Romans Thirteen

“Christians cannot measure whether we should revolt against the state, as if a certain states could fall short on the status of being states, and therefore need to be revolted against. Nor can we measure by this yardstick whether a nation-state has been ordained by God, because all nation-states have been predestined by God. All the powers that be are subject to the sovereignty of God, and Christians are to be subject to them all.

It is not by accident that the imperative of verse 13:1 is not literally one of “obedience”. The Greek language has good words to denote “obedience”. What the text calls for, however, is subordination. The Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but who is put to death by Caesar, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

The motives of this subordination are found not in fear or in calculations of how best to survive, but “in the mercies of God” (12:1) or in “conscience” (13:5). If the reason of our subordination is not God’s having legitimated the wrath of the state (or delegating the wrath to the state), what is our reason? Further attention to the motif of subordination as it is urged upon the slave ( I Peter 2:13) or upon family members (Col 3:18), shows the reason to be that Jesus Christ himself accept subordination and humiliation (Phil 2:5).

The willingness to suffer is then not merely a test of our patience or a dead space of waiting for Jesus to return. Willingness to suffer instead of killing is an imitation of God’s victorious patience with the rebellious powers of his creation.

John H. Yoder, Politics, p 213

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6 Comments on “Romans Thirteen”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men” was arguably the most important Witherspoon argument the Princeton president ever made. It was a sermon, based on Psalm 76:10 (“Surely the wrath of men shall praise thee; the remainder of Wrath shalt thou restrain.”), and delivered on Friday, May 17, 1776, a day designated by the Continental Congress to be set aside for prayer. That Witherspoon delievered this sermon on behalf of American independence on a Friday, as opposed to Sunday, or the Lord’s Day as Presbyterians called it, was a concession to the differences between the affairs of men (politics) and the ways of the divine (piety). He even admitted in the sermon that his bringing politics into the pulpit was odd. “You are my witnesses,” Witherspoon declared to the Princetonians gathered in the town’s Presbyterian church, “that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit.” Even so, the sermon which must have lasted for over an hour proved to be so useful for the purposes of independence that it was published the next month in Philadelphia where the Continental Congress was then meeting. Its popularlity also accounts for Witherspoon’s election in late June of 1776 to serve in Congress as a representative from New Jersey, a post that placed him in good stead to sign the Declaration of Independence. The timing of the sermon in Witherspoon’s own career and in the conception of a nation about to be born no doubt accounts also for the decision to make it the first text included in the multi-volume edition of Witherspoon’s works. Still, for all of the circumstances that help to explain the legendary status this sermon achieved, the logic of Witherspoon’s devotional discourse was equally powerful in giving voice to a conception of liberty that would prove to be enduring among American Protestants.

    On the surface, the text from Psalm 76 was an odd one for the points the Presbyterian college president would hope to make. In the first part of the sermon Witherspoon wrestled with the idea that human evil, “the wrath of men,” could in fact glorify God. Without addressing the question of theodicy directly — the defense of divine goodness in the light of human wickedness and suffering — he did attempt to do justice to the paradoxical character of divine will, that is, how ultimate good could emerge through proximate evil. Some of his examples were unimaginative, such as the idea that without suffering people tend to grow complacent, or the even more obvious notion that the wrath of men noted in the Psalm “clearly points out the corruption of our nature,” a point seldom missed by ministers of Calvinistic persuasion like Witherspoon. But when he turned to the positive effects of suffering the relevance of the sermon to the cause of American independence became more difficult to discern. For instance, the death of Christ and its larger theological significance as a triumph over sin and death was for Witherspoon indicative of the lesson that “Persecution has been but as the furnace to the gold, to purge it of its dross, to manifest its purity, and increase its lustre.” Not only was the martyrdom of the early church “the seed of Christianity,” but at the time of the Protestant Reformation “nothing contributed more to facilitate its reception and increase its progres than the violence of its persecutors.”

    The trouble with these illustrations and the reasoning behind them was that the paradoxical quality of suffering could work against independence as much as for it. If the wrath of man actually contributed to divine glory, and if the parliament and king were treating the colonists unfairly by taxing them without adequate political representation, could not the difficulties caused by such treatment be interpreted as adding to God’s praise? Or if suffering and persecution had historically increased the resolve of Christians, would not the slights from London endured by believers living in the British colonies bolster their trust in and dependence upon God? To be sure, Witherspoon’s reasons for appealing to this biblical text made some sense; he was, after all, trying to nurture the resolve of patriots about to enter a difficult struggle with one of the more powerful nations on earth. Still, attempting to employ the logic of Christian suffering to justify political rebellion was an argument that could easily backfire.

    Even more strained was Witherspoon’s logic when he turned to the topic of religious liberty. In the second part of the sermon, where he applied the meaning of the text to the political situation in the colonies, Witherspoon attempted to inspire his listeners to patriotic greatness by exhorting them to trust in God and hope “for his assistance in the present important conflict.” [549] The patriots could, he believed, have confidence in divine assistance if their cause was just, their principles pure, and their conduct prudent. Although the character of the patiots’ principles and conduct gave Witherspoon room to conclude the sermon with admonitions to greater selflessness and virtue, he had little doubt about the nature of their cause. “[T]he cause in which America is now in arms,” he declared, “is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” Witherspoon explained this assertion by noting that the colonists had not been motivated by “pride, resentment, or sedition.” Instead, the desire for independence from England arose from “a deep and general conviction” that religious and civil liberty, as well as “the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our society” depended on political autonomy. Here Witherspoon was not simply regarding religious liberty as one part of a broader set of civil liberties, as if civil liberty would guarantee freedom of conscience. Instead, he had a more precise relationship between civil and religious liberty. “The knowledge of God and his truths,” Witherspoon further elaborated, “have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen . . .”

    In effect, Witherspoon was articulating the logic of many American Protestants after him which assumed that true religion, that is, Protestant Christianity, only flourished where civil magistrates protected civil liberties. The flip side of this assumption was the similar belief that Protestantism was the best soil from which civil liberty could grow. Witherspoon made this relationship crystal clear when he asserted that “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.” For this reason, if the colonists were to “yield up our temporal property” to parliament through unfair taxes, they would also be delivering their consciences “into bondage.”

    The religious basis for political freedom allowed Witherspoon to end his famous sermon with a call for greater religious and moral zeal. “[H]e is the best friend to American liberty,” the Presbyterian concluded, “who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind.” This did not imply political preference for the theological descendents of John Calvin. Witherspoon’s brief for true religion did not include great concern for the “circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions.” Debates then about the mode of baptism, the frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper or even the extent of Christ’s atonement were not at issue in this notion of “true and undefiled religion.” Roman Catholicism would eventually emerge as a problem for the advocates of religious and civil liberty in part because the papacy would reveal itself fairly hostile to those notions as they developed in Europe after the French Revolution. But most Protestants were welcome — the Church of England being an obvious exception — as long as they were morally upright or, in Witherspoon’s words, felt “more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own.” In effect, the combination of moral integrity, fear of God, obedience to divine law, and the resistance to the temptations of vice, was the religious recipe for civil liberty. What this list meant for the nonreligious was of course a problem that Witherspoon avoided, especially when signing Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.” But a month or so before the distribution of that document, the difficulties raised by the presence of non-orthodox Protestants could be set aside.

    Of course, Witherspoon’s assertions were explicitly political in the sense that his understanding of the relationship between religious and civil liberty had a direct bearing on the issue of political independence from Britain. But his ideas had much broader significance for the way that Anglo-American Protestants would understand the place of faith within the political and cultural institutions of the United States. Witherspoon was just one voice in a much wider development that characterized Congregationalists in New England, Presbyterians in the middle colonies, and that eventually would permeate Baptists and Methodists who were setting up churches as fast as the frontier pushed south and west. In particular, Witherspoon’s ideas on Christianity liberty were foundational for what Mark A. Noll has recently called Christian republicanism. Politically, this constellation of ideas featured two main themes, according to Noll: “fear of abuses from illegitimate power and a nearly messianic belief in the benefits of liberty.” As such the best form of government was one that preserved freedom, which would in turn nuture human flourishing. The obvious corrolary to the ideal of liberty was that any form of political interference with freedom would degrade persons and prevent national prosperity. As Noll writes, the “critical oppositions” in Christian republicanism were “virtue against corruption, liberty against slavery.” Of course, the danger of liberty was libertinism and that is why religion was so crucial to liberty’s success. As much as Witherspoon the Calvinist might have registered reservations about giving sinful human beings unprecedented political freedom, as long as these free citizens were devout the excesses of liberty did not need to be feared. For the logic of Christian republicanism concluded that virtue (“defined as disinterested public service”) promoted freedom and social harmony, while vice (that is, “luxury, self-seeking, idleness, and frivolity”) yielded tyranny and social unrest.

    p47-51, beyond a secular faith, hart

  2. markmcculley Says:

    the Romans did not kill Jesus because Jesus was not political, oh wait the Romans did kill Jesus but still i think at least one person who said hosanna on the road must have been in that room with the priests later saying crucify—–Jack Kilcrease : “of the whole human race, only a very small number was actually present at the crucifixion. To say to a sinner that, hypothetically, he would have killed Jesus may very well be true, but it does not solve the problem of how this sinful attitude is manifest in the sinner’s own life….Such a hypothetical makes one’s sin into an abstraction….

    allowing the disciples to keep two swords among the 11 for self-defense (since they were still in the world).” is
    1. itself a political statement and an alignment with a political cause.
    2. ignoring the context of the “two swords”. Were two swords indeed sufficient for “self-defense”? Is that what Jesus Christ meant when He said “enough”? Was Peter supposed to use a sword to slice off ears only in order to defend Himself and not to defend His friend? Is it a ‘vile thing” not to kill your enemies for the sake of showing your wife that you are both male and sovereign?
    I am not advocating that we go back to the Augustinian conception of “the two swords” as endorsed by the Magisterial Reformers. But it is only one more kind of Constantinianism to say that the example of Jesus is not relevant when it comes to our self-defense in this age and in this world. The Lord Jesus Himself lived in this age and in this world. His example is not the gospel but it is the Law.
    I Peter 2: 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, live to righteousness.


  3. markmcculley Says:

    Gary North thinks we can’t do private vengeance, but maybe we can do private pre-emptive violence. To avoid the command of Romans 12 (leave the wrath to God), say that Romans 12 is only the after-the-fact wrath of God (administered by Muslims and atheists alike) and not about “before the wrath” violence. North is not working with a theory of punishment which “satisfies justice” but instead with a “humanitarian theory of punishment” which is not according to justice but for the greater good and which is “useful” for himself and those he loves. “I kill to stop killing”. I take up the sword so you won’t take up the sword”. North is armed and threatening immediate violence against anybody who is armed and threatening immediate violence

    mark asks–so was the death of Jesus to “satisfy justice”? Was Christ’s a result of God’s wrath and vengeance and justice? Or was the death of Christ not about satisfying justice but a preemptive (and often successful) use of violence for the greater good?

    And why did Jesus Himself die for the greater good, when he could have killed others for the greater good? And why did Jesus himself “satisfy vengeance and justice” when he “could have” made others satisfy justice?

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Richard Gamble— Today, 50 years after the city on a hill first appeared in modern political rhetoric and nearly 400 years since John Winthrop shepherded his flock to New England’s shores, Americans are left with a secularized metaphor, politicized and nearing the point of exhaustion. The metaphor has been forced to carry an impossible load of nationalist, populist and collectivist aspirations. Americans have inherited two political cities looming so large in the media, the political culture and even the church, that together they have eclipsed the historical Winthrop and the biblical Jesus. The biblical metaphor, appropriated by the Puritans, has been transformed so successfully into a national myth that few can see or hear these words without all of their modern political meaning attached. Even many Christians, how might be expected to guard their property more vigilantly, argue over which national values the politicized city should stand for and miss the fact that they have lost their metaphor. They argue over which party ought to build the city, over whether Kennedy’s or Reagan’s vision best defines the city, rarely stopping to consider whether Jesus ever had America in mind in the Sermon on the Mount. Such is the power of civil religion in twenty-first century America. Even if Americans manage to convince themselves, in spite of the evidence, that John Winthrop envisioned a glorious future for American ideals and institutions, can they really convince themselves that Jesus intended the United States to take up his disciples’ calling as a city on a hill? Distracted by a contest between two early political cities, Americans forget that the original city on a hill was not even American.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    Preston Sprinkle: If the state mandates that blacks can’t drink from the same water fountain as whites, it very well has the divine right to do so, according to certain interpretations Romans 13….Wayne Grudem says that the “sword in the hand of good government is God’s designated weapon to defeat evildoers” and goes on to apply this to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    God executes vengeance through Rome after he prohibits Christians from doing so. Compare these two statements, which are only a few verses apart:
    Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (12:19)
    For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (13:4)
    There’s an intentional contrast.

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