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God is an Anarchist

Romans 13

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Probably one of the more controversial sections of the Christian Bible is within Paul’s letter to the Christians living in Rome. Within that epistle are a few sentences that throughout recent history repeatedly have been used to justify the philosophy of statism. Statists want to use the text to justify their tyranny and anti-statists want to destroy those words because of the implied tyranny.

Probably since the time of Constantine in the 4th century of the modern era — when the Roman emperor adopted Christianity as the “official” state religion, many Christians have interpreted the sentences of Romans 13 as justification for statism and as a commandment to obey statist political rulers — even when statists are violating fundamental human rights. If such an interpretation was justified, then those few sentences would directly contradict the core message of both the Jewish Bible and the rest of the Christian Bible as well (For example, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” — Acts 5:29).

What did Paul mean? Let us first review those well-known and contentious words:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil. Wherefore you all must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay you all tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loves another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

So obey the statist rulers, right?

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Those words of instruction from Paul long have been debated hotly and are contentious, especially when that teaching seems contrary to what Jesus taught and how most of the disciples reportedly acted toward human rulership.

Yet, those words from Paul haunt many people. Many people have attempted to massage Paul’s words to conform to statist beliefs. Yet, to many people Paul’s teaching does not add up when balanced with the remainder of Judeo-Christian teaching. Can the conflict be resolved?

A straightforward reading of the Biblical texts reveals that at no time has the God of the Bible initiated a human political system where humans rule other humans. Those texts reveal that God encourages self-government and self-responsibility. In short, God encourages anarchy and the reported acts of Jesus affirm that philosophy.

Because of these various interpretations, many Christians and other people have been confused about how to respond to statism. However, there are no contradictions. When reading those sentences from Paul with correct perspectives, the instructions from Paul are straightforward and clear. The true problem is churchianity, where people long ago sold their soul to the proverbial bowl of soup known as statism and political power.

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The Biblical texts reveal that the God of the Bible rejects the idea of one human ruling another human. The Biblical texts often teach the straightforward principle of not trespassing. The entire concept of trespass has meaning only within the context of property, including the property of one’s body.

This fundamental principle is found throughout the Jewish and Christian Bibles. The golden rule of Jesus to “love God and to love your neighbor” is the fundamental principle of do not trespass. The Mosaic Law can be summarized into the one law of “thou shalt not steal,” and that is another way of declaring do not trespass.

According to the Biblical texts Paul was a Jew. Judaism was and is a theocratic model of social and legal order. The Mosaic social and legal system, upon which Jewish life is based, never has provided or promoted what is today called an “executive” or “legislative” branch of political society. The Mosaic system was focused on every day human interaction. Moses provided the Hebrews only a set of foundational principles and related laws. Many of those laws were procedural in nature, describing appropriate remedies for various trespasses. Over the centuries many Jewish leaders provided their own interpretations of the scriptural texts. Those interpretations more or less became a part of the Jewish code of conduct, much like court opinions today also become part of a legal code.

The Jewish system of law and order allowed for liberty of action and acknowledged that other belief systems existed, but was strict and rigid with respect to specific actions within the Jewish community. The ancient Hebrews, and Jews of 2,000 years ago, should be considered to have been legalistic in their approach toward life.

Paul would have been no different. Indeed, if the epistles of the Christian Bible are accepted as actual writings from Paul, then those words reveal that Paul was a Pharisee, one of several religious sects of the Jewish faith. Pharisees were overly legalistic in their outlook about their faith, and the words attributed to Paul describe how he personally persecuted the first Christians until his conversion.

Because Jews believed that society and culture were based upon instructions originating from Yahweh God and not from humans, Jews would have recognized no difference between the social, legal, or political systems of their day. Social, legal, and political life were all one and the same. Paul or any other Jew would have had no objection to a legalistic societal order, but only a society based upon God’s word. A Jew’s only objections would have been against who was in charge and from where authority was perceived to have been derived.

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As with many ancient civilizations of that era, Jews would have perceived all forms of law and order as being derived from a higher order, but to the Jew that order was Yahweh God. All of Jewish life was social, political, and theocratic with no distinctions. Although the Mosaic Law provided for no “executive” or “legislative” branch of the social order, because Jews believed in law being derived from Yahweh God, Jews nonetheless accepted within their social and legal order the idea of hierarchy.

According to the Biblical texts the Mosaic Law allowed for a king, but because Moses provided only a set of laws and no foundations for any “executive” or “legislative” avenues, that king was relegated largely to the role of spiritual leader and grand arbitrator and adjudicator.

Similarly, Paul and fellow Jews would have had no issue with some limited forms of wealth redistribution. The Jewish theocratic model outlined three ways for Jews to help sustain certain elements of their social and religious life: 1) the half-shekel tax, 2) the temple tax, and 3) the tithe. However, because the social, legal, and political structure of Jewish life were all one and the same, those mandated payments were religious in nature, not political.

Reading the Biblical text reveals no sanctions or penalties for failing to render a tithe. The text reveals only that failing to tithe would result in withheld blessings.

The so-called temple tax was not provided originally by Moses, but more than likely evolved from subsequent Jewish teachings because the temple was built long after Moses had died. Moses provided only the half-shekel tax, but reading the text reveals the context in which that latter tax was to be collected.

The half-shekel tax applied only to males 20 years of age or older. Second, the shekel originally was not a unit of monetary currency exchange — a coin, but a unit of measuring weight. Thus, a half-shekel payment was a payment in kind from whatever the Hebrews produced from their labor. Third, Moses required that the rich pay no more and the poor pay no less than a half-shekel. Therefore, the tax was not a graduated tax but fixed. In essence that tax was a mandatory head tax, but only for those who voluntarily chose to remain within Hebrew society. Notice that nobody was excused nor was there any graduated payment system. Fourth, the payment was considered an offering for atonement, not a payment for sustaining various religious leaders — that was the purpose of the tithe. Fifth, the half-shekel payments were to be used to physically maintain the tabernacle. At the time of Moses and for many years thereafter, the Jews had no permanent structure or temple for worship, and had only the temporary tabernacle.

How were the Hebrews to sustain their religious leaders? Moses provided the tithe for that purpose. The Hebrew religious leaders and teachers were the Levites, and when the Hebrews reportedly settled the land known as Israel, the Levites were provided no portion of the land. Thus, the Levites depended upon the tithe for sustenance. However, the tithe was completely voluntary.

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With that background Paul’s declaration in Romans 13 becomes less mysterious. Paul would have had no issue with the concept of law and order. Because of his Jewish theocratic background Paul would have believed that all law and order was provided by Yahweh God. Paul would have supported the idea of hierarchy within a societal structure, and that belief would have included limited forms of voluntary wealth redistribution to sustain leaders of the new-found Christian church.

The challenge for both statists and anti-statists is the degree in which Paul’s words can be used to promote their agenda. Statists must realize that there are limits to their interpretation of Paul’s text. Paul did not advocate blind obedience or promote tyranny. Conversely, anti-statists must realize that the Jews did recognize some forms of wealth redistribution, although the purposes of that support was limited in nature.

What becomes more interesting, however, is investigating further into the context of the times when Paul wrote those words. What was Paul actually instructing? Understanding Paul’s focus and reason for living when he wrote that letter provides some valuable clues.

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The cornerstone of Jesus’ message was that all humans are free. No human has standing to rule other humans.

When Jesus answered the Pharisees and Herodians about rendering unto Caesar, Jesus more than likely was declaring covertly that nobody owed anything to Caesar. Caesar represented statism, represented illegitimate rule outside the Kingdom of God, and statists are violators of the fundamental rule of not trespassing. Jesus would not have recognized Caesar or any other Roman as having legitimate standing to rule anyone. Such standing only could come from Yahweh God and anointed rulers.

Likewise, in instructing people to turn the other cheek, Jesus recognized that the usurper was evil and therefore illegitimate. Jesus recognized that everybody is free, but also that there will be challenging moments when some rascals will act otherwise. Turning the other cheek was not an instruction to obey the usurper of Yahweh God’s law, but an act of voluntarily submission to reduce the amount of damage the subjugator might cause. Turning the other cheek was not an act of voluntary enslavement, but an affirmative act declaring freedom and through that declaration, choosing to voluntarily do what the usurper demanded.

According to the Biblical text, when Jesus was confronted to pay the temple tax — a tax not required by Moses, Jesus paid only to avoid conflict, not because he thought he had any duty to pay. Jesus’ conversation with Peter indicates that Jesus’ believed he had no duty or responsibility whatsoever to pay.

Yet, there is more to this puzzle.

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To better understand Paul’s words, a reader should approach Paul’s epistle as a letter. Those traditional chapter and verse numbers tend to cloud contextual transitions. By eliminating chapter and verse numbers, the context of Paul’s letter becomes more clear.

In what is known as chapter 12, Paul is providing instruction and encouragement to live quiet and peaceable lives. As Paul concludes that line of thought he writes:

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is a conversation about living a spiritual life and nothing more. Like Jesus in his instructions about turning the other cheek, notice Paul is recognizing that evil exists, but is encouraging no individual to respond with evil. Yet, there is more.

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Paul’s message to the Roman Christians is a message of pragmatic living. Jesus had no respect for human institutions where humans ruled other humans. According to Jesus, if all humans are created in the image of God, then all humans are equal before God. Human rulership is an oxymoron. The Jewish societal model affirms such a principle because Moses provided no “legislative” or “executive” branch of society.

This opposition toward human rulership is what got Jesus into much trouble with both the Jewish legalists and the Roman political elite, and ultimately saw him executed. Jesus rejected both the political and religious establishments and their illusions of acting under the color of law. Jesus did not reject the people but the illusions upon which their actions rested.

As a follower and disciple of Jesus, why would Paul seem to teach something contrary to Jesus’ original message? Understanding Paul’s message is challenging, perhaps impossible, unless people understand the environment of Paul’s time and what Paul believed.

For people today to use Paul’s message as a foundation to legitimize statism is a distortion of Paul’s message. Jesus taught that all people are free and that political systems are illegitimate; but Paul was not even concerned with that message, Paul was concerned only with Jesus’ imminent return and establishing the Kingdom of God. Paul always is focused on the spiritual aspect of living. Nothing more, nothing less. Remember, Paul was a zealous Jew — a Pharisee, and like many Jews, desperately awaited Yahweh God to restore the Jewish way of life without outside intruders and tyrants.

Students today tend to read Paul’s letters in the order they are packaged in the modern Christian Bible. Thus, people tend to first read the four gospels before they read Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. By first reading the gospels people tend to subconsciously create interpretive foundations before reading Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. There is a problem with such an approach. Paul never had any knowledge of the gospels for the simple reason that more than likely those texts had not yet been written. According to many scholars, the four gospels more than likely were written after Paul’s death. Thus, the only proper way to read Paul’s letters is from a foundation that Paul believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and that Jesus would soon return to earth as Messiah — the Christ.

As the text transitions into the subsequent paragraphs, one realizes that Paul is advocating that the Roman Christians voluntarily and freely submit to church leader rule. The text is not about obeying statist rule, although at times that probably is a pragmatic decision.

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With these foundations, now examine Paul’s words.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.

In Greek, the word soul is psuche (psoo-khay).

Paul did not write every individual, but every soul. Thus, this is a continuation of Paul’s previous text where Paul is speaking within a spiritual context. Paul is continuing his instruction how to live practically but from a spiritual perspective.

In Greek, the word power is exousia (ex-oo-see-ah). Generally, the word means authority. An authority is a subject matter expert. Who would be considered a subject matter expert? Church leaders.

In Greek, the word subject is hupotasso (hoop-ot-as-so). Generally, the word means subordination or submission. Subject to what? The teachings and guidance of church leaders.

Paul is encouraging people to live a quiet and peaceable life. Paul is continuing his encouragement of voluntary action. Thus, Paul is asking the Roman Christians to voluntarily submit themselves to higher authorities — people with superior knowledge.

For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Remember that both Jews and Christians believed all social and legal customs were derived from Yahweh God. Thus, Paul merely uttered a truism. Yet, understanding this sentence is challenging without understanding that the God of the Bible is an anarchist. In other words, the God of the Bible does not initiate human rulership of other humans. That happens only through the corrupt motivations of humans. No statist political system is ever legitimate because God does not create such systems — only humans create such institutions. This is what Jesus said when he told Pilate that Pilate had no standing or power except that which was provided from above — meaning Caesar. God did not create the Roman Empire, humans did. Thus, Pilate had no legitimacy, no genuine standing. Pilate’s power was fiat and illegitimate — an illusion.

The Jewish religious writings reveal that their previous history of kings was filled with much chaos and disorder, and those same texts declare that the disorder was God’s punishment for failing to follow the Mosaic guidelines for establishing a king. The king was supposed to be a spiritual leader and adjudicator, not a political leader.

Yet, Paul’s message is much simpler. Paul is merely teaching the Roman Christians that a hierarchy does exist within the church and they should submit to those leaders.

A challenge with truisms is people will tend to interpret an objective statement in a subjective manner. Thus, some people realize that Paul’s statement is merely an affirmation of fact because the God of the Bible does not create human political systems. Yet, those people who have placed their faith and belief in the philosophy of statism and political processes interpret Paul’s statement as one that justifies statism. That is the subtle power of a truism.

Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

Because of his Jewish background Paul accepts a social hierarchy within the new church. Paul is teaching the new Roman Christians that they should listen to the church leaders.

In Greek, the word for damnation is krima (kree-mah). Generally, the word means judgment, condemnation, or punishment, but in a legal sense. The damnation to which Paul is referring is not from God, but from the church leaders. By reading additional letters from Paul, one realizes that Paul advocated ostracism and excommunication. Thus, those who resist and insist upon creating turmoil within the church body are resisting the hierarchy established by God and are open to appropriate internal reprimands.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.

In Greek, the word for rulers is archon (ar-khone). The word means ruler, commander, chief, or leader. But recall that Paul is providing spiritual instruction. Thus, the context of ruler or leader is within that framework. The reference is not to statist rulers but church leaders.

Paul is reminding the Roman Christians that generally they should have nothing to fear anyway. By following the teachings of Jesus through church leaders they should be able to live quiet and peaceable lives. When they do good works they also will be noticed by others and praised.

In other words, keep your nose clean and you should be fine. You are free in your heart and mind, so act accordingly.

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.

In Greek the word for minister is diakonos (dee-ak-on-os). The word means servant or attendant, specifically one who executes the commands of another or performs menial duties.

Paul is again referring to church leaders as the ones who are ministers. These servants were not directly appointed by Yahweh God, but they still serve the purpose of maintaining social order within the church. Humans commit evil against other humans. Evil against another human is trespass. So don’t return evil with evil. If you respond to evil with evil, the church leaders view your evil as a wrong, and you might be punished for your acts.

What about the word sword? In Greek the word sword is machaira (makh-ahee-rah). The word means small sword or large knife, such as those used for killing animals or cutting meat. If we accept that Paul is providing spiritual instruction, then the word is being used only as a poetic expression embracing the idea of internal discipline within the church by church leaders. Paul is using the word sword much as Solomon used the word rod — an instrument of discipline. For Roman Christians, accustomed to the military environment of that era, the word sword would have more meaning than the word rod.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

Paul declares that church members should submit to avoid internal discipline, but also to help maintain societal order. Live a quiet and peaceable life. If you do, then your conscience will be clear. Yes, you are free, but you demonstrate your freedom by your actions, not by returning evil with evil or trespassing against others.

For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

In Greek the word for tribute is phoros (for-os), and means tax or assessment. The word is used to denote an annual tax levied upon houses, lands, and persons. The Roman Christians would be well accustomed to the idea of coercive taxation, but not to the idea of voluntary charity and tithing. Paul uses the word tribute within the context of a spiritual discussion, however, and the tax or assessment is not a statist tax but a tithing. Paul is teaching the Roman Christians using sentence structure they will understand.

In Greek the word for ministers is leitourgos (li-toorg-os) and means public servants. Such a word would be appropriate for Paul because Paul is trying to teach people how to live a quiet and peaceable life. Part of the Christian doctrine is that each individual should serve others. Do not respond to evil with evil. Instead encourage voluntary reciprocating relationships. From Paul’s perspective, all church leaders must conduct their affairs as servants, not masters. Such a teaching coincides with what Jesus taught that those who want to be the greatest must serve as the least. Such a teaching also is consistent with the Mosaic Law that allowed for a human king, because the Mosaic Law created serious limitations for the king’s actions and duties.

Paul is advocating a payment or tithe to support church leaders. Paul is advising the Roman Christians to support church leaders. There is no duty to pay but only a spiritual obligation.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

Church leaders serve a purpose within the Kingdom of God. Probably the best way to interpret Paul’s message is based upon the truism he uttered. If no human political system possesses legitimacy, then all the words Paul writes are referring only those social systems created by Yahweh God. Because God never creates or institutes a centralized political system, Paul is speaking about the internal hierarchy of the church; much in the same way Jesus responded about paying taxes to Caesar. In other words, Paul was encouraging a spiritual obligation to financially support church leaders. If the church system is legitimate (created by God) then pay appropriate tithes, otherwise don’t pay them.

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Why does Paul believe he must provide instruction to the Roman Christians? The Roman Christians were struggling. They had converted to Christianity and through their new-found beliefs, learned that all humans were free, that no human had standing to rule other humans. This was a radical teaching. Consider the military and political power of the Romans. All people were considered subjects of the Roman emperor. This new concept that all humans are free was repugnant to all practiced teachings of that time and is repugnant to the philosophy of statism. The Roman Christians wanted to be free not only of the Roman yoke but all humans, and believed they should have to obey nobody.

Paul was merely reminding these new Christians that some sense of order is necessary even in the new environment of the church. He was reminding them that church leaders provide an important service within the church and that leaders should be supported out of spiritual obligation, not a political obligation.

After the controversial instructions Paul continues his letter by reminding the Roman Christians how to live a quiet and peaceable life. He recites several of the commandments from the Mosaic Law. Paul reminds the Roman Christians that if they love one another they will be obeying those commandments too; and if they love one another they will not be violating the fundamental rule of not trespassing. More importantly, with respect to the church, they will not be willingly creating conflicts that would result in the wrath of church leaders; and those actions will go far to promote societal order, which helps promote everybody living a quiet and peaceable life, and will help promote the message of Christianity.

These controversial sentences from Paul have nothing to do with statism or political obligation. Paul only provides instruction for maintaining internal church social order and structure.

Paul is teaching the Roman Christians the concept of Christian anarchy. Don’t become a slave to your emotions by fighting evil with evil. Your attitude is what counts. You are free, you know that, so act accordingly. Do not become a prisoner of your emotions.

Paul is not justifying statism. As a disciple, to do so would violate all that Jesus taught. Statism exists, that is a fact of life, but that fact does not provide statism legitimacy. Despite statism’s illegitimacy, live a quiet and peaceable life. The statist rulers likely will wrong you occasionally, but turn the other cheek whenever possible. Do not return evil with evil. Paul is aware that statism has no legitimacy, but that is not the topic he his addressing.

Paul’s plan is the same as any anarchist’s plan. If a sufficient number of people eventually refuse to return evil with evil, then the entire philosophy of statism collapses because there no longer will be a sufficient number of people to keep doing the dirty work! Thus, Paul is advocating a quiet and peaceable life that hopefully encourages others to join the cause.

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After note: The same thought process can be used for Titus 3:1. Also, in 1 Peter 2:13–18, notice that Peter encourages a similar behavior, not to justify statism, but “for the Lord’s sake.” Do not use your God-given freedom to create dissension and conflict, but to promote peace. The teachings were necessary not so much because the early Christians were being persecuted, but because the simple idea that all people were free was an incredibly radical and different idea. Consider that women had long been considered secondary citizens and property, yet through Christianity women were equals. New converts to these teachings thought the freedom and liberty taught by Jesus of Nazareth thereby provided permission for open revolt and revolution, but Paul and Peter were refuting those claims. The revolution Jesus taught was internal — an attitude readjustment and change in perspective. Similarly for Paul’s teaching to slaves. Paul was advocating an attitude of continued service, he was not accepting or condoning slavery. Paul was asking slaves not to use their new-found liberty as a freedom to revolt and cause societal disorder. All of these teachings were merely instructing new-found Christians how to adapt to new situations, and that is all. Return evil with love and heap coals of fire on your adversary’s head. The key point was not to return evil with evil. Learn to use your new-found freedom and liberty in a practical manner, learn to live practically in an imperfect world.

Finis.

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