Romans 13:1-7, Sacred Cow or White Elephant?
Faafetai tele Gatoaitele Savea Sano Malifa for your editorial ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’. Matthew 22:21 that was published online on November 18, 2017.
The art of proof-texting in support of one’s agenda is not new. One of the most commonly used biblical texts has been Romans 13:1-7. Now at face value, it is easy to see why. The text supposedly suggests obedience to all authorities as all authorities are from God. Subsequently, the assumption is every citizen of the State are to submit to the rulers, or those with authority or power in government.
Regardless whether it is at the State level, organizational level, or even communal level, the passage underpins obedience without question. In 1985 for example, addressing a million members of the Zion Christian Church near Petersburg which were primarily blacks, P. W. Botha the President of South Africa at the time draws attention to Romans 13:1-7 saying that:
“The Bible has a message for the governments and governed of the world. Thus we read in Romans 13 that every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God. Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad conduct. Do what is good and you will receive the approval of the ruler. He is God’s servant for your good.”
As seen in this example, Romans 13 is proof-texted to justify an otherwise oppressive regime. There are other examples throughout history. The point is such proof-texting has rendered a rather reckless and irresponsible theology leading to a hermeneutical viewpoint in which the apostle Paul is seen as either naive or totally out of sync with the political reality of society.
And therein lies the dilemma as posited in the title of this piece. Using a term coined by Victor P. Furnish in his book, “The Moral teachings of Paul” (1985), the question is whether Romans 13 is to be considered a Sacred Cow or White Elephant.
These are two opposing views of Paul’s teachings. The Sacred Cow sees Paul’s ethical teachings as directly from God, thus, to be treated as sacred as they are directives from God. White Elephant on the other hand suggests that Paul’s teachings are sometimes anachronistic and untenable in modern situation.
Given the context in which Romans 13 has been used in the ongoing debate on taxation of church ministers, it is reasonable to conclude that both sides have merits.
The Church on one hand is to obey the civic law and pay taxes as part of its obligation as good moral characters and citizens of Samoa. On the other hand, there is a sense that perhaps the government is forcing undue burden on the church members and henceforth the rest of society.
Without getting into the merits of taxation, I wish to highlight a third element, much to do with the complexity surrounding the nexus between the Church and State.
For years now, relations between the Church and State in Samoa have always been cordial and respectful. Buoyed by the concept of “feagaiga” there was also a sense of a clear demarcation between Church and State.
This demarcation is no longer evident with the recent turn of events. First the recent constitutional amendment that defines Christianity within the Samoan Constitution creates a whole different dynamics in the relation between Church and State.
Second and more recent, the taxation of church ministers suggests that perhaps the Church has an even more important role to play in the political, social and economic well-being of the people.
Rather than staying above the fray of politics, it is perhaps warranted that the Church finds its voice in the affairs of government for the sake of the people. How this is played out is up to the powers that be.
Yet, given the fact that the Government of Samoa is a one-party system, there is a greater need to fill the void created by the lack of a democratically viable institution for deliberations. A single-party system undermines the integrity in the legislative process, making it untenable for good policymaking.
Understandably, there are obvious sentiments that it is not the Church’s role to engage in politics, a valid point nevertheless. But perhaps also it is time to consider that Paul was not apolitical contrary to what many believed. He was a product of a hybrid world - Jewish, Greek, and Roman. As such, his rhetoric is ambiguous as he often navigates the intricacies of his hybrid world. It may very well be that, as some biblical scholars have argued, Paul in Romans 13 is using double-meaning to say one thing when he actually means something else.
It is not far reaching therefore to presume that if Paul was living in Samoa, he would have very much taken the position that the political process to determine, using Harold Lasswell’s words, “who gets what, when, and how” is largely compromised. For that reason, submission to authorities is unwarranted.