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Roman 13 (2) Lost Key

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Most people come to Romans 13 looking for a Christian political theory. Unfortunately, they are disappointed. I come at the passage in a very different way. God gave Israel a perfect system of government when they entered the promised land. They did not need a system of government while they were slaves, but once they began to live together in a small piece of territory, they did. The perfect system that God gave Moses was his law applied by local judges. I describe it in more detail at Law and Judges. God’s perfect system of government was recorded in the books of Moses, so God did not need to give it again through Jesus or Paul.

I stumbled on the key to Romans 13 when I was pondering its meaning. My father always referred to the government as “the powers that be” It took me a while to realise this was a quote from Romans 13:1. One day I was wondering about this odd expression, and the conjunction of the plural “powers” with a singular verb “be”. I realised that it could be translated as “the judges that are”. I then thought “Where?” and “How come they just are, and are not appointed?”. It then clicked for me that Paul was referring back to two verses in Deuteronomy that I had recently read.

Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand… before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days (Deut 19:17 ASV).

Thou shalt come unto the judge that shall be in those days: and thou shalt inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment (Deut 17:9 ASV).

The modern translations refer to the judges that are in office in those days, but the word office does not exist in the Hebrew text. A literal translation would is “the judges that shall be in those days” or “the judges that are in those days”. Paul would have been familiar with these texts. When he started thinking about justice and government, the Holy Spirit brought this expression to his mind.

These two verses summarise the perfect form of government that God gave through the Mosaic covenant: God’s law applied by godly judges. So Paul was referring back to God’s ideal government. He was not creating a new political theory in Romans 13:1, he was simply referring back to the perfect system of government that God has already given to Moses and confirming that God’s will for government had not changed.

Paul affirmed the system of law and judges that God had already given, just as Jesus did (Matt 5:17-18). (That is why Jesus had nothing much to say about laws and structures of government.). Paul follows his affirmation of “God’s law applied by local judges” by giving a few applications for life in the Roman empire, building on the more important behavioural stuff in Romans 12. (Law and government are always secondary for Christians.)

So if we want a Christian political theory, we cannot go to Romans 13, instead we must begin with Deuteronomy and God’s law and local judges. I have not found any biblical commentary or Christian political theorist who has seen the link between Romans 13:1 and Deut 19:17 and Deut 17:9. But that does not surprise me, because most Christians who are interested in political theory hate God’s law. However, they are missing an essential key, which explains why there has been so much confusion on this topic. (P.S. There is a masters thesis here for someone who is wanting a topic).


Source: http://getrad2.blogspot.com/2022/07/roman-13-2-lost-key.html


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