The Politics of Romans 12:9-13:14

The Politics of Scripture

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.

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 david.true@wilson.edu.

7 thoughts on “The Politics of Romans 12:9-13:14

  1. I have always found it interesting that the church prefers what Paul says in 13, rather than what he says in 12. When the Iraq War started, evangelicals took to the airwaves quoting 13 as the alleged antidote to any concerns raised about whether or not the conflict was just. The gubmint says to fight, so we fight. Just followin’ orders. Not much reflection took place on the ethical demand of 12.

  2. Hi John. If you look at the many blogs out there about scripture, Romans 13:1-7 (there-abouts) appears to come up as the versus most discussed. There are many views, with some people claiming that Romans 13 is in error, or shouldn’t even be there. There is so much apologetics about Romans 13 that I’m sure it grieves God very much. Very few Christians ever consider that western governments and so-called laws may be a counterfeit of the real thing.

  3. Today’s governments are corporations (they were body- politic entities) which are legal fictions, whereby the politicians are directors and administrators of these corporations. The politicians (members of government) are not people in authority as per Romans 13:1. The so-called laws do not apply to you or me as they are statutes applying to non-perpetual corporation-soles otherwise known as persons (not the same as ‘people’). The government’s and court’s secret definition of ‘person’ is not the same as your definition. 98% of people, incl. Christians have been deceived. There are differences between lawful organic rulership and corporate government; authority & power; laws and statutes; ‘lawful’ & ‘legal’; people & persons etc. Unlawful unconscionable constructive cestui que trusts have been set up to make you surety for these ‘persons’. Not much space here so if you send me your email I will go into more detail, but it will still just touch the surface of this deception. You’ll then see why there is no controversy regarding Romans 13, as you tend to find on the zillion web and blog sites out there.

  4. If one goes through ALL of the ‘Australian’ (Federal & States) statutes (statutes are not laws) , the words ‘person’ & ‘persons’ are used almost always, whereas the words ‘man’ & ‘woman’ are rarely used. The Commonwealth of Australia Marriage Act 1961 does mention ‘man’ and ‘woman’, & far more than average. Refer to Bouvier’s Law Dict., 6th Edition, 1856: “PERSON: This word is applied to men, women and children, who are called natural persons. In law, man and person are not exactly-synonymous terms. Any human being is a man, whether he be a member of society or not, whatever may be the rank he holds, or whatever may be his age, sex, &c. A person is a man considered according to the rank he holds in society, with all the rights to which the place he holds entitles him, and the duties which it imposes.” There are similarities in ‘Australian’ society to the military. Consider two men, one having the rank (or role) as a private, and the other with rank of captain. Both are men created in God’s image, both suveran (better word than ‘sovereign’) & told to subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish, birds, cattle; yet in man’s system of the military they hold different rank. The captain has power over the private, because the private volunteered to join the army & surrender some of his suveranty. In ‘Australian’ society (and the same for U.S.A. society etc.) people are deceived into taking rank through the secretive use of the cestui que trust. The whole system of society in ‘Australia’ operates on fiction (through legal fictions). I’ve heard “Oh but I live in a real world with real people, and work in a real building”. Correct to some degree, however consider the board game of Monopoly. There are real people as players, a real board, real paper as ‘play money’, real plastic pieces as tokens etc., yet the game is a fiction. With ‘Australian’ society, it operates basically fairly smoothly, people work, are fed, populate etc., yet the system is a fiction.

  5. What is a legal fiction. Court cases work on facts. If your’e accused and theres no facts then they can’t convict you

  6. A legal fiction is something assumed or presumed in so-called-law/statute to be fact irrespective of the truth or accuracy of that assumption or presumption. It is an acceptance with no proof. Legal fiction entities are fiction entities which include businesses, companies, body-politics, corporation-soles (perpetual & non-perpetual) etc. They exist on paper & in the mind of man. They can be destroyed/cancelled at the stroke of a pen. To put it straight out, a legal fiction is a lie.
    Just as 0 x 1 = 0, a lie x truth = a lie.
    Butterworths Concise Australian Legal Dictionary: Legal fiction: An assumption that purports to or does conceal, alter, or modify a fact or rule of law. The European settlement in Australia in 1788 as terra nullius (empty land) was a legal fiction as it suppressed the fact that the land was inhabited and administered by the Aboriginal peoples; Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1; 107 ALR 1.
    Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law: Legal fiction: A presumption of fact assumed by a court for convenience, consistency or to achieve justice.
    Oran’s Dictionary of Law: Legal fiction: A legal fiction is an assumption that something that is (or may be) false or nonexistent is true or real. Legal fictions are assumed or invented to help do justice. For example, bringing a lawsuit to throw a non-existent “John Doe” off your property used to be the only way to establish a clear right to the property when legal title was uncertain.
    Of course facts will turn up in a court. A counterfeit is just this, it is similar to the real thing but is counterfeit, where a court is an entity of ‘corporate society’.
    ‘Your’ corporation-sole’s name is a corrupted version of your real name eg. Thomas James Clyde (the man) will be written as THOMAS JAMES CLYDE or CLYDE, THOMAS JAMES etc. The English language does not permit the all-capitalization for a proper noun as in someone’s name. Check out the Chicago Styles Manual for English, or earlier versions of the American and Australian Styles Manuals for international commerce.

  7. I’ve explained how the ‘system’ of society really works. A non-Christian will generally comment “this can’t be right” but will still ask for more information. Unfortunately most Christians will comment “another conspiracy theory”. Also, for most Christians this info won’t fit their agenda. How about a question or comment from John Allen.

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