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

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.  This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.  Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority.  Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.  I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens.  What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel and against the government then?

I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.  No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate.  Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.  Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protestors did not burn Rome, Nero did!

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century.  They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – Lawsuits Among Brothers

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8).  We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church.  Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender.  Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.  really, imagine that.

As strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world.  Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.)  These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers.  Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics.  Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.)  If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”:  they are suing family members.  Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club.  A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers.  The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens.  He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration.  Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

In fact, of one were really living out the teaching of Jesus there would be no need to sue over a perceived insult.  The brother forgives his brother.  Given the cultural background above, this is counter-cultural and radical!

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context?  At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger.  This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.