Archive for Romans 13
Theology, liberty, and economics are my favorite topics to study, debate, or teach, especially when they happen to intersect with each other. When my former professor Peter Enns, who is on the front lines of a debate over the nature of Scripture, wrote about the relationship between inerrancy and Romans 13 (arguably the most disputed text about government among libertarians), naturally I wanted to talk about it. It would be best if I set some of my cards on the table before commenting.* I believe Enns has clearly articulated the problems with the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. Not only has he demonstrated that a strict inerrantist position is highly problematic when reading the Bible, he has also examined the viability of revising or reformulating the doctrine to make it meaningful to contemporary society. In doing so, Enns is committed to a “high view” of Scripture because he approaches the biblical text by expecting no more or no less than what God intended to communicate. Those who believe in inerrancy usually state the doctrine as follows: “The Bible is without error in all that it affirms or teaches.” (See here for a more thorough statement.) The clause “in all that it affirms or teaches” is significant because it is one way to avoid having to believe such absurdities that the earth is flat or at the center of the universe. Inerrantists claim that the Bible doesn’t teach the earth is flat or that the earth is the center of the universe because those passages that seem to say so simply mean something else. Almost every Christian agrees with this. Not all Christians, however, believe that Genesis 1 teaches how the earth was created. Those who do not simply believe that Genesis 1 is in the Bible to serve a different purpose. This is why “in all that it affirms or teaches” is only helpful to a point. It merely pushes the debate into the question, “How do we know when the Bible affirms or teaches something?” Even this question is problematic, because the Bible is not the acting agent, but the tool through which God’s Spirit guides the people of God to embrace and participate in God’s mission in the world. In short, it is God who is speaking. Practically speaking, the phrase “the Bible says” is shorthand for “this is what God says.” It is not always abundantly clear what God affirms or teaches in the Bible. It is clear Jesus wants us to forgive our enemies. It is clear that Paul’s slur against Cretans is not to be mimicked. But does God enjoy smashing babies against rocks? Are we to be as pessimistic as Qohelet in Ecclesiastes? Are libertarians to read Romans 13 as a clear and unwavering affirmation of obeying governmental authorities? It is not an easy task to figure out what God teaches when we read the Bible. This apparently self-evident teaching in Romans 13 is why many libertarians are minarchists. Any plain reading of Romans 13 leaves very little reason to believe that Paul wants Christians to obey the government. He ignores the opportunity to add an escape clause, expiration date, or exception to “corrupt powers.” God is clear because Paul is clear. There should be no debate, right? Yet the debate continues, with a plethora of articles (see a list below) about how Paul is not teaching in Romans 13 that God endorses all governments. A faithful interpretation of what Paul intended with Romans 13 means we must investigate the context in which it was written. It also means using extra-biblical sources to factor in all that a passage means. It is at this point that the doctrine of inerrancy relates to Romans 13. Inerrantists claim they do not bring to the text extra-biblical factors regarding its meaning because they believe in sola scriptura. Yet any honest interpreter must admit that all readers, of course, do this, even to a minimal degree. Here is Enns on the problem:
The truth is, I don’t know many Christians who take Paul at his word here. They may try to deftly extract themselves by saying that Paul is merely giving an ideal principle, or that only legitimate authorities are instituted by God. But again, that’s just “adding” something to God’s word, which clearly makes a pretty cut and dried case for human governmental authorities as instituted by God. But a proper understanding of these words of Paul’s, as with most other things in Scripture, requires some sensitivity to their historical/cultural or literary context (or both).
For libertarians who are wary of any semblance of authoritarianism or totalitarianism, Romans 13 is a problematic text, especially if one holds to a literalist and inerrant view of the Bible (after all, Paul wrote this while Rome had a tyrant for an emperor!). Inerrantists are only comfortable with so much “wiggle room” to use extra-biblical sources to discern that a passage does not really mean what a plain reading would yield. Enns’s solution? “There’s more to reading the Bible faithfully than just doing what it says, no matter of clearly it seems to be telling us what to do.” Norman Horn’s words are apt here: “A theology of the state does not begin and end with Romans 13.” Below are some articles that deal directly with Romans 13. Not all authors are libertarians, but all explore Romans 13 beyond a “plain reading.” As you explore them, evaluate whether or not the author’s approach could fit within the inerrancy position, or whether their bringing extra-biblical factors to the table goes too far. It is because all Christians recognize that none of us approach the Bible without knowledge from outside sources that leads Enns and me to conclude that “at the end of the day…definitions of inerrancy seem less and less convincing.”
- Why do you have such a pessimistic view of government?
- Romans Chapter 13 by Chuck Baldwin
- Against Empire: A Yoderian Reading of Romans
- Does ‘Romans 13′ Oppose Liberty?
- Romans 13 and Anarcho-Capitalism
- Hitler’s Favorite Bible Verse
- Romans 13 and National Defense
- The Bible, Government and Christian Anarchy
- Romans 13 and the Right To Bear Arms
- More Indictment of the Mistranslated Romans 13
- New Testament Theology of the State, Part 1
- Theology doesn’t begin and end with Romans 13
- Stanley Hauerwas on Romans 13
- Duke University Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas on nonviolence, Iraq, and killing Hitler.
- The state and Christian obedience: John Howard Yoder on Romans 13
- Romans 13 supports pacifism!
- Reading Romans 13 with John Howard Yoder (Again)
* My own beliefs align similarly to his, but let me offer a word of caution to those who will explore what Enns believes. There is a plethora of interviews, articles, and books to which Enns has contributed. It is not possible to spend 10-20 minutes getting the “gist” of his beliefs on the Bible without misunderstanding his position. It is far too easy to infer too much from what is being said without really hearing an argument out to its full extent.
This guest post is by LCC reader Paul Maitrejean.
Many Christians today are quick to leap to the defense of the current American regime. They will go to any length to defend its actions, particularly in the case of foreign policy and “culture” wars. On both sides of the aisle, Christians will throw their support behind virtually any politician of their particular political leaning regardless of his record, his words, or his current actions. Supporting without question the activities of the American government, particularly in foreign matters, has nearly become an unwritten prerequisite for being a Christian.
Amazingly, these Christians are supporting and swearing allegiance to among the most godless, cruel, greedy, murderous governments in history. When this is pointed out, though, the supporters of the State will cite Scripture in their defense – usually the oft-heard and badly-twisted Romans 13:1 – and they fall upon the dissenter like wolves. Is this the sort of mindset Jesus came among us to promote?
On Easter Sunday, I joined a Facebook thread where the role of government and Romans 13 were discussed. A number of points about the Christian’s relation to government were aired, including citations of Leo Tolstoy, and a major theme was the idea of Christian anarchism. When this happens, of course, Romans 13 is invariably brought to the table. It seems to me, though, that this is not a good starting point for discussion of statism in the Bible.
Romans 13 is not a shortcut to being right about government. People like sound bytes, quick ways of responding to scenarios – and that is basically the way most Christians attempt to treat Romans 13. However, you absolutely cannot discern the whole of what the Bible says about the state by Romans 13. It sounds good, but it won’t work.
Over at the Christian Libertarian Facebook Group, we have amazing discussions pretty much all the time. A common question, especially amongst newcomers to the group, is how to interpret Romans 13. Scott B. has assembled links and dates to all of these discussions, which I’d like to share with you here. (You also can read my exegesis and discussion of the passage here.) I hope this encourages you to join this group and become a part of the conversation!
Links to posts/discussions from the Christian libertarians group on Romans 13:
Other related posts/discussions:
Render unto Caesar: September 5, 2012
September 17, 2012
The Golden Rule: July 21, 2012
Randy England has an interesting article at LewRockwell.com regarding Paul’s attitude toward secular authority. Here is a short excerpt, but I encourage you to continue on to LRC for the full article:
Christian statists will always drag out St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans to demonstrate that disobedience to government is not an option:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. Rom. 13:1-4
They cannot ignore, however, certain exceptions to that "always obey the government" rule, for St. Paul here equates obedience with "doing what is good." Governments have never confined their conduct to what is good. We find the famous standoff recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Peter and the apostles defy the rulers saying "We must obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29. Numerous other approving recitations of civil disobedience occur in both the Old and New Testaments.
So we must disobey some laws, but even government manages to get a few laws right – the ones that seek to prevent or correct harm to others – but those prohibitions would have to be obeyed in any society. In between the protective laws (which must be obeyed) and the laws which command us to do evil (which must be disobeyed) we still have that great morass of laws designed either 1) to steal from us; or 2) punish us unless we behave as the ruler demands.
It is often wise to obey these particular laws out of self-defense, but as to any Christian moral obligation to obey, a closer look at St Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests another layer to the analysis and raises the question as to what duty – if any – is owed to the authorities:
For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom.13:6-7.
Read more at LewRockwell.com.