Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman , Associate Pastor




“Recovering From Painful Scripture”

Sunday, August 15, 2010




Rev. DeeAnne Lowman

Recovering from Painful Scriptures
Does Government Have Divine Rights?

This is the third in a series of sermons on Scripture passages we wish weren’t in the Bible. These are more like Bible studies that they are sermons, so I invite you to get out your own Bibles, or to look around you for a Pew Bible and we’ll read these passages together. The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline contains 4 principles concerning how United Methodist approach Scripture.

  1. “Through Scripture the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace.” Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. All scripture has to be understood in the light of Christ.
  2. “We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole.” We do not proof-text. Some people told me this week that this was a new term for them. Proof-texting is supposing a specific verse of text proves a point.
  3. We use the findings of scholarship in our study of scripture – historical, literary, and textual studies being done in our seminaries and universities.
  4. We interpret scripture in light of reason, experience, and tradition.

There is a link on our website in the announcement about this sermon series to the section of the Book of Discipline on Scripture and also some copies in the church office if you’d like to read it. These are great principles for reading and studying scripture.

For centuries there have been governments that have claimed divine authority – meaning God helped them get elected or appointed to lead the people of their nation. We can find that in the Bible, like with David being just a kid and being anointed to be the king of Israel, or Solomon being given great powers as King. So this is not a new thought in the 20th or 21st centuries.  So let’s look at the passage from Romans for today – chapter 13:1-8.

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

7Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

I’d like to reiterate that this is a challenging piece of scripture, one that has been used by theologians and rulers alike to justify their leadership or claim divine rights and privileges in the way they lead.  It was Augustine’s biblical source for his creation of Just War Theory and as of late biblical justification for war following the attacks of September 11, 2001.   It’s in the Bible, and we will work today to figure out what all this might mean to us as Christians who worship not just in the country of the Empire, but in the very seat of the Kingdom in Washington, DC.

I want to talk about a couple ways folks throughout time have views this passage of scripture. For some reason, this is first and foremost a general statement from Paul about ruling authorities and Paul believed that we should all be subject to the ruling authorities, empires, and kingdoms no matter what. Second, this letter and this passage in particular was specific to Rome and the setting of the Jewish Christians in Rome during an early time in Nero’s reign and wasn’t ever meant to apply to the next two millennia.  Thirdly, maybe Paul didn’t write it. Most scholars don’t believe that – Romans is considered to be an authentically Pauline Epistle. That last one would make it a little easier, but it doesn’t really help. You see, it’s in the Bible, and that means something, so let’s nix that one and go through the other two.

First let’s break down the thesis sentence of this part of Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. Verse 1 says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  The word “person” in the Greek is psychē (Psoo-khay) and it means the “breath of life”- one’s entire being is to be “subject,” (the Greek for that is hypotassō (Hoo-poo-tasso): to arrange under or subordinate) to governing “authorities” or exousia (Ex-soo-see’-ya) (power of choice, influence, control, dominion)…and those authorities (exousia) that exist have been “instituted” (tassō meaning to put in order or to station) by God.  Paul is saying as I read this with the English translation/interpretation that:

Every part of every being that has breath is to be subordinate to those with control and dominion; for there is no control and dominion except from God, and those with control and dominion that exist have been put in order by God.

So with just this translation/interpretation, our first hypothesis of why Paul wrote this seems to indicate that Paul believed that all governments and rulers were ordained, or put in place/stationed, by God. But lest any of us be accused of proof texting (taking one sentence and making it a truism for all of life and living), let’s look a little deeper at what comes after this verse. 

Paul calls authoritiesGod’s servants “diakonos” (by the way this is same word that Dean talked about last week referring to men AND women who Paul trusted with ministry)? This word appears in at least on place in this passage. The rulers paul counts as ministers – people appointed to do the work of God in the world. Perhaps they really were in his day. It was early in Nero’s reign and he has been considered by most scholars to be initially interested in creating Rome as a center for culture, trade, and international relations. The economy must have been better for at least a little while under his leadership – Paul may have initially had great hope in his emperorship, but more about that in a minute.

What exactly where these leaders supposed to be doing, according to Paul (and perhaps God)?  Verses 2-6 say that they were supposed to (1) approve of good conduct, (2) execute “the wrath” on wrongdoers, and (3) be busy collecting taxes. Since these were diakonos, they were expected to act in God’s stead, acknowledging good works, and executing wrath when works weren’t so good. I’m not sure that collecting taxes was so much a God-directed responsibility though. Paul says later in the passage that,

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

This is essentially the same answer that Jesus gave to the Pharisee and Herodian who asked him about paying taxes, so Paul is in the Jesus tradition when he encourages people to pay taxes. But the Greek word Paul used to describe the work of the first two tasks is diakonos, but the word used in the statement regarding the collection of taxes was used doesn’t mean servant of God, but a servant of the State (leitourgos). But it is interesting that Paul mentioned taxes here, and goes on to talk more about taxes. This may have been, in fact, the entire reason for this part of Paul’s letter in the first place. This leads us to our second hypothesis: Paul wrote this just to the church at Rome and for no other reason than to address concerns he had about that specific gathering and Christians.

Paul may have initially had some hope for the rule of Nero, as the previous emperor had exiled the Jewish Christians for a time. At first, Nero was focused on his work of making Rome great (again), but then engaged in the oppression of Gentile Christians in Palestine.  The resistance came in the form of civil disobedience to the throne; namely the Palestinian Christians stopped (or tried to stop) paying taxes to Rome. It might just be that Paul was writing to the church at Rome that they should not get involved in the protest by ceasing to pay their taxes. Marcus Borg, a scholar who has done great work on the history of the early church, has suggested that this group of Jewish Christians in Rome still had strong familial and commercial ties to Palestine, and so could have begun to develop an anti-Roman reaction to the news that the Roman Empire was causing harm to their families and friends. These feelings could serve to split the church at Rome between Jews and non-Jewish Christians. So for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of unity of Christians in Rome, for the sake of love for one another in this place of the church at Rome, Paul told the Jewish Christians there that they should be subject to Rome and the powers that be there.

So maybe it is at this point we can begin to enter the story with some 21st Century questions. The first question that we as Christians may wrestle with is the determination of the actions and nature of the authorities in question: are they diakonos (servants of God) or are they leitourgos (servants of the State)? Let’s turn to Romans 12, the chapter immediately before this difficult scripture. Let’s look at this chapter, beginning with the second verse.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2).

Paul suggests that Christians are not to fashion their behavior after “this world” – the time and place where they live. And let’s remember that Paul also thought that the kingdom of God – God’s way and pattern for living was coming to the earth sooner than later. (Incidentally another reason why Paul might have thought that Christians should give deference to authorities: this too shall pass and God will then truly be in charge.) Transformation comes from renewing our minds – thinking and studying perhaps – like bible study. These kinds of things can lead us to discover what God might have us do. Now remember that we aren’t looking to these passages to find out what to think but HOW to think. So when we look at these passages, we are looking for descriptors of what, in this case, might be considered good and acceptable and perfect, not just specific behaviors or actions.

The other question that comes up to me while looking at this passage was this: when are times, that, for the sake of love, we subject ourselves to the rule of civil authority, and when is the more loving thing to do to buck authority through civil means? Perhaps Paul did want to keep the Roman church together, and if the Jewish Christians became anti-Roman the split might be very destructive to the wider early Christian community. The concern for maintaining peace in the Roman church may have had a higher purpose – to keep the presence of the Gospel in such an influential seat of power and control.

So how do we know now, in 2010, when it’s time to act, to respond to injustice anywhere in opposition to civil authorities? The words of Dr. King –

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

This was part of his Letter from Birmingham Jail when he reacts to the Christian leaders about why he is acting now, and in Atlanta, even though he isn’t from there. And he also addresses the very question about lawfulness of authorities and the laws thereof:

How does one determine whether a law is just of unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Dr. King and Thomas Aquinas give us perhaps more than Paul in determining when we accept the leadership of civil authorities and when we don’t. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Remember that Paul used the word psychē (Psoo-khay) “breath of life” – one’s entire being – when he wrote about who should be subject to authorities? So too should the authorities be watchful of their actions towards the psychē (Psoo-khay) when they are making decisions and laws and policies on behalf of the people they are to have authority over. So this is how we can know if the authorities are acting as diakonos or leitourgos: do their actions uplift or degrade?

Paul never intended that any of his letters would define our behavior 2000 years later. But let’s not leave this passage believing that Paul never challenged authorities. He wound up in prison and the lore regarding his death involves a beheading in Rome under the orders of Nero. I think that Paul’s message for us in 2010 may be that we need to determine the nature of the leadership before we become subject to it. We are to be an informed electorate, if you will, and continue the renewing of our minds so that we do not become complacent about the way in which authorities exercise their authority. We are not to be conformed to the things of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Nero assumed the throne in 54 CE and the book of Romans is dated about 56 CE.

Romans 13:6-7.