‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, Paul wrote in Romans 13:1, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’. But exactly what does ‘being subject’ mean? Does it mean that Christians must support their governments, however immoral and abhorrent they be? Must Christians serve as soldiers and policemen when the state asks them to, killing in the name of Theresa May or Donald Trump? Not by a long shot, argued John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus. Yoder points out that we need to read Romans 13 in context and not make it the beginning and end of our thinking about the state. ‘There is a very strong strand of Gospel teaching which sees secular government as the province of the sovereignty of Satan’, Yoder argues, beginning his exegesis with the temptation of Jesus, during which Satan claims to have ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor’ to dispose of as he wishes (Matthew 4:9). Similarly, in Revelation 13 the state is pictured as a ‘beast’ that demands worship, makes war, and persecutes believers. Reading Romans 13 along with the rest of the letter, Yoder argues that ‘Chapter 12 begins with a call to nonconformity, motivated by the memory of the mercies of God, and finds the expression of this transformed life first in a new quality of relationships within the Christian community and, with regard to enemies, in suffering. The concept of love then recurs in 13:8-10. Therefore any interpretation of 13:1-7 which is not also an expression of suffering and serving love must be a misunderstanding of the text in its context’. Yoder reads these verses carefully, noting that ‘God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is there place’. Later, he observes that ‘the imperative of 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. … What Paul calls for … is subordination’. Paul was writing to Christians who had no choice over who ruled them, who kept their moral independence and judgement regardless of what the state said, and who were willing to die for their beliefs. Yoder writes, ‘the immediate concrete meaning of this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of official Antisemitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination. The call is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government. This is the immediate and concrete meaning of the text; how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill’.
When it was first published in 1972, The Politics of Jesus offered a radical re-reading of the early Church’s political stance based on the best New Testament scholarship of the day. Time and subsequent research has only reinforced many of Yoder’s conclusions. Yoder begins by unpacking Jesus’ own teachings, noting that ‘”kingdom” is a political term’ and that Jesus proclaimed the year of jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), a practice of redistributing wealth that directly challenged the socio-economic structures of His society and ours. In talking about His kingdom, Jesus was calling together a new type of community based on love, not on power. When Jesus states that ‘if anyone does not hate father and mother … he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26), Yoder argues that ‘in a society characterized by very stable, religiously undergirded family ties, Jesus is here calling into being a community of voluntary commitment, willing for the sake of its calling to take upon itself the hostility of the given society’. Jesus didn’t oppose the politicians of His day through violent resistance, but nor did he acquiesce to their demands through quietism. Instead, by refusing to imitate their norms and be caught up in their system, He went to the cross and submitted to their authority by dying under it. ‘The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom’, Yoder writes, ‘nor it is even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come’.
Just as he read Romans 13 with a eye to context, Yoder also re-reads the ‘Household Codes’ of Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7 to discover that Paul was not trying to institute hierarchy, but was suggesting ways for Christians to live revolutionary lives in a fallen world. He does so by comparing Paul’s codes with patterns of living promoted by first century Stoics. ‘Whereas the Stoic functions of father, friends, brother, and friend are listed one by one’, Yoder says, ‘in the Haustafeln the listing occurs in pairs: both the woman and her husband are spoken to; both the slave and the master’. Christians are defined socially, in terms of their relationships to one another, and not as individuals trying to live up to a personal morality. Whereas the Stoics addressed individuals, Paul addressed groups, suggesting community values and discipline. Moreover, Paul talked to apparently powerless people like slaves as if they had power over their own moral choices. The Stoics thought that only free people could be morally responsible, but Paul argues that these people really were free even if the world couldn’t see it. Paul wasn’t forcing wives to obey their husbands, he was advising them to do so voluntarily as a way of showing their love, just as Jesus showed His love for us by dying on the cross. ‘The term hypotassesthai is not best rendered by subjection, which carries a connotation of being thrown down and run over, nor by submission, with its connotation of passivity. Subordination means the acceptance of an order, as it exists, but with the new meaning given to it by the fact that one’s acceptance of it is willing and meaningfully motivated’. In this and in many other places, Yoder challenges the shallow ways that many of us (myself included) have been reading the Bible. He asks us to listen to what God’s Word actually says about power and authority, not what our governments would like it to say.