As we enter this confusing period in our nation, the response and responsibility of Christians to government is being brought front and center. Rethinking the Christian role in Empire may prove to be the silver lining to the cloud of the present chaos. It was under the darkest of circumstances, after all, that Paul outlined the responsibility of Christians to the state. During the period in which Nero ruled Rome, Christians, by their very existence, were thought to be a danger to the Empire. Paul provides instruction as to how to proceed in light of the fact that Jesus has been slain and Paul himself will shortly be murdered.
In Ro. 13, he calls for a response, often taken as acquiescence to the state and its purposes. Paul, however, is advocating a world revolution on the basis of a jujitsu sort of subordination. This revolutionary subordination, in the description of John Howard Yoder, will prove subversive to the powers (upsetting the traditional roles of men and women, slaves and masters, oppressed and oppressors). Likewise, subordination to the state, the same Roman state that crucified Jesus and which would behead Paul, would be possible due to the realization, through the Church, that the idolatry of the state was to be resisted through a subordinate disobedience. Slaves would undo slavery, women would undo oppression, and groups suffering discrimination (Greeks, barbarians, etc.) would undo discrimination, not through enslaving oppressing and discriminating, but by following the example of Christ of submitting to the Powers and overturning them from the bottom. “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:14-15).1 Slavery, oppression, discrimination, and ultimately death would be endured in light of their disempowerment through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Christ overturns the kingdoms and the powers, not by out-powering them at the top, but by disempowering them from the bottom. To continue to live as masters and oppressors is to continue on in the slavery to fear of being found at the bottom. The Church is made up of those conformed to God’s character (Ro. 12:1-2) and transformed in mind by becoming a part of this revolutionary community. Unfortunately, in eagerness to exercise power in the way of the world, Christians have sometimes emptied Christian faith of its subversive (subordinate-disobedient) power. This Christianity no longer poses any threat or challenge to the principalities and powers but is simply a support of Empire.
In this Constantinian faith, Christians imagine that their allegiance to Empire and their allegiance to God are one and the same. So, when Paul says in Romans 13 that Christians are to subject themselves to the governing authorities, modern day Christians often isolate this passage from its immediate context (Ro. 12:1 – which admonishes Christians not to be conformed to the world) and the general context of Scripture which pictures the power of this world as under the control of evil. In opposition to this Constantinianism, it must be understood that God is not working out redemption through the kingdoms of this world as these kingdoms stand united under the control of the Evil One. Jesus, in Luke 4:5-8 (where the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms in the world and says all these kingdoms “have been handed over to me, and I give them to whomever I wish”) does not challenge the claim that Satan controls who rules the nations. Paul’s own teaching is that “Satan is the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and he is the “prince of the powers of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). John concurs with this view and says that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19ff). The prophet Hosea condemns Israel and affirms that their rulers are not ordained by God. “They have set up kings, but not by Me: they have made princes, and I knew it not” (Hosea 8:4). In Revelation 13 an evil world government, opposed to God and his people, is given “authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” This authority blasphemes against heaven and makes war on the saints and seems to overcome them (Rev. 13). Paul himself had many troubles with worldly rulers, as seen in his demands that they publicly apologize and his insistence they not violate his rights as a Roman citizen. If he wanted Christians to blindly obey the ruling authorities, then why does he escape from their control (Acts 9), publicly challenge them, and ultimately die in an act of civil disobedience (refusing to quit preaching the Gospel)?
Also at work in mistaken interpretive strategies of Ro. 13 is the notion that God ordains specific governments to accomplish his will and this is in line with his redemptive strategy in and through the Church. In other words, the specific ordination of Christ and the Church is confused with the supposed ordination of a particular leader or a particular nation. While it is true that God is sovereign and he can and does work through corrupt power structures, this should not be confused with the redemptive work of Christ. In a sinful and fallen world God may use the wrathful violence of authorities and rulers to punish evil with evil. For example, an idolatrous and wicked Assyria is used to punish even more idolatrous and wicked nations. But God using a nation does not mean that nation is not under the power of evil and it certainly does not mean that nation is his chosen instrument to bring about salvation for the world. Assyria and Babylon received their own comeuppance in God’s time and, as is the way of kingdoms of this world, they passed into oblivion. The Church is the only Kingdom which is specially founded by God to be an enduring light to the other nations. So, America is not the city set on a hill, nor is it the new Jerusalem. This is the exclusive realm of God’s own people found in the Body of Christ. No nation, other than the Church, fulfills God’s eternal or enduring purposes. God may have used America to punish Iraq’s evil with evil. Saddam Hussein’s regime was, after all, based on lies, and what most would regard as evil. However, Iraq’s evil does not mean God morally approves of the evil used by the USA to defeat it. He very clearly does not and it is made very plain that all nations, in God’s due time, will in their own turn be judged for their actions.
Outside of God’s own Kingdom founded through Christ, God is ordering states but not ordaining a particular state. Romans 13:1 says “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are ordered by God.”2 The “ordering” (tássō) is not an ordaining but “arranging” or “setting in place.”God does not intervene in history so as to institute or ordain the powers, he only orders them or tells them where they belong. It is a profound misinterpretation to imagine that whatever government exists is ordained by God and should thus be obeyed, as if all governments are providentially established by God. In this understanding the governments of pagan ancient Rome, Saddam Hussein, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, Kohmeini, Emperor Hirohito, must all be there by the will of God, and we Christians should therefore blindly obey whichever one we happen to be living under. Neither the New Testament nor Romans affirms any particular government in this way. Paul did not believe that Nero had been ordained by God to murder Christians. He did not believe that Christians, if so ordered, should drive the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet. He did not believe that a Christian should be the one to behead him if commanded by the State.
Taken to an extreme, the idea that Romans 13 is some sort of absolute mandate for obedience, Christ should have remained in the tomb rather than break the Roman Seal ordering him contained in the grave. The resurrection sets the tone of relationship between human kingdoms and the Kingdom of God. The one crucified outside the city is the one who establishes an alternative City through the ultimate act of civil disobedience. The Roman State commanded that Jesus be dead and silent, and Christianity is founded on the proclamation that Jesus is raised. The first command given to the Apostles by the authorities is that they remain silent about the resurrection. They informed the Powers that they would not obey, though they joyfully submitted to the punishment that was meted out. Which is precisely Paul’s point in Romans; subordination and obedience are two different things. Just as Jesus submitted to Roman crucifixion as the ultimate act challenging Rome, so too Paul would submit to a Roman beheading as his final and ultimate act of subordinate defiance.
The nature of the Christian revolution is not a violent overthrow of one system for another (sword against sword) but an undermining of the Powers through submitting but not succumbing – Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). The means and method of human powers is built on the presumption that death is the absolute power wielded by the State. Christians are not in the business of overthrowing the Powers through the coercive force of death, as if Christians should obey one government (the good and just ones), and rebel against the other (perhaps as in the American revolution). The resurrection of Jesus turns power on its head, not through a coercive wielding of the sword and death but by blunting the edge of the sword through relativizing the power of death. Jesus allows the State to do its worst and then undermines the power it wields and Christians continue to defeat the powers on the same basis. The resurrection is not a one-off event after which things can go back to normal – one kingdom replacing another in the endless warfare which makes up the human condition. The Church does not do war and violence, as it is the true and enduring Kingdom founded upon resurrection. It endures by placing its security in the hands of God – a strange security indeed. God secures his people, not through nuclear weapons, standing armies, and secure borders, but through the security of resurrection in the face of death. This is not simply a strategy Christians exercise at the end of their lives; rather it is a life strategy built upon a prolonged life of civil disobedience in which the power of death exercised by the authorities is continually being overturned.
When “Christians” take up the sword to secure themselves and their people they have abandoned the power of resurrection for the power of death. This power of death, linked to the power of Satan, means that they have retreated from doing the work of God’s Kingdom. There is not a middle way in the New Testament in which one can align himself with God’s Kingdom and pledge allegiance to the kingdoms of the world. This split allegiance – the attempt to be a citizen of heaven while conforming to the patterns of the world – is precisely what the New Testament is focused upon resisting. John does not hesitate to dub the so-called “Christians” who would create the possibility of doing two things at once as impersonators. The Gnostics fully acknowledge the humanity of the man Jesus and fully acknowledge the deity of Christ – they simply separate the two categories. Following the earthly pattern and being a citizen of heaven is no problem as the two realms are kept separate in their theology and practice. This “Satanic Christianity” is dubbed the religion of the Anti-Christ by John as it is one which imagines it can obtain security and redemption apart from the death and resurrection of Christ. John warns of the many anti-Christs that have infiltrated the Church. The mark of these beastly “Christians” is the way they walk – hatred and oppression (the walk of darkness) – the way they (dis)fellowship (imagining that they are at the top of an elite hierarchy with special access to God) – and the way they think (picturing Christ as removed from the earthly material realm and relegating his Kingdom to some transcendent realm). This form of Christianity is not only of “no earthly good,” it is a force for evil and will result in bringing judgment upon its adherents. As John describes it these will “shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (I Jn. 2:28). This accords with the judgment scenes of the New Testament which deal only with those who claim to know God and walk in his way (they do not deal with those who have never heard). The supreme question determining eternal destiny has to do with what they have done to the “least of these.” Those who have turned away the poor, naked, and hungry will be turned away by God.
As Christians faced with a profound Constantinian form of Christianity (outstripping by far the early problem of the Church) we must turn firmly away from the means and method of Empire. We are not seeking power and security through tight borders, strong military, and harsh treatment of the world’s refugees and strangers. The danger is that in aligning with the oppressive powers which would turn away the poor, Christians have joined forces with this counter-Kingdom. The Christian agenda of peace and the agenda of Empire are at cross purposes. Christian peace cannot have common cause with the Powers that would put a jackboot on the neck of the oppressed. We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, become evil ourselves. We must continue to resist the powers of death by being resistant communities built upon the presumption of resurrection. This is the apocalyptic message of Paul and the New Testament which we proclaim: an alternative Kingdom built on life and resurrection has been put in place. This peaceable Kingdom has open borders calling to the poor, the oppressed and the broken, that healing is to be had in Christ. We have found peace and we want to share that peace with all the peoples of the earth.
1 Quotes are from the NASB.
2 My Translation.