Thursday, November 6, 2008

Christological Authority in Romans 13


painting: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist
Lucas Cranach the Elder
1530


"Let every soul subject himself to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except that by God and those that are have been appointed by God"
(Romans 13:1)

This passage appears to be no different than any other secular argument for obedience to authorities. Philosophers thought about the meaning of the state, as well as common people. Yet, this pericope comes after Paul's description of the Christian life, containing the marks of a true Christian (12:9-21) whom is operating corporately in Christ's body (v. 5). In some ways this passage mirrors Jesus' beatitudes. Therefore chapter 13 begins retaining the rhythm of prior directives outlining what it means to be a Christian. The teaching of subjection to authority therefore is not a purely secular one but holds a Christological thrust.


The admonition that every soul (psuxn) be subject to governing authorities makes sense in light of the later verse asserting that all authority is from God himself. Therefore, a mere outward submission to authority simply for the sake of political expediency, or personal safety, would lack the more important meaning. The use of "soul" does not suggest one part of the person but his whole person, his very being. Every soul submits to authority because it is appointed by God. Paul is not introducing a new theological reflection but one consistent with Jewish teaching. For Daniel tells the evil King Nebuchadnezzar, that the "Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Dan. 4:17). Submission to authority is a submission to God’s own chosen instruments. For Saint Paul, this submission comes not only from obeying the simple commands of governing authorities but subjecting one’s very soul. With hearts, minds, and bodies, each individual person without exception must be subject to the authorities. The verb upotassestho, "subject himself," is in the middle/passive voice, which in the context denotes a subjecting of one’s self – a voluntary submission on ones own accord.

This uppotassestho in light of Paul’s letter is simply revealing a static relationship to the Roman Empire and particularly Caesar himself, but a much broader economy of relations. Given that there is no authority except from God’s institution, it begs the question of what specifically Paul has in mind regarding the nature of subjection in its passive sense. What is true is that the content of the letter is addressed not specifically to a particular Christian church in Rome but rather to “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (1:7). Therefore, the group addressed in Romans 13 is not a fixed group of Christians centered around a certain alter but rather all those “loved” and called to be saints. Given that Christ himself pours out his blood as a propitiary sacrifice for all, God’s love is intended and offered to the whole of humanity. Romans 13, likewise, is a universal call and appeal to all those loved by Christ, that of every soul (pasa psuxn). The call to subjection and the declaration that all authority is out of God’s love must be seen in light of Christ’s kingly role in the world. For Paul the world has been recast and refashioned by Christ victory on the cross. The rulers of the world and all in creation are incapable of separating those addressed in Rome (all people) from the new life in Christ. After all, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (8:31). In this new relation to the world, Christians can see the impotency of earthly rulers as posing any sort of significant threat, given that they have been granted a heavenly citizenship. For Paul this would not mean that those called to be saints can now hold a dismissive attitude toward authorities but rather a thoughtful and faithful obedience as Christ himself embodied to the Roman powers. Paul admonishes the Romans to be subject to the authorities (eEousia), likely having the emperor in mind and all his representatives.[1] Yet, the broader meaning comes out given that these pagan powers are divinely ordained by God. Paul was likely well acclimated in Matthew’s Gospel, in which our Lord proclaims in His great commission that “All authority (eEuisia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

 It is worth noting that the disciples at the mountain in Galilee doubted (edistasav) this resurrection and Christ’s words. Likewise, today, Christians recoil at the thought that Jesus rules not only the heavens but embodies all authority on earth. This necessitates the conversation dealing with the existence of evil in the world and how this prince of peace, the ruler of the heavens and earth, stands idly by when horrid crimes occur. For many this is an unresolved problem in theology know as ‘theodicy.’ Yet in Romans 13 earthly authority is not a curse but a blessing granted by God to execute justice to those who commit evil and provide approval for those who do good. Authority is a divinely instituted estate in a world cursed by sin. Oswald Bayer points out that the politica, which for us is the “state” “is not an order of creation but rather an order of necessity. Correspondingly, the power of coercion is primary in the state. It alone hinders random action; it alone restrains animal instincts, in situations where it is one against the other for survival; it alone can deal with Cain, the murderer of his brother; it alone subdues the battle of everyone against everyone else in a life and death struggle for mutual recognition.”[2]

 In this economy of recognition, peace is the principle. In Romans 13 there is not a naiveté in Paul that cannot acknowledge that authority is incapable of injustice. Paul was not oblivious to the sting of injustice but continually bore it, being beat up with many blows from both religious and secular authorities (Acts 16:22). He closes his Galatians letter acknowledging the unavoidable conflict of interest between worldly powers and Christ crucified, “From now on let no one cause me trouble for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” This conflict is not inherently evil but a natural consequence of preaching, confessing, knowing, and receiving Christ. The marks on Paul’s body are scars from embodying the apostolic mission which met physical and cruel resistance from the Roman magistrates. For the scandal of the world is Christ crucified. Its offensiveness has been met with some of the greatest suffering the world has ever seen. Suffering the stigmata at the hands of earthly rulers is not an evil fate but a merciful one, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36). In this way, those suffering, subject to the cruelest tyrants, bearing the stigmata of Christ, are with the eyes of faith conquerors.

The authorities are completely and utterly supreme (uperexousais) and all encompassing.[3] Furthermore it is suggested that a plurality of authorities in mind.[4] The direct reference to Roman powers is clear, but the supreme and plurality of powers active for Paul certainly were not limited to the emperor. For Luther, all authority is based upon paternal authority, as a microcosmic unit of the responsibility of governing creation. Therefore all other authority is derived from this unit. In this way “rulers” and “fathers” can be seen interchangeable. Regarding rulers, they “act in the capacity of fathers and ought to have fatherly hearts toward their people…by the administration of just laws, he supports all his subjects as a father supports his children.”[5] Calvin also has a rather profound commentary on this verse when he writes, “God has so bound us, to each other, that no man ought to avoid subjection. And where love reigns, there is a mutual servitude. I do not except even kings and governors, for they rule that they may serve. Therefore it is very right that he should exhort all to be subject to each other.”[6] Calvin is getting at the new Christian rule to love one’s neighbor as the highest command. In the economy of relations in a Christ-ruled world even the greatest of rulers is a subject to the lowliest of men, as he is Christ’s representative. One assumes this responsibility (knowingly of unknowingly) of Christ’s representative in any position of authority. In Christ’s new economy the interaction of all hierarchies of authority do not subvert the use of power for adverse of cruel reasons but rather for mercy and seeking fervent love toward one another. Power is evaluated on the basis of love for God’s creation, which is redeemed and sanctified.


As a consequence (hoste) one who resists what God has appointed, and therefore is in rebellion against God. In this rebellion one receives judgment (xpima lnmsovtai). This judgment can be seen as either being a judgment from God’s eternal or final judgment or also the more immediate punishment by the secular authorities, who castigate those in rebellion. A better theological viewpoint however, sees the two (eternal and temporal) as distinguished but not wholly separated. Cranfield sees a distinction in that the state executes a partial, “anticipatory, provisional manifestation of God’s wrath against sin” when it comes to judgment and disobedience in the civil realm.[7] For Luther, God has not only instituted earthly rulers but he himself is effectively present in them: he himself rules, speaks, and administers justice through them. Luther writes regarding judgment, “For the hand that wield this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments.”[8] Resistance to the government, so long as it is not restraining the reception of the sacraments and Christ’s Gospel is particularly offensive to God’s holy order. Furthermore, it can rightly be seen as rebellion against God himself. For Christ’s kingly Lordship over the earth reigns supreme through the righteous and the tyrants.


God appoints rulers, entrusting them to maintain order in society. The role of the state and its authority is an antidote for a fallen world or as Luther writes "It is the function and honor of worldly government to make men out of wild beasts and to prevent men from becoming wild beasts"[9] Secular rulers carry out God’s purposes by rewarding those who do good and punishing the bad. Those who are doing the "good work (tw agathw epyw)" have nothing to fear. If one does this good work he not only avoids judgment but receives commendation or praise (epaivov) from the rulers. Paul writes that the ruler is God’s diakonos for your good. The specific choice of diakovoi to describe the authorities’ relation to God is a curious choice. Roman leaders were not considered servants of the people, but highly esteemed rulers and gods themselves. The ruler for Paul is the servant of God yet working for the good of the people. Therefore, his service is both to that which is above him, God, and that which is below, all people. Servant, based upon Paul's theology is a loaded term and in fact a divine name in and of itself. The choice of word suggests Paul is working the christological infusion into the operation of all temporal princes and rulers - for Christ is certainly the ultimate servant in which the world finds its life. That even powerful rulers assume the role of servant might indicate for Paul a reordering, or recapitulation of the entire world given the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Christ. This gets to the very nature of the rulers, which is to be mere servants, instruments of God’s will for the benefit of all. But the ruler’s service, which is good, is not to be permissible of all things but to punish those who do wrong. He does not bear the sword in vain because he actively participates in God’s wrath and anger by executing a penalty on the destructive man (kakov). There is a unity between God’s law and that of the Roman principalities. The ruler is a servant of God not simply to carry out secular law but God’s vengeance against sin. The pagan can understand that rulers are beneficial for a basic order in society, while the Christian has the enlightened and Godly knowledge that all power is manifest in and of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. For Luther, the rediscovery of the Gospel, and the distinctiveness of the two governments restores to honor the “secular sword” – that of the state, which it lost after a deflated and contorted conception erroneously set forth from the medieval clerical system. In this way the complete divorce of Christ from the world is now reinstated in Romans 13, where Christ the king rules supreme.


Of necessity, submissiveness is not only to avoid wrath but for the sake of conscience. Paul’s use of conscience (suneidnsis) may indicate the soul as distinguishing between what is morally good and bad. Therefore, there exists a spiritual implication of the conscience that guides the conduct of what it means to be the new man in Christ. The new life in which the Christian finds himself is found within the God ordained orders of the world, including civic institutions. Not being conformed to the world is not to be free from it, but to remain in subjection under it with patience and vigilance. Therefore, because of this, one pays taxes. “Teleite,” serves as an indicative, given the “gar” - "you pay taxes." In this way because God acts through rulers and because there exists a spiritual identity to this subjection there is great emphasis on paying taxes. The emphasis comes from the referent of “conscience” in the prior verse. Furthermore, we are to pay taxes because the authorities are ministers (leitourgos) attending to “this very thing” – whose referent is the conscience. The use of leitougos is different from doulos as used earlier in the text. This word, defined as “minister,” also connotes a cultic activity or ritual.[10] The necessity of paying taxes therefore may be emphasized not as a purely secular matter but a spiritual one, where God’s authorities and all those in subjection to one another are working for the sake of a divine order, established by Christ. The business of taxes, revenue, and paying honor to which it is due are Gospel words in which Christ speaks to His people. The Lord’s Prayer finds an atonement statement in “forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk. 11:4). Taxes, debts, and monetary transactions are important marks of the Christian life as to how one honors them, given that Christ speaks often on monetary matters and ultimately with his death on the cross. For in the atonement all debts are absolved and the human history of sin transacted and buried by Christ. A new man in Christ naturally with a new heart of respect finds authority a blessing and finds the powers of the world to be mere servants of Christ working his perfect and divine will. That we are to render "fear to whom fear is due," given the revelation of God's manifestation in authority, it is likely not simply referring to fear of capital punishment or Caesar. Rather God has become the dominating subject in verses 1-7. Fear, therefore is ultimately to be rendered to God who rules both kingdoms.


Luther and the reformers wrote volumes on the proper distinction between earthly authorities and spiritual authorities as set forth in Romans 13. We would call this "two kingdom theology." Exegetically speaking, Christianity is profoundly submissive to all authority, which suffering Christians have always struggled with. Our Scriptures are unique, particularly in regards to this pericope, insofar as Saint Paul claims that all authority whether Christian-based or pagan is instituted and ordained by God in which he is ultimately Lord over all. Luther’s articulation of the parameters of civil government was a monumental step in the development of the separation of church and state. He argued for a clear distinction between two separate spheres: civil and spiritual. This is known as the doctrine of the two kingdoms. The civil sphere deals with man’s physical life in society as he interacts with other human beings; in this, man is subject to human governments. The spiritual sphere deals with man’s soul, which is eternal, and which is subject only to God. These two, however, must not be set against one another as if they are opposed to one another. For the temporal rule of God, and that all souls are subject to him is not divorced from the spiritual life but wholly connected to it. In this way the Gospel does not call us out of our lives and out of the state and the powers of the world but rather call us into them more thoroughly, being completely subject to them: to suffer in the faith, to love our neighbor, and remain steadfast to our God-given vocation. For example, the Gospel does not overthrow earthly authority; it does not nullify the U.S. congress, or the president, or judges or magistrates. It does not overthrow tyrannical ruler, it does not overthrow any institution, but rather preserves them, uplifts them, and prays for them. Furthermore, it infers that those holding all offices to be faithful to Christ and His Holy Gospel. Article 16, therefore in the Augsburg Confession makes clear that it is not the Gospel mission to transform earthly powers, and temporal authorities as Christians see fit.

The greatest crimes in the world have been premised on the idea of making earth and transforming it into heaven. Utopian fantasies are dangerous are the worst ideas in human history. Nazism, Stalinism, Leninism is also predicated upon this idea of transforming earth into heaven by wealth distribution, new morals, blind obedience, and so on. Many neo-protestant or Reformed churches today see this as their mission. They see the central mission of the church to radically transform society into a better place. The problem of sin, however, is so deep and so entrenched that these efforts will be pointless apart from the concrete means of grace that Christ has given us. This is piously motivated but it is not the role of the church to radically transform society. The role of the church is the work of Christ who renews, strengthens and preserves his people through baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the preaching of the Gospel. Luther's understanding with authority is so profound in that it acknowledges the reality of suffering as the unavoidable reality for Christians in a world shattered by sin.

In the apology of our Lutheran Confession we simply confess what Christ has revealed. Here reads article 16: "Christ’s Kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life. At the same time it lets us make outward use of the legitimate political ordinances of the nation in which we live, just as it lets us make use of medicine or architecture, food, drink or air. The Gospel does not introduce any new laws about the civil estate, but commands us to obey the existing laws, whether they were formulated by heathen or by others, and in this obedience to practice love" (Ap. XVI, 2-3). This is notable for it implies that the role of church is in Word and Sacrament, and certainly not in matters of state and authority. God does not deal with us outside of these means. A Christian's life found in word and sacrament as relates to authority and the exchange of relations in the world, actually brings one into a greater communion with the world. Oswald Bayer in Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation highlights this radically new interpretation of the world as Luther came to see it,

"After Luther was thoroughly convinced, because of his new understanding of Word and sacrament, that the spiritual is constituted in the form of what was earthly - no only negatively but also positively - the spiritual importance of all things earthly was opened to him in a positive sense as well."[11]

It is in this light that rulers and government officials become "holy orders" that faithful Christians are to celebrate and dutifully obey.[12] If obedience is withheld, one would thereby be acting contrary to creation, contrary to love, and contrary to the Gospel. As to how the church functions today in keeping with the teaching of Romans 13, there are others considerations besides blind obedience to all authority. Christians are called to respond to be servants to rulers and to rebuke when necessary, for "we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). For us today, being subject under a democratic form of government requires somewhat new attitudes as to how one responds to various forms of injustice.

In a system where most citizens have a participatory function in elections, referendums, and determining matters of war, peace, and various ethical and life issues, people assume a prayerful responsibility. Abortion, for most Christians in America is particularly terrifying as to the death and injustice caused and furthermore about what precisely to do about it. A democratic government means that Christians become acutely aware of their responsibility and dreadfully their complicity in such a grievous case of human error. In this way, subjection to authority, as Scripture speaks to us calls one also into action. In a democracy the lines of demarcation between ruler and subject and more dynamically related. The average citizen elects the leader who holds him closely accountable for his ability to govern and all the ethical and moral decision that come along with the office. The sins of upholding abortion, euthanasia, and unjust war are not only carried by the few rulers at the top but the rulers at the bottom who voted them in. Judgment for better or worse is shared by the many. Yet, whether a government acts justly or unjustly Paul compels the Romans (all people) to obey for the sake of God. An evil and monstrous government which corrupts the people and the whole country can be viewed in faith as a divine chastisement to strengthen faith and focus one on Christ. Luther suggests all villainous earthly rulers are to be endured and viewed as a plague sent by God, noting that sinners certainly deserve it.[13]

Historical analysis of the church makes clear that her most prosperous times of growth and maturity occur during times of acute oppression. In this way, for God's faithful people it is not unreasonable to see that God uses human sins for his own divine will and purpose in history. For even Satan is subject to Christ now in light of Christ's holy crucifixion and resurrection. The point of departure ultimately is forbidding the ministry of Jesus, "Let all obedience to government, father and mother, even the church that is disobedient to God be curse to the depth of hell...I do not recognize the authority of father, mother, friends, government, or the Christian Church, if they forbid me to hear God's word. In that case, the fourth commandment is set aside and I have no duty to obey. Christ himself declares: they are no longer father and mother, government, or Christian Church. For disobedience to God...takes precedence over all other obedience."[14]

The nullification of obedience to these given authorities is not completely eviscerated but only where it inhibits one from receiving Jesus through his ears or into his mouth - in the church this is only the work of the devil. The relationship to these devilish authorities is disobeyed only in these matters that relate to the stifling of faith. All others aspects of the relational exchange are to be kept, being bound by duty to that which is squarely focused on body and property. It is worth noting that this obedience to authority is an offering of physical and temporal life, one's body and all property. Romans 13 must be read over and against our Lord's word in which he admonishes the Pharisees " Render to Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God's" (Mk. 12:17). That which earthly authority can take and seize is significant, property, earthly life, and all things. As the Lutheran church sings, "And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict'ry has been won; The Kingdom our remaineth."[15] Presently, we live in a philosophical culture which assumes "natural rights." The litany of "rights" for Americans particularly seems to multiply exponentially every election cycle. Healthcare, housing allowance, various entitlement programs, and a growing desire of wants are dressed up as "legal rights." Yet God's revelation does not hold these truths to be "self evident" and reveals a greater subjection to one another that can appear in forms that seem tyrannical, even void of God's eternal mercy. Romans 13 stands as God's word which is not simply Paul's but God's very word to men - that they lay down life and property if necessary to faithfully obey His own appointed rulers.


[1] Cranfield., p., 663
[2] Bayer,Oswald. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. tr. Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, p. 148.
[3] BDAG
[4] Cranfield., p. 659
[5] LW: 13, 58.
[6] Calvin, Selected Writing p. 564
[7] Cranfield., p. 666
[8] LW 46, 96
[9] Ibid., 46, 237
[10] BDAG
[11]Bayer,Oswald. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. tr. Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, p. 141.
[12] LW: 37, 64.
[13] LW: 46, 109.
[14] LW: 5, 113-113.
[15] “A Mighty Fortress if our God,” LSB 656.




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