Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Yoder on Romans 13

5 points are to be made, thanks to JH Yoder.
(Point 4 is specifically about the death penalty, for those comnig here from that thread)

1) The New testament speaks in many ways about the problem of the state; Romans 13 is not the center of this teaching.
The best example is that of the temptation of Jesus in which Jesus did not challenge the claim of Satan to be able to dispose of the rule of all nations. So first, we should be reminded that Romans 13 was written about a pagan government. Of course, the above argument from Paul about the Powers and Principalities should make this point crystal clear. I also direct your attention to Revelation 13 in which we find the image of government as persecuting the true believers; the same is true for Peter and James. Now, you can reject what the Scripture is saying but you cannot ignore it.

2) In the structure of the epistle, chapters 12 and 13 in their entirety form one literary unit. Therefore, the text 13:1-7 cannot be understood alone.

Chapter 12 begins with a call to non-conformity, motivated by the memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian community and, with regards to enemies, in suffering. The concept of live recurs in 13:8-10. Therefore, any interpretation of 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context.

The beginning of the unit of the text (12:1) ties its thought firmly back to the “mercies of God” as the theme of the previous portion of the epistle. These “mercies” included the unmerited calling of the Gentiles to the new life in God (chs. 1-5), the unmerited renewal of even the “body” through the Spirit (chs. 6- and the continuing unmerited redemptive concern of God for ethnic Israel (chs 9-11). The continuation of our passage (13:11-14) looks forward in hope of salvation so concretely imminent and historical as to be “nearer than when we first believed.” It issues in a new quality of concern for the “weak” (14:1-15:21) and in the gathering of financial and spiritual resources to support one another (15:26-29) and Paul(15:22-25, 30-33). The entire text thus sees non-conformity and suffering love as driven and drawn by a sense of God’s triumphant movement form the merciful past into a triumphant future. Any interpretation which makes 13:1-7 an expression of a static or conservative undergirding of the present social system would therefore represent a refusal to take seriously the context. Any interpretation in which God’s mercies are not seen as overcoming hostilities through the creation of community, reaching even to the nuts and bolts of financial sharing and missionary support, has covered over the meaning of each part of the text by not seeing its whole.

Further there are specific cross references which link 12 and 13. 13:8 begins with a verbal echo of 7. The submission to the Powers in 13:1 is motivated and exposited by the hope of 13:11-14. Verse 10, by expositing verse 8, also gives a definition of the “good” in verse 3, whereby the behavior of Christians under government is guided.

The is also a very specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. The authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God’s sovereign control. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of each other. This make clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christian. However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil, such behavior is for humans not complementary but in disjunction.

3) The subordination that is called for recognizes whatever power exists, accepts whatever structure of sovereignty happens to prevail. The text does not affirm, as the tradition has it, a divine act of institution or ordination of a particular government.

In Romans God is not said to have created, instituted or ordained the Powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignty to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been a hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what Government does. Nor does God take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “Powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are.

That God orders and uses the power does not reveal anything new about what government should be or how we should respond to government. A given government is not mandated or saved or made a channel of God’s will; it is simply lined up, used by God in the ordering of the cosmos. It does not mean that what individuals in government do is good human behavior.

The immediate concrete meaning of this text for Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of official anti-Semitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination. The call is to a non-violent resistant attitude toward the tyrannical government. This is a subversive text!

4) The function of bearing the sword to which Christians are called to be subject is the judicial and police function; it does not refer to the death penalty or war.

The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment, since the Romans crucified their criminals. It was not the instrument of war since it was but a long dagger. Like the pistol worn by traffic police officers or the sword worn by a Swiss citizen-officer, it was more a symbol of authority than a weapon. This is not to say that the roman government was mild or that this weapon was only a symbol. But what it symbolizes is the way a given government exercise dominion over its subjects by appeal to violence, not the execution of capital offenders or the waging of war against other nations.

It is time we take this Scripture seriously with correct exegesis, instead of simply carrying on with our interpretation based on “Christian” authority since Constantine. This pattern has so shaped our hermeneutics that we have a difficult time thinking like first century Christians as opposed to 21st century Christians. If we can read the text for the time and ask our questions about issues of violence in the context of Romans 12 and 13 appropriately only then would we realize how inappropriately we have treated this text.

5) the Christian who accepts subjection to government retains moral independence and judgement. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.

“The authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”
What is the grammatical construction of the participle “attending” (proskarterountes)? Most translations consider it a simple further predication: “the authorities are minister of God and they busy themselves with this very function.” But this is from a grammatical viewpoint not the most likely meaning o such a particular construction. It is more likely that the participle represents an adverbial modifier of the previous predication.

We would then read: “they are ministers of God to the extent to which they busy themselves’ or “when they devote themselves” or “in that they devote themselves” to the assigned function. In the strictest sense we might take this adverbial modifier restrictively: “they are ministers of God by virtue of their devoting themselves” to it. In any case, which ever of these be Paul’s intent, all of them assume that there are criteria whereby the functioning of government can be measured.

And so we can judge and measure the extent to which the government is accomplishing its ministry by asking namely whether it persistently (present participle) attends to the rewarding of good and evil according to their merits. To be “minister to you for good” is a criteria, not a description.

Further we have to examine “they are.” Who is “they” which “are”? Generally we assume that the rulers of verse 3 and the powers of verse 1 and 3 are somehow all merged together in one grammatical subject, which may either be feminine singular or masculine plural and always have the same meaning. This is, however, a very unusual way to disregard the keys to interpretation that gender and number provide. It is more appropriate to ask concretely what plural noun can be subject of “they are” in verse 6. The most recent such plural noun referring to the realm of government was the “rulers” in verse 3, but that is rather far back to reach for an antecedent. Thus some serious scholars, including Marcus Dibelius, have argued that it is more likely that “ministers of God” should itself by the subject.” Then it would read: “The ministers of God are there for the very purpose (as they persist)…”

Then we must further choose between two meanings of the noun “ministers” (leitourgoi). TheGreek usage of the time translated ministers to mean government functionaries, like those who gathered tax money. Since the preceding sentence referred to the vocabulary payment of taxes, it would make sense. But the most current biblical usage of the word, like its near synonym diakonos, refers to the priest or the Christian who “serves” God in the sense of worship and sacrifice. There is nothing in the text to make sure that Paul does not intend ‘ministers of God” to refer to Christians. This would also fit quite smoothly in the context: The Christian is subject for the sake of conscience; Christians pay taxes because Christians also devote themselves to the end that the good of government be approved and evil is reprimanded.

All grammatical interpretations of the verse must be subject o the risk of probability; the main thrust of our present paragraph is not dependant upon anyone eof the above hypothesis. This grammatical detour, should however, have permitted us at least to overcome the naïve sense of self-evidence with which the reader of the English text has often heard it being said as a simple affirmation that, whatever government does, it is serving God and therefore what it is doing is a ministry which the Christian should always share.

Let’s also consider that verse 7 says “render to each his due” and verse 8 says “nothing is due to anyone except love.” Again, we cannot divorce 13:1-7 from chapter 12 or 8 and on.

Further, it is not by accident that the imperative of 13:1 is not literally one of obdience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desire of another. What Paul calls for, however, is sub-ord-ination. This verb is based upon the same root as the ordering of the powers of God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying.

The imperative and the ennoblement of this subordination are found not in the fear or in the calculation of how best to survive, but, as state above, in the mercies of God (12:1) or in “conscience” (13:5). And, as we witnessed last week (Holy Week) we can see that our subordination to the government and the willingness to suffer for the sake of love, even to love our enemies, is to participate in God’s victory over the rebellious Powers and Principalities. We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God’s victory for us, as the first o submit to the authorities and yet overcome them and their grip on humanity.

That is what it means to have salvation in Jesus Christ, to have our debts canceled and our wounds healed. It is that we are no longer in their dominion but in God’s dominion over and against the Powers of evil.


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