Sarah and I enjoyed a fun weekend at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The excellent presentations left us with much to reflect upon and we were happy to catch up with some good friends.
In my paper, I argued that a narrative approach helpfully illuminates Romans 13:1-7. Paul’s instruction here has the same basic shape as Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiles in Jeremiah 29. The exiles in Jeremiah’s day needed to grapple with their identity as the people of God in an unfamiliar situation, embracing the role of a vulnerable community in a threatening and hostile environment. Paul’s exhortations to the Roman church are in continuity with Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiles.
Jeremiah’s and Paul’s instruction have the same direction and intention. Jeremiah’s exhortation to seek the peace of Babylon is intended to shape the character and outlook of the exiled community as it considers how to make a way forward. It is not an endorsement of the goodness of the Babylonian empire or the rightness of its actions. If the prophet intended to speak of the Babylonian empire in itself, he would reflect prophetic critiques found elsewhere, referring to beasts with voracious appetites heading for destruction.
In the same way, Paul’s instruction to the Roman church is intended to shape its character and outlook as it considers its future. Paul is not validating Rome’s conduct in any way, affirming neither the empire’s goodness nor the rightness of its actions. If he were to speak of the character of the empire in itself, he would likely take up the prophetic critique (as John does in Revelation) and make reference to beasts that devour and are headed for destruction.
Two fairly huge implications flow from this.
First, when American Christians theologize about the modern secular state, they must remember that Romans 13:1-7 is only part of a larger biblical vision. Christians who start with Romans 13 will typically end up with an inappropriately positive conception of the state, a vision in which the church ought to be supportive of the government and its policies, and being a good Christian means being patriotic.
Second, I think that contemporary evangelicals—especially those who imagine America is or ever was a “Christian nation”—should give sustained attention to the character of God’s people in exile.
This notion has received little attention in evangelical discussions of politics. I suspect that’s because it runs counter to desires to influence policy, control the levers of power, and determine the course of national history.
I concluded my paper with this paragraph:
American evangelicals would do well to consider how Israel’s exile shaped Paul’s conception of the church—his vision of a weak and vulnerable wandering people among the nations. We feel that we’re losing power, influence, access, our former position of political leverage and cultural dominance. We grow worrisome, anxious, nervous about the sort of future our churches will face and the conditions our children will encounter. I’ll just suggest to you that this might be a strategic moment for us to embrace our identity as God’s wandering people among the nations. It just may be that this emerging moment of cultural weakness is God’s gift to his church. What if it’s an opportunity for the God revealed in the crucified Jesus to press his people into the shape of the cross? What if the Lord of the church is grieved when we strive for power and agitate to control the course of history? Do we risk being blind to Paul’s vision for the polis of Jesus because we’re overcome by cultural resentment fueled by memories of former days when our opinions held sway?