Stoner, John


Stoner JohnIt's hard to be believe how little attention Christians give to Jesus simple, straightforward command (teaching or instruction) "love your enemies."  A person has to wonder how Jesus himself feels about this failure of his followers to take him seriously on such a central teaching of his ministry.

LKW: It gave me food for thought when my chiropractor (a very devout church-goer) expressed his disagreement to the message, when I wore my "bumpersticker T-shirt" for an office visit. He indicated that he firmly believed that, when our government says, "Go to war," that's what we, as good Christians, are supposed to do. He based this upon Romans 13. I asked if he'd be willing to consider another viewpoint on those scriptures, and later gave him John Stoner's powerful interpretation of those passages, in his "Every Church a Peace Church" newsletter:

(And, whether or not we ever become like-minded on this issue, I'm content to just plant the seeds....!)


Romans 13 Instructs Christians to Submit to the Government

by John Stoner


But doesn't Romans 13 provide absolute justification for homicidal violence--for going to war at the call of the government?

Romans 13 begins with the words "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...." It includes the words "the authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer." Even though this is Paul speaking, not Jesus, who never said these things, and whose central message was the reign of God as a challenge to the reign of all other powers, Christians since the time of Constantine and Augustine have used these sayings to argue the case for justified war.


Here are four foundational considerations which, as I see it, decisively refute the authority for homicidal violence which these few verses of the Bible have been thought to provide.


1. Scriptural Context , Part One.

The verse which immediately precedes Romans 13 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." The larger preceding and following context (Rom. 121-1310) is entirely about self-giving love as the essential mark of Christian discipleship. The verse which ends the larger context says, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." These thoughts and sentiments are as contrary as imaginable to the cruelty, destruction and mendacity of war.


2. Historical Context

The "powers that be" or "governing authorities" of whom Paul spoke were the oppressive, persecuting Roman government authorities who had no kind relationship with Paul and his Christian readers. Therefore, whatever Paul says about submission to government authorities is said about submission to tyrannical, undemocratic governmental authorities. Honest historical parallels today would be governments or heads of state like China, Cuba, Iraq or even Afghanistan, Castro, Saddam or the Taliban. This is shocking, but true. Seen this way, in serious, honest historical context, Romans 13 is Paul's discussion of the "hardest case" for Christians, the acid test of whether they could feed their hungry enemies, and overcome even this evil of oppressive "powers that be" with good. If this makes the case for going to war, it makes the case for going to war under the flag of Hitler and Saddam. 


3. Scriptural Context , Part Two

The chapter and verse divisions of Scripture are editorial constructs added long after the writings were written. The chapter break between Romans 12 and Romans 13 is probably the most mischievous and misleading chapter break in the Bible, leading people falsely to think that Romans 13 can stand alone as a teaching on how to relate to government without reference to how to live as a Christian whose authoritative guide for behavior in the world is Jesus' teaching of "agape" (love of friend and enemy) love. Romans 13, in context, is an illustration of what it means to love the most oppressive of enemies, the persecuting state, sandwiched between comprehensive teachings on love as the fulfilling of the law. 

4. Interpret Paul by Jesus

Over the years, Christians have struggled to see how everything which Paul says can be made consistent with everything which Jesus says. Without exaggerating the differences, honesty compels us to say that there are at least apparent differences sometimes between Jesus and Paul. What does a follower of Jesus do when they find even an apparent difference, or contradiction? Common sense says, since we call ourselves Christians, not Paulists, we give the benefit of the doubt to Jesus. This goes against, I readily admit, a powerful Christian tradition (notice, tradition, that's all it is, a tradition) that Paul interprets Jesus for us. No, the Holy Spirit interprets Jesus for us, and Paul makes his contribution along with all other interpreters of Jesus. To use the language of the street, Paul has "trumped Jesus" for way too long in the mainline church, and the church will not get back on track until it puts Jesus where he belongs, above Paul.