Subverting Scripture   Leave a comment

Romans 13 was written in AD 56-57 from Corinth, where Paul was making tents in the market place while ministering to the local community. Most Christians were not power brokers. The earliest Christians were Jews living in virtual clientage in Palestine. Paul was a Roman citizen with the rights that came with that status, but he abandoned the prestige of being Gamalial’s heir-apparent as THE scholar in Jerusalem to be God’s ambassador to the Gentiles. So he sewed tents in the market place.

The church Paul wrote to was nothing like the church of Rome 300 years later. This congregation lived under threat and soon Nero would attack them with impunity, accusing them of spreading the plague and burning down parts of Rome. The last thing the congregation in Rome needed was the reputation of being rebellious. Thus, Paul suggested they submit to the authorities.

There’s two reasons for this and he touched on them. One, God’s followers are in the world, but not of it. Our citizenship is not Roman or American so much as it is heaven. This is true now as it was true then, but it was more true then. Christians might have to flee to another country to survive. As such, they couldn’t afford to become too attached to whatever governmental system they lived under. The second reason was that Jesus had told them to be peaceful and forgiving, so to be rebellious would cast the God they served in a bad light.

They were going to be hated as Christians regardless, but Paul wanted them hated for being Christians, not for refusing to pay their taxes or follow some other secular law that did not impact their Christianity.

Being Christian was enough of a crime because Christians did not bow to Caesar or sacrifice in the pagan temples. After Paul’s sojourn in Ephesus, Christians would stop buying and making silver idols for the goddess Diana. Christian masters sometimes freed their slaves, which actually led to revolts among slaves held by non-Christian masters. The private worship practices of Christians struck the pagans, used to public displays of religion, as highly suspect — causing false accusations of cannibalism and incest. Later the pagans would feel that Christian neglect of the old pagan gods lead to the weakening of the Roman Empire.

Paul meant for Christians to voluntarily submit to authorities to avoid trouble with the government and so that Christians would be hated for being Christians, not hated for being subversives.

And, I would note, his advice eventually worked. Christians became known throughout the Empire as peaceful people who went about their faith without resorting to violence. They took this idea of submission so far that they sang hymns as they walked into the coliseums to be devoured by wild animals as a form of execution.

Yet, once the church at Rome and, by extension, Christianity, became the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire, that voluntary submission became a liability requiring a subversion of Scripture.

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