The Apostle Paul’s Fateful Counsel: Romans 13:1-7

In the late 50s or early 60s CE, the Apostle Paul was alerted to the dangers facing Christians in Rome who believed that their allegiance to Christ required that they stop paying taxes and that they selectively obey Roman law. In response, the Apostle had the following counsel:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Over time, this counsel would invite a wide variety of interpretations. Originally of course Christians in Rome were only all too aware that the “higher powers” to whom the Apostle referred were the Emperor Nero and his henchmen and that the “dues” these henchmen collected were used for everything from military conquest to temple prostitution, from blood-thirsty games for the entertainment of Roman citizens to the support of Rome’s considerable pantheon of deities. Yet, by the sixteenth century Christians, both east and west, had recast Rome’s “higher powers” as “Christian magistrates,” godly men of faith and outspoken piety.

Upon reflection, the original understanding is at least as disturbing as the last. For it suggests that the first Christians were to obey men who in all respects were among the least godly, most profligate, and most blood-thirsty of their times. Even more, they were to contribute “dues” (i.e., taxes) to support their licentious pagan habits. Was the Apostle mad or simply uninformed?

He was, I will argue, neither. Like most educated first century Romans, the Apostle viewed “power” as a part of the natural order to which all human beings were subject. And as an educated Jew Paul interpreted this natural order in light of his God’s creative and sustaining power. Nero was a part of God’s creation, an agent whose own power must have ultimately derived from God’s own power. “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefor resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”

And, yet, the Apostle was also aware of another, hidden and secret, wisdom revealed in the appearance, ministry, death, resurrection and risen life of Jesus the Christ in the community of faith. According to this hidden and secret wisdom, the laws of the natural order were being overturned. “For consider your calling,” the Apostle wrote to the Church in Corinth.

There were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are. . . . We speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (I Co. 1:26-28, 2:6-8).

Here the Apostle acknowledges a hidden wisdom completely out of step with the dominant natural understanding of power. God has chosen the weak, foolish, and base things—things without power—to bring to nothing the things that are. But, says the Apostle, do not try to teach this wisdom to the powerful, wise, and noble. They will not understand it. They do not see it. Yet, it is this secret wisdom that promises to be the undoing of the rulers of this age.

Throughout the first two centuries of Christianity, until Constantine and the Council of Nicaea fixed this relationship by obliterating the difference, Christians maneuvered between these two truths, between the natural theology reflected in Romans 13:1-7 and the secret and hidden wisdom reflected in I Corinthians 1-2.

Then in 324 Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome and in 325 he convened the Council of Nicaea, effectively obliterating the distinction between the Church and power. And, yet, this administrative and legal reform did not resolve the conflict between the Church and power.

Come join us at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, to consider the complex evolving relationship between the Church and Power, from the Apostle Paul’s earliest letters to the latest declarations by right wing evangelical political candidates.

Where: St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley

When: beginning September 25, 9 a.m. in the Church Library