Pauline Eye Rolls?

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Apostle Paul is rather glad that the resurrection of the body hasn’t happened yet—it means he doesn’t have to worry about sore muscles from all the head shaking and eye-rolling as he observes us mangling and mishandling his writings. I suspect he mostly cuts us a lot of slack, patiently acknowledging how often we are genuinely unaware of our historical, cultural, and linguistic distance from the world in which he wrote. Joel Green describes well the way we often approach our sacred texts: “Reading the Bible today in English, we imagine without a second thought that people in the ancient Mediterranean world experienced life much as we do. Too readily, we stumble over the reality that every reading of the Bible today is in some important sense an exercise in cross-cultural communication and understanding. The result is that we naturally recruit biblical texts in support of our own interests and practices.”[1]

However, I’m guessing Paul is much less tolerant (enter apostolic head shakes and eye rolls) when those lenses of “our own interests and practices” lead us to read his words with a selective or inconsistent hermeneutic. Passages in Paul, especially the “difficult” texts, are read and applied one way when it suits our interests, ideologies, or agendas, but turned on their heads, ignored, or argued away when they confront those same interests, ideologies, or agendas. A blatant example of this over the past couple years has been “the government passage,” Romans 13:1–7 (and its parallel from another apostle, 1 Peter 2:11–17). Both passages have been used (vociferously!) in the religio-political discourse of our nation, but the thing that strikes me is how inconsistently they have been employed. For example, in recent days, many of the very same voices—both individual and institutional—that raise Romans 13 as an accusatory condemnation of those who engage in the right of peaceful protest against matters of injustice like police brutality, racial profiling, and the restriction of voting rights, are now declaring their own right to protest and even litigate (which raises a whole other set of hermeneutical questions!) against the perceived injustice of mask or vaccine mandates.

Now, I’m going to say right up front that I am still working through the interpretation of these two passages, discerning what they meant for first-century readers living under imperial power and their contemporary implications for believers living in a representative republic. I suspect that these passages will press us in some uncomfortable ways, just as they likely did to our brothers and sisters in the early church. But what really concerns me here is the hermeneutical strategy (conscious or otherwise) that allows such inconsistent application of the two passages. We must do the brutally honest self-evaluation (as individual believers and as faith-based institutions), under the laser light of the Holy Spirit, to discern if and how our reading of Scripture is driven by pragmatism, personal preference, and the supremacy of “personal rights” in contemporary Western culture. This is important, because the Romans 13/1 Peter 2 example is only one case of how this kind of interpretive strategy gets applied to the biblical writings. My plea is that we do the hard and prayerful work of “cross-cultural” reading—perhaps best done in the company of brothers and sisters from other traditions and other perspectives; then, once we have discerned as a community what the “universal principles” are in these specific texts, let us remember that those principles are what should consistently shape our response to the socio-political challenges that surround us, no matter whether these challenges come from the left or the right.

As I said, I’m still working through the interpretation of Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:11–17, so what follows is a kind of “thinking out loud” in the company of Paul and Peter and their first-century readers. These are textual and contextual matters that seem to me to be clearly visible in the two passages, matters that must be taken into consideration as we try to draw out the over-arching principles at work in the text. First, there is the matter of context—where these passages occur in their respective letters and what communicative purpose they serve at that point. The instruction to “be subject to the governing authorities” in Romans 13 is part of the larger unit, Romans 12–16, which Scot McKnight has argued persuasively is the point of the whole letter, “the theological life of Romans.”[2] The interpretive key to this unit is Romans 12:1–2, with its call not to be conformed to this age, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, for the express purpose of discerning what is God’s will, described as “that which is good, acceptable, and perfect” (NRSV). This overarching imperative is followed in the rest of the unit by a series of specific ethical instructions about how to live out a transformed life shaped by God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will, both within the Christian community and in relationship to the surrounding culture. Romans 13:1–7 is one set of those specific instructions about how believers are to live in the world, and it is framed quite strikingly by two pithy and powerful summary statements: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21) and “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (13:8).

In a strikingly similar fashion, Peter’s instruction to “accept the authority of every human institution” (2:13) is found in a larger section (2:1–3:22) in which the apostle is showing his readers what “holy living” (1:15–16) looks like, both inside the Christian community and in relationship to the surrounding culture. The imperatives are addressed to the people of God (2:9–10), whom Peter repeatedly characterizes as “aliens and strangers” in relationship to the culture around them (1:1, 17; 2:11). In 1 Peter 2:11–3:7, the apostle’s interest is in how Christians live honorably as doers-of-good in the midst of the empire (2:12, 14, 15), the kind of life that will silence the slander of hostile watchers and bring glory to God. Given this purpose, it is likely that Peter’s repeated insistence that Christians be doers-of-good in their cultural context indicates a level of “good deeds” that goes beyond what society itself might expect or demand, something that would stand out as exceptional.[3]

What about the details within the passages themselves? I notice at least four specific ways in which Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians and Peter’s counsel to believers in Asia share significant commonality. First, in both passages, the highest authority is God himself, who is clearly over the human rulers (Rom 13:1, 4; 1 Pet. 2:13, 17). In both cases, submission to the human authorities is rooted in believers’ relationship to God and in a context of witness to the world.

Second, both Peter and Paul assume that human rulers, who have their authority only by the greater authority of God, will act justly, rewarding the good and punishing evil (Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14). This cannot be explained away as simple naivete, since both writers had personal experience of the opposite! Craig Keener’s assessment is probably correct here, as he comments on Peter’s clear expectation that even good-doing Christians face the possibility of suffering at the hands of society and its authorities: “Peter offers a strategy rather than a promise; he is aware that believers may suffer, but he urges that it is better to suffer as a good-doer than as a wrongdoer.”[4]

Third, in both passages the apostles seem to have in mind the office or institution of ruling or governing, rather than any specific human who fills that role. In Romans 13:3, Paul mentions “the authority”; Peter speaks of “the institution” (2:13, NRSV), which is literally “the created thing.” This again puts the emphasis squarely back on the Creator, the true Giver of authority.

Finally, both passages conclude with aphorisms that could be summed up as “give to each his or her due,” both using a key pair of words: “fear” (reverence, respect) and “honor.” Paul generalizes: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7). Peter specifies: “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor (king)” (1 Pet. 2:17). In Peter’s version, “honor” forms a frame around the inner imperatives; the frame relates to Christians’ attitudes to the larger culture (with the emperor just a specific example of “everyone,” rather than a special, privileged category!), while the inner elements relate to the Christian community. It is significant that the apostle does not exhort believers to fear (reverence) the king, an action that would have been associated with the worship of the emperor that was prevalent in the region; in consistent step with the biblical tradition, only God is to be feared (worshiped).

Each of the two passages is worthy of an even deeper dive; these happen to be the surface-level observations that have captured my attention. I’m still pondering both the interpretation (what did this mean for the original readers in the Roman and Asian imperial contexts?) and the contemporary application (what does it mean for 21st-century American believers?). I’m leaning towards thinking that Karen Jobes’ summary of 2 Peter 2:11–4:11 is probably a pretty good assessment of the underlying principles in both Peter’s and Paul’s words: “Peter is calling his readers to recognize that they are living in an alien place that has different values and practices than those appropriate for God’s holy nation. To live rightly in such a place, the apostle gives his readers two major principles of engagement: (2) their allegiance to God in Christ does not exempt them from submitting to pagan authority, and (2) they must maintain their identity as God’s holy people and consequently be prepared, if necessary, to suffer unjustly and without retaliation for holding to their convictions and values as followers of Jesus Christ.”[5] You, dear reader, may survey the evidence and come to a differing conclusion. But what neither of us gets to do with our conclusions is put them at the service of ideologies and preferences, letting the latter shape the applicability of the former. Let us be honest and humble in our approach to these texts, letting the Holy Spirit speak formatively to us through the voices of the two great apostles. May we not be the cause of apostolic eye rolls!

[1] Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 9–10.

[2] Scot McKnight, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 136.

[3] Cf. Karen Jobes, 1 Peter, ECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 175.

[4] Craig S. Keener, 1 Peter: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021), 171.

[5] Jobes, 165.

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