Romans 13 in Context   Leave a comment

For most of European history, Christians were taught that the government was divinely appointed. No matter what  government did, Christians were to treat it as just and fair and support it wholeheartedly because Romans 13 said we must. There is no distinction made in Romans 13 between “good” rules and “bad” rulers or “fair” laws or “unfair” laws. There’s not even an out for objecting to oppression.

That is … if you take the verses in Romans 13 all by themselves ….

That’s not how Paul wrote them and it’s entirely possible that it was not how he meant them. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans as a letter and what we deem Chapter 13 is just a convenient way of breaking up a large body of text. If we go back further in the letter, we can find where the subject he’s discussing starts. Chapter 12 ends with the admonition “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Romans 12 talks a lot about the Christian’s love for one’s neighbor as one’s self and strongly warns Christians not to resist evil with evil. We aren’t just to love those who we find loveable, but to bless those who persecute us; “bless and not curse.”

Then we reach 13:1 where it says there is no authority except that instituted by God and that Christians are to be subject to the government authorities. Governing authority is, according to the Net Bible translates as “power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases, leave or permission” (and only talks about government rule in the fourth definition). The NET Bible was translated and the site is administered by textual critics from the Dallas Theological Seminary. The word translated “be subject to” actually carries with it two connotations. In the military sense, it means to arrange or subordinate under the command of a leader, but in the non-military sense, it means to have a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating to share a burden.”

Is it possible that this passage of Scripture has been deliberately misinterpreted and given that militaristic sense in order to co-opt Christianity into the governing systems?

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