Saturday, November 10, 2012

Submission to the Governing Authorities

In light of the recent election, I had plenty of political things to say, but I decided not to say them for lack of sure footing. What I will say is my thoughts on a passage being thrown around a lot of late, Romans 13:1-7. How I usually compose posts is by writing a combination of notes and outlines, which I then expand into a full post. My notes are fairly clear this time, though, so for something a bit different I thought I'd leave them in this form and let you unpack them. (I promise I'm not just being lazy) If this crashes and burns I can easily turn it into a full post

Pre-context: Exhortations on how to live in right relationship with God (12:1-3), the church/using our gifts (4-8), and with individuals in general (9-16), and with our enemies (16-21)

Post-context: The supremacy of love (8-10) and call to live not for this world but for the next (11-14)

13:1-7 is about living in right relationship with the "governing authorities"

1-2: The governing authorities of this world reflect God's total authority and so, reflecting our submission to God, we should also submit to them or they will bring a reflection of His judgment on you

3-4: Confusing part--the authorities convey approval on those who do good and God's punishment ("the sword") on those who do evil

5: For these two reasons (rulers reflecting God's authority and bringing His wrath), be subject to them

6-7: Give to the authorities what is theirs, just as you give to God what is His (echo of Matthew 22:21)

The trouble: Paul says "rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad", yet he had been repeatedly punished and persecuted for preaching the gospel, which is morally good conduct

I see three possibilities for resolving this:
  1. Paul had some different definition of "governing authorities" in mind than political rulers
  2. He was referring to the fact that Christians have nothing to fear from anything in this world (end of ch. 8) while evildoers with no fear of God have nothing higher than the authorities to fear
  3. He had a different meaning of "good conduct" in mind
  1. Unlikely--who else could he mean? Church government? But church elders certainly don't bear the sword (the end of 12--we are to leave it to God's justice) Interpreting it as government just makes by far the most sense
  2. This seems to undermine his own argument--he is saying that to avoid having to fear governing authorities we should watch our conduct, not simply remember that God is supreme above them, which on its own would seem to imply that there is no need to submit to human authority because we have nothing to fear from it
  3. "Good conduct" could mean something like "good citizenship"--distinct from moral good. This seems like the most likely possibility.
The Greek work for "good" here (ἀγαθός) is also used to mean worldly possessions in Luke 12:16-21 and superficially pleasant or beneficial in Luke 16:25--doesn't have to mean moral good

Paul's command to "do what is good [citizenship]" is not universal--it is in response to desire to not be afraid of the authorities (leaving room for disobedience if civil law contradicts God's commands)
This also shows that civil authorities can reflect God's authority and wrath, even without His justice--they are separate things

Interesting question: Would Paul say the American Revolution was justified?

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