Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Romans 13

For far too much of Christian history, the majority of the Church universal has interpreted Romans 13 as a blueprint for social and political conformity–even blind obedience to the governing authorities.  The worst example of this kind of interpretation was when the German churches used Romans 13 to counsel obedience to the Hitler regime.  Although the majority of biblical scholars have long since rejected this kind of reading of the text, it is still quite popular in preaching, especially, but not solely in North American Christianity.

Thom Stark has done a brilliant expose of the fallacies of this kind of interpretation and an exposition of alternative readings.  Here is the index to his entire series on his blog, previously called Semper Reformanda, now Jesus Politics. (This reminds me that I need to clean up and update my blog-roll. If you’d like me to link to your site, let me know. )

August 3, 2008 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, blogs, liberal theology, theology


  1. You may like N. T. Wright’s “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”

    Comment by Richard | August 4, 2008

  2. Since I generally like Wright, you are probably right about that. Thanks for the plug. I hope you find your way to Thom’s series and see what he has. I don’t remember if he specifically interacts with Wright or not.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  3. I address Wright briefly in R13/04: Against Anarchy, R13/11: Social Volatility, in the footnote on R13/13: The Identity of God and in the second footnote on R13/18: Hidden Transcripts: Herzog. Wright’s essay is broadly correct, and very good. As I note in my section on Herzog, however, I think Wright misses the boat a bit. Wright says that Paul is undermining the divine pretensions of the emperor when he says that the authorities have been ordained by the Jewish God of the crucified Jesus. To be clear, Paul IS undermining the emperor, but Wright completely fails to notice that Paul’s language would not have been seen by the emperor as subversive. As Herzog rightly points out, aristocratic empires sustained power by coopting the religion of the conquered. From the imperial perspective, Romans 13:1 plays right into their scheme.

    The subversion is there, but it’s only recognizable to the oppressed, particularly the Jewish oppressed, who stand in a long tradition of (shrewdly) maintaining hope by naming pagan warlords “servants of YHWH.”

    Wright and Jewett both make it sound like Caesar wouldn’t have liked this. I think the point for the Jews is precisely that he WOULD like it, while they mean something else by it.

    Comment by Thom Stark | August 4, 2008

  4. Interesting take, Thom. That strategy has the advantage of keeping the imperial power off your backs, but the disadvantage that, when a different context arises, the readers no longer recognize the irony and subversion. This seems to be just what happened to Romans 13: New generations of (Gentile, non-oppressed) Christians read Paul as commanding kissing up to the imperial power–not in subverting that power in any way whatsoever.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2008

  5. Right. Yeah, I seriously doubt Paul could have imagined what was going to happen to the church in a few hundred years.

    Comment by Thom Stark | August 4, 2008

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