Reading Romans 13 with John Howard Yoder (Again)

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April 23, 2013 by jmar198013

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)

In his 1988 article, “Armaments and Eschatology,” John Howard Yoder cited some remarks by Harold O. J. Brown, who was attempting to provide a Christian justification for total warfare, even if it meant destroying our own civilization in the process. Said Brown:

The monstrous evil of totalitarian communism must indeed be frightful … for us to risk annihilation rather than submit to it. Frankly I … will risk annihilation for myself and my country to defend our freedom … For this reason it is important to have at least some Christians in positions of authority, people who will not be ‘kept in bondage by the fear of death’ as Hebrews [2.15] puts it.

To this, Yoder replied:

Eusebius made Constantine a savior figure, and ever since then popular piety has been ready to ascribe to the ruler or to the ‘nation’ a privileged role, reaching beyond their own territory, in achieving God’s world purposes. Seldom are those divine purposes so conceived as to include reconciling enemies or empowering victims …

Here the constantinian logic reveals an internal contradiction. One of its components is the claim that moral requirements of officeholders must be ‘realistically’ adjusted, authorizing the Christian in ‘office’ levels of selfishness and violence not otherwise considered good, in order to enable them to discharge the duties of office … A second–which we saw in the Brown quotation–is the claim that if public offices are not filled by Christians whose regeneration, sanctification, and knowledge of God’s revealed will qualify them to do the work exceptionally well, they will be filled by persons of lesser moral integrity, who will do it worse. Logically, these two theses contradict each other. The only way to reconcile them is to claim, as in the self-image of America’s recent media hero, Colonel [Oliver] North, that God-fearing people have more right to violate the laws, moral and statutory, than do the heathen.

Yoder rightly saw that Rom. 13.1-7 stands as a work of one of the “early seers applied to the rulers of Rome and which we can apply to our own Caesars.” One of the consequences of reading Romans 13.1-7 in such a way that it humbles Caesar under God is that it “dismantle[s] the notion that the ruler is the primary agent of divine movement in history.” The church today, according to Yoder, rather than sanctioning Caesar, is called upon to “demythologize the king’s imperial pretensions” and invite “rulers back to the modesty of the internal order assigned to empire by Romans 13.”

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4 thoughts on “Reading Romans 13 with John Howard Yoder (Again)

  1. […] Reading Romans 13 with John Howard Yoder (Again) […]

  2. Michael Snow says:

    Yoder, my hero! It is additionally helpful to remember that Paul wrote a letter, not chapters.
    Rom. 13 follows the argument of ch. 12 on how Christians treat enemies and face evil. Context is key: http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context/

  3. […] Reading Romans 13 with John Howard Yoder (Again) […]

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