Conversation: Paul and King–Mission, the Powers and Nonviolence

In the seminary class Pauline Theology and Ethics, 40% of our grade is class participation, which includes both in-class conversation and postings on an online forum. Below is a conversation two of us had about Paul and King, submission and civil disobedience (see references for class reading at the end). The week’s topic was Paul and the powers.

Jeff: How are believers and the collective church to relate to the powers—the prince of the air and worldly governmental authority?

In the first of his “powers” trilogy, Walter Wink looks at the various words the Bible (especially Paul) uses for the powers (Naming the Powers, pp. 13-35). Wink concludes that the language for principalities, rulers, authorities and powers “is imprecise, liquid, interchangeable, and unsystematic” (p. 9). Furthermore the “Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural” (p. 11). However, to the degree that we are able, we must consider the two types of powers as discrete in some way in order to make comprehensible Paul’s admonitions about how Christians should relate to each.

Regarding governmental authority, the portion of Paul’s writing that most directly speaks to this is found in Romans 13:1-7. It follows that this pericope is addressed in significant detail in this week’s reading (Elias, pp. 453-466; Harink, pp. 132-146). In short, Romans 13:1-7 states:

  • Every[one] should be subject to the governing authorities;
  • The authorities that exist have been established by God;
  • Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong;
  • The one in authority is God’s servant for your good;
  • Those who do wrong should be afraid of the ruler’s sword;
  • Rulers are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on wrongdoers;
  • Everyone must to submit to the authorities; and
  • Everyone must pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.

Three things especially stand out to me here. First, the definition of “be subject to” is important. Paul was in prison at the time of this writing. Clearly, he had run afoul of the authorities; he was not merely being a quiet citizen. No, his Christianity got him in trouble, which was consistent with his model, Jesus Christ. So why would he tell others to obey the government when he himself must have been doing something unacceptable? John Howard Yoders and others make it clear that there is an important difference between “obeying” and “being subject to/submitting to.” “It is not by accident that the imperative of 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based upon the same root as the ordering of the powers of God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, pp. 208-209). This also reminds me of the civil rights movement in the United States. The activists purposefully broke what they viewed as unjust statutes, and then they willing endured the consequences. This revolutionary subordination put on display for the country what was going on in the South, which eventually led to both changed hearts and changed laws.

Second, God uses the governments’ sword to check crime and lawlessness. The government may be fallen—this is oppressive Rome after all—but it still plays a role in God’s purposes.

Third, the use of the sword by the state is a role that contradicts God’s call on Christians as expressed directly before and after these verses in Romans 13. For example, disciples are called to love and bless others regardless of how they are treated:

  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (12:14).
  • “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (12:17).
  • “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink’” (12:19-20).
  • “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).
  • “…whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (13:8).
  • “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (13:10).

In contrast to these teachings in Romans 13, Paul is clear that there is in fact a war going, but it is with a different power, a force other than the state—the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). Paul tells us that we are actually fighting unseen powers. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). “The battle to be fought is an apocalyptic one, not against humans but against the devil and the cosmic powers of evil” (Gorman, p. 526).

To prepare for this battle, we are to dress in “the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil…. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:11, 13).

Paul describes this spiritual armor: “Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:14-17; NASB has those all-caps words). Taking up this armor “is to take up God’s cause and do battle in God’s cosmic campaign to spread righteousness throughout the world” (Gorman, p. 527).

These war metaphors are unlike anything Paul describes when addressing questions about political governance. There is not talk of subordination now. Instead, there is a cosmic fight, and believers (and together as the body of the church) have a part to play.

Classmate: Very intersting post! I have a question: Do you think that Paul’s vision (or Yoder’s) of “radical subordination” comports with the political intentions and objectives of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement? As I understand it, the civil rights movement was political in nature and would be better characterized as one of insubordination through the means of non-violence. The intention of the civil rights movement was to challenge a corrupt system which seems to run counter to Yoder’s view of revolutionary subordination.

Your thoughts?

Jeff: Good questions. Let me venture a response from 3 different angles, and then I’d like to hear what others think.

First, I think a certain reading of “Revolutionary Subordination,” “Let Every Soul be Subject,” and “The War of the Lamb” in The Politics of Jesus can be consistent with his other writings and the civil rights movement. That “certain reading” is what I attempted to describe above. smile We submit to authorities, but we do not obey them when they make laws we cannot adhere to. Then we willingly receive the punishment because we submit to this power. Yoder’s endorsement of King and Gandhi in The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Ch. 13, “The Church and Change), makes me think they were in line with his ethical understanding, even though in The Politics of Jesus he stresses the faithfulness, obedience and submission aspects of following Jesus. For instance Yoder did care about results, but that is seen more in The War of the Lamb than in The Politics of Jesus. IMHO. smile

Second, this idea of not obeying every authority is established in other parts of scripture, and I presume there is not a conflict between Romans 13 and Acts 5:29 (“Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!'”). So I interpret these verses and Yoder to mean more or less Do what is right even if it is illegal, but take the consequences rather than try to overthrow the authority.

Third, this foregoing description is what I see in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr wrote in Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience (pagination from A Testament of Hope):

“…it is as much a moral obligation to refuse to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good. Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as the cooperation with good. So that the student movement is willing to stand up courageously on the idea of civil disobedience” (p. 48).

“Therefore the individuals who stand up on the basis of civil disobedience realize that they are following something that says that there are just laws and there are unjust laws. Now, they are not anarchists. They believe that there are laws which must be followed; they do not seek to defy the law, they do not seek to evade the law…. And I submit that the individual who disobeys the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until that law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for law” (p. 49).

“The early Christians practiced civil disobedience in a superb manner, to a point where they were willing to be thrown to the lions. They were willing to face all kinds of suffering in order to stand up for what they knew was right even though they knew it was against the laws of the Roman Empire” (p. 50).

I’ve probably diverged too far since your question was about Yoder, not Peter or King, but I felt a need to bring them together. Others, how do you see Yoder on these topics?

Jeff (again): This article by Walter Wink could play into the conversation if we try to connect dots from Jesus to Paul to King to Yoder — Christian Nonviolence,

Classmate: I appreciate the Kong quotations-very helpful! I have actually been some of King’s writings lately (Where Do We God from Here and The Measure of a Man). I am both a supporter of the REvolutionary War as well as the civil rights movement, but what I see so challenging in Yoder’s concept (or Paul’s concept) of “radical subordination” is that it sems to undermine both. The civil rights movement was about changing the “system” using the method of non-violence and civil disobedience as its key political strategy. The early Christian martyrs practiced civil disobedience, but their aim was to spread the gospel and not to change the “system.” The early Christians were not trying to end slavery, fight for women’s rights or slave rights, etc (all of these would be considered “evil” an unjust by King). The civil rights movement used non-violence and civil disobedience as a means to an end- social change-whereas the early Christian’s “civil disobedience” was an in itself-preaching the gospel. MLK was concerned about social and political justice (“power”) and not necessarily the spreading of the gospel (although he certainly did that too!). In chapter 2 “Black Power” of Where Do WE Go from Here King writes, “In his struggle for racial justice, the Negro must seek to transform his condition of powerlessness into creative and positive power. One of the most obvious sources of this power is political.” To me this seems to be a little different than the goals and aims of the early church. Would Paul advocate civil disobedience as a method for political change? I am wondering how Yoder’s concept of “revolutionary subordination” would answer this.

very interesting discussion!

Jeff: Good morning. Here’s my second attempt at a response [first was lost when nearly finished].

[Name], it sounds like we agree that civil disobedience was practiced by both Paul and King (obey the government until it contradicts God, and then carry right on doing what God would want; as described in Acts and Romans, obey God rather than man and accept the penalty as shown in Jesus, the disciples/martyrs, and even Daniel 6:10-13). However, the way you see Paul describing submission makes it hard to see how the civil rights movement could fit Paul’s paradigm because one attempted to build peace and justice at the societal level and the other aimed at spreading the gospel. No? “The civil rights movement used non-violence and civil disobedience as a means to an end–social change–whereas the early Christian’s ‘civil disobedience’ was an [end] itself–preaching the gospel.”

Let me go about explaining how I see Paul and King as congruous from three different angles [again]—(1) individual missions, (2) definitions of gospel and peace, and (3) social location/capability/responsibility.

First, I concede that what Paul and King were doing looked very different from each other (besides the obvious common actions of traveling, preaching, training, writing and forming local organizations). They were focused on different topics. But I want to rephrase what the focus for each was, what they’re individual missions were. For now I want to avoid the term “gospel” since I think it’s a term needing to be unpacked (see part 2). For now, I’ll say that I see Paul as a church planter with the mission of building worshiping communities of Jews and Gentiles together. Virtually everything I see him doing revolved around this—how to build new communities in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, how to live and worship rightly, how to bring different people groups into the one body of Christ.

And I would like to describe King as working to build racially integrated communities, bringing different people groups into one body in Christ and into one nation of equals, no longer separate (especially during our most segregated hour of the week). If King had only done this in the religious community, we would say he was completely in line with Paul while not identical to him, but once we move to the public sphere we are opening up new issues and questions that are quite different.

So the two men were different in that Paul planted churches and King did not and Paul only focused on the church while King also focused on society. And they were similar in that both worked to bring disparate people groups together, both defied governments and their cultures in their preaching and actions, and both paid the price in the form of abuse, imprisonment and untimely deaths.

Second, since I avoided using the term “gospel” above, I want to consider the meanings of gospel, peace, and justice/righteousness. Gospel is good news, simple enough. What is the good news? Jesus as God and man walked the planet, died on the cross, lives again, and is ready to forgive us if we repent, which opens eternal life. I think that’s a fairly orthodox statement; more or less. And Jesus’ kingdom has been inaugurated, and we are citizens today. And in the cross we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20) and to each other (Eph. 2:14-16). This is the “Gospel of Peace” (Eph. 6:15)—harmony with God and humanity. So I want to say that both Paul and King were spreading the “gospel of peace.” They each had a different focus, corresponding in my mind to their place in God’s grand story, but the overall mission of embodying and promoting the gospel of peace was quite similar—harmony with God and people. To bring an SDA voice into the conversation, drawing on the example of Jesus our earliest major leader taught that service to humanity is central to the gospel of peace: “Much more than mere sermonizing is included in preaching the gospel…. The union of Christlike work for the body and Christlike work for the soul is the true interpretation of the gospel” (Ellen White, Review and Herald, Mar. 4, 1902 in Welfare Ministry, pp. 32-33).

For the sake of “brevity,” I should refrain from exploring in much more detail how I see peace and justice/righteousness as critical to the mission of Jesus and Paul, but I do want to say that I think we are overly reducing Jesus to an otherworldly sphere if we miss that his Way can bring peace to this planet in very real terms. We can’t reduce Jesus to only bringing peace “to our hearts.” His way brings peace when followed (the past 100 years have shown us this all around the world), and it brings destruction in very concrete ways when it is not (Luke 19:41-44). He told us how we were created to function—“Use this motor oil or your car is going to break down; no, olive oil is not good enough.” Jesus doesn’t bring peace as the Romans/the world did. They killed for peace; Jesus died for it. Control versus love. Roman law and punishment versus the Sermon on the Mount/Plain.

Third, I want to consider the differences between King and Paul in light of my belief that they were both spreading the gospel. What are we to think of the difference between “church” work and “secular” work for peace and justice? Was King out of harmony with Paul’s guidance because King had a broader engagement with society? They were not identical, to be sure, but were they contradictory? Again, we must remember that Paul did not say to obey government, but rather to submit to it. Did King try to avoid or diminish the authority of the government? I believe he did not, but rather he helped it live up to its highest ideals of liberty, freedom and justice for all. For instance, he called our nation to push on for the fulfillment of the American Dream. “For in a real sense, America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers [and sisters]. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream” (“The American Dream” in A Testament of Hope, p. 208; gender equality language added). His goal was not to bring down this government, but to help the nation live up to its stated values, to follow its dream to reality. He was not insubordinate by this reasoning.

Paul never says, “Do not engage society.” True, his mission was not to try to directly change society at large, but nothing in his writing as far as I can see says that Christians should not attempt in word and action to influence culture and society. In fact, I think there are seeds of just the opposite. King did not try to overthrow a government; he tried to influence culture to take it’s own self-description seriously, while also drawing heavily on the Christian faith to help Christians see the moral and spiritual dimensions of the work for peace and justice.

Now, admittedly, Paul never talks about changing laws. He never had direct political action in mind, as far as I can tell. There was no reason to; his was a minority movement (Christianity) growing out of a minority tradition (Judaism)—a minority of a minority. They had virtually no influence on the power structures of the vast empire of his day. His focus was to plant seeds (churches) that would grow and embody the biblical teachings throughout Scripture. Paul didn’t need to cover every topic because people had the Jewish writings plus the oral stories and fragmentary written pieces describing Jesus. He didn’t need to repeat this; he needed to supplement it for his particular mission, or piece of God’s mission (described above).

The Bible teaches we are responsible to use what we have, not what we don’t have (Matt. 25:14-30; 1 John 3:16-18; Acts 3:1-10). Paul had no viable options for confronting Rome. God had another purpose for Paul—get the ball rolling. King, however, had significant power and influence in a pluralistic society that had quasi-representative, semi-democratic government—“of the people, by the people, for the people.” He had a responsibility to use what he had for God’s purposes in his day and social context. I believe he did this in harmony with the prophets, Jesus, Paul and the early church. It was not identical to them, but complete replication of others’ work is not the mark of true discipleship. We are each given different abilities, gifts and passions to be used for God in our day and in our circle of influence. I believe both Paul and King did this—advancing the kingdom of God despite significant pushback from the authorities who had very different priorities and values. Both Paul and King used the soft power of authentic living and subordination rather than the hard power of violence and insurrection. His soft power brought out the evil use of other’s hard power. In these ways I see King as consistent with Paul, and I hope I will be true to this tradition in my own little way.

I’ll close with an artistic look at Jesus and King—A Picture of Jesus (Ben Harper).

To summarize, Paul focused on planting and growing new congregations, while King brought the values of the Kingdom to bear on society within his sphere of influence, yet both Paul and King (a) were ministers of the gospel who spread the gospel of peace, (b) attempted to bring together different people groups, (c) used the power of word and deed, but not violence, (d) submitted to the authorities of their day, and (e) paid the price for their efforts with their lives.

FINAL NOTE (not in the actual conversation): I should have also referred to Chapter 5, “The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance” in Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.



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