Love, honour and obey … who or what?

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:10-20]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

As I started my preparation for this sermon, I checked the Lectionary and noted the epistle reading – Romans 13:1-10 and its reference to being subject to authority. My immediate reaction was to say, ‘No, I won’t preach on that’. My reasoning being not just because of the history of my own days as a protest leader here in SA, but more seriously because I couldn’t see how I could reconcile Paul’s injunction:

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. [Rom 13:1]

With regimes such as Kim Jong Un in North Korea, the governing authorities in Xinjiang, or any one of the repressive dictatorships currently in place around the world, let alone previous ‘governing authorities’ such as ISIS, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union amongst many more in the C20 alone, not to mention previous times.

I turned to the Gospel reading in the Lectionary hoping for an easier task – Matthew 18:10-20. Even though the second part of that reading would have needed some careful interpretation, the warmth engendered for lost sheep in the first part led me to conclude that the focus of my sermon had been found. But as events were to turn out, such a sermon will have to wait for another day for, shortly after my decisions about the Lectionary readings, an e-Mail arrived.

A former classmate, John Norsworthy, now on staff at Faith Bible College in NZ and a writer, sent me an article with this comment:

On reading this article I thought of you, Lynn, so I thought to send it to you. Enjoy

The article entitled Paul’s Word to Police: Protect the Weak was from Christianity Today (27 Aug 2020) and was written by Esau McCaulley. The article is about policing in America and said in part:

The New Testament provides the beginning of a Christian theology of policing in two places. The first is Romans 13:1-7.

The timing of John’s e-Mail, hot on the heals of my determination not to preach on today’s nominated epistle reading seemed like a Holy Spirit tap on the shoulder that I should reconsider. So my mind having been changed for me, and after much prayer and reflection, let me now deal with these epistle verses which the author of the article himself has described as ‘not a productive place to start’ but which he also said were ‘much maligned and misunderstood’.

It is worth for a moment, noting the location of these verses within the Epistle to the Romans. The call for obedience to Roman authority in the opening seven verses of Chapter 13 is bookended by calls to love and to bless. They are followed by verse 8 which reads:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

While verses 9-21 in the preceding Chapter 12 have been captioned in modern versions of the Bible as being ‘Marks of the true Christian’ and are noteworthy for their general call to live life lovingly and without rancour; and for Christians to be there for the weak and dispossessed. So the verses that called for submission to authority and the implication that such authority is automatically righteous would seem out of place. Indeed, there has been a suggestion that these troublesome verses of Romans 13 were inserted by later curators of the texts which would ultimately be included in the New Testament.[1] That’s possible, but a bit too easy an excuse to my mind.

If we are to understand these verses better, we need to consider both the audience to whom they were addressed – those living in Rome – and the context in which they were sent – in the time of emperor Nero. Post New Testament times, our view of the relationship between Christians and Rome has been flavoured by the periodic bursts of terrible persecution which started with that same emperor Nero, then surged again under Domitian only thirty years later and would recur with ferocity every fifty years or so until Diocletian’s grand finale was followed by Constantine’s own revelatory moment of conversion, not on the road to Damascus but on the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. We can understand, then, why the Book of Revelation, written at the start of Domitian’s persecutions referred to Rome, the eternal city of seven hills, as the ‘beast from the sea’ with these words:

The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated. [Rev 17:9]

Why then would Paul have taken such a different view to the Rome which our reading described not as a ‘beast from the sea’ but as an ‘authority … instituted under God’? The simple answer is that his epistle to the Romans was written about 57 AD. The first persecutions by the Roman state against Christians would not begin until seven years later – a persecution that would see believers having to fend off lions in the Coliseum amongst other horrors, but not in 57AD when they were largely ignored.

Subsequent history has deservedly painted emperor Nero as a vicious and unprincipled despot for that is what he became in the last half of his reign. But in the first part, listening to such sage counsellors as the philosopher Seneca, his regime was more benign and even somewhat reforming. The historian Tacitus noted that, at the time Paul wrote his letter, Roman administration was reforming the tax system in order to make it fairer.[2] As with all such reforms, there was also opposition and it is thought that Paul’s admonition in those first seven verses of Chapter 13, particularly verse 7, were his ‘give unto Caesar’ moment in terms of advising Christians to pay their due taxes. Brendan Byrne has put it this way:

Paul may have been anxious lest the highly vulnerable Christian churches adopt imprudent policies (such as not paying the new taxes) sure to bring them into conflict with minor government officials.[3]

We know that Paul was well versed in matters of Roman state practice – both the Acts of the Apostles and his various epistles revealed his capacity to work within the Roman justice system for example. Whether or not he respected that system, he did use it and, for the most part, very effectively. At least, that is, until his final court appearance when both the system and his erstwhile supporters would abandon him. We know this from his last epistle (2 Timothy) , written two years after the start of Nero’s persecutions. Listen to his poignant words about his defence at that final trial:

… no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. [2 Tim 4:16]

One might wonder what, at that moment, Paul then thought about ‘governing authority … instituted by God’; as we simply don’t know, it is a futile question. A more pertinent question, however, is why later curators of the early church kept these verses from Romans in the biblical canon.

Paul’s attempt in these verses to have Roman Christians live peaceably under a pagan power, evoked the example of the Babylonian exile where the prophet Jeremiah had relayed God’s call for the Jews to:

Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace. [Jer 29:7]

So it might have been a survival mechanism – keep your head down and don’t get into trouble with the powers that be, whatever they might be like.

The next question then is: what should these verses mean for us? I suggest that the modern context of these verses requires us to consider the political context in which we live. When it comes to the process of governance, a favourite word of mine is commonweal – this somewhat archaic word, is defined as:

The happiness, health and safety of all of the people of a community or nation

 It’s a comfortable word that evokes an ideal of niceness about the process of government. Abraham Lincoln movingly summarised that process in his closing words to his Gettysburg Address:

This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He spoke these words in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, that dreadful conflagration that had erupted in a country which had been tearing itself apart for some years prior to its official start. The US had become increasingly and bitterly polarised in the 1850s with the consequence that the sense of good government was so lost that each side felt only that the bloody rupture of conflict could resolve the problem.

Fast forward to our own time, are we not seeing a return of bitter polarisation in many communities, where tolerance is seen as weakness or even evil in the face of self-defined righteousness? Our daily media reports on an escalation of civil unrest in the US, but the seeds of such discord exist even in our own community. The creative tension of ideas upon which democratic debate thrives is being pushed aside by fanatics who have hijacked the labels ‘right’ and ‘left’ for their own purposes. One with claims of hyper-individualism, the other hyper-identity collectivism – both strident, both angry, both deaf and both destructive to commonweal.

When Paul wrote these verses to the Roman, Christians were a small minority of the empire’s population; certainly they had no stake in government. Today, while Christians may once again be in the minority, historically we have been significant and still  remain a group with potential influence. The challenge is to decide how to use our influence.

In his article, while commenting specifically on policing by the state, Esau McCaulley makes an important general point:

Paul’s view … grows out of a Christian theology of persons. This theology reminds us that God is our maker, and the state is only a steward or caretaker. It did not create us, and it does not define us.  

So, as Christians living in a world of growing conflict and of increasing cynicism as to the capacity of government to provide for the commonweal, we have the choice of deciding whether we join the banners of extremism or seek to build a grace space of fairness and respect – a commonweal.

Which brings to mind verse 10 from our epistle reading this morning:

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is fulfilling the law. [v10]

To use Lincoln’s approach, the government to which Paul referred was clearly neither ‘of the people’ nor ‘by the people’ – ours, however, at least in democracies, is. So the relevance to us of Romans 13:1-7, must be to take note that, in the final analysis, God’s law does not speak to ‘states’ as such but to each of us both singly and severally. For only individuals can exhibit love; and thus only individuals can fulfill the law, but they must do so in the context of community – for such does love of neighbour demand.

[1] See Brenda Byrne SJ, Romans, Sacra Pagina V 6, p385.

[2] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, p308.

[3] Byrne, op cit, p386