Friday, November 23, 2012

Evangelical Christians and Political Activism

Understanding the First-Century Church’s View of Civil Government

Unless you live in complete isolation, you have likely heard at least two fundamental arguments around how the Christian Church ought to approach the subject of American politics. At one end of the spectrum, most evangelicals argue that being politically active is our God-given right and that we actually have a duty, art least in democratic societies, to use the political system to do as much social good as we can. Those who fail to honor this duty, these people assert, are in essence, sinning against God or, at the very least, not helping our cause. At the other end of the spectrum, a minority of evangelicals argue just the opposite. They contend we should not have anything whatever to do with politics and this includes voting. Unless we can vote for a man who is close enough to biblical Christianity in his views, we should not vote at all. Finally, there is a mediating position, which is where I fall. Unfortunately, even a smaller minority of evangelicals subscribe to this position. The goal of this blog is to spend considerable time conducting an exegetical analysis of Romans 13:1-7 in order to understand the longest passage of Scripture that addresses the relationship of believers in the Christian community with their respective civil governments.

"The first question in understanding any text is what it meant in its original context as determined through philology, cultural analysis, questions of literary form, style, intent, and transmission." [Rodney Petersen in Continuity and Discontinuity]
In order to understand Paul’s instructions and commands to the Romans Christians in this era rightly, it will be helpful for us to understand the political background in which his audience lived. The Roman political system was under the control of an emperor during NT times. This control emerged from a republic, as a result of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey. Under the republic, the senate had been the main body of power. However, membership in the Roman senate was much different than it is under our system, well, sort of. A member of the senate had to have property valued at somewhere between 40,000 to 48,000 denarius. A denarius, in case you did not know, was equal to one day’s earnings in this culture. How much is this is today’s dollars? Suppose the average American earns $50,000 a year and works six days a week. That would be equal to somewhere between 6.4 million and 7.7 million dollars in property value. You are correct if you concluded that one had to be extremely wealthy in order to sit on the senate. The people had no say in the political system, and this is especially true for the poor.

There were three upper-classes in Greco-Roman culture. These aristocratic classes were established by law and were called honestiores (“possessors of honor”). They were quite wealthy. They despised manual labor and upheld the leisurely lifestyle as lending itself to virtue. They had the preferential seats at productions and banquets, were served better food, and were even treated differently in the courts. There was no real middle class in Greco-Roman culture. The gap between the highest of the poor class and the lowest of the upper class quite large.

The city of Rome was a large city of about 1 million people. The ethnic of Rome was extremely diverse, having drawn a variety of ethnic groups since about the third-century B.C. The Jewish population represented only about 4% at this time, or 40,000 in number. The Jewish population was due in part to Pompey bringing captive Jews to Rome as slaves in 62 B.C. Religion and politics were bound closely together in Rome. Emperor worship was an expression of political loyalty. The priests of the state religion served as guides to the senate. They discerned the divine will through signs, set calendars, and established religious laws. In fact, by the end of the republic, these priests were organized as a priestly college. Its members were trained to discern the divine will from the entrails of sacrificial animals.[1]

Any study of church-state relations not only must begin with the state religion of Rome but also must include the reception Rome gave to the foreign religions that antedated Christianity, since foreign religions could not be introduced in Rome without official approval from the senate and Romans viewed religion as a concern of the state. Since the late republic, Rome looked at all foreign religions with much suspicion. “At the same time, it was ready to attempt the introduction of a foreign religion when it perceived that cults offered a solution to an unmet need in Rome.”[2]

Thomas Schreiner outlines Romans as follows:
I. The gospel as the revelation of God’s righteousness in 1:1-1:17
II. Deals with God’s righteousness in His wrath toward sinners in 1:18-3:20
III. Concerns the saving righteousness of God in 3:21-4:25
IV. Treats hope as a result of righteousness by faith 5:1-8:39
V. Addresses God’s righteousness to Israel and the Gentiles in 9:1-11:36
VI. God righteousness in everyday life 12:1-15:13
VII. The extension of God’s righteousness through the Pauline mission in 15:14-16:23
VIII. Final summary of the gospel of God’s righteousness in 16:25-27

It does not take long to recognize that the first eleven chapters of Romans were primarily doctrinal in nature. When we arrive at chapter twelve, the concern moves to praxis, as is so often the case with Pauline literature. In 12:1-2, Paul makes an impassioned plea for the Roman Christians to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to God. He urges these Christians not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their minds. It is no mistake that Paul begins with mind as the place of life-transformation. As the thought world goes, so goes the will and the emotions. “Sacrifice was one of the most important aspects of Roman religion, both public and private. One invariable rule was that male animals were offered to male deities and female animals to female deities. It was considered a good sign if animals went willingly to their slaughter.”[3]
How much better is it that the Roman Christian sacrifice their very bodies than animals. This would have resonated well with the Roman Christians who were no doubt used to the emphasis on sacrifices having grown up with it in the Roman religious system.

Immediately after issuing this plea for entire transformation, Paul addresses the selfless execution of service within the framework of the spiritual gifts. The idea is to benefit the group. The group thought of Greco-Roman culture is quite distant from the hyper-individualism that makes up modern American and western thought. Bruce Malina writes, “Instead of individualism, what we find in the first-century Mediterranean world is what might be called collectivism. The dyadic person is essentially a group-embedded and group-oriented person.”[4]
The body of Christ, the Church, and the multitude of “one-anothers” throughout the NT writings should understood through this grid.
After his brief discussion on the gifts of the Spirit operating within the body of Christ, Paul launches into a litany of commands that seem entirely concerned with group values. He commands unfeigned love, hating evil and clinging to good, brotherly devotion, selflessness in showing honor, being diligent, passionate, serving the Lord, rejoicing, devotion to prayer, benevolence, and hospitality. He continues with this list of virtues and values up to 13:1 when he says that every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.

This is the context for the longest text of Scripture in the NT that addresses the Christian’s relationship with the governing, or civil authorities. It is written to Roman Christians who live in a system that is anything but fair by any stretch of the imagination. The political system in Rome makes the American system look exceptionally virtuous by comparison.
The first issue is straightforward. To whom is Paul issuing commandments and instructions? Romans 1:7 says Paul is addressing “all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints. He is not addressing unbelievers in Rome. He wrote the letter to those who are beloved of God, called as saints. Paul is not addressing civil authorities or secular governments. He is writing the Church of Jesus Christ that is located in the city of ancient Rome. Paul’s first command is that every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. The Greek word hupotasso appears 38 times in the NT. It is used quite widely, being employed by Luke, Paul, the author of Hebrews, James, and Peter. Every writer uses the word in the same way. It means to submit to the orders or directives of someone. The meaning is unambiguous and without controversy. Every person is to submit to civil authorities. Paul tells us why this is the case. With his employment of the epexegetical gar, he explains that we must submit to civil authorities because they are established by God. He goes on to say that anyone who resists the authority also resists God. Christians are not to create an environment where they are perceived to be subversive to the governing authorities. Christianity is not a political threat to the secular system.

Paul’s theology informs him that God has a role for government the same as He has for the institutional Church. These two roles are distinct. He sets the submissive disposition of the Church over against the ruling authority of civil authorities. Paul says the person who resists civil authorities also resists God in v 2. Of course, there is even a more narrow context in Paul’s meaning here. The idea here is one of civil obedience, law-keeping if you will. The context of this passage has to do with Christian citizens being good, law-abiding citizens and not being arrested for law-breaking. This is not to say that Christians will not be arrested for their religious practices. In the Roman system that was very possible.
Paul goes on to say that it is necessary to be in subjection to the civil authorities because of conscience sake. The civil law serves the purpose of God to maintain law and order in society. Moreover, Christians are instructed not only to see the civil authorities as God’s servant, and not only to be law-abiding citizens, but also good tax-paying citizens.  Some civil authorities are due taxes, others custom, others fear, and still others, honor. Christians, for conscience sake are to render to each of these roles their just due because they are the servants of God for that end.

Paul is not addressing civil authorities in this verse. He is addressing the behavior of Roman Christians. His expectations of these Christians are clear. He expects them to submit to the governing authorities. Paul is also not outlining a list of imperatives for the civil authorities in Rome. He is not even addressing Roman authorities. He is addressing the Church. He is speaking to the elect of God. Romans 1:7 tells us this very clearly. Paul is deeply concerned with values of the Christian group. Nowhere in the text does Paul issue divine imperatives for the Roman Christians to order or even influence the Roman system. If such a thought every crossed Paul’s mind, he didn’t mention it in his writings. Given the situation of his day, it is unlikely that Paul would have thought along these lines. His concern was for the young Christian groups that were being called by God out of this dark world into the kingdom of God’s light. This concern was more than enough work for Paul and the rest of the apostles and leaders of the young struggling Christian communities.


[1] Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[2] Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[3] Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[4] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 62.

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