II. The One Family of God (Continued)

A. The One Family of God in Shaping Convicditons

4. Excursus on Love: The Church and State

The attitude that believers are to have toward the state is the obvious lesson of Rom. 13:1-7. Its placement here has puzzled many; Barnikol, Eggenbeger, Kallas, Munro, O'Neil, Pallis, and Schmithals have even dismissed it as an interpolation.

a. The Believers' Church in History

It would be an understatement to say that the state has not treated the historical expressions of house church Christianity kindly. This is evident in the persecution of radical reformers in sixteenth century Europe, just as it is regarding the Baptists in seventeenth century England and its colonies. Yet, except where the state has made intrusions into the practice and mission of the church, house church members have always had a policy of "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

House church advocates see the relationship between the church and state very differently from their magisterial counterparts. For the latter, steeped in a millennia of Constantinian Christianity, the church functions best when it is in a unity with the state, comprising the same population, each partner having a share in the governing of civil affairs, and both ultimately reporting to God. For the house church, however, the church and state are separate entities, membership in the state being imposed by the culture and membership in the church being completely voluntary. The difference may be understood in this way: for the magisterial Christian, who reads Rom. 13:1-7 as ordaining the state as an instrument of God, being obedient to the state is a divine duty. For the member of a believers' church, however, the state is an intruder into a world owned by God, and being obedient to the state is an act of suffering that emulates the suffering of its Lord. Yet, how does Rom. 13:1-7 fit into this understanding?

b. Church and State in the Light of a House Church Hermeneutic

That Rom. 13:1-7, like any other biblical passage, must be interpreted in its context is the observation of John Howard Yoder:

Chapter 12 begins with a call to nonconformity, motivated by a memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian Community and, with regard to enemies, in suffering. The concept of love then recurs in Rom. 13:8-10. Therefore any interpretation of Rom. 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context. There are no grounds of literary analysis, textual variation, or style to support the claim that we have here to do with a separate chunk of teaching which constitutes foreign matter in the flow of the text.

McClendon's approach to understanding this passage is probably best. Recognizing that the passage follows Rom. 12:21, "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," he writes:

Immediately, Paul gives these saints some helpful ways to love their imperial enemy: Remember that God created him; consider the good God thereby intended; have respect for the enemy and give him his due.... Such submission, he goes on, is part of self-sacrificial love on the part of those in positions of social inferiority (see Rom. 13:8).

Some protest that, at the time of the letter, the Church had not yet been persecuted. Surely, some of Paul's own worst suffering would come later--perhaps beginning at the same time that this letter was being read--but many of the Jews he is addressing had been banished from Rome and even the Gentiles who managed to remain behind had seen the synagogues closed and assets confiscated. That Paul would understand the state as "evil" would be entirely natural; nevertheless, he does not see activism as a suitable option against it (Rom. 13:2-4), but counsels an attitude of submission (Rom. 13:5-7). Dietrich Bonhoeffer further clarified this understanding:

... St. Paul is talking to the Christians, not to the State. His concern is that the Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or condemn any secular power. No State is entitled to read into St. Paul's words a justification of its own existence.

Yoder establishes another link between the passage and the material that immediately precedes it, providing additional confirmation that the passage needs to be nterpreted in its context. Comparing Rom. 12:19 with Rom. 13:4:

It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function meant to be exercised by the government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil with evil, such behavior is for men not complementary but in disjunction. God can, in his own way, use an idolatrous Assyria (Isa. 10) or Rome...

The picture that emerges here is a remarkable one--one that even goes back to Rom. 8:28. Secure of their place in the one family of God, believers should not imitate the methods of their persecutors. Such actions make them indistinguishable from those that are against them, and communicate a harmful witness to the world. Instead, the believer is to have a mission and a witness to the culture that confronts the world with good, not with evil. Rather than confronting the evil manifest in the state through the tactics of other minority groups, such as those of the Zealots of the first century and the guerrillas and terrorists of today, believers are to use "suffering and serving love." They should follow the model that was set by the one who was "oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." The church is to understand that there is little or no redemptive value in investing their energy in making the culture or the government less evil. The Christian's responsibility is to testify to the world as it is, reflecting the character of God. God can then use that witness to cause more people to repent, and that is the proper manner of making the world and its rulers less evil. The house church attitude toward the state is explored more fully by Mennonite writers like Yoder, who have written an extensive corpus on pacifism and peaceful resistance as a means of countering state actions that would coerce believers into activities that would have them place Caesar above their being disciples of Christ. The material in this small passage in Romans does not warrant an extensive presentation beyond saying that the witness presented by the believing conscientious objector is little different than that of Christian martyrs over many centuries. When one is a member of the family of God, one needs to depend on the security of that family even doing so might bring one into harm's way.

c. The House Church in its Culture

Fitzmyer's observation that the words "state" or "Rome" are not actually mentioned in the passage is helpful. Instead, we have "authorities" or "powers" (exousais) and "rulers" (archotes), as in Eph. 6:12, "against the rulers (archas), against the authorities (exousais), against the powers of this dark world..." The adversary would seem to be something more basic than the state itself--perhaps some sort of primal culture--the "world," in the Christian sense. This leads to a consideration of the way the church is to function in the culture, and a remarkable glimpse of the second century church has survived for our consideration:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a particular form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as to the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land to is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers....

As Hauerwas and Willimon have expressed it the title of their book, Resident Aliens, believers are to mix, but not blend, into the culture. They are to be accessible to other members of their culture, they serve the other members of their culture--but are always to be aware that they are resident aliens--citizens of a different country altogether, the "Kingdom of Heaven."

We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God's kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.

d. Conclusions

It would not be unreasonable to assume that the interaction Paul had with Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18 and 19 had aquainted him with the acrimonious activities in Rome that led Claudius to expell all the Jews. This was not the kind of witness that serves God. The vision he would like these believers to have is that of a community that is willing to work within the culture, even though it is against that culture. The community is to look at the members of the culture with sensitivity and love, co-laboring with God to bring about His redemptive agenda. There is also no room for nationalism, because God's people are members of His kingdom, not the local culture. McClendon calls such a community one that has peoplehood, as opposed to nationhood; "...peoplehood provides a powerful incentive to unity that transcends, and cometimes conflicts with, the nation-state." That was the conviction that Paul was trying to shape within his Roman listeners.