Romans 13:1—7

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.[1]

As a monk I cannot deny Paul’s wisdom. Within the dance of a monastic community, the challenges of obedience to one’s superiors come with many unexpected and needful graces. Much of life in community is spent learning to receive the gifts at hand when we do not get our way. But we do not all live within the precincts of a vowed community, and too frequently have these words of Paul been used to lend and air of divine approval to otherwise illegitimate and abusive forms of state power. Colonialism, chattel slavery, the convulsions of the twentieth century, and bold abuses of contemporary leadership, all accompanied by cries of human beings battered at the hands of nations, ring out a warning: be careful not to mistake coercive power for God’s power. For it is Christ—not a Caesar, or an empire, or a nation—who is the Lord of History.

While civil authority’s claim to coercive power rests on an aspiration to do justice and preserve order, this same authority is always liable to abuse and malformation. Civil authorities do not in fact always punish evil behavior and reward good. Sometimes, with great boldness, civil authority actively rewards evil and punishes good. And so a superficial reading of this text will at best leave us sadly distant from a vengeful and coercive God, and at worst lend license to unspeakable crimes.

The trouble comes when we, as Ernst Käsemann put it, “[make] a theory out of [Paul’s] call in a particular situation, [develop] a system out of exhortation, and [sacrifice] the Spirit for the sake of the law.”[2] Paul’s words were written for a particular context at a particular time. After all, what is Paul really after here? He has, as we and his readers know, experienced violence at the hands of coercive power—the kind of power that filled the air and imaginations of Roman culture. The conquering Emperor was a Roman’s Kyrios (lord), a Roman’s Sotēr (savior), and the Emperor’s right to coercive violence was taken for granted. Paul knows that Christian communities will have to live surrounded by such powers, and will always need to be vigilant for the movement not of ungracious worldly powers, but the gracious powers of God in Christ.

It is inconceivable to me that Paul is admonishing his readers to receive the mandates of governing bodies as divine ordinance. It is equally inconceivable to me that Paul would agree when people in positions of power wield his words for their own defense. Rather, this chapter of Romans strikes me as a sleight of hand. Set against this chapter is Paul’s startling proclamation: Iesous Kyrios—Jesus the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is decidedly not.

To confess Jesus Christ as Lord, therefore, carries within it the spark of a radical and mysterious reordering of the world deeply at odds with powers of coercion and violence. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to reject the lordship of the Emperor and his violent trappings. Be charitable with governing authorities, yes, but also remember that they are not our end, not our Lord, not our God. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to seek out God’s scandalous refashioning of the whole creation from the bottom up, confident that Christ has dethroned the threats of those who deal in death and will redeem the cruel negligence of those who would consign others to sickness and poverty.

While it was and is uncomfortable, Paul invites his readers to live conformed to Christ, the Lord of History, who allowed the sins of ungracious powers to do their worst to him. Jesus is indeed the Lord of History, at work even in the actions of his enemies. We must not forget that the same powers Paul seems to be urging his readers to charitably respect are the same powers that conspired and converged to destroy Jesus. A theology that omits the culpability and responsibility of state power omits the very cornerstone of the gospel: Christ crucified, who did not resist the evil of coercive power on coercive power’s terms, but overcame and defeated it in obedience to a power much more thoroughly gracious. Christ is Lord of History, even if the pretended lords in history miss the mark.

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,”[3] may we seek Christ’s cruciform obedience and follow the true Lord of History.


[1] Romans 13:1a, 2a

[2] Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 359

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen erwarten wir getrost was kommen mag.”

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