Romans 13 is not what you think

(Below is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. You can listen to the sermon from the church website – www.ststephenlc.org)

Did you know that there is a long history of the Bible being abused and used as a weapon of control?  Did you know that slave owners in America would take their slaves to church?  They would sit in different sections of the church of course, because the slaves were considered less than human, and then they would hear a proslavery version of God.  There would be an emphasis on passages of Ephesians and Colossians that told the hearers – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”  The point being that God was obviously in favor of slavery.  

A slave bible was published in 1807 which removed portions of Scripture including the Exodus story – why?  Because it might inspire rebellious thinking.  Can’t have slaves rebelling now can we?  Some ministers promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed in the book of Genesis, and thus their enslavement was fitting.  It’s amazing what lengths humanity will go to in order to maintain unjust and evil systems that oppress and exploit other humans.   It’s amazing how we can twist God’s word to suit our own desires and wants.  It’s amazing how we can weaponize God and make God and God’s word our slave.  

Romans 13:1-7 is another one of those passages of Scripture.  It’s one of the most abused passages of Scripture.  It’s so abused that the lectionary actually does not include it in year A, B, or C in the three-year lectionary cycle.  In other words, if I didn’t change the lectionary and add it this week, you’d never hear this passage of Scripture in your entire life even if you went to Church every single Sunday of your life.  That does that tell us?  

Instead of dealing with this difficult passage, the lectionary committee decided to take the easy way out and pretend that the passage doesn’t exist.  Ignoring a difficult passage of Scripture doesn’t make it go away.  It doesn’t help us to deal with difficult issues.  It’s unhealthy.  And that has long term repercussions.  

It’s unhealthy whether we are talking about ignoring unpleasant Scripture passages, or just plain ignoring injustice that is taking place in our communities – Like the fact that another black man was shot, this time in back with seven bullets, while a white man who shot and killed people and tried to surrender wasn’t arrested until the next day without incident.  There’s something wrong with this picture.  Are we just going to ignore it because we think it’s not our problem?  

Yeah, it’s unpleasant, but ignoring hasn’t worked.  It’s made it worse.  Just like ignoring the abuse of Scripture doesn’t help either.  

I know this much, there are pastors who abuse this passage of Scripture, often and in public, who don’t shy away from using it for their own purposes and to push their own causes.  Why should we avoid talking about this passage and allow those who abuse it to control the meaning of it?  That’s not right.  

It comes down to this – How would we describe God?  Is God primarily concerned with control, order, and compliance through the Law?  Is God more focused on punishing people and nations who step out of line?  Is God rarely satisfied with humanity and has mostly focused attention on human sin?  When Jesus returns, will he be upset and unleash death and destruction upon the earth – punishing those who were against God?  

Those views have been long argued in certain strains of Christianity.   Not Lutheran strains.  That’s not what we teach.  Those views are encapsulated in the popularized idea of the Rapture.  The Left Behind series from the 90s promoted this idea of a vengeful and blood thirsty God.  Makes for a great fiction story that will keep you flipping pages.  But it’s crappy theology that is extremely destructive and hurtful to a whole lot of people who don’t match up with the theology – people who are considered ungodly for a whole host of reasons.  The theology seems more concerned with figuring out who can be excluded from the Kingdom of God, rather than how expansive the Kingdom of God and God’s love and mercy and grace actually are.  

Those that argue for this view of God focus a great deal of attention on the Law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Romans 13, a large portion of Revelation (except for end of course), and the writing in 1 Timothy that focuses on order in the church (you know where women are supposed to remain silent – another passage of Scripture taken out of context and abused far too often).  This view is about control of people and compliance.  It’s a focus on punishment maybe best visualized through Dante’s writing – the Inferno from the 14th century.  

This view often tried to maintain the status quo – the current order and structure of society, regardless of what that order was, or how unjust it was, at the time of the argument.  Often in such belief systems, men are valued higher than women, and there is great concern for levels of society – whether that be based on economic level, racial stratification, or some other human made societal structuring.  A hierarchy is important to this way of thinking – few at the top making the rules and many at the bottom following them dutifully.  And when someone gets out of line, then violence is considered necessary in order to bring compliance and return things back to the divinely instituted state of order and control. 

Is God concerned with order.  Sure – the entire Creation story is about God bringing order out of chaos.  God likes order.  But there’s a difference in God’s version of order and using order as a weapon to control, exploit, and oppress people.  God’s order is an order that releases people, brings freedom and life.  It’s an order that allows for shalom – wholeness. 

If all we do with Romans 13 is read it out of context, then we’re no different than anyone else who has abused this passage of Scripture.  We are twisting it for our own purposes.  We are making God and Scripture our servant.  

And how can we tell when this is happening.   Pay attention to when this passage of Scripture if pulled out in arguments.  Often that happens when it is convenient to support a certain policy or way of thinking.  And those same folks who use this, conveniently forget that it exists when government does something they don’t agree with.  Then all of a sudden, the message is different.  

Romans 13 is about how we are to act in relation with governmental authority and with each other.  But Romans 13 is not a blank check for government to do whatever it wants to do.  Read the passage again.  

When Romans 13 is used in this way, it turns from the Word of God into a weapon that is used to attempt to control or silence people. It is nothing more than a proof-text designed to support one’s beliefs, instead of God’s Word designed to change us and bring about the Kingdom of God. 

When Scripture is abused in this way, it becomes a tool for humans in an attempt to control God and what God is allowed to talk about, rather than God’s Word designed to bring us into alignment with the unfolding of God’s kingdom.

Romans 13 only makes sense when it is read in context with Romans 12 and with the entirety of what Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. Here’s the context – Paul is writing this letter to Christians who live at the very heart of the Roman empire – the capitol. It is dangerous for these Christians to openly practice their faith in the heart of an empire that doesn’t welcome the Christian God. Following Jesus in the heart of the empire meant rejecting the Roman gods and the Roman culture. It meant declaring that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not – right in the heart of the empire none the less. This would have very real consequences for followers of Jesus – costly consequences.  You want to understand what Jesus means when he says “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?”  Look at the Christians in Rome.  It would impact what work they could do, if they could obtain food and/or housing, if their family would keep them in or throw them out, how they were seen in society and who they interacted with. 

It was most likely that Nero was the Roman emperor when Paul writes this letter. If you know anything about Nero, it should be this – he was an anti-Christ figure, as most caesars were. He lived his life in complete opposition to everything that the Gospel of Jesus stood for and what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Roman church. Nero was selfish (most likely a narcissist), sexually abusive and exploitive, greedy, and violent (Historians agree that he killed his mother and his first wife. Why?  To maintain power). The Christians of Rome would feel Nero’s wrath in the 60’s when Nero would blame Christians for the burning of Rome, and a year later he would have Paul executed. 

When we look at Romans 12:9-21, we read Paul’s words that come immediately before Romans 13. Romans 12:9-21 sets the stage for the meaning of Romans 13. Here’s what he wrote:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When you read these passages, you start to understand the context of Romans 13 differently. Paul isn’t arguing that we have unquestioning allegiance and loyalty to the government. Instead, Paul has just written a couple of paragraphs on how we are to live as Christians. Paul isn’t arguing that the Roman government is worthy of being obeyed because everything they do is godly. Rather he is arguing that the way of Christ is not to fight so that one side wins and one side loses, but rather to live differently so that all sides may be freed from the bondage of violence and death and sin. Paul is arguing to live a Christian life, in defiance to the Roman way of living, and to accept whatever punishment they deal out for living as a disciple of Jesus because living the Jesus way is radical in its outlook.  Paul would embody this himself in his imprisonments and ultimately his own death. 

Connect what Paul writes “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all,” in Romans 12:17, to what he writes just a few sentences later in Romans 13:1-2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” 

Romans 13:1-2 has been used and abused as a weapon for governmental abuses and injustice for centuries. The problem with the argument that we are to obey the government no matter what is that this argument falls apart rather quickly when it is applied to specific situations of history. 

Using this line of reasoning, should the US have been at war with Nazi Germany? Everything the Nazi’s did was legal, they passed laws. Would we argue that the Nazis and Hitler were ordained by God? They were the legal authorities of Germany. Should we have gotten in their way on their quest to dominate the world, and kill those who were impure?

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong when he did illegal activities (remember he was arrested for breaking the law) in his effort to have civil rights laws changed? After all, he did things that resisted authorities that had been instituted by God, supposedly. 

Was it wrong for people to assist slaves in going to freedom from the South prior to and during the Civil War (before the Emancipation Proclamation)? There were laws that stated that anyone who assisted a slave, instead of turning them in, was breaking the law.

What is Jesus about?  What is God the Father about?  What is the Holy Spirit about?  At their core, The Trinity is about setting us free from bondage, abuse, oppression, and exploitation.  To create a new order in which those things are absent.  A world in which we come together and violence and coercion is unnecessary.  A world based on love.  A world that Paul writes about – if your enemy is hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  Not the world we currently live in and have for most of human history.  A world that tells us that if your enemy is hungry, starve them.  If they are thirsty, drown them.  

Jesus’ way is far different than the world’s way.  While the world is more concerned with vengeance and control, Jesus is concerned with grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, freeing us from the bondage to sin and violence and revenge.  Jesus’s way frees people from hunger and thirst, nakedness and sickness, imprisonment and being unwelcome.  Freeing us from exploitation and oppression.  Giving us a new way of being and living.  A way that is radically different from what the world offers.  

I guarantee you this – if you live in Jesus’ way, it won’t be easy.  People will know because they will see something different.  Something freeing.  Something life giving.  Something not tied to the ends justify the means, the strong survive, and might makes right.  Something that satisfies the yearning of our very souls.  Something that offers us meaning and purpose.  Something that isn’t about controlling people, but frees people to live into who they are and who they were made to be – fully.  What they will see is the Kingdom of God in their midst.  A Kingdom that empowers people to live truly free lives in honor of God.  A Kingdom that creates a new order for life.  Amen.  

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