Dear Inspiration Seekers,
Paul addresses two types of duties in Romans 13. First, our duty to obey government leaders and second our duty to act in love toward one another. Could the Roman government in the late 1st century have been so different from our inside-the-beltway style of political fighting that Paul could possibly have made such statements? In fact, our own history in the United States has been about citizens defying and rebelling against the authorities, from King George III, to our Civil War, to the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960’s, to the 1994 Republican Revolution, to our current Tea-Party antics. And, furthermore, most of these protestors and rebels claimed to have God on their side. So much for obeying authority whom God had put into place.
Let’s return to the Roman Republic at the time of Paul’s writing for some possible clues about his intent on advising the Roman Christians to obey leaders. This was an era of prosperity, probably not seen by the general citizenship again until our own time. While certainly an elite group controlled much of the wealth and commerce, and a group of people were subjected to slavery, most Romans fit into what we define as middle-class today: shop owners, merchants, laborers, farmers.
Rome built the infastructure that provided for subsistance as well as some luxeries and entertainment. In the excavations of Pompey, numerous small shops and food vendors stall are found throughout the city. People had money to exchange for household goods, fast-food, arts and sports events, etc. The Roman government was a large series of bureaucracies at the empire, state, and local levels. These bureaucracies built and maintained roads and water projects, provided military security, regulated commerce to allows goods to move from one region to another both to provide markets for the the good and to distribute the material wealth of this empire. The Roman Empire also had a liberal view of different cultures and ethnic groups. This allowed the Jews, and subsequently Christians, to disperse throughout the empire. They could follow their traditions as long as they followed the laws of Rome. If I have not been too subtle, this is very similiar to the level of prosperity, liberty, and diversity of our own nation today.
At the risk of spectulating too much, Christians caught the attention and concern of the Roman leaders because they refused to worship the Roman gods along with their own religious practices, and the Christians believed that Christ would return to rule, thereby suggesting that the Roman leaders would be replaced. Maybe Paul is getting at a couple of points for the Roman church: some form of government is better than anarchy or tyranny, and threatening the government, whatever form it might take, puts the church at risk for more government intrusion. Pragmatism may be more useful than zealous ideology for survival of the church.
What I find interesting about this passage is that at first reading it appears to just pop out of no where in relation to the text until you notice that the discussion before and after this respect for authority is the topic of how to express love. Maybe Paul would have been into tongue-in-cheek blogging if he had today’s technology. So, back up to the end of chapter 12 where Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21 – 22: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you heep burning coals on his head.” Hmmm. Maybe Paul is suggesting that, rather than protesting and opposing Roman leadership, who may want Christians to worship their gods and not threaten their authority, the church should carry out acts of compassion, and use their gifts for good. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities…” (12:21 – 13:1).
Then Paul admonishes the Roman Christians with their true debts, “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” (13: 7 – 8). Imagine what a financial position the USA might be in now, if the lending institutions and government had been reading this during the last couple of decades rather than quarterly reports! Debt of love. What a concept.
If this hermit had the gift of prophecy, I would be concerned about the future of our prosperity over the next couple of hundred years. After 9/11, when President W. stuck his foot in his mouth about starting “A Crusade”, I turned a co-worker and said that our world if going back to the medieval ages. The American Empire (basically an extension of the British Empire, and the various attempts at the Holy Roman Empire in Europe) has met its Gauls and Persians, who eventually toppled the Roman Empire.
The demise of secular Roman was its attempts to expand and control regions farther and farther away from its center with an expensive military, and attempts to keep its expensive bureaucracies running. Smaller but more fervent believing opponents pushed Roman to collapse under its own weight. Even so today, fundamentalist groups from Al Queda to the Christian Coalition attack our bureaucracies and run our military out of resources with messages of purity of thought and action. Will and Arial Durant termed the medieval period of history “The Age of Faith”. So, too shall we repeat our history.
Let us be in debt only to love, for this fulfills the law.
Until Next Time, Inspiration Seekers.