«ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
☼ THURSDAY April 15 2021
the importance of context: romans 13
I have to give credit to Kurt Willems for this post: The following is essentially a summary from one of his podcasts. Check it out here.
Let's take a quick look at Romans for an example of how understanding the context of a biblical passage can change its theology.
In 49CE, Emperor Claudius kicked all the Jews out of Rome. After he died, the following emperor, Nero, rescinded the ban and welcomed Jews back into the capital. But those Jews entered a religious environment now dominated by Gentiles.
These Gentile believers became arrogant, reluctant to share leadership with the incoming Jewish believers. They began mistreating their Jewish believing brothers and sisters—excluding them, ignoring them, persecuting them, etc.
Paul hears about this discord and he writes a letter to essentially scold the Gentile believers—this is the book of Romans.
Paul reminds them that if anything, the Gentile believers are secondary to the Jews since they are but a wild shoot grafted onto the vine that is Israel. But anyway, Paul argues, Jesus has removed all those labels and statuses because the Kingdom of God established through Jesus is a kingdom of radical racial and gender equality—an across the board equality of which the ancient world had not known. The book of Romans after all is a treatise on unity within the diversity of community.
By the time we've reached Romans 13—the 'government chapter'—Paul is basically telling these Gentile believers they're acting like pompous Roman nationalists when they try to subjugate their brothers and sisters as inferior. And he tells them if they continue to mistreat their brothers and sisters in the manner of Roman oppressors then God will use the Roman government against them and treat them in the same way they've treated the Jewish believers.
Read in its context, Romans 13 paints a totally different moral than the 'obey the government' story traditionally preached. Paul is not at all pushing a 'fall in line with authorities' philosophy. Instead, he is asking the Roman believers 'How are you embodying the Kingdom of God?' And he is warning them that if they are not embodying the Kingdom then the authorities will not bear their swords in vain.
In other words, Paul encourages the Roman believers to live in such a way that the governing authorites have no reason to use the sword against them. The authorities are positioned by God to police but the believers are better than that because they are freed to use the way of love—the governing authorities are allowed by God to use the sword but the followers of Jesus are to use the way of love.
Live above reproach, Paul tells them. Live the way of Jesus so that when the Romans do bear their swords against them—and we know from history that soon after they would—it will be to expose their corruption and injustice.
This reading aligns so much more with what Paul teaches in his other letters: that our behaviour should match our loyalty to Jesus. That is, if we claim Jesus as Lord we have to act like it—and in this case it means treating everyone as equals, no exception. And if we don't, we may have to face divinely sanctioned consequences (the way Israel did at the hands of foreign powers when they failed to uphold their part of the Covenant).
This reading not only aligns better with Pauline teachings but it also follows more closely the trajectory of the Israelite prophets.
Context is important. ✤