Posted by: rogermitchell | June 8, 2011

Undermining the politics of sovereign power

My previous ‘time for action post is now a page in its own right that you can click on above. The suggestions I make there are important and I will add to them as more feedback comes in. So I don’t want to move on from them prematurely. If you have not had a look at them yet, please read, reflect and comment. As I make clear, the action I refer to is an urgent re-engagement with the politics of Jesus for which the Holy Spirit has been preparing and repositioning his ecclesia.

With this in view the next posts will continue to explore this theme by focusing on the notoriously misrepresented exhortations of Paul and Peter to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. My last few days teaching in the Turin prophetic school provided the opportunity to develop and test my thinking on this. I suggest that these familiar passages, so often used in the history of the church to enjoin support for the current political system, in fact mean the very reverse of slavish submission to the dominating powers, and instead represent a massive challenge to us and the underlying political powers of both the apostles’ day and ours.

Paul’s statement covers seven verses and this and the next post will look at them carefully. It begins with the admonition “Every person must submit themself to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom 13:1).

Two things are crucial to understanding this initial statement, and those which follow it, which are not immediately apparent.

The first of these relates to the passage immediately preceding it, which can get obscured by the chapter division, which was not of course in the original. This is strongly reminiscent of Jesus’ sermons on the mount and plain and emphasises the love basis of all behaviour, and how this issues in blessing persecutors and giving food and drink to enemies (Rom 12:10-20).  It culminates in the statement “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). This has the effect of prefacing Paul’s admonition to submit to the ruling powers with the recognition that love draws out persecution, enmity and evil, which it certainly did for Paul on many occasions with regard to the governing authorities. Examples are the times when “the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods” (Rom 16:22) and “the high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth (Act 23:2).

The second point has regard to the passage coming immediately after Paul’s exhortation, which again resonates with Jesus’ teaching and emphasises that love stands behind, and is the fulfilment of, the law (Rom 13:8-9). This, in turn, culminates with the radical conclusion, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilment of the law” (Rom 13:10). It is important to bear in mind that this runs completely counter to the basic law of empire, where the domination of the many neighbours that make up the multitude, for the benefit of the few who constitute the powerful elite, is the rule of the day.

These two passages, which are the clear context of Paul’s statements, have the effect of locating Paul’s understanding of authority firmly in the revelation of Jesus, where authority is emphatically the authority of love and not the authority of Rome or its governing authorities. So it follows that when Paul sets the admonition to submit to the governing authorities alongside the primary authority of God “for there is no authority except from God,” he must be fully aware of the tension that is immediately set up. This tension is clearly not resolved, but rather only increased, by the suggestion that all other existing authorities are established by God.

What is clear, I suggest, is that the statement that “those who resist authority oppose the ordinance of God” refers to resisting the authority of love, and inexorably includes the governing authorities themselves. So if, as we shall explore in the next post, submitting ourselves to the governing authorities is the way that we express the authority of God’s love, then it means that they too are urged to submit themselves to that authority, an obligation that, as we shall see, it is our responsibility to point out to them at the right time if they are failing to do so.



  1. Roger, this is so timely, so critical. We need to be released from so much wrong teaching into right action. Keep on with it – I can’t wait to see the rest. c.

  2. Great post… Some while back I also read some material on the probable irony of the statement of ‘for he does not bear the sword in vain’ as Seneca wrote that Nero could claim for himself the statement ‘with me the sword is hidden.’ If so then Paul is also exposing the lie of the Empire.

    • Thanks for the insight on the sword aspect. I will hope to look at the whole issue of what Paul appears to be saying here in terms of Jesus’ attitude and behaviour in the next post in a day or two

  3. Fantastic. Great clarity here, Rog. It will be important to interweve this stuff with the gates of society – time for action indeed!

  4. My own conclusion regarding Romans 13, after struggling with the text A LOT, is that Paul was either wrong or ironical. The one doing good should expect rewards from the authorities, says Paul (verse 3). His own life and the cross of Jesus clearly shows that this is certainly not the case.

    I believe that those upholding the system with weapons (army, police, politicians) is actually our enemies. Hieararchy based upon weapons can never be loving, can never be agape. Love needs to leave the weapons behind, or it will never be real love. The power of the system can never be fundamentally reformed, it needs to be resisted, rejected and ultimately crushed. This, at least, is my view on this as a christian anarchist.

    • Thanks for this serious statement of a christian anarchist position. It’s a privilege to interface with you and your contributions to this blog are very welcome indeed. I think that we are right to struggle with this advice from Paul. I don’t think that hierarchical ranking can ever be loving in any absolute sense, if its the incarnation we are working from. (I do think it is sometimes necessary in some agreed, limited situations where expertise is acknowledged, such as the crew of a boat etc). As I’ve suggested, I think Paul intends for us to struggle with his statements in order to arrive at an understanding of what are crucial issues with huge implications, but that the overall context gives us clear direction. I don’t take the anarchist position myself, although I certainly empathise with it. I will pick up the reference to the sword in the next post over the coming day or two.

      • ok. I´ll keep up reading. It´s very interesting, well written, serious and thought provoking, though at the same time very theologically dense, so to speak, which might narrow the scope of the potential number of readers of your blog, I suppose. Just a reminder.

  5. If this misunderstanding about Paul’s exhortation exists, it has existed from the 1st century. I have been reading the early church fathers and many of them (most of them) support hierarchical leadership starting from Ignatius (c. 35 – c. 107) referring to Paul and the establishing of bishops. As to the submission to authority, the church seems to vacillate between two orientations towards governing authorities depending on what influence those governing authorities operated under. They either allied themselves (for protection) and taught submission to authority or they separated themselves completely (still submitted). Later on, when the church did confront the authorities (as in the Cromwellian years for one example), they adopted the violence of the powers they were attempted to be freed from. Now that ironic but also tragic. So, to me the question arises: “What is the result we hope to gain when we confront and subvert these powers?” Certainly we are not hoping to establish a “Christian nation” even by peaceful means. But, that is what many folks here in America think they are trying to do. How do we avoid the default mindset without providing an example of what we mean. This is what we are trying to wrap our heads around.

    • Thanks for this Lorrie. While it is true that some of the early fathers took a hierarchical view of power and would have interpreted Paul in this way, my own research suggests that this was not the general overall view. The earliest post New Testament writings such as the late second century Epistle to Diognetus clearly emphasise the counter-imperial nature of divine being. The writer describes the One who sent “the very artificer and creator of the universe himself … not as a man might suppose, in sovereignty (tyrannis) and fear and terror … but in gentleness and meekness … not compelling, for compulsion is not an attribute of God.” Tertullian states unequivocally that “Nothing is more foreign to us than the state (republica). One state we know, of which all are citizens – the universe.” Lactantius emphasises that there are no hierarchical categories in his understanding of the creator’s intention. “With him there is no slave or master. Since we all have the same father, so we are all alike his freeborn children. No one is poor in his eyes, except for want of justice; no one is rich except in moral qualities.” He continues to make a direct contrast between divine and imperial power and asserts: “neither the Romans nor the Greeks could sustain justice, since they had so many levels of disparity in their societies, separating … powerless from powerful.” Even Eusebius himself acknowledges that Irenaeus and Dionysius had a very participatory attitude to authority. All of this is indicative of an early Christianity significantly free from obligation to government control, manifesting in a theological freedom of thought that Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan describe in their comprehensive overview “From Irenaeuas to Grotius” as “the elusive logic of the pre-Nicene church.”

      The next post, which I am currently working on and will appear over the next day or two, will hopefully go some way towards answering your question of the point of attempting to subvert and confront the powers.

  6. Can I say Roger that reading your blog is always a challenge and I understand where Jonas is coming from when he say your blog is theologically dense.

    Having said that I can only respond through my own understanding and experience,Pauls challenge to us is that God has placed people in authority and that being true, we must take that into consideration when dealing with them if indeed we need to deal with them.Part of our response to them must be a to remind them of the truth that if they have any authority or power it has been given to them by God.But that need only arises if or maybe when they begin to fall in to the trap that power seems to bring with it, of misusing that power to dominate the weak and the poor.

    Over recent years in our own nation there have been times when that has been needed more than others.If we take the last labour government as an example,its not that they did not need challenged but rather that need increased greatly when they decided to go to war based on a lie.It was at this point the church or body needed to stand against the powers .as we are all called to be peacemakers this overrides any need I may have to submit to them .Rather in the way of the old testament prophets we had a great need to speak out.
    I suggest that yes we do need to both resist and submit dependent and what the powers at be are doing with there God given power. That is why in an earlier comment I suggested we must resist this present power which wants to oppress the poor to pay for the mistakes of the rich and without hesitation we must challenge a group of privileged millionaires who continue to tell us we are all in it together which is clearly a lie based on there desire to bail out those who hold the poor to ransom.
    Timing and the promoting of the spirit, the need for justice and mercy all are crucial in the way we deal with the powers at be.these are battles the we should only take on when led and encouraged by the spirit of God.

  7. Thanks for this Billy, I sometimes think that I am a bit dense! May be that’s why my blog is a struggle to understand sometimes! If I wasn’t so thick I could express things more simply! That said, I think that part of the reason some peolple struggle with the contents of the blog is that it is attempting mindset change in our heads and behaviour change in the world and doing so by targeting corporate mindsets and political structures and so challenges subconscious and unconscious attitudes. So it feels difficult, not so much because of way it is expressed but what it is about.
    In response to your feedback here, I am in agreement with you in the way you paraphrase Paul, and the examples you give of when to challenge government. However I’m suggesting that there may be more overall reasons to be challenging the powers than the specifics of unjust war. The ‘true lies’ are very extensive and need to be exposed. Then we need to know what to do next! So succeeding posts will keep working at this

  8. Thank you Roger. I can’t wait to read what’s next. From what I understand of Tertullian, even though he rejected sovereign states, his tone seems to create more animosity that was necessary between church and state. If Jesus establishes his ministry alongside the powers of this world as an alternative, then what is our ministry to look like. I don’t see it. My search is for a way to engage the world in the loving (but firm) confrontation and subversion. Where do we see it in history and today. I am wondering if the marriage of church and state had it’s beginning even before Constantine? Anyway, can’t wait to read more. I will look for that early post.

  9. This is a very challenging post Roger! I am not sure that I can go along with the suggestion that Paul is being ironic, although that might be an easier interpretive route to take! There is an apocryphal tradition that may have informed Paul (Wisdom 6:1-6). This asserts the idea of all rule, kingship etc. being ultimately validated by the rule of God and, importantly therefore, subject to him and vulnerable to judgment.

    Clearly this is not the same as saying that God personally invests each individual with power and that as a consequence it is our Christian duty to submit to them whatever they say or do. I feel that it is reading too much into this text to use it to criticise (for example) conscientious objection or civil disobedience – the same mistakes occur when we over-apply ‘render unto Caesar’…

    • Thanks Danny. My overall point agrees that all rule is ultimately only valid if validated by God, which certainly appears to be what Paul is saying. But my particular emphasis is that this authority is revealed by the incarnation to be life-laying down love and that there is no other ultimately valid kind. I take this further in the next post and will continue it the one to follow.

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