Paul and Empire – Romans 13:1-7

In an earlier post, I argued Paul commands obedience to the government. I pointed out 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!

The recent US election resulted in a bad person taking the office of president. I could have written this at any time in the last fifty years and made at least 50% of the US population happy. But in the days following this election the protests seemed louder and more bitter than the anti-Obama or anti-Bush protests. As an American, people have the freedom to protest within the limits of the law and there is nothing illegal about these kinds of protests. It is almost a traditional now to have a small segment of the population enter into a kind of apoplexy when their candidate loses.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, many anti-Trump protesters are law-abiding and legal protests. 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. For most of these protesters, electing a billionaire who appoints other billionaires is not going to solve the problems American faces (unless you are a billionaire already).

Despite the fact Paul says to obey the government in Romans 13, I am not as happy with the  solution offered by the Occupy Wall Street or any presidential candidate. They essentially argue the government is the solution to the real problems of America. The government needs to do something to “spread the wealth.” The highly charged rhetoric of the Trump campaign appealed to people by saying the government can “make America great again.” Trump got elected by saying he could save the country and make people prosperous gain.

trump-neroFor me, this is not a capitalist/socialist issue. It is a matter of responsibility.  I do not think the government should be caring for the poor in a society, but rather the Church.  As I read Romans 13, I see nothing about the government providing a social safety net. The government is ordained to enforce law and keep the peace. The church is to care for the poor and needy and do the job so well there are no poor and needy people. If we are looking to the government for our physical salvation or the president (emperor), are we really any different than the Romans who looked to Caesar as “lord and savior,” the one who makes the world peaceful and prosperous?

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 some social issues, but given the wealth flowing through most American churches, 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?

Remember that Paul is not talking only to modern America. Every Christian in the world had to work out what it means to “submit to the government” and impact their culture in order to present the gospel to their culture in a meaningful way. I would love to hear from some international readers on this issue, since I am sure my American eyes are not seeing things clearly.

16 thoughts on “Paul and Empire – Romans 13:1-7

  1. Thank you for this reasonable discussion. It seems there is so little reasonableness among scholars who are experts in ancient history and biblical-and-related fields. There are many of us who are concerned about Trump, but see the government as unfit to solve problems. Regardless of whether it is framed within a proper argument, I see the VA as the destiny of government healthcare and Detroit and Greece as the destiny of government borrowing to support non-productive citizens. To listen to the most vocal scholars (who by the way area pronouncing and enouncing as if experts but lack the expertise), there is only one path to their vision of fairness and justice even though the evidence of failure is overwhelming along that path. Scholars, as it turns out, have a strong aversion to informed argument based on sound evidence, it seems to me.

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  2. Thank you for this reasonable discussion. It seems there is so little reasonableness among scholars who are experts in ancient history and biblical-and-related fields. There are many of us who are concerned about Trump, but see the government as causing more problems than it solves. Regardless of whether my obervations fit within a proper argument, I see the VA as the inevitable destiny of all government healthcare and Detroit and Greece as the inevitable destiny of government borrowing to support non-productive citizens. To listen to the most vocal scholars (who by the way are pronouncing and denouncing as if experts on these topics but obviously lack the expertise), there is only one path to their vision of fairness and justice even though the evidence of failure down that path is overwhelming. Scholars, as it turns out, have a strong aversion to informed argument based on sound evidence, it seems to me.

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  3. What utter nonsense. When a government takes 40+% of the common citizens income. (Add it up or shut up). And doesn’t take care of the weakest and most vulnerable citizens it no longer should be considered legitimate. We have a reverse Robin Hood government that needs to be changed.

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    • I assume you’re from America, and what you say is of course true.

      Perhaps you didn’t read my article closely enough. I don’t advocate the government should do more, but rather less. My point above is that it is the church’s responsibility to care for the poor not the government. Certainly would be ideal if we had honest government officials who did look out for the poor and the needy in our culture, or at least protected the from economic oppressors. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      Go ahead and protest the government make all the changes you’d like. But if you put your trust in the empire, you are not trusting in God.

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  4. agree that the church should be caring for the needy, and that this is God’s main way of looking after people. But I also think God would like governments to do more to help the needy, too. For example, speaking to the head of a country, he said, “renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed” (Dan. 4:27) — it seems this is part of God’s positive desire for the controlling power of governments.

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  5. When I comes to a Christian response to government failures in this regard, maybe the right thing to do is do what Daniel, Esther, (John the Baptist?,) Jesus did: dialogue (but never revolution). And, along with this, loving enemies (even if the enemy comprises the government), and caring for those in need ourselves.

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  6. This topic is too important for a quick answer. But as Owl in Winnie the Pooh had on his signs, ring this bell if an answer is required. (I foget the spellings) You rang that bell, made from Eyeore’s tale that was lost.

    The care for the poor and marginalized did not originate with Jesus. He knows God’s bias for the poor from the Psalms and he sees clearly that the character of the ruler reflects the character of the people or vice versa, as someone quipped, ‘we get the leaders we deserve’. The role of good governance is a constant theme in the Old Testament. Paul would have been thoroughly steeped in this and perhaps we are missing the allusions in his writing because our knowledge of the OT is limited to what traditional Christianity has read into it.

    A mega church is not a concept I can at all identify with, let alone one whose bias is in favour of the poor. Care, and the social safety net, is everyone’s responsibility, government and other institutions all together, whatever we invent, big or small. How do we create wealth but by encouraging and nurturing the gifts of everyone, not just the few who know how to bend the rules in their favour, and this includes both religious and political demagogues?

    Our social problems come from our own biases. I wish I could give good advice, like JB, whoever has two cloaks let him give one to him who has none. This is not a command to Christians or churches, but to our own humanity. Our tendency seems to be that whoever has one cloak should give it to the one that has billions, and he like Scrroge McDuck will put it in his basement and swim in the $$$, unmeasurable dead money, while the hoi polloi slave and are measured to the last blade of grass mown. (Poor unca Donald and his nephews!)

    We as humans, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist or nothing have the responsibility to care, and if we fail, we will live with the consequences or die with them. The measurement of our care will be in the divisions we create between ourselves and the other who is different from us whether of gender, race, or species. We will be held against that measurement. Our procrustean bed. Our fetters (Psalm 149), the same that bound Joseph.

    But it is the ones who know mercy and can administer it who are to impose the fetters on the rebellious, so let’s get on with it. Take in the refugees – even the ones we might inadvertently have created. Stop the rape of the earth by the mining companies. Preserve clean water. Have the rich pay their taxes also so that the poor can be educated, housed, clothed, and healed. You may do it with your private foundations in the US, or you may do it with government funded institutions as in Canada – but if it is done only for private interest, you can be sure the question of poverty will not be resolved. So who makes the policy that enables both motivation and result?

    Enough of a hasty opinion written on holiday… keep on studying

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  7. As a first time voter in a presidential election, I had a very hard time understanding what exactly I wanted from a president or from the government in general. I had a hard time understanding why people were so against what Bernie was trying to do by providing education and healthcare to all Americans. As a Christian, I want to give what I can to those who do not have to means to get it themselves. I realized that I was giving the wrong role to the government in general. As mentioned in this post, the role of the government is to enforce the law and keep the peace. What Bernie was trying to do through the government for the citizens of the US is really what Christians should be doing through the church. It is the job of the politicians to do the work that the church is called to do.

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    • Great insight! Now that we know the role of the government and role of Christians in society, how are they able to work together? Are they supposed to work together? How do we respect each other if each one does not share the same mission? How do you see yourself following Paul description in Romans 13 of doing the work of the church? What could be better? I agree with Moo’s insight and Paul’s description that people need to see the love of Christ through Christians’ actions to be able to be open to the Gospel and take it as truth.

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  8. I appreciate it when people express how the church needs to step up as a unified body of believers. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. We are called to love others and bless others through the gifts and blessings we receive. We are called to help the poor and the orphans.
    The church today in America is trailing behind our culture. Although most churches think that they are trying to remain biblical, they indeed are trailing off farther down a slope that will soon be so secular. Most churches have shifted to this desire for growth and impact and numbers, that their sight is on greed and pride and not on fulfilling the word of God. Every church I have been a part of has this mission to update and replace their building and to add more leisure or pleasure items for churchgoers. It’s all about making people come and stay. How do they do that? By watering down the Gospel, allowing people to live comfortable lives with no guilt if they tithe, focusing on ways to benefit them and their needs, and minimizing the call to use our stewardship to bless all people.
    Our churches are becoming a direct representation of our culture.
    One thing that I think more churches need to do is to have consistent missions or services offered to those outside the church walls- most of the financial resources going to them.
    I attended a church, whom is financially well off because of the faithful tithers. For 2 of their Sunday services all the money collected for tithing went directly into the hands of our sister church in Nepal. Over 140,000 dollars was raised in those two days. That many went to bless those in a third world country in ways that are way more useful if the church kept onto it for maintenance funds or technology advancements.
    I think every church needs to implement financial resources to those outside of this country, but for those inside the country as well.The church could have SUCH a huge impact on our culture if they were willing to stop being caught up with greed and pride.
    Then again, maybe the reason money is coming into these churches is because what they offer to those people. They like what they see, hear, or receive thus they are willing to tithe. Take that away, stretch and challenge people to be uncomfortable, live minimally- and what happens?

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  9. I’m a little late in responding on this one, but have something quite pertinent. Before I share that, let me mention that I do think in a country as large and diverse as the USA, that it is not feasible to expect the Church or all “private sector” charities, education, etc., combined, to address all the poor, the healthcare needs, etc. Only federal gov’t (or perhaps states, if they WOULD) can “catch” the people who inevitably “fall through the cracks”. Maybe a church-government collaboration COULD work, but we don’t have such structures to speak of, and don’t think in those terms.

    But I agree heartily on this: that Christians, organized via churches and non-profits, could and should do a whole lot more than they are doing. I will site a very positive example, with a disturbing footnote. That is in my own community and region of “North County” of San Diego County. A little of the massive and successful interventions for veterans, the poor, homeless, etc. that is happening locally I’ve touched on in a post about a recent Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service here: http://wp.me/p5oBn-Vm.

    The footnote that concerns me is this: Almost all of the faith groups that are actively cooperating in the delivery of these services and in the great sense of cooperation and mutual respect that is growing in our community are from diverse faith groups or non-orthodox / progressive Christian denominations. Here is a fairly inclusive list of who participated in the service, as it reflects fairly closely who supports our very large and effective non-profit leading most of the work, Interfaith Community Services: United Methodist, Episcopal, Bahai, United Church of Christ, Seventh Dad Adventist, Islam, Unitarian Universalist, Latter Day Saints (hosting), American Universalist (an Essene branch), a Pentecostal independent ministry, ELCA (more “liberal”) Lutherans and probably a couple I’m missing. AND….

    Notably missing was the very large (borderline “megachurch”) Evangelical church in town, along with the Calvary Chapels (formerly Charismatic, still Evangelical) and virtually all the several other Evangelical/orthodox churches in town: the Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans (Missouri Synod), independent Fundamentalist, community (“Bible teaching”) churches, etc. Some of these may have some joint efforts of relief/service separate from the community Interfaith efforts, and they probably also have some efforts of their own in helping the needy… I actually know that at least some do. However, to me, their efforts would be much more effective if they would also join in and support what is already in motion and proving to work… well beyond the mediocre-results of many efforts toward the homeless, for example.

    And, at least in several cases, I know the congregations have significant resources available that are untapped or are going to things not as tied to the kind of “Kingdom ethics” and Kingdom work that Jesus modeled and called us to. (Among other points, I guess you could add that this is an indirect appeal that people stop assuming we progressives have somehow “abandoned the faith”, are not real Christians, etc., even though some of us admit, unashamedly, to not being “orthodox” in theology.

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  10. Poverty is an issue that is so deep, multifaceted, and difficult to solve. People have poured time and effort into it since the beginning, and it is still a major issue in our country and across the world. Political groups, Christians, and nations, etc. make it their goal to eradicate poverty, however even Jesus tells us that it is a never-ending battle as, “you will always have the poor among you” (John 12:8). I attend a mega church in Holland, and while it is our church’s philosophy to keep our home-base strong so we can better help others, I know there is money poured into the church that hypothetically could help more impoverished people in our community. However, I truly believe that the issue in our modern culture isn’t that simple.

    I’ve spent a lot of time throughout the last 3 years researching poverty from an economic standpoint. I’ve read books such as Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts and they’ve completely changed my perspective on giving. The main emphasis of these ideas is that when “we” (Christians, churches, rich nations) give to impoverished groups of people, it stifles their economy and essentially makes them worse off the in the long run. Free-will giving is normally a temporary fix that just puts a band-aid on a much larger issue. Another one of the biggest problems is our idea of poverty being a materialistic thing. Americans think that the only type of poverty is one that lacks material possessions (clothes, food, shelter, etc.) whereas impoverished people typically describe poverty as “worthlessness” or “inferiority” and completely neglects the idea of material possessions. We send material possessions to fix poverty, but maybe that’s not even their major issue? I could go on and on about the topic, but throughout my research, I would say that the best way for us and the church to help the communities in poverty is through business and providing jobs rather than sending a couple boxes of shoes every Christmastime. Giving is a tricky line, we are obviously called to be generous and give (2 Cor. 9:7; Prov. 11:25; Luke 6:30; Ps. 37:21) yet we need to use wisdom while doing it. We are called to be wise in all other areas of our lives and I believe we also should be wise with our money and the resources God has given to us.

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    • I would love to hear more about this, esp. the books Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts. This is also a big interest for me, but I have not had the time to dig into quite like you have. Have you read much on the (non) value of missions trips?

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