[Texts: Romans 13:1-7; Acts 21-28]
In our Romans 13, Paul gives believers some instruction about submitting to the government, and it seems that we just can’t resist adding a lot of asterisks and footnotes to this section when we read it. After centuries of global history we are realists about the inevitability of corrupt power and laws that uphold more agenda than justice, and we’d like to believe that Paul would think like we do. So our mental version of the passage reads something like this:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities [except when you have to resist unjust laws through civil disobedience]. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God [that is, the good ones; I’m not talking about the Neroes of the world.] . . . For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad [theoretically speaking, that is, because of course you can think of counterexamples . . .]. (Etc.)
We tend to assume that Paul is writing with such caveats in mind, and that he’d quickly identify, say, Nero’s regime in his day as an exception to the rule he’s articulating. Surely he’s speaking ideally here; after all, the reality of being governed involves much more complex decisions than the straightforward obedience commanded here!
Well, Paul was no greenhorn, and I’m sure he could tell the difference between a tyrannical ruler and a benevolent leader. And although the very early Christians were for a while considered by Rome to be a sect of Judaism, and so were not yet targets of Roman persecution for their faith per se, Paul would have been aware of drastic actions taken against the Jews by the governing authorities that had repercussions also for Christians. For example, not long before the writing of Romans, the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome (c.54 AD; see Acts 18:2), personally affecting Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquilla. So he had recent evidence that Rome was an unpredictable and sometimes harsh governor.
After Nero’s succession to the throne in 54 AD, reports of the emperor’s unstable personality may indeed have made Paul wary as well. But as a matter of fact, when Paul wrote Romans (57 AD), Nero’s insane cruelty towards Christians in particular had not yet had its heyday. That season came nearly a decade later (64-68 AD), so it would be anachronistic of us to assume that it provides the context for Paul’s instructions to Christians here in chapter 13. Approaching this passage in the light of Christians being burned alive to illuminate Nero’s garden parties makes it easy to discover that Paul was really saying, “Of course I don’t mean the Neroes of the world when I write this . . .” – but reading between the lines in this way becomes harder when we consider the historical realities of Paul the governed.
Here’s an odd twist to his tale – not conclusive for an interpretation of Romans 13, perhaps, but definitely an important and complicating historical detail to include when we consider this passage about being governed: Paul wrote these words under Nero’s watch, and his actions at the time indicate that he believed his own statements absolutely.
The actions I’m referring to are described by Luke in Acts 21-28. In this final quarter of the narrative, the fury of a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem precipitates a prolonged personal encounter between Paul and Rome.* As events unfold, a contrast becomes apparent between the unruly mob intent on pursuing vigilante justice and the Roman representatives intent, for the most part, on maintaining the rule of law. Through it all, Paul appears unperturbed, calmly requesting reasonable things of his Roman captor-protectors.
It’s in these requests that we see his confidence in the truth of those statements he’d written earlier in his letter to the Roman believers. Beginning with the Tribune Claudius Lysias, Paul appeals to the Roman reverence for rules and evidence-based verdicts. His initial attempt to present his case to an emotional Jewish audience has failed, but he knows Lysias will respond properly to a timely query: “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”
Interesting that Paul asks this while being stretched out for the whips. Apparently “be subject to the governing authorities” does not mean “meekly allow the governing authorities to break their own laws and abuse you.” In Rome it happens that even personal quirks (or, in Lysias’ case, personal limits to patience) are subject to a higher law. Perhaps it’s an arbitrary law, as many are (it’s not a necessity of the universe, that is, that Roman citizens must not be punished without due process), but it was a law nonetheless, and Paul did not hesitate at this moment to invoke it.
Later, cheerfully making his defense before governors and royalty, Paul stresses the facts of his case, helpfully pointing out details that Rome could easily investigate. “You can verify that it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem…Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me.” He refuses to return to Jerusalem for a repeat of the trial-by-mob scene, instead asserting, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried . . . If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charge against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
Paul expertly wields logic, reason, rule of law in his own defense; as he wrote in Romans, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” Imagine saying this about the Emperor Nero, and meaning it!
If Paul’s confidence were simply in the governing individuals, it would have been misplaced: Lysias was too quick to order questioning by torture; Felix and Festus kept Paul around for more than two years for entertainment (and maybe a future payoff). Appealing to Caesar was in the end not so much a plea to an individual Emperor, but to an ordered, rules-based authority that valued judgments based on evidence. Paul knew he had the facts in his favor, and he had the patience to work the system – taking the opportunity to share the gospel in the meantime with anyone who would listen. Not a bad deal, overall.
Not every government, then or now, would have fit so closely what he described in Romans 13, giving us reason still to pause and think that passage through carefully. But at least we can set aside the mistaken notion that Paul had in mind lots of asterisks and footnotes about Rome when he wrote it. On the contrary, he appealed to Caesar precisely because that particular pagan government was likely to give him the justice that his own countrymen denied him.
*See my earlier post, Rome Meets Paul, for a whimsical take on the initial confrontation.
In this post I am working with this timetable:
Emperor Claudius’ reign (41-54 AD)
Expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem by Claudius (54 AD)
Emperor Nero’s reign (54-68 AD)
Paul writes Romans (57 AD)
Events of Acts 21-26 (c.58-62 AD)
Paul is released (c.62 AD)
Nero persecutes Christians after fire in Rome (64-68 AD)
Paul is rearrested and executed (67 AD)
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