Body Life in the Imperial Capital

Romans 13:1-7 is often separated from its context and treated as a Pauline statement about the Christian’s or the church’s relation to the state. We can certainly draw some conclusions from the passage: God is the source of all public authority (13:1). Whoever resists authority resists the ordinance of God (13:2). Rulers bear the sword – an instrument of death – to punish evil (13:4). And so on.

Christians have rightly qualified these conclusions, based on other passages of Scripture and political experience. Is all authority established by God? Thomas asks. It depends. With regard to “the power itself,” Yes. With regard to the way a ruler obtains power, it is of God when obtained justly; a usurper’s authority isn’t established by God in the way a legitimate ruler’s is.

With regard to the use of power, it is “from God sometimes, as when a person observes the precepts of divine justice in using the power granted him.” If he uses power against divine justice, “it is not from God. (quotations from Thomas’s commentary on Romans; thanks to Dale Coulter for providing the text).

And then there are questions about how Christians respond to usurpers or tyrants. Based on the examples of Daniel and the apostles, nearly all Christian thinkers have said Christians must disobey a ruler who commands them to sin. I follow the tradition of Reformed resistance theory, according to which “lesser magistrates” have authority, in extremity, to lead a rebellion.

So there’s a lot of political theology stuffed into these verses. But of course the passage needs to be read in context, particularly in the context of the body life Paul describes in Romans 12.

As I discussed last week, Romans 12 describes the liturgy of Christian body life, the living sacrifice that manifests itself corporately in the one-and-many body and individually in Christians who love, humble themselves, rejoice, persevere, practice generosity and hospitality, who bless and do not seek revenge.

Chapter 13 is an extension of that series of exhortations. Christians aren’t to take our own vengeance, but leave room for the wrath of God. By doing good to our enemies, we heap coals – either turning them into another altar for living sacrifice or piling coals to consume them (12:19-20). Either way, doing good turns enemies into friends.

Sometimes God avenges His people directly, by punishing our enemies. Sometimes, though, His wrath is mediated through the state, called to be “an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (13:4). Christians submit to the state in part because we know the king’s heart is in the Lord’s hand, to turn it where He wills.

Paul never forgets he’s addressing a letter to a community of believers in the imperial capital, but that comes to its most explicit expression in chapter 13. His discussion of the Christian’s relation to the “powers that be” is an extension of his discussion of body life. He offers a sketch of body life in the imperial capital.

Paul uses long-standing political terms to describe the body of believers. Calling Christian gatherings ekklesiai is like calling your local church “City Council of Gary, Indiana.” The church, he implies, is the true governing body of Rome, and an outpost of another city.

One might think such a social body is poised for sedition. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar ain’t. And if Caesar ain’t lord, why obey, pay taxes, show honor? Why be in subjection to the powers that be?

Paul does claim Jesus is Lord and King. He does recognize this puts Christians on a collision course with Caesar. In that clash, he expects Jesus to triumph – as the pale Galilean did some centuries later.

But the path to victory isn’t resistance, palace coup, or revolution. The path Paul lays out is the same path of subversive obedience Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount. The path to victory over Caesar is doing good.

So, Paul says, Christians avoid the sword of the ruler by doing good instead of evil. And Paul says we should pay taxes, honor, custom, fear to everyone who is due such homage (13:6-7).

That looks like political quietism, or the tactical stance of a religious minority with an uncertain legal status. I don’t think either of these is true. Paul describes, as I say, a path of political victory.

That’s what he says at the end of chapter 12: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. We are justified in turning that into a conditional sentence with a promise in the apodosis: If we aren’t overcome by evil, if we continue to do good, we will overcome evil.

That evil often takes political form. It takes the form of wicked “powers that be,” that permit and promote the slaughter of the unborn, that establish abominable sexual practices as a human right, that destroy marriage, that blur and erase the foundational created differences between male and female.

How do we overcome such evil? Stop paying taxes? Stop showing honor? Paul says we overcome evil with good. Romans 13:1-7 isn’t so much a piece of political theology as a set of political tactics for overcoming the evil empire.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.