Paul makes an odd about face in his attitude toward authority in chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans. The text moves quickly from Paul exhorting his followers to regard all legal authority as God-ordained, paying taxes and even according honor to authorities (13:1-7), to Paul telling the Christ community in Rome that it owes nothing to anyone but love to one another (13:8). It is perplexing to hear Paul on one hand as advocating for obedience to taxation and on the other expressing that the Christian owes no debt to the state.
The proximity of these two recommendations embodies the ancient and ongoing debate in political theology about how Christians ought to regard governmental authority. While it seems clear that first century Christianity was defined largely by its opposition to imperial Roman authority, texts like this one from Romans inject confusion into the portrait of Christianity as a politically marginal movement predicated on countering imperial domination. This text in support of empire is a part of the Christian collective story and testimony, and the attitudes it represents continue to exist in political and theological discourse.
It is important to note, it can be argued that Romans 13:1-7 is a redaction, a later text added into Paul’s letter, on the basis of this confusing change of tone as well as the way it seems to interrupt a thought that flows logically from 12:21 to 13:8. Whether this text was inserted by a later redactor, or Paul himself, it is clear that it is an interruption to Paul’s exhortation to an ethic of love (12:9-21, 13:8-10). Seeing this text as an interruption to me gives credit to the truly frightening revolutionary potential of the Pauline love ethic. At some point, the life Paul advocates for the Christians in Rome, to “owe no one anything except to love one another” became too deeply threatening to the Roman system which depended deeply on obligation, obedience, patronage and debt, to define persons and order society. The Christian communion was moved to interrupt Paul’s idealism with a plea to avoid the sort of open revolution that could bring the fledgling movement close enough to the surface of Roman imperial attention to experience anew the extinguishing blow Pilate sought to deliver at Golgotha. So now these chopped-apart verses stand in our textual memory as a testament to a moment when our movement was frightened by the logical conclusions of its own radical claims.
This seems to me to be a problem that exists as well in mainline Christianity today. We preach the love ethic and live the political expedience. We proclaim that we “owe no one anything except to love one another,” yet we dutifully render taxes and honor unto a political system that oppresses those we are called to love.
Perhaps political savvy and self-preservation against overwhelming odds are not bad tactical choices in some moments, but we cannot confuse the tactics with the mission. While the political tactic of Romans may be obedience, the political vision of Paul’s letter is a radical love. Christians today should invest in the Pauline vision and be comforted by the reality that the text preserves: this vision frightened even those who first imagined it. But as Paul writes, it is time “to wake from sleep…to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:11-12). This is the lightly veiled, subtle call to action in Paul’s text, to no longer live under the darkness of empire but instead to proclaim Christ, not the state, as Lord and embody an ethic of love, hospitality, and blessing (12:9-14).
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.
This post is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.