Thursday, April 05, 2007

    The Politics of Paul

    Every Wednesday night, I have a group of students come over to my house for Bible study. For the past two years (we take summers off and don’t always stay on track), we’ve been working our way through the United Methodist Bible study, “Disciple: Becoming Disciples through Bible Study.” Last night, we tackled the book of Romans.

    For awhile, everything was going well. The youth were really digging the notion that we’re accepted by grace and faith, not solely works righteousness. They also enjoyed the conversation that dealt with sin and the concept of original sin. We had a great debate over nature versus nurture.

    Then, we came to Romans 13: 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. One individual asked: What’s going on here, this doesn’t look like Paul at all?” Someone else suggested that maybe we should just ignore this chapter of Romans.

    The more I thought about it, and the more we talked, I really I wasn’t at all sure how to interpret Romans 13. This morning, I think Romans 13 may be seen as 1) a general statement about ruling authorities and the idea that God is the head of order; 2) for some reason, Paul may have respected the Roman government or perhaps the Roman government offered some sort of protection from persecution (though I think this is unlikely); and 3) perhaps Paul wrote this when Nero was in charge of the empire (54-68 CE) and believed that Nero offered some benefits to the early Jewish and Christian community.

    Ultimately, I’m still not sure. I hesitate to think that ruling authorities are ordained by God. But, I am sure that posing such questions is one of the reasons I enjoy working with youth. They are unafraid to share their thoughts and questions.
    What do others think?


    K-Dizzle said...

    I am a huge fan of checking multiple translations for such things. I think they help up challenge context in light of what is being said. This helps up formulate a logical idea of what is being said without reading into the text. I checked multiple versions and the Message had one of the more interesting takes on the verse:

    To Be a Responsible Citizen
    1-3Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it's God's order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you're irresponsible to the state, then you're irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you're trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.
    3-5Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you'll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you're breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That's why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it's the right way to live.

    6-7That's also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.

    8-10Don't run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don't sleep with another person's spouse, don't take someone's life, don't take what isn't yours, don't always be wanting what you don't have, and any other "don't" you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can't go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.

    11-14But make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We can't afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!

    Benjer said...

    Ultimately, I think youth ministries that allow students to engage in thoughtful, open discussion while working through the Word of God are great. Keep up the good work!

    I think one thing to keep in mind with this passage is to consider the type of teaching Paul is engaged in throughout this section that begins with chapter 12. Jewish ethical teaching--which Paul, a Pharisee, would have been quite familiar with and definitely utilized in his teaching--was more concerned with generalities rather than specific situations. Contemporary North American culture (especially when it comes to ethics) is very concerned with the particular. Thus, Paul was able to say, "this is how you should live as Christians" without listing the caviats or exemptions that, in his mind, were to be already understood by his audience. After all, by the time he wrote this letter to the Romans, he had disobeyed at least a few government leaders by preaching the gospel. And so I would agree with Paul: in general, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, which I suppose would align most with Jacob's option #1.

    Audrey said...

    I tend to go with the Nero argument. I don't like to be too literal in how i read that part of the bible. i think the church can often be a very influential voice in changing the government and that is a good thing. still, there are times when the church abuses its power through the government. i just don't think there is an answer across the board, so i figure he was just writing the answer that he believed fit his context.

    the overall message i receive from all of this is the importance of us christians in wrestling with these questions as citizens of whatever nation. i was raised to believe that the church and the government should never connect. i see now how important it is that my faith informs my decisions - including who i vote for and what i lobby for or against.

    that is just me.