Lesson 18: Rules of the Road (Romans 13: 1-7)

Often our discussions have ended accepting Paul’s positions for the church but asking how they relate to the larger world out there. It is hard enough for Christians to live by love in their private lives, as eyfishpaw and Bob Nordvall remind us. How can we do it in our public lives and how can we ask others to do it?

I think Paul did envisage a strong, disciplined community something like Bob’s description of the Amish. That was easier in his time, as the Church was a minority, a countercultural community who did not participate in civil institutions and governments. She could afford to be indifferent, because she saw it all ending in the near future, or better “beginning”. Paul could teach “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12: 17). He could delineate this as “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13), meaning share with church members and minster to outsiders if they come to you in need. But that still left problems, such as coping with military invasion and crime to other groups.

Paul maintains God instituted government to handle those. It provides the order needed as we wait for this new beginning, keeping evil in check through the military, police, and courts. He assumes even outsiders know what is decent and honorable, just and fair. We can expect them to operate with justice, an eye for an eye, even though they are not ready to respond in love and forgiveness. So Paul can counsel respecting the government and paying our taxes, because the state fulfills an essential function in the history of salvation, keeping things relatively safe for the time being. (Romans 13: 1-7)

This theory worked pretty well throughout our 2,000 year history. Martin Luther certainly embraced it, claiming God rules this world through both church and state. The Church operating in love is his right hand, the government operating with justice is his left. “Christ is Lord” in the Church; “Caesar is Lord” in the government. The Church leads with the Word of God; the state with the power of the sword.

Of course, it has not always worked. Only about 40 years after Paul wrote, the Apostle John in Revelation reacted to the Emperor Domitian’s persecution by calling the Church to have nothing to do with the Empire. Forget about respect, separation is the only appropriate response to Rome’s idolatry. Pull out much like the Amish and wait for God’s new beginning. At other times, the Church has tried to take over corrupt government and been corrupted in the attempt.

At times, I wonder if Paul’s position has anything to offer us. Some of its elements have been challenged in the modern world. 1) After a 2000 year wait, we can no longer be indifferent to society’s conditions, dealing only with personal emergencies. 2) Christians now can participate in government, but have to be careful about forcing God’s will on secular democracies that insist on the separation of church and State. 3) Government is no longer confined simply to defense and justice as more and more it is expected to provide social services, economic regulation, environmental control, and infrastructural installments.

The Church has sometimes found it difficult to work in this situation. Jon Meacham in the April 13 Newsweek reads the recent decline in Americans claiming religious affiliation as reaction against right wing Christian failure. Fundamentalists and others have tried to impose what they regard as God’s will on all laws, leading society to believe the Church is against anything modern. They are anti- drinking, anti- abortion, anti-contraception, anti- sexual education, anti-same-sex marriages, anti-evolution, anti- stem cell research, and on and on. Society interprets this as standing in the way of a better more loving society. And it feels vindicated in this view when it sees popular preachers, such as Rick Warren, advising the government to assassinate Iran’s president. Near the end of his article Meacham cites Augustine in the City of God saying a nation should be defined as “a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love”.

That reminded me of Richard Niebuhr’s theology. In the middle of the last century he defined Paul and Luther’s position as “Christ and Culture in Paradox”, suggesting under modern conditions it forces Christians to be schizophrenics, being torn apart and inconsistent in different situations. He implicitly endorsed a position of “Christ Transforming Culture” arguing Christians should influence government to bring change for a better world. But he argued they have to do this in a responsible manner. As “responsible selves” Christians present their perspectives and programs for consideration along with those of other communities. Niebuhr believes we live in various communities each operating from different centers of values. For instance, the priority for the Christian community is love, the scientific is truth, and the governmental is justice or maybe freedom. The health of the larger community depends on these constituent communities entering into dialogue, sometimes challenging and sometime complimenting one another. Each in the best of times is accountable, offering checks and balances to the other.

And then I think Paul’s basic insights do have something helpful to offer working with Niebuhr’s model. I don’t think working with different communities, each trying to influence the other, will make us schizophrenics, at least not if we honor and respect each other. There is no need for the discipline and authoritarianism of the Amish. There is no need for perfection. We like Paul still do not do what we want to do, but at least if we gather for Word and Sacrament, we shall know what we should be doing. All we need is the support of friends and tradition in a creative environment. And when things get petty as sometimes happens in congregational meetings, we need the humor and determination to call a stop to nonsense.

I tend to see 3 stages in ethical development. The first responds with genocide to any evil, the second responds with an eye for an eye, and the third responds with love and forgiveness. We shall never fully practice the third, but we certainly know it is the way things shall be in the future God’s Spirit provides for us. Paul calls the Church is to be the first fruits of that Spirit leading us in love.

As I said last time, I am going to hold off on Lesson 19, so we can develop some discussion on this one. I think the Church as an institution has been lousy in relating to the governmental, business, and scientific communities. Christians as individuals have done much better. But it might help if we could put into words how faith active in love works in the contemporary public world. Myron took some shots a few lessons past. Reading Meacham’s article might be helpful.

I might not make assignments for Lesson 19, Paul and Women, until next Friday. This important lesson would follow on the next Tuesday.

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