Never Resist, Except When You Should Resist
God Ordains the Good and the not so Good
The Bible is rich in traditions of civil resistance and opposition against governing authorities. Hebrew midwives challenged the Egyptian Pharaoh, refusing to kill newborn sons due to their fear of the Lord (Exodus 1:17). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisted Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to worship the golden image and were thrown into a fiery furnace for retribution (Daniel 3:5). Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin and explicitly instructed to discontinue their message of the risen Christ (Acts 4:18); yet they persisted in their preaching. If these examples of the richness of civic struggles in Biblical traditions are not enough, contemporary scholarship teaches us that among the few things we know about the historical Jesus, he was crucified for the act of sedition, a crime of rebellion against the state.
When we take this historical framework into account, it is clear to see why Paul’s words of universal submission to governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7 may be problematic. Essentially, in this passage Paul makes three logical arguments: 1) All governing authority has been ordained by God (v. 1); 2) a person who resists such authority resists God (v. 2) and will be punished or rewarded accordingly (v. 3-4); and 3) to avoid wrath and vengeance, Christians must be subject to authority (v. 5).
Essentially, Paul argues for the Roman Christians to fully humble themselves before authority for the honoring of the Lord. Interestingly, Paul provides no exception to this universal declaration. However, a superficial understanding of Paul’s words of submission is not enough; it must be examined in a larger context.
Before proceeding any further, it is first necessary to establish if Paul truly meant governmental authority, or if this is our imposition of the text. The recursion of the word κακός in 12:21 and 13:3,4 (translated as “evil” or “wrongdoing”) makes clear that Paul is addressing Christian relations to a non-Christian section of society (Thompson 9). Furthermore, Paul’s arguments are almost identically parallel with Peter’s reasons for submitting to “human institutions… emperors… [and] governors (1 Peter 2:13-14).” Likewise, the Greek translation for governing authorities (exousiais hyperechousais) typically connotes political powers (Neufeld). Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that Paul is considering political and governmental powers. This has so been accepted that the Indonesian translation of the text (TB-LAI) actually uses the word “government”, in contrast to the English “governing authorities”.
Just as rhetorical analysis yields implications on our understanding of the text, so too does its literary context. Considering the entire Epistle of Romans, scholars have argued for the omission of this unit due to its seemingly discontinuity with preceding and following units. Such scholars have argued that it is an interpolation added after the times of Paul. In response to this critique, Luke Thompson argues that there are “contextual, stylistic, and historical reasons we should have no doubt Romans 13:1-7 (p. 8)” was intentionally included where Paul inserted it. Contextually, he argues that Paul’s encouragement of submission exists antithetical to 12:19-21, where Paul commands believers to resist revenge. Stylistically, there is a repetition of the Greek κακός and ἀγαθός in 12:21 and 13:3,4 as well as the anadiplosis of ὀφειλάς in v. 7 and v. 8 creates a continuing theme through 13:1 (Thompson 8-9).
Lastly, a historical understanding of the purpose of Paul’s words and the occasion prompting his writing reveals contextual understanding of 13:1-7. Writing to the Christian church in Rome, the capital city of the Empire, it is important to note that Jewish diasporic communities were expelled from Rome in 49 C.E. (Thompson 3). Scholars also believe that the Roman church included many Jewish converts who would, therefore, be sympathetic with these ostracized Jews. On top of this, Nero issued a new tax on Roman citizens in 54 C.E. Connecting the two issues, it could have been possible that the Christian converts were refusing to pay their tax as an act of solidarity for their expelled brothers. This view is further reinforced by Paul’s direct reference to paying taxes at the end of this passage (13:7). More abstractly, Matthew G. Neufeld believes that Paul’s words are not necessarily due to historical realities, but serve within a preventive purpose. Paul’s exhortation in chapter 12 is against “enthusiasm and that this carries over into chapter 13, where Paul is resisting that attitude which in virtue of heavenly citizenship views earthly authorities with indifference or contempt.” Yet, regardless of what historical events prompted Paul to include this message in his Epistles, most scholars agree that he did not intend to create a dogmatic system of church vis a vis state relations.
It seems that Paul’s understanding of absolute submission to the state in Romans 13:1-7 it far too simplistic. He incorrectly assumes that governing authorities always reward good and punish evil (v. 3). Furthermore, he provides no exceptions for when it is acceptable to resist corrupt and evil governments and how Christians can do so and maintain their integrity. He also indicates that rebellious individuals are doomed to divine condemnation. Yet, surely Paul would not disapprove of the Hebrew’s midwives’ protection of newborns, despite legal commands. Surely Paul would not deny the faultlessness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the face of idol worship. In fact, according to Paul, these figures should suffer punishment from the state according to the ordination of God, but all of these people are rewarded with the Lord’s favor (Exodus 1: 20; Daniel 3:25).
Hence, it is important to note the importance of context in the use of Romans 13:1-7. There are times and events in history which demand a moral response of rebellion and resistance to governing authorities, while there are also times for submission and silence. The issue is not absolute and cannot be painted with a black and white brush; rather, it is up to the discernment of the community affected to decide what is the right response.
In this spirit of complexity, we will look at forms of civil protest which have been approved and disapproved by the American people. Afterwards, there will be considerations on the Indonesian and Zimbabwean manipulation of the text to justify their regime. Lastly, we will examine the life of John Wesley and his continual changing theology of politics throughout his life, prompted by significant events and challenges. By the end of this study of the use of Romans 13:1-7, readers will see that there is no universal declaration or absolute certitude that can be concluded in Romans 13:1-7, but is dependent upon our use of the sacred, yet problematic, Scripture.
Scriptural Malleability: Cultural Influences and Elitist Readings of Romans
Bree Newsome proudly clings to the top of the flag pole outside of South Carolina’s state house grounds on the 17 June, 2015. She waves the red, white, and blue flag that has historically represented rebellion and racism in the United States, removing it from the flagpole in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As she descends back into the crowd, she was arrested and carried to prison with charges of defecating state monuments. However, the American people called for her release and she was soon acquitted. Newsome’s actions were interpreted as an expression of inclusivity and a challenge of systemic racism in the United States.
Antithetical to this experience of approved civil disobedience, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, was arrested when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Despite the Supreme Courts national legalization of same-sex marriage on 26 June, 2015 Davis believed that such actions would violate her conscious and religious principles. Nonetheless, she was charged with being contempt of court; yet, compared to Bree Newsome, the general American population did not approve of her actions. For most people, Davis overextended her authority and violated the legal rights of others. Gleaning from the patterns of protest in the stories of Bree Newsome and Kim Davis, it is clear that in any evaluation of civil disobedience context and clearly established criteria are critical.
To further illustrate the importance of circumstances in civil resistance, Emanuel Gerrit Singgih draws on his experience in Indonesian church. According to Singgih, there are two mainline interpretations of Romans 13:1-7; the first argues for the support of existing governments (called the “colonial interpretation”), while the second encourages individual’s rights despite governing authorities (called the “post-colonial interpretation”). Drawing on the writings of Karl Barth, he argues of the need for a post-colonial interpretation and only supports those sections of the state that share similar attitudes and sentiments with the Christian tradition. The colonial interpretation of Romans 13 was adopted during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia and continued in support of the Soeharto government. Civil disobedience is an acceptable alternative, especially considering that Paul’s original goal in writing this text was to gain support for his Spanish mission. Paul’s intention was not “to create a political ethic for all times and places in succeeding generations (Singgih).” Singgih contextualizes Romans 13 in a way that empowers all sections of society and justifies the use of civil disobedience for the advancement of social progress.
Yet, just Romans 13:1-7 has been used to justify resisting governing authorities, it has also been manipulated by social elitist to legitimize their power and conform social structures to their influence. Criticizing the “Christian sacralization of human authority” in Zimbabwe, Collium Banda and B.B. Senokoane point out the paradoxical growth of Christianity and political repression in their native country. As Christianity becomes more and more popular, President Robert Mugabe’s repressive rule becomes more and more harsh. For Banda and Senokoane, this reciprocal growth is the result of a colonial interpretation of Romans. Harsh social realities are not solely the result of President Mugabe, but also “the Christian leaders who have sacralized their authority and have been in the forefront of the legitimization of Mugabe (Banda and Senokoane).” In other words, authoritative figures interpret Romans as a submissive text as a tool to manipulate the general public in order to preserve their elitist power.
The Quest for Wesleyan Political Language and Increasing Complexities
Theodore R. Weber writes of an experience during a workshop on Global Mission and Political Economy at the Tenth Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies in August 1997. Nearly 200 international church leaders gathered to consider the problems facing politics in a global context; but they were faced with one insurmountable obstacle: they lacked a common language through which the initiate the dialogue. Until this point, the Wesleyan tradition had failed to establish a clear, universal political language through which to interact with the world around them. Lutherans have the doctrine of two kingdom theology, Roman Catholics discuss natural law, and Calvinist talk of covenants and federalism. Yet, the Wesleyan tradition remains mute.
Political language, of course, simply means an avenue of communication that interprets political reality and establishes expected political behavior (Weber 17). Searching for this lost language, we must first journey to John Wesley’s, the founder of Methodism, reaction to his own political context in 18th-century England. To begin, Wesley sympathized with the grievance of the American colonies despite his English roots. However, this quickly changed when their complaints moved from legal English rights to threats of secession and independence. According to Wesley, civil disobedience was acceptable in the former, but not in the latter. Therefore, we already see inconsistencies in the attempt to reconstruct a Wesleyan political language.
Wesley’s initial support of the colonies and later support of the British monarchy was to be expected. Overall, he was a “thoroughly conservative man whose main political objective was to protect and preserve the institution of monarch ruling by divine right, and whose political ethic essentially was that of passive obedience to governing authorities (Weber 28).” Wesley adopted a Pauline response to governing authorities and believed political authorization descends from above, electing those who are to rule. Bearing this divine origination in mind, it is easy to imagine why John Wesley remained transparent on political issues during his early days. Writing to his friend, Walter Churchey, on 25 June 1777, Wesley said, “Loyalty is with me an essential branch of religion, and which I am sorry any Methodist should forget.”
Yet, with time Wesley experienced a progression framing his political ethics. Coupling Acts 5:29 with Romans 13:1-7, he began to understand the importance of holding governing authorities accountable in their role of reflecting the principles of the Kingdom of God. Eventually, Wesley moved towards political criticism and expected governing authorities to reflect the attributes of God more so than he expected citizens to wholly support authorities (Weber 234). At times, he moved the burden of proof from one receiving the orders to the one giving them. He did not simply adjust the traditional political ethic-he changed it- and in changing it invited more complexity into the process of moral reasoning (Weber 236). Wesleyan political language began to include political criticism and activism.
Therefore, even if we are unable to establish a clear political language, we can at least recognize the complexity of responding to governing authorities as indicated by Romans 13:1-7. Recognizing the problems associated with simplicity, Arnold T. Monera creates the ’13-13’ paradigm. Oftentimes, the Christian “response to governing authorities has been reduced to submissive confidence in the state (Romans 13) or deep resistance to the State (Revelations 13).” To wholly support corrupt governments is irresponsible, but “replacing the rule of law with the rule of conscience is a recipe for anarchy (David Koyzis).” Therefore, we must create a middle-ground approach. We must affirm those sections of government which are redeemable while challenging those that are damnable with whatever tools we have available. In the face of civil disobedience, we must be willing to accept whatever consequences follow our actions. A contextual evaluation is needed for every situation. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, times will be marked with pacifistic resistance to harsh political realities, but there will also be times marked with forced resistance and open rebellion. In the rediscovery of Costly Grace, we seek the Kingdom of God on earth, even if “Christ bids a man to come and die (Bonhoeffer 9).”
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