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net, only that they ought to enforce law and keep the peace.’

    What authority did Paul have to tell the Roman government their job? Or was Paul simply stating God’s intended purpose for Government?

    I have yet to see any strong Biblical support for Christians maintaining/influencing/changing governments to be Godly.

    ‘Paul was interested in caring for the poor and underclass, and the followers of Jesus modeled their meetings after the table fellowship of Jesus himself.’

    Does our call to bring justice to the poor/sick/widows give Christians that authority?

    A government will reflect its people, so if Paul’s ‘subversive plan to reverse the evils of the Empire’ by sharing the Gospel that transforms live results in a majority population of Christians then that will be reflected in the government. But just what that means right now in America, I’m not sure…

  4. This issue has weighed heavily on my heart over the past year. The church seems to focus so little of its time and money on helping those less fortunate then themselves. We are so concerned about “Inreach,” or spending the money on the church itself, that we lose sight of the needs of others, the outreach.

    Christ came to earth and sacrificed himself to pay for all of our sins. As Christians we should live our lives, offering everything up to our Lord as a sacrifice (Polhill, 297). This is what Paul is saying when he speaks about living sacrifices. In following the teachings of Christ, we should be willing to sacrifice our time and money to help those in need. This is not being accomplished by the church, nor by it’s members individually. The average Christian tithes somewhere around 02.3% of all their money. Is this really a sacrifice? We look at celebrities, and scoff when they give a couple thousand dollars to a charity. “That’s nothing to them” we say, and yet we live our lives the same way. And then on top of that, our church’s are spending the money we give to use it on bigger buildings, better TVs and projectors, and new carpet for the church building. It pains me to think how much good could actually be done in this world if Christians stopped worrying about how comfortable their meeting place was, and started worrying how many people are homeless and dying in the world.

  5. Wow, great post. I love this line of thought but also get discouraged when I think about how the church, myself included, is failing in this regard. I agree that we are failing with how we spend our money (giving habits) but I also believe that the biggest reason for our failure is our unwillingness to give of our time. In the post you commented on how often we throw money at a problem. The reason we do this is because it is our way of “helping” without really getting involved. We choose to give financially, usually out of our wealth (Mark 12:44a), but not of our time. Sacrificing is something many of us know little about and rarely are we willing to experience it for someone we have never met. Oftentimes we think we are doing well if we spend an hour or two a week involved in some sort of ministry. The bar for Christians should be so much higher, especially in a society where we have the financial means to do so! In the same way our churches are spending money on unnecessary building improvements, believers are spending their time on unnecessary events, activities, and hours on the job. I think that many times we cannot even recognize the needs of the less fortunate because our hearts are synchronized with the clock.

  6. I agree with Scott about the need to not just blindly throw money at things about to stop and actually give our time to them. Westside Community Church in Traverse City, is a good example of people using their time instead of just giving money. Around Thanksgiving, people go door to door delivering turkeys that they gave money to get but then they get the opportunity to see what the money is used for. The experience is something that makes the people continue to give and give their time. That is just one example of how the two can go together. The church needs to give opportunities in which the people can see where there money goes and this does not mean, newer sound system or bigger buildings but the outreach and missions of the church.

  7. Often times it feels like we have to treat our churches like they are like the temple of Jerusalem in Bible times. Yes, it is a great thing when a church body tries to glorify God through making an ascetically pleasing church but, I am pretty sure God looks at our hearts way more than he would the facade of a church. God didn’t create buildings in the seven days of creation he created people. Which is more important? The fact is that the true temple is located inside the Christ-followers heart as it says in 1 Corinthians 6:9: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” If we don’t care for the people and their hearts when they are in need we are neglecting the potential temple locations of the Holy Spirit. Churches are really just meeting places. I am pretty sure that a Church can meet outside in an open field and still call itself a church. Can it be said that the materialistic ways are chocking our country as well as causing our church to lose its focus. I know that in my life there have been times that relationships have taken a back seat to a material thing that I feel like I need. I don’t think that is okay.

  8. I believe it is important for a church’s local ministry to do things (building projects and the like) to attract new members, but I agree that there is plenty of excess our churches could do without. Along with Scott, I appreciate the comment about simply “throwing money” at a problem. I think that for people who are unable to contributed physically, monetary support is great, but those of us who are able to “get our hands dirty” should view it as a responsibility. However, it is not enough to call it a responsibility. Often we tend to have negativity towards “responsibilities.” We need to approach this responsibility with a “servant’s heart.”

    Back to the money issue, though. I found it interesting that you brought up sound systems and African orphans because that jogged my memory. While I was in Africa this summer, I saw quite a few village-church sound systems (if indeed that’s what we would call a keyboard hooked to a car battery). The money we spend on our sound systems (this can be a metaphor for any other superfluous church “needs”) could have true meaning elsewhere.

  9. I usually try to be as cautious as I possibly can be when talking about the level of sacrifice and christian charity because I know that what I say will need to be applied to my life too.
    God commands and calls us to a life a charity and servitude. In James 1:27 the purest form of religion is defined as caring for the widows and orphans in their need. In 1 Timothy 6:18 the Church is encouraged to be generous and ready to share. In 2 Corinthians 9 we are told to be cheerful givers. There are numerous other passages that call us to be Christ’s hands and heart as we interact with the world around us. So what are we doing? Can we seriously say that we are giving with cheerful hearts? Are we honestly prepared to be generous at all times? How much are we willing to give before it is “too much”? We need to be careful that we don’t lose focus and suddenly assume that giving up everything we have is the only way to be a good Christian, but I feel that every one of us, as the Body of Christ, should be willing to sacrifice for each other much like how Jesus sacrificed His life for us. I know that even I slack in this area and I tend to hide the importance of charity behind the mask of “poor college student” when really this is a time when I should be stepping it up and giving more than I ever have.

  10. As soon as I read the final paragraph, James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. I agree that the responsibility of social justice MUST fall upon Jesus followers but if the government decides to build their own safety net, then so be it. My personal belief on the establishment of the state social system is that one of the contributing factors was the lack of perceived action on the part of the Church (the main drive of course being the Great Depression). Historically, the church has done very little to benefit the have-not’s and I think that it’s time to change that. Thankfully, many Jesus followers have become more and more aware of and participate in social programs on behalf of those suffering. Like you said, throwing money at the problem is not necessarily the right or most effective solution. When Jesus said “go”, he uses an action verb, not a passive one. While I see the OWS movement as nothing more than a brainwashed socialist movement (and I laugh at the fools who simply participate like blind, mindless sheep), their actions are bringing to light a need within our own cities. Instead of ignoring this, the church needs to step up and become a solution to the problem as opposed to a contributor/bystander.

  11. I like what Jason said at the end of his post. “Instead of ignoring this, the church needs to step up and become a solution to the problem as opposed to a contributor/bystander.” I feel the exact same way, as I know most of us do. If we just throw money at the situation, we just support it. If we go and give money, and actually find out where the money is needed then I feel we are doing as Jesus told to do, and “go”.

  12. I think that even if the people occupying Wall Street got their way and those in power created ways for the poor in our country to get more money, the problem would still exist. Social reform is difficult to take place when the ones implementing the reform are not personally helping individuals and base the reform on simply giving money to those who need it. The government programs that are set up now to help the poor are easy to manipulate and take advantage of. Paul continues in Romans 13 to talk about loving your neighbor as yourself. If each family in the Church decided to find another family in their community that was in need to help provide for their needs not only financially but also spiritually and mentally as well, many social problems would cease to exist. People are more willing to respect and listen to those that take time out of their day to help, than a group of people that sends them a check in the mail. This reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. Lead a quiet life full of hard work in order to gain respect and not have to depend on others.

  13. While reading through some of these posts I have noticed a commonality along two ideas or thoughts. The first idea being the role of the government coming from Romans 13, and the other about the concept of the church providing for the needs of the poor and needy. What I do not find in the discussion is any mention from Wright’s work and what he is discussing about in his chapters.

    About the ‘new perspective of Paul,’ Wright mentions on page 113 the idea of righteousness and the doctrine of justification. Wright concludes, “The doctrine of justification by faith was born into the world as the key doctrine underlying the unity of God’s renewed people.” I write this idea because one would think the role of the church would be more unified in the matter of both discussions of Romans 13 and helping the poor. What then is the purpose in submitting ourselves to authority or giving of ourselves to the love others?

    We find the purpose in the example of Christ Himself. Wright mentions that “The Messiah represents his people, so that what is true of him is true of them (113).” This comment is referring to the redefinition of election for God’s chosen people, yet I find it fitting in Wright’s thought.

    The question was brought up towards the end of the post from Long that what would it look like if the church did what it ought to, and I would say we would see a lot more of the Kingdom aspects in our communities. We would see more of the concept of “the already but not yet consummated Kingdom,” which in return brings the LORD glory.

  14. This is a tough question to answer. On the surface, it seems like a church that pours money into its own building instead of using the excess money to help out the people in need is flat out hypocritical. In Matthew 19:20, when Jesus says “‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Sometimes a church really possesses so much when it comes to electrical equipment, screens, and the physical building, and it really does not need all that it has. It somewhat is a tough question though, when you are providing a free service every week, and the church is open to the poor every service to feed them spiritually. Churches that possess a lot do help the poor out in many ways, as they likely do not poor all their offerings into paying for a building, but it is easy to pick apart the money that goes towards things that are not needed. It is very tough to picture the fact that the money poured into a sound system could be saving multiple orphans’ lives as well.

  15. Oh Lordy another What if… Can I play too? What if we did more about this issue than ask what if questions? What if a Christian campus got off their butts on Saturday and served our community?

    Okay now that that is out of my system, lets answer your what if questions…

    I would be sooo excited if a mega church donated their funds to a local poverty relief. The church I am a part of is consistently adding new building projects. Once one is finished, a new one begins and so on and so forth. It is upsetting that this is the case, unfortunately though, I am but a youth leader and do not have much pull in the church. I’ve been told that said church pulls in anywhere from 40-80 thousand dollars on any given weekend. Can you imagine what a poverty relief could do with that sort of money? It would be amazing!

    Next, as far as spending the money on African orphans, that would be super cool, but what about American orphans? I always find it hard to say this because it makes me seem like a cruel evil person. “How can you think about American orphans before African ones?!?!? Americans are so much better off” They yell. While this is most certainly true, I was brought up with the idea that loyalty is the number one attribute to have. So I am loyal to America and her orphans before I come close to feeling a need to help another countries orphans. Considering what America has done for each and every one of us, shouldn’t we feel the same?

    Obama is our president. So I support him. If McCain had won the election, I would have supported him. If P. Long (God help us if he did) were to win the election I would support him. Its all in loyalty. God says that He chooses the winner, so Obama is here for a reason. Plus, if God chooses our leaders, shouldn’t we support them? Calling for their heads is the same as telling God He made a mistake, and that just doesn’t make sense!

    • “What if” is the point of these questions. We are part of a class (that we pay for) and this is an assignment. It is our responsibility to respond appropriately.

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