Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 8

Paul’s poor advice on good citizenship

When I was growing up in rural Indiana in the years following World War II, one of our primary sources of news was The Indianapolis Star. Its masthead included a quote from the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 3:17: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” This allowed us to infer that Paul had been a champion of freedom—and yes, even of democracy itself; Paul was on our side. But that’s not quite what Paul had in mind. In this text he compares the new spirit bestowed by Christ to the letter of the old law that kills: that is the liberty/freedom Paul was talking about.



But laypeople—even those who publish big newspapers—seldom dig deeply into the context of scripture, especially those parts of it that flowed from the mind of Paul. His letters are not easy to read, although bits and pieces stand out as feel-good verses, e.g. “love is patient and kind,” and “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” But it is a misreading of Paul to think that he contemplated various forms of human government, let alone that he favored democracy. It was Paul’s passionate belief that Jesus would soon arrive on the clouds to establish his kingdom; all human regimes would be eliminated. 


Moreover, in the meantime, Paul was certain that all existing governments had been put in place by God, as he states in Romans 13. Christians have to deal with this shocking chapter, surely one of the biggest blunders in the New Testament; in fact there are several embarrassments here. The chapter opens with this declaration:


“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)


We have to wonder if Paul was clueless about history. “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Was he just not paying attention? Of course this would be no surprise since he was so obsessed with religion and consumed by his visions (= hallucinations) of Jesus. We now know enough about history—which Paul didn’t even see coming—to dismiss his optimistic view of rulers. Hitler and Stalin come to mind. And of course, Christian monarchs who claim the “divine right of kings” have appreciated this text. Christians who despised Obama would have to explain why, according to Paul, God had put him in the White House: and why would Trump have been defeated if he was still in God’s favor? 


No one who cherishes modern democracy can endorse Paul’s view that those who resist government authority will “incur God’s judgment.” Or his declaration in verse 5: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Paul was big on God’s wrath, which we can avoid by remaining submissive to those in authority. This is alien to the way we practice good citizenship. 


But this chapter seems to reveal far more than Paul’s shallow understanding of history. We wonder what he knew about the history of Jesus. Paul’s very skimpy knowledge of Jesus has been a much-debated topic in New Testament scholarship. Some devout scholars argue that there was robust oral tradition about Jesus in circulation in Christian communities in the decades before the gospels were written. But if that was so, why was Paul unaware of it? 


Or did he willfully ignore it? He felt that all the information he needed about Jesus came from his visions…or so he bragged in his letter to the Galatians: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” 


If Paul knew the crucifixion story that ended up in the gospels decades later, these verses—let me repeat them—are hard to fathom:


“Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3-4) Was Paul unaware that Jesus had been executed by the Roman authorities? His strong defense of “those in authority” makes no sense.


And these verses, 6-7, would have been a perfect place for Paul to quote Jesus:


“…you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”


Paul could have driven his point home by mentioning this Jesus statement about paying taxes: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Mark 12:17) But of course, Mark’s gospel hadn’t been written yet; none of the gospels had been, so Paul had no way to just “look it up.” Indeed, how did the gospel writers themselves—who wrote decades after the death of Jesus—know what Jesus had taught? When reading the gospels, Christians should ask of any chapter or text: where did the author get this information? Can we trust it? Faith may say, “Well, it was inspired by God, wasn’t it?” But historians aren’t satisfied with wishful thinking. 

Careful analysis of Mark has shown that he constructed his accounts based on stories from the Old Testament, and from Greek classics. David Chumney, in his book Eclipsing Jesus: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts:


“Our primary source of information about Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion is what is reported in the Gospels. The passion narrative in Mark’s gospel—the foundation for what is found in the other three—is comprised largely of allusions to the Old Testament…but why would Mark rely so heavily on such material? He did do, critics have concluded, because that is all he had.”


And Dennis MacDonald, in his work, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, has shown the influence of Homeric literature on Mark. There is growing suspicion, however, that Mark may have been influenced by Paul’s letters. Tom Dykstra makes the case for this in Mark, Canonizer of Paul. So the right question to ask may not be, “Why did Paul fail to quote Jesus in Romans 13?” but rather, “Did Mark create Jesus script based on this text in Romans 13?” 


It’s admirable I suppose when folks decide to read the Bible cover-to-cover, but that commitment is seldom matched by a deeper curiosity, especially about the New Testament: How were these documents created? Where did the authors get their information? What are the implications of the fact that Paul’s letters were written well before the gospels? And was it such a good thing that his theology—much of it mediocre—influenced the gospels writers? Thoughtful readers should wonder what the relationship is between Romans 13:6-7 and Mark 12:17, and consider the chronology of the books of the New Testament.


We also find one of Paul’s feel-good texts in Romans 13:


“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)


Bear in mind that Paul is addressing the congregation of Christians in Rome; he is giving advice to the in-group: this is how those converted to Christ should treat each other. But this feel-good theology did not apply when Paul looked at the wider world, as we can see from his vicious rant in Romans 1. He heaped invective on those engaged in same-sex love: “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” (Romans 1:26-27) And with this, he was off on a tirade, listing a lot of sinners who deserved to die. So much for “love is patient and kind.” 


Paul ends the chapter with a burst of his delusional theology that the arrival of Jesus was just around the corner: “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12) This preparation for Jesus included giving up sex: “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This was one of his unhealthy hang-ups, as expressed also when he once wrote to the Galatians: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24) 


I suspect that most Christians—especially those who have made their way through the Bible cover-to-cover—don’t revisit Paul’s letters all that much, especially his letter to the Romans. They can sympathize with conservative scholar Ben Witherington’s assessment that “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” Why bother? Especially chapter 13, in which they find Paul’s poor advice on good citizenship, which makes it harder to stick up for the Bible as the Word of God.


My brief video comment on Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 8 is here.


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.