October 17, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Romans 13: 1-7
Of the several controversial things the Apostle Paul wrote, and there were several(!), one of the greatest is this: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Did Paul mean we should obey whatever governing authority happens to be in power at the time? If you had been a southern, plantation owner in the 1700’s, you might have agreed with Paul and criticized abolitionists for not obeying scripture. The Bible is clear, we are to be subject to governing authorities. But then you look at the Civil Rights movement and find leaders who were inspired by scripture to resist unfair laws and authorities.
The relationship between church and state has always been tenuous, and Paul’s words in Romans have always been problematic for Christians somewhere in the world at any point in history. For instance, should Christians in Russia today support their current regime? Should Christians in Israel support the policies affecting Palestinians? Should Christians in America be happy or sad about decisions by our Supreme Court?
Of course, the answer is: it depends on what you believe. America has lived its existence in a strange contradiction—believing in the separation of church and state while respecting and even protecting the freedom of religion. People who say that America is a Christian nation have a struggle with the constitution where it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” At the same time, people who say religion should have no place in politics struggle with endorsements like our currency that says “In God we trust.” We are a country that refuses to let religion determine our politics while also resisting the removal of faith from our political life.
So what does this mean for the church? At times Christians involved themselves in politics to the point of aligning with certain political parties. This often divides and alienates people. On the other hand, some churches have sought to stay removed from potentially divisive topics, they were guilty of remaining silent when the church should have been speaking up.
We conclude today our series on BE Just, Kind and Humble in which we have been looking at the light Christians can bring to our divided country, and we do so asking the question, What does the nation need from the church right now?
Let’s dig deeper into Paul’s words and there are several things we have to keep in mind about this passage. First, Paul was addressing a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. He was writing to Christians living in Rome when the political climate was precarious, especially for certain religions. Emperor Claudius in 49 AD, about eight or nine years before Paul wrote Romans, expelled all Jews from Rome. By the time Paul wrote this letter Nero came to power in the midst of violent uprising by citizens protesting high taxes and poor services. In the midst of low opinion polls, Nero burned the city in 64AD and blamed it on Christians, an easy target, because there was a lot of suspicion about what Christians believed. Some thought they had rituals where they ate flesh and drank blood. So Nero persecuted the Christians to make himself look like he was protecting the homeland.
Paul was aware of these rising tensions. He wrote to Christians who felt their freedom in Christ liberated them from obedience to the government. They shouldn’t have to pay taxes and revenues, and Paul knew this would make them an easy target for governing authorities.
In other words Paul was trying to preserve the existence of the church. He wasn’t writing a mandate for all people for all time on how Christians should respond to governments. He was trying to prevent unnecessary persecution for the church. Certainly Paul would not have meant for his words here to mean Christians should support any governing power regardless of what they do.
Secondly, Paul makes clear that all governing powers are subject to God’s sovereignty. “For there is no authority except from God…”(v.1) When Paul tells the Christians in Rome to be subject to the authorities he is saying we are to be responsible citizens. But our ultimate citizenship lies in the kingdom of heaven. For Paul, Christians live out responsible citizenship when they seek to carry out the will and ways of God.
In the 1930’s Christian theologian, Karl Barth, became very concerned about the way many Christians were using Romans 13 to support the Nazis. He felt their use of this passage was a gross misinterpretation of Paul’s words and recommended we understand Paul’s meaning by looking at the larger context, something I’ll come back to later in the sermon.
For now, let’s understand that Paul’s words do not mean we should never question our government. In fact, our founding documents in America invite just the opposite. We believe it is the right of a citizen to question government.
So let me bring this back to our question today, what does the nation need from the church? What is the Christian’s responsibility in our day to a divided and fractured country? There are actually a few good answers to that question in Paul’s words in Romans 13.
First, what the nation needs from the church today is for Christians to Seek Truth Above All. In warning the Roman Christians that violating the laws of the Roman Empire will incur its wrath, he then says, “Therefore, one must be subject not only because of wrath, but because of conscience.” (v.5) Paul brings the role of conscience into the discussion. This is clearly not about blind obedience, but fidelity to one’s beliefs and values. Ultimately, this subjection to the state means fidelity to one’s pursuit of truth.
That has become a hot topic in American politics. In 2022, it seems we have returned to Caesar’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” Truth can be turned, twisted, or in some cases made up on the spot. But as a responsible Christian we understand that all truth belongs to God. That means truth is never what we make it, but what we seek and try to understand.
The French Jewish mystic turned Christian, Simone Weil (“Wile”), once wrote: “Christ likes for us to prefer truth to him, because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.” That’s one of those quotes to take to the park bench and spend an afternoon pondering it. Seek truth above Christ! When seeking Christ is our aim, we too often fall into the trap of being right. Because once we have found Christ, then everyone else must be wrong. But when truth is our aim, we remain humble and pliable and willing to understand that just the moment we think we know what’s right, there is something more to learn, and that kind of seeking will always take us toward Christ.
Such humility regarding truth is seen in a story about Sir Isaac Newton who discovered the theory of gravity. Some contemporaries of Newton discerned a certain movement in the earth they believed disproved and destroyed Newton’s principle. When they confronted him with this news he said, “it might be so.” That’s someone who doesn’t need to be right, because he’s greatest concern is what’s true.
Interestingly, many ancient images of the Apostle Paul picture him holding a sword like this statue outside the St. Paul basilica in Rome where Paul’s remains are believed to be buried beneath the altar. It’s a disturbing image. Why is Paul pictured with a sword? It’s not because he used one. It’s to remind people that one was used on him. He was believed to have been beheaded. He served to the point of ultimate sacrifice.
If we seek truth it’s not to wield it like a sword to cut others down. It’s to help us live sacrificially and helpfully for others.
And that leads into the second thing to point out about what the nation needs from the Church. It is for Christians to Be Servants to Others. Verse 7 raps up Paul’s words: “Pay to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” In other words let our citizenship be a place we carry out our discipleship. Be a servant of all.
There are two words used in relation to servanthood in the New Testament. One is diakonos, the word from which we get “deacon.” It is often associated with a particular form of serving, waiting on tables. This is what is used for the first deacons in the church in Acts chapter 6. But the word Paul uses in Romans is doulos. It is more like an indentured servitude. It doesn’t mean being mistreated or abused. But it’s different from diakanos. You see, diakanos describes serving that you can walk away from. When your job is done, you can leave.
Doulos however is different. It implies being bound to someone. You can’t quit or walk away. Interestingly this is the kind of serving Jesus offers us. He came not to be served but to serve. He never walks away from us or quits on us. And the witness Christians are called to have is a bondedness to others, a commit to serve where we don’t give up or walk away.
What does the nation need from the church? Doulos servants, people who don’t quit or walk away from others because they have different opinions or ideas.
All of his years as senior pastor here at St. Luke’s, Dr. Kent Millard used to begin his sermons with the same prayer each week that started this way: “Lord, make us masters of ourselves so we can be servants of others.”
And then, third, and finally, what the nation needs from the church is to remember that You Don’t Have to Like to Love. Many New Testament scholars say the key to interpreting Paul’s difficult words in chapter 13:1-7 is to understand them in their context. The chapter before and the verses that follow are part of what is called Paul’s ethic of love in Romans. Listen to some of the statements in these verses: “let love be genuine,” “love one another with mutual affection,” “live in harmony with each other,” “pursue hospitality to strangers,” “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Scholars say that when Paul talks about a Christian’s duty to the state, its in the context of these sayings. In other words, the Christian’s greatest contribution to the state is to have a sense of duty when it comes to loving others. When you love like that it can’t always be because you like people.
How many of you love only the people you like? If so, how many people is that? Can you count them on your fingers and toes? Do you even need your toes to count them? The Gospel teaches us, the example of Jesus shows us, and the Holy Spirit empowers us, to love people regardless of liking them.
Earlier this year, David Harris, who is on our Staff Parish Relations Committee, told me about a book, Unlikely Disciple. It is by Kevin Roose, who at the time was a second-year journalism student at Brown University. On a field trip that included Liberty University, the school started by Jerry Falwell, the former leader of the Moral Majority, he discovered a world he realized he knew nothing about: evangelical Christianity. He had a very awkward encounter with some of its students, and it made him wonder why he found it so difficult to be in conversation with them. And it got him thining, “I need to understand that world.” So he went to his professor with a writing project idea—he would transfer to Liberty for a year, sort of incognito as a student interested in being in a more religious environment, to see what he could learn about evangelical Christians.
He went with all kinds of suspicions about what the students are like, that they are rigid, judgmental, mean-spirited. But what he found changed his life. He experienced some alarming things for sure, but underneath the ideologies, he found a lot of people like himself, people with the same struggles, doubts and the yearning for faith. Toward the end of the book he wrote:
I’m not an evangelical it’s true. But I’ve found I have a lot in common with Liberty students. This semester I’ve learned to interpret the world the way many Liberty students do. I’ve learned to think about love and grace the way they do. I’ve learned to call bad things “sin” and good things “blessed” and to expect that there’s a cosmic difference between the two. Most of all I’ve learned that faith, worn correctly, can be amazing and life-changing. Having met Liberty students who use their faith to improve their lives and the lives of the people around them, I can say with relative certainty that although I don’t always believe in God, I believe in belief. (pp283-284)
What Kevin Roose did that semester is a picture of what the nation needs from the church: a willingness to cross sides, enter into the world of people we feel we have nothing in common with, to be open to what makes us the same, and even find there are things we can learn from one another.
If loving people depends on liking them, we may withhold ourselves from some of the greatest blessings life can afford. “Owe no one anything,” says Paul’s, “except to love one another.”
Let me close with this story. In the church I served at Lake Junaluska, NC we had two retired men in the church who theologically and politically had little of nothing in common. One of the men had been the founder of the Good News Movement, the organization that gave birth to the groups that have now brought about the largest separation in the history of the United Methodist Church. The other man was a retired district superintendent from South Carolina. He proudly identified himself as “a yellow dog Democrat.”
If they got into a conversation about the state of the church or the country, very quickly they realized they were as far apart from each other as you could get. BUT, they were in the same church. They were both United Methodists who found it possibly to be in community with each other and that was for one reason only, they both loved Jesus. Jesus gave them the ability to put up with each other. And it was an amazing thing to see.
Not long after I moved to a new church I got a letter in the mail one day from the conservative member. It was a copy of his plans for his funeral service. He had everything mapped out. The scriptures to be read, the order of service and who he hoped could participate. He sent me a copy, in case the pastor of his church at the time wasn’t available, he wanted me to be a part of the service. But what really surprised me was to read in the order of service, for the person to give his eulogy, he had the name of the yellow-dog Democrat.
It’s a shocking thing what love can do, love that emanates from a Savior who loves us sacrificially, and never gives up on us, and is always willing to meet us where we are.
Love like that is what the nation needs from the church.