CALL ME A PAGAN if you like, but there are some things Paul wrote in Romans that I think he got wrong.
He said he was writing a letter to some people in Rome. He never said he was transcribing a message directly from God for people everywhere for the rest of time.
At least that’s the observation some Christians make.
Certainly much of what Paul said in Romans seems timeless. But some doesn’t.
Some of what he says sounds isolated to his location-dot on history’s timeline…not to our dot.
As I paraphrased Romans for the Casual English Bible these last many weeks, I struggled over some of the material.
Given what’s going on at the moment in my country, the United States, I was especially bothered by the political advice Paul gave Christians in Rome.
What I’ve seen among the top leaders in my country—one leader in particular—has been painful to watch. What hurts me most are the Christians defending the behavior we have witnessed this past year.
There is nothing of Jesus in vitriol, cold-blooded lies, and admitted sexual predatory behavior.
In addition, Jesus told us to feed, clothe, and house the people at risk. He did not tell us to use them as bargaining chips to get whatever it is we most want.
That’s what terrorists do with hostages. It’s not what Christians do with anyone.
The trouble with Paul
So, I’m dealing with the news every day. I follow it closely because I started my career as a newspaper journalist. And because I want to practice what Jesus preached. In the eyes of a watching world, that’s what distinguishes a Christian as Christian. To do less is to distinguish a Christian as a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud…which in today’s culture would qualify us for public service.
Now I find myself paraphrasing Paul as he gives political advice to Christians in Rome, capital city of the Roman Empire. I’m wondering if he would write a letter like this to Christians living today in our capital of Washington D.C.
I hope to post Romans online by the end of this week. In the meantime, here’s a part of Romans that bothered me most.
You’ve got to obey your government
13:1. We all need to let the government govern us. Our leaders got where they are because God put them there. That’s true of every government leader.
13:2. So you should know that anyone who bucks the government is taking a stand against what God has set up. If you do that, you’re going to get punished for it.
13:3. Good people who are well behaved don’t have anything to fear from their leaders. It’s the people who do wrong who should be afraid. If you don’t want to live in fear of your leaders, do what’s right. Your leaders will appreciate you for that.
13:4. Government leaders are doing God’s work. They are trying to help you. But if you do things that you know are wrong, you have every right to be afraid. You should know that your leader doesn’t carry a sword just because it nicely accessorizes his outfit. He’s on assignment from God as an avenger who has full authority to punish someone who misbehaves.
13:5. So obey the laws. Don’t do it just because you’re afraid of getting punished. Do it because you know in your heart that it’s the right thing to do.
13:6. That’s why you should pay your taxes, too. Government leaders are acting on assignment from God when they do their job. (Casual English Bible)
What to make of it
I have a leader’s guide and atlas accompanying Romans, just as I do with all the other Bible books I’m paraphrasing for the Casual English Bible. Here’s the first discussion question I wrote for Romans 13. I’d be curious to know how you would answer the question.
How do you react to Paul’s opening comment in Romans 13? “We all need to let the government govern us” (13:1)? Which of the following comes closest to your reaction?
- What about dictators who conduct genocide?
- Is it wrong, then, to protest unjust laws or corrupt leaders?
- What about nonviolent resistance such as trespassing during a protest?
- It’s in the Bible, so I believe it’s the right thing to do.
- I’m hoping he was talking about the people in Rome at the time, and not everyone else.
- Didn’t Paul say much the same to slaves: Obey your masters?
Weren’t Romans ruthless?
For some Christians, it’s hard to understand why Paul would write something like he did, given how ruthless the Romans could be. They had occupied the Jewish homeland for about a century, by the time Paul wrote this. And the Jews desperately wanted their freedom. Just a few years after Paul wrote this, Jews revolted. In AD 66 they drove out the Romans temporarily. But the Roman army came back and leveled Jerusalem, destroying the Jewish Temple, which has never been rebuilt.
It’s also hard for many Christians to believe that God had anything to do with paving the way for Russian and German dictators like Stalin and Hitler, who ordered the extermination of millions of people. By “hard,” I mean “impossible.” They simply don’t believe God wants blamed for something humans did by allowing those men to rise to power with the support of so many backers, Christians among them.
Ditto for some malevolent political leaders today, and their enablers.
Some thoughtful Christians might qualify what Paul wrote by speculating that it’s preacher talk. As the argument might go, it’s a salesman preacher saying what he feels he needs to say to get a sandal in the door of Roman senators and other leaders when he visited Rome; Paul’s letter was an introduction of his hoped-for visit to Rome.
Paul hints elsewhere that he does this sort of thing:
“When I’m around people who don’t know much about religion or faith, I start where they are because I want to win them over. I stay flexible when I’m around others. I adapt to their needs because I want to save some of them” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Well, some rulers need loyalty and obedience. So was Paul saying what he thought the Roman rulers of his day wanted to hear, in the hopes they would give Christianity a chance?
We’ll have to ask him later.
Deal with it
Paul’s teaching is in the Bible.
Corrupt leaders are in the news.
Christians stand between the two, trying to figure out what on earth to do about it all.
For some, there’s the Hallmark Channel.
For others, there’s free speech, the law of the land, and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver.
In any case, for Christians there’s also the Spirit of God reminding us of what Jesus told one religion expert. The expert wanted to know what “neighbor” God was talking about when God said we should love our neighbor like we love ourselves.
Jesus told him the story of a good Samaritan who put himself at risk by stopping on a dangerous trail to help a man who couldn’t help himself.
Then Jesus said, “Go and live your life like that” (Luke 10:37, Casual English Bible).