by Petros Vassiliadis*
The present situation in the Orthodox world, after the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the metaphysical justification of war by Moscow Patriarchate, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the traditional symphony in “Church-Secular State relations”, brought to the surface the necessity of its biblical foundation (Rom 13:1-10)
I have recently analyzed in Greek the scientific results of the recent biblical scholarship in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. All the second part of this study refers to this controversial (in all Christian traditions) issue.
Preamble. In today’s most trusted reference book of biblical scholarship, at Anchor Bible Dictionary, the topics that modern biblical research has highlighted as crucial of theological importance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, both for the biblical scholarship, and for the Church’s witness and pastoral care, are: (a) Rom 1:26-27, referring to homosexuality, (b) Rom 13:1–7, which refers to relations with secular authorities, and (c) Rom 16, which provides significant clues, if not substantial evidence, for the leading role women played in the ancient Church. I thought one should also add Romans 9-11, with its implications for relations with Judaism, but also more broadly the interreligious dialogue. Ch.13 deals with social and mainly ecclesiology, chs. 9-11 with missiology, while the ones about the role and position of women (ch.16) and those on homosexuality (chs. 1-2) are important elements for Christian anthropology.
The letter to the Romans is the most extensive of New Testament. in which we find the fuller exposition of the Pauline gospel, having undoubtedly influenced in a catalytic way the Christian faith. It was commented by both theological schools of Greek antiquity, Alexandrian (Origen, Cyril) and Antiochian (Theodore, Theodorete, Chrysostom), the author of the epitome of Orthodoxy theology (Damascene), and of Latin literature (Augustine, [Rom. 13,13], Confessions, 8.12), but also the later commentators, both Greeks (Oecumenius, Theophylact), as well as the Latins of the Middle Ages (Thomas Aquinas, Melanchthon, Luther).
Its importance, however, is evident – based on text criticism – during the first phase of dissemination of the letter. The omission of e.g. of the initials of recipients (τοῖς οὖσιν ἐν Ρώμη, 1:7) in certain manuscripts (see codex G etc.) is probably a deliberate attempt to refer its content to the wider Christian community, although later its place in the canon was not that of the now established printed editions, i.e. of the frontispiece of the New Testament Epistles. The entire text of the Romans is preserved in the most reliable Alexandrian text type: the 4th c. Sinaitic and Vatican, and the 5th c. Alexandrian codices
Rom 13:1-10. The first part of the exhortation section of Romans (chs.12-15) begins at 12:3 and ends at 13:10. Christian life within the body of Christ is the issue of the first half (12:3-14 [16a]), while the relations of Christians with the outside world are considered in the second half (12:15 [16b] -13:10).
The exhortation of the Apostle Paul for submission to the state authorities (πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω “every soul is subject to power”, 13:1a) on the grounds that they have been instituted by God (αἱ δὲ οὔσαι ἐξουσίαι ὑπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν, “but those who are in authority under God are ordered.” 13:1c) has caused many problems in the life of the Church (ecclesiological, in the case of the famous “symphonia”) and her witness (missiological), up to the 21th century. This passage has constituted the biblical foundation in support of any government, no matter how authoritarian or how corrupt it is, but also to any secular theory and policy, however repressive or unjust shows up. This passage has until recently been invoked by Christians to suppress liberation movements (in Catholic Latin America), support the war, even to justify genocides (in Orthodox Russia against Ukraine). In fact, many Protestant Christians in Germany (and not only) of Hitler turned to this text as the decisive biblical argument for obeying the Nazi regime and aligning the Church with the Nazi regime.
And that is why biblical hermeneutics has been forced to reconsider the whole interpretive process, especially by German biblical scholars. Some years ago Romano Penna made a detailed presentation also of other misinterpretations. A careful reading of the text and the awareness of the background framework are necessary to understand this problem.
We must note that Paul does not speak of “obedience” or “disobedience” to the secular state authorities. Instead, he uses the verb “ὑποτάσσεσθαι” (13:1,5), which can also include disobedience. In Rom. 13:1-2, Paul argues that the state authorities have been granted by God. And here Paul is based on Hellenistic Judaism, which understood that the rulers had no power in themselves, but that only the one God had given them (cf. Proverbs 8:15-16; 24:21; 1 Pet 2:17). Their power was not a blank card to do whatever they want. In this tradition the rulers were accountable to God for their actions and were accountable to God’s judgment (cf. e.g. the Wis Sol 6:1-11).
In addition, in Rom 13:3-4, Paul argues that rulers operate as servants of God to use the authority he has granted them for the common good (οἱ γὰρ ἄρχοντες οὐκ εἰσὶ φόβος τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἔργων, ἀλλὰ τῶν κακῶν). According to the apostle, the rulers are God’s ministers for the good. but if we do evil, we must fear, for they do not wear the sword; for they are God’s servants, avenging the evildoers). In no way are they to be considered representatives of God. Their authority is recognized because it is given from God and their proper work is to serve and not to oppress. The proper function of governmental authorities is to ensure the society’s welfare, punishing those who do evil and supporting those who they strike the good.
In Rom 13:5, Paul adds a third point in his exhortation: (ἀνάγκη ὑποτάσσεσθαι οὐ μόνον διὰ τὴν ὀργήν, ἀλλὰ καὶ διὰ τὴν συνείδησιν), not only for the fear of punishment but also for the sake of conscience. Until this point Paul was asserting that believers should be subject to state authorities, because they are God’s ministers for the maintenance of law and order. Now he adds that this must be done consciously, which means the ability to be critical of what is appropriate, taking into account the existential reality. This verse sums up his argument up to this point. But the actual conclusion and real point of the paragraph comes in 13: 6-7.
In Rom 13:6-7, Paul states exactly how we must conform loyal to the demands of state power: paying taxes. Everything that preceded (13:1-5) actually leads in 13:6-7 to the obligation towards “taxation”. The way this exhortation is phrased suggests that Paul has a specific theme in mind, which follows from the usage in 13:7 of two different terms (φόρος and τέλος, ordinary taxation and extraordinary customs), in contrast to 13:6, which mentions only φόρους (ordinary taxation – λειτουργοὶ γὰρ Θεοῦ εἰσιν εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦτο προσκαρτεροῦντες), namely those taxes, which were collected by government officials.
But the reference to extraordinary customs (τέλη, see also the term τελώνης, publican) in 13:7 is a reference to the extraordinary and indirect taxation (such as, customs, port charges, import and export fees), which were collected by Roman citizens, widely known for exploiting the citizens. The Roman historian Tacitus (Annales 13.50) says that public discontent with the corrupt practices of these “customs” reached a climax in 58 AD. As a result of widespread discontent, emperor Nero decided to abolish them, and to generally reform the empire’s taxation system. In verse 13:7 Paul emphasizes the need for Christians to pay all taxes, to their obligation to all that is owed: ἀπόδοτε οὖν πᾶσι τὰς ὀφειλάς, τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον, τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος, τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον, τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν, “pay, therefore, all that you owe, to the tax the tax, to the custom the custom, to the fear the fear, to the honor the honor”).
The epistle to the Romans was written between 55-57 AD, before the Neronian tax reform, urging the Roman faithful to continue paying both the direct tax (13:6) as well as the controversial extraordinary tax (13:7), as a sign of respect for law and order. Supportive of this case is also the ending of the letter in ch. 16. verse 17: Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, σκοπεῖν τοὺς τὰς διχοστασίας καὶ τὰ σκάνδαλα παρὰ τὴν διδαχὴν ἣν ὑμεῖς ἐμάθετε ποιοῦντας, καὶ ἐκκλίνατε ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν, “But I beseech you, brothers, do not get involved in divisions and scandals, but stand steadfast to the teaching that you have learned to do, and avoid all these,”
Rom 13:1-7, therefore, is primarily addressed to a specific situation in Rome in the mid-50s, several years before Paul’s death and before the persecutions of Christians under Nero in the 60s.
Nevertheless, Paul’s thinking about secular state authorities in these verses is by no means original. It is based on the Hellenistic Jewish tradition which he inherited. Paul uses this tradition to counter a particular situation in Rome, because he did not believe that the Christians in Rome should get involved in litigation over the tax issue. And for that reason, the point of discussion is the concluding sentence: ἀπόδοτε οὖν πᾶσι τὰς ὀφειλάς, “do all you owe” (13:7).
The essence of Pauline argumentation is none other than the conclusion, which until recently were not included in the hermeneutic analysis of the verses 13:1-7, i.e. the verses that follow (8-10), which after all they also use the verb ὀφείλετε: μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε εἰ μὴ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν ἀλλήλους. ὁ γὰρ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἕτερον νόμον πεπλήρωκε· τὸ γὰρ οὐ μοιχεύσεις, οὐ φονεύσεις, οὐ κλέψεις, οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις, καὶ εἴ τις ἑτέρα ἐντολή, ἐν τούτῳ τῷ λόγῳ ἀνακεφαλαιοῦται. ἐν τῷ, ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. ἡ ἀγάπη τῷ πλησίον κακὸν οὐκ ἐργάζεται· πλήρωμα οὖν νόμου ἡ ἀγάπη “nothing you should owe to anyone, only love each other. For those who love they fulfill the other law: for thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not murder, thou shall not steal, thou shall not covet, and any other commandment, are recapitulated in loving your neighbor as yourself. In loving your neighbor as yourself you are not led to evil; for love is the fulfilment of the Law”.
In conclusion, Paul does not even seek to emphasize the role of the state authorities, and certainly not to deify them! (See also 1 Cor. 8:5–6, where Paul clarifies that if there are many gods and rulers in the world, there is only one God for us, and one Lord). So, he does not develop any admonition in relation to the secular state authorities; there is also no clear criticism, which would place him contrary to the freedom of the Christian.
The reference to the Hellenistic Jewish tradition should be taken as a case of cultural integration (inculturation) of the Gospel to his contemporary society. Quite characteristic is here mentioning Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who approximately a hundred years after Paul, he invoked exactly this Pauline passage during the moment of his martyrdom. Answering the Roman official, who was to execute him, he emphasized: We have been taught to attribute “ταις αρχαίς και εξουσίαις υπό Θεού τεταγμέναις τιμήν” (we are ordered to honor the authorities under God), but as much as is convenient “μη βλάπτουσαν ημάς” (such that they do no harm us, Martyrium of Polycarp, 10.2). Therefore, the respect one gives to the secular state authorities does not exclude the possibility of dying for their faith, which is worth more than politics or state authorities.
In simple words, Paul contextualizes the Gospel in the area of society, and not of politics. The Church cannot be an interlocutor of politics of power (as the Russian nowadays understand the Byzantine symphonia?), despite her desire to exert direct influence on state affairs and structures. The Church is rather a space for innovative social experiences, a workshop of brother/sisterhood for transformation and interpersonal relationships (see the passage on love in 13:10), especially regarding the weaker ones (more in R. Aguirre Saggio sulle origini del cristianesimo,, Rome 2004, 60-65). Today, at the era of modernity, the historical resonance of the Christian faith should not manifest itself as an effort to make its presence stronger within the frameworks of political power (which is of course organically connected both with repressive as well as economic power). Her witness is connected to the ability to create a network of personal and social alternatives.
St. Paul’s concluding proposition is that neither the Jewish Law, nor the political power, belong organically to the Gospel. Both of them are an outlier containing, almost a frame or package, in the environment of which the Christians live and manifest their own autonomous identity, which derives from the power of the Gospel, and certainly not from the Legal systems or from Politics.
**Petros Vassiliadis is an Emeritus Professor of the Department of Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, President in Honour of the Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES) and of the World Conference of Associated Theological Institutions (WOCATI)