The Debt of Love: Romans 13:1-7 in Context

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an annoying habit of dropping enigmatic hints about my research on Romans 13 (which I did initially more than two years ago and have been chipping away at again over the last year or so), implying that it contains the answer to this or that problem in ethics or political theology, but providing precious few details.  Well, I don’t think my reading of this passage gives all the answers, but it does, I think, provide a more helpful starting-point not only for understanding this section of Romans, but for hopefully for understanding many issues in political theology.  So, I will stop being enigmatic and share an excerpt from a paper I’ll be giving at the SBL Int’l Meeting next week containing a very concise version of one of the key lines of argument–the literary structure of the passage in context.  Bits of this appear in previous posts, but this is much more systematic, I hope.

Can we explain Paul’s admonitions in 13:1-7 within the same logic of love that dominates the surrounding context?  

Paul strongly invites us to do so, I would suggest, through the word-play that interlinks 13:7 with 13:8: the stem opheil, which appears as tas opheilas (“what is owed”) in 13:7, and as meden opheilete (“owe nothing”) in v. 8.  While most commentators have either completely ignored this intriguing repetition, or else dismissed it as merely a rhetorical ornament, this seems odd when a substantive explanation seems so ready-to-hand.  After all, as a few interpreters have noted, 13:7 poses a bit of a riddle.  It says to render to all what is owed them, but it does not solve the problem which has plagued citizens from Paul’s time to our own–what is owed them?  I know plenty of American Christians today who look at Romans 13:7 and say, “Aha!  Render to the government what is their due!  Well, the taxes being demanded are much more than is their rightful due, and so we need not pay.”  13:8 offers the obvious answer–what is owed is not determined by principles of political justice, but by the demands of love.  13:8, on this reading, can be taken to sum up all that goes before, saying, “Every duty which you carry out toward anyone must be conceived as a demand of the duty to love one another.  Of all other obligations you are free, but love’s demands remain.”  Certainly 13:9-10 seem to strongly support this understanding of 8, explicitly subsuming all other duties under that of neighbor-love.  This explanation has been forcefully asserted by John Calvin and Emil Brunner, to name two of the most prominent, but has almost never been picked up on by modern commentators.  

If this reading is correct, then the idea of 13:1-7 as an “independent block,” a self-contained pericope, has been cast into question.  Let us look closer for more clues of its relationship to the context.

 

A few hints of word-play suggest more tie-ins between our pericope and its context than merely the repetiton of ekdikos and orge in 12:19 and 13:4.  For instance, we may note the pervasive repetition of the pair agathos and kakos in these verses.  We meet kakos first in v. 17: “Repay no one evil for evil”–in the context, it suggests in particular violence–we are to show peace in the face of violence.  Then in v. 21 we meet kakos again, opposed now to agathos: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  The sense again seems to be that in the face of violent force, seizure of their possessions, or other persecution, Christians ought to give freely and overflowingly, in the spirit of Jesus’s admonition: “if anyone seeks to take your tunic, give him your cloak also.”  It is this self-sacrificial peacemaking through giving that constitutes the “good” that overcomes “evil.” 

In light of this, we have a helpful framework for understanding the role of agathos and kakos in 13:3-4.  The ruler should not be source of fear to the one who does good–the Christian who is not solicitous for his own good, but gives freely even in the face of injustice–but to the evil–the one who uses force to further his own interests.   The “good”–those who peaceable and not defensive of their own interests, will generally receive favor from rulers who are above all interested in domestic tranquillity and intolerant of any unrest.  However, if you do resort to the “evil” that characterizes your persecutors–then you should fear the wrath–of the ruler and of God–that is falling on them.  

An additional connective appears in the word apodote, usually translated “render” in 13:7.  However, this is same word that appears in 12:17 as a participial imperative–apodidontes— “Do not be repaying evil for evil.”  If the sense of 12:17 can be sustained in 13:7, then we have the sense that our rendering of tax, tribute, honour, etc. to the authorities is meant to be a response to something we have received from them–we are repaying their actions with these gifts.  The concept of giving is present also in 12:20, where we are to give our enemies whatever it is that they ask for–for thus will our love overcome their evil. 

Finally, the word allelous–“one another”–appears in both 12:16 (“Live in harmony with one another”) and in 13:8 (“Love one another”), suggesting an inclusio.  When we line all of the foregoing connections up, this inclusio blossoms into a very interesting chiasm.

A. Live in harmony with one another (allelous) (12:16)

 B. Do not pay back (apodidontes) evil for evil (12:17)

   C. Live at peace with all men as much as depends on you (12:18)

   D. Do not avenge (ekdikountes), but give place to wrath (orge) (12:19)

    E. Specific commands about doing good to your enemy (12:20)

     F. Do not be overcome by evil (kakos), but overcome evil with good (agathos) (12:21)

      G. Be subject to the governing authorities, for there is none but from God (13:1)

     F.’ Those who resist incur judgment, for the rulers are a not a terror to the doer of good (agathon), but to the doer of evil (kakon) (13:2-3a)

    E.’ Do what is good, if you wish to escape fear. (13:3b)

   D.’ The magistrate is the avenger (ekdikos) for wrath (orge) (13:4)

  C.’ Be in subjection and pay taxes for conscience’ sake (13:5-6)

 B.’ Pay back (apodote) to each what is owed him (13:7)

A.’ Owe no one anything, except to love each other (allelous) (13:8)

 

This chiasm suggests that the imperative in 13:1, far from constituting an entirely new train of thought, is simply a natural application of the line of imperatives that crescendoed through the final verses of 12.  Incredulous interpreters today ask, “How could Paul have spoken so positively of Roman authorities who were so unjust and such enemies to the Christian community?”  But that is precisely it.  Paul is assuming that, from his readers’ perspective, the admonitions to bless persecutors, live peaceably with all, and give food to their enemies will raise the question, “What about the Roman authorities?”  Scholars have particularly drawn attention to two facts that likely made for a very tense relationship between the Christians in Rome and their rulers.  First, we know that Jews (including Jewish Christians) had recently been expelled from Rome, had only recently been permitted to return, and had reason to fear another expulsion.  For another, we know that there was a great deal of unrest and rebellious murmuring in Rome at this time over the highly oppressive taxes.  

Paul, however, takes this as an opportunity to apply his teaching about the need not only to patiently bear with injustice, but to show overflowing generosity in response to it.  This means not merely abstaining from the retaliatory “evil” of violent rebellion, but overcoming the oppressor’s evil through the “good” of joyful service.  The taxes being demanded were unjust, to be sure, so what would it mean for Paul to tell the Christians to pay the Romans what was due to them?  In context, this means to respond to the unjust demands with the unselfishness that love demanded–to the enemy that was hungry, they were to give food, and to the government that was greedy, they were to pay taxes.  

Such a reading, I suggest, is attractive on two levels–both the textual and the ethical levels on which Kallas and others are concerned.  On the textual front, not only does this make 13:1-7 thoroughly at home within its context and offer us an unbroken progression of parenesis from 12:1 through 13:14, but it sheds light on many smaller questions as well–though there is no time to go into these here.

 

On the ethical front, this releases us from the false dilemma that appeared in its sharpest form in the Reformation, when Protestants were divided between reading the passage as a wholesale endorsement of governmental authority, with totalitarian results, or else concluding that the passage must only be speaking of an ideal government, and so the call to submission had no force in the face of injustice.  This reading suggests instead a posture of what John Howard Yoder has called “revolutionary subordination,” in which we are able to challenge injustice, but not in the way it expects–not by leaping to our own defence and refusing all obedience, but by patient and conscientious service motivated and qualified by love, and confident in God’s ultimate control.  What this means in terms of concrete political action will differ depending on concrete political circumstances, and it may be that the modern West affords the Christian more room to actively confront the powers that be than first-century Rome did.  All this requires much further thought.  But a contextually grounded reading of Romans 13, rooted in the virtue of charity, is our best starting-point for this inquiry.


3 thoughts on “The Debt of Love: Romans 13:1-7 in Context

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    In JVG–Jesus and the Victory of God? I didn't recall him discussing it in there, although I've read his take on it in a few other places. If it's the same as what he says elsewhere, it's a helpful angle as far as it goes. The gist is to say that Romans 13 isn't proof that Paul's gospel wasn't challenging the Roman authorities, but precisely that it was, and that's why he needed to clarify that this did not entail open disobedience and rebellion. Wright argues that the first twelve chapters of Romans contain a great deal that challenges Caesar and the imperial cult, and that Romans 13 should be understood as a "…however, even so…" against that backdrop. He also argues that to call the Roman authorities "servants of God" was itself a challenge to them, and to the imperial cult. It was a demotion of them, rather than a ringing endorsement, as it has often been read, because they were claiming to be gods, not servants of the one true God. This, I think, is helpful, and also ties in with something I've noted, but hardly any commentators seem to, which is that when they are said to be "appointed by God," this is often recognized as drawing upon Old Testament language where rulers are described as having been raised up by God, but usually this point is made again, as if this were a promotion, an endorsement. Most of the prophetic parallels cited, however, have the emphasis of a challenge to the rulers, "God has raised you up, and he can/will throw you down again." I think that dimension is present in Romans 13 as well.

    Like

  2. ed

    Paul was teaching something when he wrote this letter. Paul was a human being. Paul was a great teacher. Paul said many true things. Paul also made mistakes–he wasn’t getting continual guidance from God like the Old Testament Prophets did. Paul and all his imperfections were translated into dogma by including his letters into the Canon of the New Testament. Bible Canons are chosen by human beings who also make errors. I think God would be most pleased by the people in Germany who risked their lives trying to get Jews out of the country. They only helped people and hurt no one. Also remember that Jesus turned over the table of the moneychangers in the temple. Surely this was against the government and an illegal act. Today the Nazi process is repeating itself in America. Where will you stand gentlemen. What will you do?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s