The Church and Caesar: Reading Romans 13 and Revelation 13 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder

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April 19, 2013 by jmar198013

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Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience. You should also pay taxes for the same reason, because the authorities are God’s assistants, concerned with this very thing. So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor. (Rom. 13.1-7 CEB)

Contrary to much popular teaching on Rom. 13, the one thing it does not do is function as a systematic account of Church and State. (Indeed, I would argue that nothing in Paul ever stands as a “systematic account” of anything, since his letters were occasional and ad hoc). However, something I have wrestled with, and I know others have as well, is Paul’s insistence that: The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. He’s writing about the empire and the Caesar–the very authorities he says are placed in the world as God’s servant given for your benefit–who will shortly relieve him of his head and use Christians as Tiki torches. He is speaking of the empire John the Seer will name “the Beast” in Revelation 13. This is a paradox, indeed. For clarity, we should attend to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who some nineteen centuries later would likewise be killed by an angry empire. In his The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes:

The world exercises dominion, the Christian serves, and thus he shares the earthly lot of his Lord, who became a servant … How is it then so easy for the Christians to find themselves in opposition to the powers? Because they are so easily tempted to resent their blunders and injustices. But if we harbor such resentments we are in mortal danger of neglecting the will of the God we are called to serve. If only Christians will concentrate on perceiving what is good and on doing it as God commands, they can live “without fear of the authorities” … For what has a Christian to fear, so long as he remains faithful to his Lord and does that which is good? … That is the one thing necessary. It does not matter what others do, but what we do … The starting point of St. Paul’s thinking is always the church, and his sole concern is its well-being and manner of life. So much so, he feels obliged to warn the Christians to refrain from any unjust or evil conduct themselves, but does not utter a single word of reproach to the State … St. Paul is talking to the Christians, not the State. His concern is that Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or condemn any secular power. No State is entitled to read St. Paul’s words as a justification for its own existence. Should any State take to heart these words, they would be just as much a challenge to repentance for the State as they are for the Church … St. Paul certainly doesn’t speak to the Christians this way because the governments of this world are so good, but because the Church must obey the will of God, whether the State be good or bad

. . .

The Christian should receive praise from authority. If instead of praise he incurs punishment and persecution, what fault is that of his? After all, he was not looking for praise when he did that which brought him punishment, nor did he do good for fear of punishment. If he meets with suffering instead of praise, his conscience is clear in the sight of God, and he has nothing to fear … This is why the government cannot hurt the Christian’s conscience even if it makes a mistake. The Christian is still free and has nothing to fear, and he can still pay the State its due by suffering innocently. He knows that when all is said and done the sovereign power belongs to God and not to the State, which is only his minister.

Paul’s word that Caesar has been “ordered” (tasso)–not ordained, approved, instituted, or underwritten–by God is what allows Christians to do good without fear of authority. For Caesar is a fallen power in need of redemption just like all the others. As such he is prone to fits of rage based on fear. For like all fallen powers, Caesar will often fancy himself his own God, judge of good and evil. And he may look upon our good as evil. This is where Revelation 13 speaks to us:

And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names … The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven). It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. (Rev. 13.1, 5-10 CEB)

Notice that like Paul’s word about Caesar in Rom. 13, the Beast of Rev. 13 functions quite contingently. It was “given authority” to act, but for a set amount of time. It was “allowed” to make war on the saints. This word renders Caesar’s power quite relative. Even as the Caesar-Beast seems to run amok, however, the church is invited neither to a) revolt against Caesar in the name of God or any virtue, nor to b) excuse Caesar’s bad behavior in God’s name and call Caesar’s evil good. The church is called only to endurance and faithfulness, based on a truthful acceptance that, If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. As we observed from Bonhoeffer above: “The Christian is still free and has nothing to fear, and he can still pay the State its due by suffering innocently.” The force capable of animating lives of peaceful, loving goodness in the face of such horribleness is a patience formed by hope. The basis of this hope is resurrection. The church is shaped by a particular story about God’s Son being violently humiliated and crushed by the Beast, but God asserting his sovereignty by defying the death sentence and raising his Son to life again. The church is capable of patient faith in the face of the Beast because we believe that we who have a share in Christ’s death also have a share in his resurrection. So says John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus:

The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.

Romans 13 does not present itself as a theological treatise on the doctrine of church and state. But when Romans 13 is read in concert with Revelation 13, and both are interpreted by the lives of martyrs and saints, the saints are instructed in how to be obedient to God in the presence of Caesar, even when Caesar is a beast.

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3 thoughts on “The Church and Caesar: Reading Romans 13 and Revelation 13 with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    Jeremy, you always make me think, even when I disagree with you. That said, did you notice the five instances of tasso in the first five verses of Romans 13:
    1: `upotassestho submit
    1: tetagmenai established
    2: antitassomenos rebels
    2: diatage rebelling
    5: `upotassesthai submit
    Do you see this as a pattern of antonyms?

  2. Xyhelm says:

    I believe the best point you made is that the church is not invited to excuse Caesar’s bad behavior in God’s name and call Caesar’s evil good.

    Pacifist or not, Christians who believe in Americanism need to know this.

  3. jmar198013 says:

    Jack: I suppose you could call it a pattern of antonyms. God “ORDers” the powers–collects them, uses them, puts them in their place. Paul is calling on believers to “subORDinate” themselves to these powers. If they are “insubORDinate,” then they are “out of ORDer.” Is that what you mean?

    What I still see overall in Rom. 13 is a continuation of ch. 12. Rom. 13 is teaching believers how to apply Matt. 5.39-41/Rom. 12.17-21 to Caesar. Paul’s point is that we submit to an unjust system as an act of enemy love (remember, when Jesus went to the Cross, he was submitting to an unjust system, as well). For Paul, there is a shade of nuance between submission and obedience. You can only OBEY Caesar up to a point. Submission requires that when you must disobey Caesar, you have to take the punishment he doles out. When Paul uses hypotasso, you could translate it “be subject” or “be subordinate,” but I think it better to translate it more actively–“submit yourselves.” What I see in Rom. 13, especially if you let Rev. 13 help you interpret Rom. 13, is that when you submit to Caesar, even when Caesar is unjust, it’s not really Caesar you’re submitting to, it’s God. Again, that doesn’t morally justify Caesar, and it doesn’t mean you have to do or even support what Caesar says. It’s very much akin to when the disciples in Acts found themselves in hot water with the Jewish council for keeping on preaching about Jesus. The council told them to shut up about Jesus. Of course, they could not do this, so the council had to beat them. The disciples took their beating and went on.

    Paul uses hypotasso elsewhere in his letters–most notably the haustafeln (Eph. 5.22-6.9; Col. 3.18-4.1). The thing that’s remarkable about the haustafeln, by the way, is that they ALWAYS address the socially “weaker” partner in any relationship FIRST. They do something that the examples of haustafeln we find contemporary do not: they assume that the wife, the slave, the child–the ones treated as inferior in society–could in fact be THE MOST significant moral actors to bring about systemic change. And submission was a part of that equation. Paul seems to be doing something similar with the Christians at Rome vis-a-vis Caesar in Rom. 13. Just something else to ponder. The only difference is that he doesn’t address Caesar as he does husbands, parents, and masters in the haustafeln. Simple reason being of course, Caesar was not a Christian and hence not accountable to Paul’s apostleship.

    But I will say this: people who assume that Paul, in writing Rom. 13.1-7, evidences a conservative or quietist bent, have got another thing coming. Remember that Caesar was a pagan and worshiped as a demi-God. One can imagine that a rabble-rousing traveling preacher penning a letter to a strange sect in Rome itself, telling them that Almighty Caesar was in fact a mere pawn of the God of the Jews would not have made Caesar very happy if ever the document fell into his hands.

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