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Rom 12-13: The genius of Paul is that the Emperor he calls believers to submit to is one and the same evil he calls us to overcome with good.
NOTE: FOR A FANTASTIC ARTICLE ON OUR FIRST ALLEGIANCE TO CHRIST, see Greg Albrecht’s work titled, On Nation Under God?” in our latest CWR magazine.
Romans 12
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In Romans 12:19-21, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32, citing the Lord’s declaration “it is mine to avenge” to argue that we should not seek vengeance, but rather work to “overcome evil with good.”
In its original context, Deuteronomy 32 was a celebration of vengeance! (Thanks to Derek Flood for pointing this out). The author says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay … I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.”
But Paul subverts the original intent of this passage, which originally advocated vengeance and violence, to promote enemy love!
In Paul’s context, especially writing to the persecuted Roman Christians, who was the enemy? It was Nero, the Roman Empire, the Imperial Beast, who would torture and slaughter many thousands of Christians and ultimately slay both Paul and Peter. That was the enemy. And Paul’s warning is to beware of joining the slave revolt or any violent insurgency against this demonic state, because that would only get you killed.
But neither do you ‘sign up’ and become a collaborator with the state or an acquiescent and compliant automaton. NO. Paul’s revolution imagines overcoming this evil. Actually defeating it. But how? Not with vengeance but with good, with the nonviolent resistance of a gospel that proclaims Jesus is Lord [and Caesar is not]. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of the world but rather, a gospel of peace and acts of enemy love … even as they took up the martyr’s cross or laid down their lives in the Colosseum.
In the context of overcoming the evil empire with good, Paul lays out his strange stance on the State.
Paul’s Stance on the State – The Curious Case of Romans 13, a passage used by Christians to justify political injustices.
For Paul, Christ’s kingdom and its citizenry do not advance their cause through violence, nor use the weapons of this world as our means to advance the kingdom, nor regard any human other as an enemy to be vanquished. Rather, our human enemies are those for whom Christ died to save from the real enemy–death itself. They are those with whom we share the good news that Christ is Lord and summon them to exclusive allegiance to him.
Question: However, if the Kingdom of God is not about violence, is not the state itself, with its sword, also the servant of God?
Rom 13:
13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
We must not read Romans 13 in isolation, without seeing how it is embedded in an argument beginning in Romans 12 and the rest of chapter 13.
The state wields a sword (or should) for the purpose of justice. When threat of force is used in the service of actual justice (to serve and protect), the state is seen as indirectly serving a just God. So leave room for that.
But note that Paul sets his persecuted Christian audience as over against the militaristic state, where the first allegiance is always to Christ … and that includes loving our enemies and overcoming evil with good.
Note also that Paul sets the law of the state over against God’s law, defined by love:
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Christians are called to fulfill God’s love of love, while they all knew Nero and the Empire were doing precisely the opposite. Nothing Paul says should get him or his readers in trouble with the state (but it did!) if the governing authorities are acting in the cause of God’s justice in serving and both protecting citizens and loving neighbors. But because they definitely were not, Paul’s subtle argument is a rebuke to the emperor (you are just, right? maybe not?), a call to Christians to resist evil (and overcome it) and a warning away from the temptation to revolt.
So, while the sword-bearing justice of Romans 13 should be the role of the state, note that:

  1. Paul knows that states are not always just,

2. That the church is not the worldly state, and
3. Therefore, we must remember that OUR place (we, the church, the citizens of the kingdom) is to overcome evil with good—our justice is by means of restoration and reconciliation, not retribution or retaliation.
To summarize, in its historical context, Paul is referring to a particular state, ironically calling Nero the servant of God who bears the sword in God’s service!  God’s servant: the Roman Empire, enslaver of Jews, crucifier of Christ, and specifically, Rome under Nero, persecutor of Christians and ultimately responsible for Paul’s own martyrdom.
In that context, how does this text function?  Was Nero literally God’s servant of justice, bearing the sword for divine purposes? Is it a justification for imperial violence and permission for Christians to enlist in Nero’s legions? OR OURS?! Of course not. No one thought so. No one was tempted to do so. Then what is Paul addressing? What is Paul doing here?
Nero, God’s sword-bearing servant is one and the same with the evil that must be overcome. But this evil cannot be overcome by the violence of the slave-revolt or some neo-Zealot insurgency of the sword. We don’t overcome the sword with the sword, violence with violence or evil with evil. Evil, including the evil of an insane emperor, requires us to live peaceably and justly within the empire. This may not lead to regime change, but it will minimize death by refusing to employ death, and also by reducing state persecution of Christians to solely for their faithfulness to Christ. That will be severe enough. No need to add to it. In other words, Romans 12-13 is not a pro-empire, pro-militarism text. It is an overt anti-insurgency text, perhaps carefully-crafted for the prying eyes of his captors without missing the underlying point or endangering his flock.

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Originally Posted On clarion-journal.com