Romans 13: Death, Taxes and Reclaiming Justice

Reading with much fear and trembling in Romans 13 this morning. If Romans is a highly contentous book in Christian theology, this chapter, or at least the first 7 verses, might reflect the height of this tension given how it has been used to justify nationalism, political and religious allegiances, violence, and, of course, appeals to forms of justice that continue to run rampant here in North America by way of the “bearing of the sword” as God’s “servant”, an “agent of wrath” (13:4).

And of course, while I would argue these verses are often used out of context, common readings within the evangelical world and Reformed communities don’t arise out of nowhere. There are very real outcomes to readings of Romans that see it as describing the process of individual election to salvation. One of those outcomes is employing Divine agency and God’s sovereignty as means of justifying God’s use of violent punishment as the “just” sentence of this evil world. For that reason these verses are seen as the divine proclamation that the key and sole duty of the government is to enact penal/judicial justice by way of the sword. This is what God has raised them up to do. Those who need to fear such a government are those who have done wrong (13:4). Here we see interpretations of righteousness and justification in Romans being employed in a moral sense rather than a “just” sense of the terms. To rebel against such judicial systems, they (interpreters) say, is tantamount to rebelling against God (13:2).

A couple thoughts here:
1. This is precisely why, as I’ve been arguing for in my time in Romans, such views of justice (penal, just punishment, necessary repayment for sin) can only ever result in death. The cycles of repayment that such views of justice uphold have only one, singular trajectory, and it is not restorative. It can’t be in common readings of justification and righteousnes in Romans as “moral” terms. Restorative work belongs in the split terminology of sanctification, the result of salvation through faith. Justification is the means by which payment is made for the elect and punishment meted out for the reprobate. Such a view not only aligns with the form of justice we see in Rome, perpetuating the cycle of sin by way of repayment.

2. What happens when we connect Romans 13:1-7 to Romans 12, where the final word is “overcome evil with good” lest we “be overcome with evil”. What happens when we employ the calls of love from Chapter 12 in terms such as hospitality, harmony, devotion, peace, humility, and the call to not take revenge. What happens if we apply the call of love in the second part of Romans 13 where it says “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love on another, for he who loves his fellowman has fufilled the law.” (13:8) How does this move us away from the moral conversation of good and bad works, or law versus Gospel, to a conversation about how love breaks the cycle of repayment by way of a different kind of justice.

3. What happens if we apply Paul’s use of terminology like justification/righteousness to a past/present/future use. Paul moves fluidly through these contexts and tenses not as a matter of assurance of future salvation, but as assurance in Christ’s faithfulness o the covenant promise. This means we can live in the new creation reality now by bearing witness to it. What does this mean for 13:1-7?

4. What if Romans 13:1-7 has been wrongly cited out of context? What happens when we read Romans backwards and find the context in a divided Gentile community needing to make sense of their place within Jewish identity? Here is something to consider. Some commentators have argued Romans 13:1-7 is speaking of the authorities as “Rome”, and suggest that it is so out place with Paul’s larger argument that it must have been a later insertion. But consider this argument from scholar Mark Nanos from his book The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters. Rome is never cited in these passages. There is actually good evidence to see 13:1-7 as referring to the religious leaders in the Temple, who would have collected taxes from the gentiles as they worshipped with them. This fits with Paul’s larger concern for healing the rift between the Gentile churches regarding whether they need to become Jewish or not. It fits with Paul’s exhortation of Jewish identity in the grander picture of the witness going out into all the earth. It fits with his endorsement of the Jewish Law in relationship to wrath and Sin/sin. And keep in mind that individualistic readings of Roman’s have led to tendencies to see the Law as bad and the Gospel as good. This is not what Paul would have thought. In Roman’s 7 and 3 Paul is establishing what he sees as two different uses of Torah, one that brings death and one that brings life.

If we read it that way suddenly the verses carry a positive movement towards Paul’s larger argument of love and unity and peace. The biggest question in this view is the word “sword”. There is a technical argument there that shows how the sword is not primarily intended as a literal sword, nor likely a sword at all. It can be seen as God’s justice towards captal letter Sin, in which small letter sin attaches us to (storing up wrath). This is an admonition and a reclamation of Paul’s preceding argument then in 9-12 regarding Jews and Gentiles and justification. Just as they give taxes/revenue to respective entities (vs7) give to the authorities (religious leaders in the temple) for they are God’s servant.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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