Romans 13.1-7, c. 1985 – South Africa

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The Kairos Document was signed in the mid-1980’s in South Africa. It was a response to the idea being proposed by the Dutch Reformed Church that one must submit and not resist injustice.

2.1 Romans 13:1-7

The misuse of this famous text is not confined to the present government in South Africa. Throughout the history of Christianity totalitarian regimes have tried to legitimize an attitude of blind obedience and absolute servility towards the state by quoting this text. The well-known theologian Oscar Cullman, pointed this out thirty years ago:

As soon as Christians, out of loyalty to the gospel of Jesus, offer resistance to a State’s totalitarian claim, the representatives of the State or their collaborationist theological advisers are accustomed to appeal to this saying of Paul, as if Christians are here commended to endorse and thus to abet all the crimes of a totalitarian State. ( The State in the New Testament, SCM 1957 p 56.)

But what then is the meaning of Rom 13:1-7 and why is the use made of it by ‘State Theology’ unjustifiable from a biblical point of view?

‘State Theology’ assumes that in this text Paul is presenting us with the absolute and definitive Christian doctrine about the State, in other words an absolute and universal principle that is equally valid for all times and in all circumstances. The falseness of this assumption has been pointed out by numerous biblical scholars (see, for example, E Kasemann, Commentary on Romans, SCM, p 354-7; 0 Cullmann, The State in the New Testament, SCM, p 55-7).

What has been overlooked here is one of the most fundamental of all principles of biblical interpretation: every text must be interpreted in its context. To abstract a text from its context and to interpret it in the abstract is to distort the meaning of God’s Word. Moreover the context here is not only the chapters and verses that precede and succeed this particular text nor is it even limited to the total context of the Bible. The context includes also the circumstances in which Paul’s statement was made. Paul was writing to a particular Christian community in Rome, a community that had its own particular problems in relation to the State at that time and in those circumstances. That is part of the context of our text.

Many authors have drawn attention to the fact that in the rest of the Bible God does not demand obedience to oppressive rulers. Examples can be given ranging from Pharaoh to Pilate and through into Apostolic times. The Jews and later the Christians did not believe that their imperial overlords, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks or the Romans, had some kind of divine right to rule them and oppress them. These empires were the beasts described in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations. God allowed them to rule for a while but he did not approve of what they did. It was not God’s will. His will was the freedom and liberation of Israel. Rom 13:1-7 cannot be contradicting all of this.

But most revealing of all is the circumstances of the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing. They were not revolutionaries. They were not trying to overthrow the State. They were not calling for a change of government. They were, what has been called, ‘antinomians’ or ‘enthusiasts’ and their belief was that Christians, and only Christians, were exonerated from obeying any State at all, any government or political authority at all, because Jesus alone was their Lord and King. This is of course heretical and Paul is compelled to point out to these Christians that before the second coming of Christ there will always be some kind of State, some kind of secular government and that Christians are not exonerated from subjection to some kind of political authority.

Paul is simply not addressing the issue of a just or unjust State or the need to change one government for another. He is simply establishing the fact that there will be some kind of secular authority and that Christians as such are not exonerated from subjection to secular laws and authorities. He does not say anything at all about what they should do when the State becomes unjust and oppressive. That is another question.

Consequently those who try to find answers to the very different questions and problems of our time in the text of Rom 13:1-7 are doing a great disservice to Paul. The use that ‘State Theology’ makes of this text tells us more about the political options of ‘those who construct this theology than it does about the meaning of God’s Word in this text. As one biblical scholar puts it: “The primary concern is to justify the interests of the State and the text is pressed into its service without respect for the context and the intention of Paul.”

If we wish to search the Bible for guidance in a situation where the State that is supposed to be “the servant of God” (Romans 13:16) betrays that calling and begins to serve Satan instead, then we can study chapter 13 of the Book of Revelations. Here the Roman State becomes the servant of the dragon (the devil) and takes on the appearance of a horrible beast. Its days are numbered because God will not permit his unfaithful servant to reign forever.

2.2 Law and Order

The State makes use of the concept of law and order to maintain the status quo which it depicts as ‘normal.’ But this law is the unjust and discriminatory laws of apartheid and this order is the organized and institutionalized disorder of oppression. Anyone who wishes to change this law and this order is made to feel that they are lawless and disorderly. In other words they are made to feel guilty of sin.

It is indeed the duty of the State to maintain law and order, but it has not divine mandate to maintain any kind of law and order. Something does not become moral and just simply because the State has declared it to be a law and the organization of a society is not a just and right order simply because it has been instituted by the State. We cannot accept any kind of law and any kind of order. The concern of Christians is that we should have in our country a just law and a right order.

In the present crisis and especially during the State of Emergency, ‘State Theology’ has tried to re-establish the status quo of orderly discrimination, exploitation and oppression by appealing to the consciences of its citizens in the name of law and order. It tries to make those who reject this law and this order feel that they are ungodly. The State here is not only usurping the right of the Church to make judgments about what would be right and just in our circumstances; it is going even further than that and demanding of us, in the name of law and order, an obedience that must be reserved for God alone. The South African State recognizes no authority beyond itself and therefore it will not allow anyone to question what it has chosen to define as ‘law and order.’ However, there are millions of Christians in South Africa today who are saying with Peter: “We must obey God rather than man (human beings)” (Acts 5:29).

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One Reply to “Romans 13.1-7, c. 1985 – South Africa”

  1. In recent postcolonial evaluations of the politics of empire there seems to be two main lines of critique of Paul’s relationship to the Imperium Romanum, exemplified by Rasiah Sugirtharajah and Neil Elliott. Rasiah Sugirtharajah sees Paul as socially and politically conservative, “[offering] no political strategy or practical solution for its [Roman Empire] liquidation” (Sugirtharajah 1998, 20). Neil Elliott’s interpretation argues that Paul should be read as more critical, challenging and antagonistic toward the Roman Empire. In support of Elliott’s position, Gordon Zerbe cites three lines of evidence:
    1. The underlying millenarian script in Paul’s letters.
    2. The use of politically loaded words to describe liberation and deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and the Messiah’s community.
    3. Paul’s own experience of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and eventually execution at the hands of the Imperium (Zerbe 2011, 64-65).
    My reading of Rom 13:1-7 is more ambivalent than either Rasiah Sugirtharajah’s or Neil Elliott’s: Neither subordinationist nor antagonistic but both. Paul is both socially conservative [some would say pragmatic] and politically challenging toward the Roman Empire. He appeals to the good side of the Roman Empire but at the same time challenges its basic assumptions. I also challenge the popular translation of Rom 13:1b. I understand οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ in Rom 13:1b as a conditional clause with an ellipsis of the verb ἔστιν in the protasis (subordinate or if clause), usually in the subjunctive mood, that is supplied from the apodosis (main or then clause). Most εἰ μὴ clauses are conditional. Although they may be exceptive, most often they are not. A literal translation of Rom 13:1b may be: “For if not from God [Protasis] then authority does not exist [Apodosis].” Cf. Stanley E. Porter (1992), Idioms of the Greek New Testament, London: Continuum: 254-267. This is a far cry from the popular unqualified support for the State.

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