Today we’re going to talk about Romans a little bit. Specifically, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is, in my opinion, an extremely powerful and eloquent expression, one of the stronger pieces of writing in the Bible.
However, it’s often misunderstood and (surprise) used out of context. Quotations from Romans are often trotted out to compel or justify obedience to a secular ruler. That’s not what Romans says, at all.
The reality is, Romans is a discussion of the primacy and perfection of God’s plan and a reminder that salvation comes from God and God alone. It’s a plea to hold fast to your faith and yet to remember you are still a part of the world. It’s an outline of responsibility, not a free pass to ignore responsibilty in lieu of obedience.
I won’t write an entire commentary here, that’d be silly and presumptuous on my part. Be aware, though, that I currently have several commentaries open and have read a bit of Aquinas on this as well. I’m trying hard not to put my own words and beliefs into this. I’m deferring to theologians and philosophers that know a ton more about this than I do here, even though some of their words and interpretations chafe me a bit. I don’t throw them out just because I don’t like them though, I submit to the idea that they have a clearer understanding even if I don’t like what it says.
What I will do is discuss one of the most often (and in my mind misused) passages people like to quote in Romans. Specifically, let’s take a moment to talk about Romans 13:1-2 which states:
“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. 2 Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.”
This is often trotted out as an argument by the right wing as an exhortation to submit and failing to submit is a transgression. Let’s talk a little bit about what was going on in Rome when Paul wrote this so we can understand where he was coming from though.
At the time, Roman protocol and law was requiring devotion to pagan idols. In addition, a whole lot of newly minted Christians were rebelling against law and order, declaring themselves outside of the law and only answerable to God. They felt they weren’t citizens of Rome but were instead only citizens of the kingdom of God. Paul uses Wisdom 6:1-3 as a foundation to discuss the primacy of authority here. Let’s look at that passage:
“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”
I’m going to quote directly here from “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture” because it says it much more succinctly than I could:
“Can v 2 be quoted to show that a Christian must acquiesce in such a state of affairs as described under nr 1 and regard such a government as established for ever? No, to wait for and co-operate with God’s opportunities by using all legitimate means to bring about improvements in such a government or even to replace it by a better, would seem to be every citizen’s right by natural law. At all events every one by natural law has the right to resist injustice even when this injustice is done in the name of a government. In either case, however, the means employed must be in accordance with the moral law; and here in many cases conscience will have to be the final arbiter for the individual; cf. Boylan, on 13:2; SH 372 (on passive obedience); Lehmkuhl, Theol. Moralis, I (1898) 472; Génicot, Theol. Moralis, I (1922) 287 f.”
Theissen, A. (1953). The Epistle to the Romans. In B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 1075). Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.
We as Christians should be resisting injustice and we should be working within the Christian moral framework to bring about positive change, to bring the injustice back in line. To do otherwise is to turn our backs on our faith.
This is even more clear when we look further into wisdom beyond those first 3 stanzas. In fact, let’s look at Wis 6:1-8:
“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord” and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”
We read that part, but what about this part next?
“4 Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you did not judge rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, 5 Terribly and swiftly he shall come against you, because severe judgment awaits the exalted— 6 For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. 7 For the Ruler of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and provides for all alike; 8 but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.”
What’s that? Hey, you rulers, you better do the right thing because if you don’t, I will come against you. Oh, yeah, we conveniently ignored that followup initially, didn’t we? Yeah, this makes it perfectly clear that rulers can be wrong, and that if they are they’d better be prepared for a whuppin’. Do you want to be reliant on the pardon of God or do you want to just make sure you’re not in a position where you need the pardon? I’ll go for the latter, myself.
Taking it a few steps simpler, let’s use reductio ad absurdum here and see how that reacts. For those who aren’t up on their latin, trust me you’ve seen it before although you may not know what it’s called. This is a common technique of attempting to prove something by taking it to ridiculous extremes. Generally, if it holds up at the extreme, it’s probably ok but often when you take it to said extreme you begin to see how ridiculous it really is.
Let’s say that yes, Romans says we should absolutely submit to every temporal authority and that every temporal authority is in fact appointed by God himself. Let’s say that it also states that we are compelled to obey and to do otherwise is a transgression against God. We will use that as the supposition we want to test.
Ok, well, that may be fine for your current favorite authority (let’s use Trump as an example). “Gary, Trump was appointed by God, it says so right there in Romans, so you must submit”.
Hmm, ok, if that’s true than it also means Obama was appointed by God. I sure don’t recall you submitting. In fact, I remember a lot of hatred. Oh, not ridiculous enough? Ok, that also means Putin was appointed by God. So was Pol Pot. Stalin too. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law early, your argument would also mean that Hitler was appointed by God and our resistance to his slaughtering of the Jews was against the commandments in Romans.
Yeah, it’s starting to go off the tracks pretty quickly, isn’t it? So, can we all agree that reductio ad absurdum here reveals that yes, this extreme is ridiculous and therefore we need to reexamine our initial premise?
In reality, it’s important to place the scriptures fully into the time they were written and to examine the things that were going on. Romans 13 is an admonition by Paul to remind his followers not to think too highly of themselves and to remember to place themselves into the world, not outside of it. At the time, it was a widespread belief that, as followers of Christ, they had gained total freedom from the world and were no longer a part of it. They were instead only responsible to God’s law and could openly defy temporal authority simply because of that. Paul was intent on correcting that misconception.
In point of fact, Paul’s letter is just as much an admonition to authority to act justly as it is for us to recognize just authority. Do not fall into the trap of saying “well, I was only following orders”. We don’t get to stop thinking and be absolved of responsibility for our actions just because we’re Christians.