Sunday, August 12, 2012


A friend pointed me to this:

Several problems:

i) It’s hypocritical for Muslims to inveigh against autocratic government. Does the Saudi Arabian regime tolerate dissent? Were the Caliphs tolerant towards religious and political dissidents? Islamic regimes are highly autocratic.

ii) You can’t read Rom 13:1-7 in a vacuum. You need to do some reading between the lines. We know some things about Paul. He was a devout Jew, living in the Roman Empire.

iii) I doubt it’s coincidental that Paul wrote about the state in a letter addressed to Christians living in the capital of the Roman Empire.

iv) Apropos (iii), Rom 13:1-7 has an apologetic dimension. We’d expect Paul to be very tactful when he writes about the role of the state to Christians living in the imperial city. He’s not going to make seditious statements that would get them into trouble (if the letter were intercepted).

v) In vv3-4, Paul is obviously describing the ideal. That’s what rulers are supposed to do.

But it’s scarcely possible for Paul to dictate those verses without an acute sense of irony. As a Jew living under Roman rule, Paul was painfully aware of the glaring discrepancy between the ideal and the reality. This was a pagan regime. By definition, even the best Roman emperors (and their surrogates) were wicked men. Likewise, Paul’s audience was hardly less aware of the conspicuous contrast. Indeed, Paul is alluding to the onerous Roman tax system.

In addition to Paul’s personal experience, there was his background knowledge of OT history and Intertestamental history. Heathen idolatry and immorality. Indeed, Paul reviews that at length in the opening chapters of his letter. So Paul knew perfectly well that Roman magistrates were often evildoers who abused their power.

vi) Paul’s argument is implicitly conditional. Even heathen magistrates derive their authority from God. Because their authority is derivative, their authority is conditional.

Christians ought to submit to the civil magistrate because he administers justice. But, of course, that argument contains a converse implication. If the rationale for civil obedience is the role of the magistrate as an agent of public justice, then in cases where the magistrate becomes an agent of injustice, you now have a rationale for civil disobedience. 

Paul doesn’t develop that implication since that would be impolitic. But that’s implicit in the argument.

And in the back of Paul’s mind are OT cases of civil disobedience (the Hebrew midwives, Daniel’s friends). There are even cases where godless monarchs were forcibly deposed (e.g. Athaliah). Moreover, the entire Exodus, which Paul alludes to in Rom 9:15-17, was an act of mass civil disobedience. 

vii) Likewise, Paul’s argument doesn’t envision modern democracy, where the governed are part of the government, through their elected representatives. Where the state answers to the citizenry, rather than vice versa.

1 comment:

  1. Hos 8:4 They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not