The Pilgrim and the State

Pilgrim 2 001

          “Render to all what is due them:  tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

           ”Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

                                           – Romans 13:7, 8


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Those who have closely followed the exposition of Pilgrim values set forth in these pages over the past couple of years (not that the author presumes anybody would do such a thing, of course!) will understand that the most recent installment – “My President or My King?” – is entirely consistent with everything else that has been said here.  It contains nothing new.  The theme it briefly attempts to apply to current events has been examined time and time again, and from a variety of angles, under such headings as “Apatheia,” “Allegiance,” “Death,” “Defeat,” “Defenselessness,” “Failure,” “Indifference,” “Irrelevance,” “Impracticality,” “Kenosis,” “Madness,” “Meekness,” “Martyrdom,” and, in particular, “Anarchy.”  Readers who want know more are referred to these entries.

The last-mentioned post followed author Vernard Eller, late Professor of Religion at the University of La Verne, in describing “Christian Anarchy” as “a Christ-centered disregard for the claims of ‘government’ in all its forms.”  It went on to say that “because he owes allegiance to one Master, and one only, the Pilgrim’s attitude toward every other so-called authority is necessarily ‘disinterested, skeptical, and nonchalant.’”[i]  This provides the background for our assertion that the Pilgrim, as a subject of the One King, “owes no allegiance whatsoever to any earthly president or temporal authority.”

Romans 13:1-7 is often cited in contradiction of this view.  This text is generally understood as bestowing a kind of unqualified divine legitimacy upon the state.[ii]  It’s worth noting what Eller has to say about this.  He makes the highly sensible and rather obvious point that Paul’s instructions to Christians have to be read against the background of the Old Testament perspective on humanly instituted authorities:  that from Babel onward God has never been a “fan” of the state; that in asking Samuel for a king, the people of Israel were in effect rejecting the rule of Yahweh; that God, after warning them they’d be sorry, went ahead and gave them their druthers, determining in the meantime to go on working with them in and through the state despite the setback; that He continues to use rulers of all kinds, both “bad” and “good,” to accomplish His purposes in history without necessarily lending them His stamp of approval; and that, in view of all this, Christians should follow His divine example by cooperating and getting along with (“submitting to”) human authorities so far as it is possible to do so without violating the law of God.

Taking his cues from Karl Barth, Eller insists that the phrase “be subject to” (Romans 13:1) “has absolutely no overtones of ‘recognize the legitimacy of,’ ‘own allegiance to,’ ‘bow down before,’ or anything of the sort.  It is a sheerly neutral and anarchical counsel of ‘not-doing’ – not doing resistance, anger, assault, power play, or anything contrary to the ‘loving the enemy,’ which is, of course, Paul’s main theme.”  He concludes:


           This interpretation of Romans 13 reads as anarchically as all get out.  It carefully declines to legitimize either Rome or resistance against Rome.  It will give neither recognition nor honor to any political entity whatever – nation, party, ideology, or cause group.  There is only one Lord of history – and that is God.[iii]


It’s crucial to underscore Eller’s point that Romans 13:1-7 has to be read in conjunction with Romans 13:8.  This is often conveniently overlooked.  We are to pay what we owe, says Paul, but he qualifies his statement by adding, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.”  And that casts the subject in an entirely different light.

Bottom line:  the Law of God – that law which must never be violated at the behest of any human ruler – can be summed up in a single word:  love.  It is out of love that we “submit” whenever and wherever we can; but it is also in response to love that we say “no thank you” when invited to adopt attitudes, embrace policies, or engage in actions that contradict the very meaning of the word.


[i] See Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy, 1-2.

[ii] “The support for this reading falls into a most interesting alignment.  Of course, the Christian Right (along with conservative evangelicalism in general) welcomes this theological view of Romans 13 as confirmation of its own politically conservative commitment to political establishment as being God’s chosen means for governing the world … Yet curiously enough, the Christian Left also accepts, if not welcomes, the legitimizing interpretation – although under an entirely different rationale and for a totally different purpose.”  Christian Anarchy, 196.

[iii] Ibid., 204.


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