Servant to the state?

Pentecost 12 2011

Romans 13:1-7

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that we seek peace and justice for all. Amen.

“Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad.” So writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. If we were to apply this literally today, we would have to condemn the actions related to the so-called “Arab spring”. We would have to agree with the Burmese government that Aung San Suu Kyi is a threat to stability in that country and that Nelson Mandela should never have been freed. If those who resist authority resist what God appointed and should incur judgement, then we should not be incensed by the imprisonment and torture of political activists in many parts of the world.

A literal interpretation of this section of Paul’s letter allowed the German people, many of them Christians, to stand by or even support the actions of Hitler during the second World War. Government, even oppressive and violent government could be seen as ordained by God and its actions therefore not to be questioned.

Texts such as Romans 13, force us to consider how we are to approach our biblical texts. Do we accept and apply every word without question or do we seek to understand the context in which the bible was written and then try to see how it might apply in our own time? Do we take every sentence literally or do we try to see how the writers used drama and rhetoric to make their point? Do we pick and choose what to accept and what to ignore according to our own theology?

What we know as our Holy Scriptures is the most complex set of writings. They include story, history, poetry, prophecy, gospels and even letters! Across the breadth of the Bible we find repetition and contradiction, we discover both fact and fantasy and we see that some things were written for a particular time and place and others are truths that remain so forever.

When Paul was writing to the Romans, he almost certainly had no idea that two thousand years later his letter of introduction to the people there would be being treated as Holy Scripture. He certainly had no thought that one part of that letter would effectively result in the extermination of six million of his fellow Jews!

The situation in Rome was a difficult and sensitive one for the first believers for a number of reasons. Firstly, around the year 49 the Jews had been expelled from Rome “on account of disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (a term is commonly believed to refer to Christ). This meant that those to whom Paul was writing were living in a precarious situation. Drawing attention to themselves would not have been helpful if they hoped to remain in Rome.

Another problem was that the early Christians created a situation hitherto unknown in the Roman Empire. The God whom they worshipped was a universal God, not the God of a particular nation. Romans worshipped a number of gods and they were reasonably tolerant of the gods of the nations over whom they ruled – including Yahweh whom the Jews worshipped. They could not understand and therefore not tolerant of a god who was not restricted to a particular nation but who was claimed as THE God with power over all the world. While the Jews had permission to worship their God, the Christians (whose God was not related to their nationality) did not. This meant that were they to draw attention to themselves, they may have been forbidden to gather for worship.

Thirdly, in the first century, government was very different to that with which we are familiar. Power was restricted to a few and held by force. An empire as large as that of Rome had to be tightly contained and unrest had to be quickly put down. Add to this the fact that a majority of those who lived in Rome were slaves and it is easy to see that it would have been impossible for any group to consider taking on the might of the Emperor. It is in this context that Paul cautions the believers in Rome against causing trouble.

Circumstances have changed considerably since the writing of the New Testament. We live in a very different time and under a very different form of government. We have the right not only to choose who will be in our parliaments, but also to challenge their decisions. Many other things have changed in the intervening years – the printing press has been invented making the bible accessible to all not just a few, most people in the Western world have access to education and can read, slavery has been abolished (at least in theory), women have legal rights, can work for a living and own property.

When we read the scriptures, it is important to take into account the circumstances in which they were written, to understand the intentions of the writers and the nature of the communities to whom they were written in this way we avoid taking literally things that we intended to be understood figuratively, we avoid being dogmatic about things that that pertained to a particular time and place and we avoid applying outdated mores to a different time and culture.

It is true that God is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. However, scripture was written by fallible human beings who wrote to particular groups of people at a particular time and place. As we seek to live out the faith they knew and proclaimed and we must look beyond the surface of what is written to the truths are revealed and maintain an openness to the Holy Spirit who, working in, through and with us continues to make God known in every place and in every age.


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