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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany


Epiphany IV
Romans 13:1-10

This morning of grace, I intend to dwell on the epistle reading. It is not only extremely important, but it is also widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied. It is a difficult text on several levels. It seems difficult to reconcile St. Paul’s language of praise for the godliness of worldly authorities with a more general Christian understanding of the powers of this world as subject to “the prince of this world,” the devil—something to which both Scripture (John 12:31, 14:30) and the historical experience of the Church testifies. So much so that we are not amiss to call into question whether the common Protestant understanding is actually correct. I say Protestant because it was Luther and Calvin who made Romans 13 into the mercilessly universal doctrinal statement that permeates Christian attitudes to politics to this day; a statement that deteriorates into a sort of fatalism: “well, governments are ordained by God so even if every fiber in my body and every claim of Scripture indicate that it is wicked, it must be good.” What is interesting is that we apply it to ourselves only. No one hauls out Romans 13 when talking about the governments of Syria, Iran or China, or elsewhere where we are happy to encourage citizens to rebel against governments. There is something not right about this. Thomas Merton noted, with reference to all churches, including his own, that

It is a curious fact that in this present century there have been two world wars of unparalleled savagery in which Christians, on both sides, were exhorted to go out and kill each other if not in he name of Christ and faith, then at least in the name of ‘Christian duty.’ One of the strange facts about this was that, in the second World War, German Christians were exhorted by their pastors to die for a government that was not only non-Christian but anti-Christian and which had evident intentions of getting rid of the Church. An official theology which urged Christians, as a matter of Christian duty, to fight for such a government, surely calls for examination. (Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice, p. 11)

Both Luther and Calvin drew heavily on the exegesis of St. Augustine, who had argued for a balance between the requirement to obey temporal authorities, on the one hand, and the imperative never to cede authority in matters of faith, on the other (M. Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle, p. 131). Finding this balance became a standard concern for theologians looking at this text. Peter Abelard, for example, suggested that Christians may disobey if, and only if, a tyrant seizes power.

Yet with the Reformation, something happened that continues to define our understanding of the text to this day. Luther argued that in Romans 13 that “the Apostle teaches subjects”—all Christians, not just the Roman community—“to be obedient to their masters and give them love and assistance.” Although he recognized that governments may at times be “usurped and managed in ways not ordained” by Godhe nevertheless flatly dismissed the view that there could be governments that are not Divinely appointed. Nor did he see any mystery or challenge in the claim in 13:3, that rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil—something that militates against much or most of Christian historical experience, beginning with Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents.

Luther went from his interpretation of Romans 13 to argue that the fourth commandment is not restricted to parents, but that its meaning is that “we should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents and masters…” “Masters” is not in the actual commandment, but Luther’s Small Catechism presses on and asks, “who are parents and masters?” and then goes on to supply the answer: “Parents are father and mother; masters are all those who by God’s ordinance are placed over us in the home, in the state, at school, and at the place where we work.” The commandment does not deal with masters, but his understanding of Romans 13 suggested that it at least ought to be. This had profound implications for the Reformation and for the modern world in its entirety.

A word on Calvin, who has had some historical influence on the Anglican Church. Calvin followed closely on Luther’s interpretation, assuming that the text lays out universal doctrine, and then driving that notion to its logical extreme. Due to Calvin’s doctrine of the absolute depravity of man, “it seemed obvious to him that God had established a system of temporal power exercised by magistrates… so that people’s evil actions could be punished”K. Randell, Calvin and the Later Reformation, p. 63). This is well illustrated by Calvin’s comment on 13:3, where he suggested that

there is no reason why we should dislike the magistrate, if indeed we are good; nay, that it is an implied proof of an evil conscience, and of one that is devising some mischief, when any one wishes to shake off or to remove from himself this yoke… For since a wicked prince is the Lord’s scourge to punish the sins of the people, let us remember, that it happens through our fault that this excellent blessing of God is turned into a curse… princes do never so far abuse their power, by harassing the good and innocent, that they do not retain in their tyranny some kind of just government: there can then be no tyranny which does not in some respects assist in consolidating the society of men.

What was going on here was determined by rage against papal power and its sanctimonious meddling in politics; Luther’s own commentary makes this very clear. But pointing to the corruption of the papacy does not, and cannot, serve as proof that secular rulers are ministers of God for good. Nevertheless, while Luther was adamant that there needs to be a separation between church and state, his theology lent itself naturally to abuses by power hungry clerics and princes alike. It ‘nationalized the papacy’ and allowed individual criticism against the Roman clerical authorities while absolutely anathemizing those who criticized secular rulers.

A sad consequence of this was that much of Protestantism slowly morphed into a framework that gave legitimacy to absolute monarchy, militarism, and colonialism; to exploitation of the poor and excesses of the rich. It provided in-house theological justification for self-proclaimed faithful power elites, including the apartheid regime in South Africa. “Know your place, be respectful and quit your whining” became the social watchword of Protestantism.

Today, in an ironic twist, the mainline Protestant churches are hankering after worldly authorities even as they abandon the last pretences to being Christian, putting their churchly seal of approval on all forms of immoral excesses. It became, on the basis of Romans 13, a spiritual rubber stamp for whatever states decided to get up to. What began as a political gambit continues to be a political gambit, and where secular elites go, there go the churches.

Is this acceptable behavior for the unchanging Body of Christ? Absolutely not. U.S. theologian Francis Schaeffer argues that the state is to be honored and obeyed only as long as it does not enjoin anything contrary to God’s Law. He continues to read Romans 13 as universal doctrine, and the governmental infractions he has in mind are those that either directly threaten religious freedoms or meddle in matters of private morality, such as abortion and euthanasia. Nevertheless, he points out that “the early Christians died because they would not obey the state in a civil matter” and that those who disagree,

do not know church history. Why were the Christians in the Roman Empire thrown to the lions? From the Christian’s viewpoint it was for a religious reason. But from the viewpoint of the Roman State they were in civil disobedience, they were civil rebels… The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state. (A Christian Manifesto, pp. 92-3)

So, having undermined the customary reading of this mornings epistle—how are we to understand it? First of all, we must understand it as part and parcel of the epistle to the Romans overall, which centers on St. Paul’s attempt to apply general theological principles to the specific spiritual needs and specific social situation of a specific Christian community. The verses we heard this morning cannot be understood in isolation; they require context to make sense. They outline prudent Christian conduct in adverse circumstances; adversity of a magnitude that that the early Church knew well, and that many Christians around the world continue to experience in places like China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Places where any rocking of the community boat, anything that causes Christians to stick out and be noticed could lead to jail, abuse, and death.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, St. Paul seeks to mediate and generate a spirit of ingroup unity at a time when the community at Rome was threatened by strife and suspicion between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Whether it was the gentile Christians who refused to live according to the instruction of their Jewish elders, or the Jewish Christians who considered that their ethnic heritage made them better than the gentiles is not known. Nevertheless, the nature of the letter certainly supports the idea that St. Paul’s primary effort was to repair relations within the community. So let us back up a couple of chapters and see what is the ongoing argument of which this morning’s reading is part.

In chapter eleven, Paul admonishes the gentile Christians to not disrespect the Jewish Christians. Clearly, the apostle has heard something about Gentile misbehavior that he considers troubling, as he informs them: For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree (Rom 11:16-17). In chapter twelve he goes on to explain the ideals of the unified faith community that the Christians at Rome—and Christians everywhere and always, for that matter—should aspire to. He tells them in detail how they ought to act in order to reflect Christian virtues. It is worth spelling this out. Paul writes to the community at Rome that they need not only to respect each other’s individual gifts, but live together in a manner that befits Christians:

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:6-21)

It is in order to achieve this sort of community that Paul admonishes them: And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom 12:2). And that is the good work to which rulers are not a terror, when he points out that rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil (Rom 13:3). In our reading, St. Paul is not making a universal doctrinal statement, but continues to talk about that which he was already talking about. He is saying, ‘you are not going to get in trouble with the law for behaving well in the godly manner I have just described. Selfishness, envy, and infighting—which are all evil—will get you into trouble with the authorities.’

St. Paul clearly did not believe that the Church in general, or the community at Rome in particular, were treated well or fairly. We hear this in chapter twelve, where he exhorts the reader to not curse those who curse Christians, and not to repay evil with evil. So what he does in today’s reading is to outline a framework for peace and coexistence with hostile authorities. He offers a counterbalance, or rejoinder to this vision of internal peace and coexistence in chapter twelve. It is easy to cross the threshold from awareness of one’s liberty in Christ to thinking that the rules of society do not apply. William of St. Thierry, a Benedictine and later Cistercian monk who wrote a commentary on Romans in the late 11th, early 12th century explained: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom because “Every son of the kingdom is a stranger on the earth dwelling in a foreign land as long as he is in the world. But one wishes to defile the laws of hospitality if he wishes to violate the laws of the land.” Fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour because “It is stupid madness to want to fear no one because of an arrogant holiness, and it is the shallowest sort of pride to wish to honor no one. Fear is owed to high power, honor is owed to humble service, and love to benevolence.” Christian liberty does not place us over the rolues of societies or beyond the laws of men—even if Christians are not of this world, they are still very clearly in it.

What we end up with is not a general theological statement of universal Christian conduct, but neither is it purely situational advice to a specific community without broader significance. Similar arguments, where specific advice is given to specific congregations—come to us also in other letters, such as in 2 Corinthians (10:3-6) and 1 Peter (2:13-16). It is not as if there are no general principles involved and that we can happily disregard any of these as theologically authoritative. Reading something in context does not cheapen the word, but deepens its relevance. As every good homily or pastoral letter should, St. Paul’s letter makes the Gospel relevant for the community at Rome, allowing its eternal and unchanging truths to gain specific relevance to specific people. And from the specific relevance of the Gospel to the Romans, it comes back to us, this Living Word, with renewed force, to enlighten our lives. It comes to us, not as a quick and easy blanket doctrine that removes the need to think about the state of the world in which we live. Instead we are moved to think—to think—about how the apostle’s admonishments can be lived out here and now. And as it is being read by Christians in Guatemala, Syria, Nigeria, China, Sweden, and elsewhere, that same apostolic truth poses very different challenges. In some of these places it is an appropriate Christian witness to resist the impositions of state and society; in others it would be foolish; in others again, it might be wrong. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves condemnation. “If those in power are good, they nurture us; if they are evil, they tempt us. But let us love to be nurtured and let us not avoid to be tempted. For both are from God…” wrote William of St. Theirry. “However, if the power commands what God prohibits, then, Christian, spurn power [because of power]. For it threatens punishment, but God threatens hell.” Pretending that Romans 10 offers one answer for any and all situations—one response to any and all governments—is a handy way to flee our responsibility to offer a Christian witness in times of adversity. But what else are we here for?

May the Lord have mercy upon us all.


[1] Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, Il: Crossway Books, 1981), pp. 92-93.

[2] Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

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