Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Farewell to Cedarville

(Originally posted in The Ventriloquist. Go check out the rest of Issue 10!)

“A Farewell to Cedarville” – Joshua Steele

As what was once a vision for the future has become an agenda for returning to the past, the list of people who no longer fit the Cedarville mold is growing. I contacted former vice president of Student Life, Dr. Carl Ruby; former professor Dr. Michael Pahl; current professors Dr. TC Ham, Dr. Shawn Graves, and Dr. David Mills; and former trustees Dr. William Rudd and Rev. Chris Williamson to see where things stand as this academic year comes to a close.

Although Dr. Ruby does not know what the long term future holds, he is pouring himself into immigration reform. When asked about his plans, he replied: “I’m motivated by an experience that I had on the Civil Rights bus tour in Birmingham, Alabama. As I read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I determined that I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, or more important, on the wrong side of the gospel on these kinds of issues. I leave Cedarville with lots of good memories and a clear conscience. I hope I invested my time and energy in the things that mattered most … loving God and loving people.”

And speaking of immigrants, Dr. Pahl moved his family nearly 2,000 miles as the crow flies from Alberta, Canada to Cedarville, Ohio in 2011. However, after just two semesters, the “promising scholar” and “dedicated teacher” was fired for his inability “to concur fully with each and every position of Cedarville University’s doctrinal statement.” The Pahls have spent the year trying to move on – looking for work, and working on renovations to sell the old parsonage which they bought less than three months before receiving notice of Dr. Pahl’s “review.”

It would be one thing if the Pahls were victims of a broken immigration system. It seems, however, that they are victims of a broken institution which claims the name of Christ.

Although Dr. Ruby and Dr. Pahl had little say regarding their terminations, others are voluntarily choosing to disassociate from the University.

Prompted by the changing Cedarville climate, Dr. Ham will be making the move to Canton, OH this summer to teach at Malone University. “I should note that I am not being forced to resign. I am leaving voluntarily,” Dr. Ham clarified. “However, I would not have been seeking other ministry opportunities had the past two years been different. For me, it was the events surrounding the termination of my good friend Michael Pahl that prompted me to look elsewhere. Other recent events—mostly known to the student body, but some unknown to them—have served to solidify my decision. While I am very excited about my future ministry, it is with profound sadness that I leave the wonderful men and women I’ve known as colleagues here.”

After the elimination of the philosophy major, Dr. Graves was offered a terminal contract. However, he has instead accepted a tenure track position at the University of Findlay, where he will begin teaching this fall. His wife, Marlena Graves, will conclude her role as the Resident Director of Murphy Hall at the end of this semester.

Dr. Mills, if he is at Cedarville next year, will have to carry the course load for the remaining philosophy minor in Dr. Graves’ absence. Dr. Mills declined the option to drastically expand the Honors Program during the 2013-14 school year before handing it over to an unknown successor, and was therefore removed from his involvement in the program, effective at the end of this semester.

The voluntary disassociations are not limited to faculty and staff, but also include trustees. Recent changes in the Board have included the resignations of Dr. Rudd and Rev. Williamson, two proponents of the same concerns held by student advocates such as myself.

Dr. Rudd, who served as a Cedarville trustee for over 20 years, including multiple terms as Board Chairman, had the following to say regarding his resignation:

“I’m very thankful for CU and the privilege of being very closely associated with it for so many years.  I have many dear friends there who are amazing servants of God.  It saddens me deeply that I could no longer support actions and  direction of the current leadership and that I was no longer able to exert influence for what I believe to be truthfulness, integrity, and Biblical consistency.  God has graciously blessed Cedarville and there are many, many wonderful people still associated with it.  I pray that the leadership will be restored to Biblical integrity.”

In Rev. Williamson’s words: “The board of trustees repeatedly mishandled God’s servants while virtually ignoring the cries of students and alumni alike. Any hint of due process was abandoned, and the ability to have respectful dialogues on key issues was non-existent. I resigned because I could no longer be associated with a group that was constantly untruthful and unjust.”

And so the Cedarville diaspora grows. If this university is going to inspire true greatness, it should avoid driving away godly individuals like Ruby, Pahl, Ham, Graves, Mills, Williamson, and Rudd in the future.

Some may accuse me of biting the hand that feeds. But it is not the same hand.

I have been fed by Carl Ruby’s Cedarville, not the new Cedarville of twenty years ago. As the University hearkens back to the glory days before creeping “liberalism” reached the bubble’s border, the leadership has responded to repeated requests for clarity and honesty with poignant silences and disappointing distortions of the truth.

God is not surprised. I wonder if he is angered, though, by having his knowledge and sovereignty used to justify injustice. 

Cedarville, fulfill your call and be true to our God – not by claiming institutional prerogatives to drive away our Christlike best – but by doing justice, promoting honesty, and walking humbly with Him whose name we claim.

Update: Dr. Carl B. Smith, Professor of Church History, has willfully decided to turn in an unsigned contract. Although he does not have further employment lined up at this time, he will not be returning to Cedarville for the 2013-14 academic year.

Romans 13: Reading An Abused Text of Scripture Rightly

Introduction

This study of Romans 13 rests upon a crucial presupposition: without context, words can mean anything and everything, and therefore mean nothing. It is only through the delimiting influence of context that words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are endowed with significance.

Although this concept seems simple and justified enough, it is often forgotten within the field of biblical exegesis. Due to influences as simple as our versification of the biblical text and as complex as the historical/theological developments which have dictated how we teach and interpret the Scriptures, many exegetes (wittingly or unwittingly) ignore context when trying to ascertain the meaning of particular biblical texts.

An adequate case study of this phenomenon is the interpretation(s) of Romans 13:1-7, a text that has been used to justify everything from utter obedience to totalitarian regimes to unquestioning support of harsh anti-immigration laws. These seven verses from Paul’s epistle to the Romans have been grossly abused at numerous points since their original composition.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul exhorts the Roman believers to apply his previous commands toward love (12:9), harmony (12:16), and peace (12:18) in the context of obedience to government (13:1-5) and the payment of taxes (13:6-7).

Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, this passage is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.

This thesis will be “proven” by appealing to the historical context of the original audience and the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10 in which this passage rests.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.)

Historical Context

When Romans 13:1-7 is read as if it was written in a modern North American context, it seems as though Paul is appealing to the sovereignty of God in the affairs of nations to remind us of the divinely-appointed nature of our free-market economy and federal constitutional republic.

All of this is supposedly done to prompt us toward active participation in our civil government and unquestioning obedience to all of its laws. After all, these verses come up in discussions of Christian political involvement, debates on just war theory vs. pacifism, and diatribes against illegal immigrants and those who desire to aid them.

However, using these seven verses as a packet theology of church and state is problematic, even within the Pauline corpus alone. The same man who wrote Romans 13 also frequently took up themes in his writings that would challenge the power and authority of the Roman Empire, for the declaration that Jesus is Lord contains the implicit declaration that Caesar is not. Our understanding of these seven verses must, therefore, be able to mesh with other passages (such as Phil 2:6-11; 3:20-21; 1 Thess 1:9-10; and 4:13-5:11) and their implications on relations between church and state.[1]

Many commentators in recent years have recognized the importance of interpreting this passage in light of its historical context at the time of its composition (c. A.D. 57[2]), instead of assuming that these verses are Paul’s fundamental views on how church and state should relate to each other.[3]

Knowledge of the situation facing the Roman Christians in A.D. 57 is crucial to the interpretation of this text. Emperor Claudius had expulsed Jews from the city of Rome in A.D. 49, removing Jewish believers from the Roman church and therefore leaving only Gentile Christians behind in their stead.[4]

However, Claudius was killed by his wife Agrippina in A.D. 54, and her son Nero advanced to the throne that same year, immediately allowing the Jews to return to the city. When Romans was written by Paul in A.D. 57, the Empire enjoyed a period of peace that looked quite different from the chaos that would characterize the later years of Nero’s reign.

Guided by his advisor Seneca, Nero made promises of a different and better peace than the pax romana of Augustus. He promised true peace, characterized by restraint and the peaceful resistance to using force in order to govern. While these promises were dashed beginning in A.D. 59, with Nero’s matricide, the loss of his advisors, and the beginning of his persecution of Christians, it is crucial to remember that Paul wrote Romans during the period of hopeful peace from A.D. 54-59.

Romans 13:1-7 should not, therefore, be interpreted as if it were written to Roman believers in the later years of Nero’s reign, when persecution and oppression were rampant, for this would unduly strengthen Paul’s “pro-Empire” sentiments here.[5]

With this background information, it is easy to see why Paul here gives advice to his readers, a cosmopolitan church in Rome struggling to figure out Jew-Gentile dynamics in the early years of Nero’s reign, so as to prevent them from drawing negative attention to themselves and damaging the effectiveness of the gospel mission.

Although things were presumably “going well,” as mentioned above, Paul knew full well that things could get tense for the Roman believers very quickly. Despite the period of relative peace from A.D. 54-59, tensions were rising in Rome in A.D. 57-58 regarding the particularly nasty practice of indirect taxation. Furthermore, the Jewish believers who had returned to the city in A.D. 54 might not have been on the best terms with neither the Roman authorities nor the Gentile believers. Much of what Paul has to say in this epistle speaks to this issue: the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians within the Roman context.

It is not, therefore, unreasonable to assume that this played a role in the social tension Paul here addresses in Romans 13:1-7. Furthermore, revolutionary sentiments were in vogue at this time among the Jews in Palestine, and Paul was perhaps worried that the fervor would spread to the Roman church and quickly create some serious problems given the tensions within the church and its social context.[6]

Positively, then, when Romans was written, the original audience enjoyed a period of relative peace and stability before the chaotic upheaval that would take place in A.D. 59.

Negatively, there was still quite a bit of tension within and around the Roman church which had the potential to divide the church and get the Christians in serious trouble with Roman authorities if rebellion became the rallying cry for the followers of Jesus, assured of the lordship of their King and the reality of his kingdom.

It is therefore a mistake to read Romans 13:1-7 as a justification of the sins of the state, as if this passage gave a carte blanche to the atrocities to be committed in the later years of Nero’s reign. Paul was capable of saying negative things about pagan governments when they were going awry[7], but he nevertheless appealed to God’s sovereignty over human governments in order to prevent the tense situation of his audience from erupting into a social upheaval that would wreck the church’s testimony and hinder the gospel mission in the city of Rome and the empire over which that city ruled.

His audience then (and readers of the epistle today) would not, therefore, be expected to never challenge the government or abstain from promoting or participating in its practices, as Romans 13:1-7 has often been used to argue. Instead, they were (and are) to wisely interact with human governments, not seeking to cause any trouble in society that would damage their testimony, but not hesitating to stand firm in the cause of Christ their King when human governments do things contrary to the kingdom of God.[8] Wright pulls these themes together quite well:

[P]recisely because of all the counter-imperial hints Paul has given not only in this letter and elsewhere but indeed by his entire gospel, it is vital that he steer Christians away from the assumption that loyalty to Jesus would mean the kind of civil disobedience and revolution that merely reshuffles the political cards into a different order. […] The main thing Paul wants to emphasize is that, even though Christians are servants of the Messiah, the true lord, this does not give them carte blanche to ignore the temporary subordinates whose appointed task, whether (like Cyrus) they know it or not, is to bring at least a measure of God’s order and justice to the world. The church must live as a sign of the kingdom yet to come, but since that kingdom is characterized by justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit [14.17], it cannot be inaugurated in the present by violence and hatred.[9]

These sentiments and those outlined above will now be augmented by a brief examination of Roman 13:1-7 within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10.[10]

Scriptural Context: Romans 12:9-13:10

The passage at hand only makes sense within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10. Although Paul undoubtedly changes topics at 13:1, the thematic links between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21 are difficult to ignore. KakoV (“evil”) and agaqoV (“good”) occur in Rom 12:17, 21 and 13:3-4. Orgh (“wrath”) is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4, 5. Also, conceptually, vengeance is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4.[11] It is therefore quite reasonable to see a connection between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21.

The links between this passage and the one immediately preceding it, however, should not overshadow the importance of the thematic verses earlier in 12:1-2. There Paul effectively redefines the people of God as no longer just Jews, but Gentiles as well. This is a common enough theme throughout the entire epistle and in almost all of Paul’s writings,[12] but in Romans 12:1-15:13, it is of particular importance.

Having spent the first eleven chapters of the epistle explaining the identity of the people of God as a mix of Jews and Gentiles and defending the covenant loyalty of God in the process, Paul now devotes chapters 12-15 to redefining the “rule of life” of the people of God.[13] In 12:9-21, Paul proclaims “love as the fundamental moral imperative in human relationships,”[14] urging his readers to pursue harmony (12:16) and peace (12:18). He then redefines in 13:1-7 how the people of God in the church at Rome should relate to the power structures of the society in which they dwell.

Romans 12:9-21 is one of the most loosely-constructed passages in the entire epistle. This means that it would take quite a bit of time and space to comprehensively analyze the syntax and detailed meaning of the passage. However, some general observations are in order.

The thematic verse of this paragraph is 12:9 (NET)[15], “Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.” From there, Paul emphasizes the important manifestations of genuine love: mutual devotion and eagerness in showing honor (12:10), enthusiastic spiritual service (12:11), hopeful joy and persistent prayer in the face of suffering (12:12), and hospitably meeting the needs of the saints (12:13). Harmony is commanded within and outside the church, extending even to persecutors (12:14, 16). Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors and therefore being “overcome by evil” (12:21a), Paul urges them to live peaceably (12:17-18), forbidding them from taking vengeance into their own hands (12:19). Instead, the Roman believers are to “overcome evil with good” (12:21b), and this is illustrated in 12:20, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.”

At this point after 12:21, most modern English readers of Scripture are confronted by a large “13” and perhaps a subject heading, such as “Submission to Civil Government.” The advantages of verse and chapter divisions for Bible reading and study are well-known. However, the chapter division here has had detrimental effects on the exegesis of this passage.

Although seemingly a very minor change, it puts undue emphasis on Paul’s supposed change of topic, prompting the interpretations of many that this is Paul’s comprehensive theology of church and state relations, ignoring the passage’s context and the historical situation of the original audience, who would have heard this epistle read without the explanation of a chapter division or sub-heading.

Romans 13:1-7 is most naturally read as the unpacking of the principles of 12:9-21, in the context of how Christians in Rome should behave in relation to the powers that governed the society in which they dwelt. It answers the implied question (after reading 12:9-21): “Paul, if we are to do these things (love genuinely, pursue harmony and peace, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, etc.), how should this apply in regards to our relationship with the rulers of our city and empire?”

The specific rules that governed the theocracy of ancient Israel no longer held sway for the international and multi-ethnic body of Christ. As noted above, the situation in Rome, although relatively peaceful, was still quite tense within and outside of the church. Jews and Gentiles were struggling to remain unified in the Messiah in spite of their cultural differences.

Furthermore, Jews in Rome, only recently allowed back into the city, may have been culturally stigmatized as superstitious and unwanted. Tensions were building because of indirect taxation. And Jews in Palestine were growing more and more rebellious.[16]

It is not therefore hard to imagine why Paul felt the pastoral need to apply the principles of 12:9-21 to the realm of society and government. A “perfect storm” was brewing underneath the surface, one that could put the Christians in Rome at odds with not only each other but with the Roman Empire itself very quickly if the believers there tended towards promoting social unrest, perhaps due to an over-realized eschatology that would want to usher in the kingdom of God by overthrowing Roman rule. If the Christians in Rome made a wrong move, evil could quickly overcome them.

While a full analysis of the argument of the text at hand is beyond the scope of this essay, a brief trace of the thought-flow of Romans 13:1-7 will aid in comprehension of its contextually-appropriate meaning. The general command to submit to the authorities is found in 13:1a, and is reiterated in 13:5.

The first reason for this submission is that the authorities have been appointed by God (13:1b). Logically, then, those who oppose the authorities oppose “the ordinance of God” (13:2b). The consequence of disobeying the general command is therefore God’s judgment[17] (13:2b).

The second reason for submission is that the rulers are servants of God to commend good and to administer retribution to evil, although these two verses can also be seen as support for the claim that those who resist the authorities can expect judgment on earth[18] (13:3-4).

Paul then restates the main thesis of 13:1-4 in 13:5, urging his readers to submit because of “wrath” (they would face judgment if disobedient) and “conscience” (they would be opposing God’s ordinance). He then closes this paragraph with an appeal to the readers’ current practice of paying taxes in submission to the government (13:6), urging them therefore to continue respectfully in what they have already been doing (13:7).[19]

When unhindered by the chapter division, it is easy to see how Romans 13:1-7 relates to 12:9-21. The genuine love commanded in 12:9a would be quite hard to apply to the impersonal institution of the Roman government. On the other hand, it would have been quite easy for the rebellious attitudes of the Jews in Palestine to seep into the Roman context, prompting the Roman Christians to rebel and try and institute the kingdom of God in opposition to Roman rule.

Paul steps in and applies the principles of non-violence, non-retribution, and enemy love (12:14, 17, 18-20) to the context of government and society. In order to “overcome evil with good” (12:21) when it came to the Roman powers, the believers in Rome were not to rebel violently or cause unnecessary civil unrest, but to submit to the governing authorities (13:1a) with the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the said powers (13:1b).

It would be a mistake, however, to go to the other end of the spectrum and argue that Paul is urging his audience to give unthinking and critical approval of everything the Roman government did. As mentioned above, Paul was more than willing to critique governments and empires for the sake of God’s kingdom and the cause of Christ.

It would also be a mistake to argue that Romans 13:1-7 is a justification for the active participation in government activities (political office, warfare, etc.) both ancient and modern. Although God is still sovereign over modern nations, Paul’s argument here does not address the issue of active Christian participation in government because that was not on the radar of first-century Christian life in the Roman Empire.

Instead, Paul’s main point is that his readers should not revolt, but that they should instead stay out of trouble by obeying the authorities and participating in the basic constructs of their society (i.e. paying taxes).

The argument for placing 13:1-7 in the overarching context of Paul’s focus on genuine love in 12:9-13:10 is strengthened by his return to the topic of love in 13:8-10. After the sobering instruction to not rebel but to stay out of trouble and obey the governing authorities, Paul reminds his audience of the importance of love, not only of enemy (of which it could be strongly argued that the governing authorities were a subset!), but of neighbor.

This returns the Roman Christians’ focus to love as the central virtue of Christianity and the “fulfillment of the law” (13:8, 10). They were to faithfully follow Jesus the Messiah King, seeking to bring in his kingdom. But it was unthinkable to Paul to effect God’s kingdom in a way that ran against the grain of that kingdom of love, justice, and peace. Therefore, in the middle of exhortations to genuinely love one’s enemies and neighbors, Paul urges his audience to humbly obey their governing authorities so that they might remain faithful to their King’s calling as they went about his work in the city of Rome.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my summary of the book’s argument/story.)

Conclusion

Through the ignorance of the historical background of Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a whole and his instructions in Romans 13:1-7 in particular, the passage at hand has been grossly mis-read and mis-applied in numerous ways since its original composition. Instead of an argument for unthinking obedience to, approval of, and participation in governments past and present, Paul here argues for the Christians in Rome not to revolt against the empire in an attempt to fully usher in God’s kingdom, but to submit humbly to the Roman authorities as they sought to overcome evil with good.

Having an understanding of both the historical background and the context of this passage in the overall argument of the epistle yields an appropriately nuanced view of Paul’s pastoral concern for his audience expressed in these seven controversial verses. Although it is tempting to take this passage out of context and use it to justify opinions on everything from immigration to just war theory, the same hubris that Paul implicitly rebukes in these verses must be resisted if the Scriptures are to be heard and appropriated well.

While some may wish that Romans 13:1-7 had more to say regarding the relationship between church and state, the passage certainly cannot say less than the main points briefly described above. Romans 13:1-7 is not a condensed theology of church and state, but a specific historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, diverting them from rebellion and urging them towards humble submission in order to protect their testimony and thereby enhance their effectiveness in God’s redemptive mission.

(For a theological essay about what the Bible is and why it’s important, read this piece.)

Bibliography

(Links are affiliate links.)

Bray, Gerald, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1998.

Carter, T. L. “The Irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 46, no. Fasc. 3 (July 2004): 209-228.

Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988.

Ehrensperger, Kathy. “A Subversive Reading of Paul: A Response to Stubbs, ‘Subjection, Reflection, Resistance’.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 198-202. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Milliman, Robert. “Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10.” November 13, 2011.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.

Stein, Robert H. “The Argument of Romans 13:1-7.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 31, no. Fasc. 4 (October 1989): 325-343.

Stubbs, Monya A. “Subjection, Reflection, Resistance: An African American Reading of the Three-Dimensional Process of Empowerment in Romans 13 and the Free-Market Economy.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 171-197. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Witherington III, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part Two. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

—. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Notes

[1] A full analysis of the legitimacy of an anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic far exceeds the scope of this study. Wright (2004: 82-88 and 2005: 69-79) emphasizes what he sees to be Paul’s anti-imperial themes throughout his writings, and I am indebted to him for the concept of Jesus’ vs. Caesar’s lordship. For an even-handed overview and analysis of this topic, consult Kim (2008), who makes the case that a strong anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic is difficult to maintain. Despite Kim’s conclusions, however, it seems unwise to completely ignore the implications of Christ’s lordship on both Roman believers in the first century and on North American ones today. The fact that Romans 13:1-7 is such a stumbling block to those in the anti-imperial camp and such an “anomaly” when compared with the implications of Paul’s anti-imperial passages (such as 1 Thess 5, alluded to by Wright  [2005]) seems to necessitate a nuanced approach that hears the arguments of those on both sides of this theological debate.

[2] The commentaries and resources consulted in this study provided A.D. 57 as a consensus view of the date of composition of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

[3] (Kim 2008: 37), who points to P. Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, trans. S. J. Hafeman (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 198-208; J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 662-63. Also, consult Dunn (1988: 768-69).

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] The background information in this paragraph comes from the helpful discussion in Witherington III (2004: 304-6).

[6] Consult the discussion in Kim (2008: 37) for a helpful counterbalance to the optimistic portrait painted by Witherington III (2004: 304-6). I am also very much indebted to the discussion as the source of the historical information in this paragraph.

[7] Cf. Witherington III (2004: 307): “That Paul could say very different and negative things about the state when the state was malfunctioning at the end of Claudius’ reign seems clear enough from 1 and 2 Thessalonians, particularly in 2 Thessalonians 2.” And also consider Wright’s (2004: 86) insistence that Paul had the ability to critique human government: “…in those stories (his visit to Philippi in Acts 16, for instance, or his trial before the Jewish authorities in Acts 23), that precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting that they should follow it.”

[8] Passionate Aside: The main problem, then, in applying this passage today, is a very narrow vision of what God’s kingdom entails. That is, “obey your government unless it tells you to do something contrary to the Word of God” is a common enough teaching in the church today, but our vision of God’s redemptive mission is so emaciated that it causes us to miss glaring issues of concern (immigration, warfare, racism, etc.) in our society today. We rape the Scriptures when Romans 13:1-7 is used to justify such ignorance of and even the active participation in streams of society, culture, and policy which go against the grain of God’s kingdom.

[9] (Wright 2005: 78-79), emphasis mine.

[10] I am indebted to Dr. Robert Milliman and his blog-post Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10 (2011) for the initial idea of examining this passage in its context to avoid mis-readings of the text which have been used to justify everything from totalitarian regimes to Christian service in the military.

[11] Schreiner (1998: 678) provides these examples of textual and conceptual links between the two passages. Dunn (1988: 758) also mentions the phrases ekdikew / ekdikoV (12:19; 13:4) and pantwn anqrwpwn / pasin (12:17-18; 13:7) to provide evidence for a link between the two passages, before demonstrating links between Romans 2:7-11 and 13:3-4 in order to refute the claims of some that this passage is a non-Pauline insertion.

[12] I appeal to Dr. Chris Miller’s class notes from BENT 4110 – Romans and Galatians (Spring 2012), and also Wright’s work on Romans (2004) to prove this point, for a complete discussion of this common theme exceeds the scope of this essay. However, for an overview of this theme in Romans, Dunn (1988: 705) cites Rom 1:16-17; 2:15, 17, 28-29; 3:20, 29; 4:16; 9:8, 12; 11:6, 30-32.

[13] Dunn (1988: 705) sees chapters 12-15 as providing a replacement to Lev 18:5 (“this do and live”) as the rule of life for the people of God: “…‘the walk in newness of life’ as over against the walk in the ordinances of Israel’s law (6:4), the service in newness of Spirit as over against oldness of letter (7:6), the obedience of faith in accord with the Spirit fulfilling the requirement of the law unconfused with Jewish ‘works’ (8:4).”

[14] Ibid., 706.

[15] All Bible quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NET Bible.

[16] Here I summarize my conclusions from “Historical Background” above.

[17] Schreiner (1998: 679) notes that there is considerable debate as to whether this refers to the eschatological judgment of God or to judgment imposed by earthly rulers. He appeals to the structure of the text (gar in 3a) to conclude that the latter option is more likely.

[18] Ibid., 680.

[19] I am indebted to Moo (1996: 794) and Schreiner (1998: 680) for this overview of the passage’s argument.