N.T. Wright’s Pro-Government Paul

GovernmentLet 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. (Romans 13:1, ESV)

While yesterday I highlighted some of the anti-imperial thrust of Paul’s eschatology, Wright doesn’t want us to get the wrong impression about his overall theology of governmental authority, or authority in general:

The present scholarly mood, which I understand and in a measure share, is all for finding points of conflict, for reading between Paul’s lines to see the way he implicitly and sometimes explicitly undermined the imperial rhetoric and religion that pervaded his world. Fair enough. Yet I believe that, in the last analysis, Paul did affirm the goodness, the God-givenness, of human structures of authority, even while at the same time undermining, through central aspects of his theology, the hubris, idolatry, blasphemy and other wickednesses which, as a Jew never mind a follower of Jesus, he associated with the arrogance and swagger of Rome. To say that a particular police force is riddled with corruption, racism or collusion with organized crime is not to say, ‘therefore we should not have a police force’. To say that the present imperial system encourages and sustains wickedness or folly of various sorts is not to say, ‘therefore we should have no human authorities.’. (The possibility of replacing an existing empire with some other system lies some way off the side of Paul’s page. In any case, we should not forget that when Rome acquired its empire – a long time before it acquired its monarchical empire – it was a proud republic whose office-holders, appointed by public votes, were accountable to public scrutiny.) The answer to corrupt authorities is not anarchy. Paul, once again as a good creational monotheist, would not suggest such a thing; that is what is underneath his strong affirmations so shocking to some liberal democrats, never mind some Anabaptists, in Romans 13.1-7. That is why the poem of Colossians 1.15-20 is so important. Creational monotheism entails a strong statement about the God-givenness of human structures, even while at the same time also indicating that the one God will hold office-holders to account.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pg. 381

Just because some governments are bad, that doesn’t mean that all government is bad; just because authority can be abused, that doesn’t mean that all authority must be rejected. No, within the sovereign purposes of God, there is a place for delegated authority to rule and order human societies and peoples. When we read Paul’s very real and important criticisms, implicit or explicit, of the existing power structures, we must not be drawn into thinking that all power structures are bad. They are accountable to God and will be judged for their arrogance and folly in going against the commands of God, but there is no suggestion that they shouldn’t exist at all (or, for that matter, that Christians have no business with them.)

In essence, here we have the pro-government Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

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