If you want to do violence in the world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.–Rachel Held Evans
“All scripture,” we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient.” That’s how it appears in the NRSV. The problem is, that’s not exactly what it says in the original Greek. There are, in fact, some missing words in the Greek and, of course the syntax is different. The original, literally translated, would read, “Every writing God-breathed and useful for teaching for reproof for correction for training in righteousness…” That’s rather confusing, even in the Greek, and you can see that how this gets translated depends in part on making your best guess at some missing words, deciding where to put them, and making a few punctuation decisions. There are also some important word translation choices. Writings, for instance, became scripture in most translations, a much more weighted word with implications that shift the meaning of the whole passage. The great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore, translated this passage this way: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for…” Right at the beginning of the sentence is an enormous difference in meaning between the two translations.
This is a pivotal passage because Christians of almost every stripe will refer to the Bible as The Word of God and will appeal to its authority. We call it the Word of God but we often mean very different things when we say that. We all have different hermeneutics—the lenses through which we read and interpret the Bible. We read a text through the filter of our own life experience and a host of presumptions about the Bible on the whole and the text itself. The same thing happens when we use a biblical text “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” or, far too often, to bolster our position in some dispute. We often fall into the habit of eisegesis, interpreting and using a text according to our own agenda, bias, or presuppositions instead of using it in a way that is faithful to its context and faithful to our faith. When that happens, we are abusing one of the great gifts God has given us—and that the Church historically gave itself.
Recently, for example, Romans 13:1-7 was cited by our US Attorney General as a way to counter some of the significant opposition he and the administration have been facing in their policy that has separated immigrant children from their families. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” That seems pretty clear and straightforward. Except, like so many things in the Bible, it’s simply not as cut and dried as it looks on first glance.
Remember, this was written by St. Paul, a man who had spent significant time in jail for disturbing the peace and for civil disobedience, so clearly he believed that conscience trumped the legal system. He was also a man who frequently relied on the “get out of jail free” card of his Roman citizenship. He could afford to encourage obedience to the law because, as a Roman citizen, he could appeal to have his case heard and re-heard all the way up to the Emperor if necessary. Not everyone who read his letter had that option—nor do they today. Remember, too, that he’s writing to people who had been involved in tumultuous riots not too many years before (c.49), riots so disruptive that Emperor Claudius expelled all Christians and Jews from Rome for a time. So he’s basically telling them to keep calm and stay under the radar because “the governing authorities” are still looking for an excuse to nail you. Don’t give it to them.
But ignoring all that, even if you take Romans 13:1-7 strictly at face value, when it’s pulled out of its context and used as a blanket instruction to always obey all authority then you’re missing the point of the chapter and, indeed, of the entire letter to the Romans. “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly Paul has a higher ethic in mind than simple blind obedience to human law. Love can do no wrong to a neighbor. If you find yourself stuck between law and love, go with love. It might break human law, but it’s the heart of the law and ethic of Christ.
This is not the only problematic verse in the Bible that can have powerful and dangerous consequences when misused, but it is one that has been abused most frequently. In our own history it has been used in numerous unsavory ways, most notably in the subjugation of native peoples and in perpetuating slavery. The Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary has this to say about this passage: “The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be subject to the governing authorities” on the grounds that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” has caused much needless suffering and much misery even in the 20th century. This passage seems to lend support to any existing government, regardless of how tyrannical or how corrupt, and any governmental policy, however repressive or unjust. This passage has been invoked by Christians to put down revolt, support war, and justify genocide. In fact, many Christians in Hitler’s Germany appealed to this text as the decisive biblical warrant for obedience to the Nazi regime. And it has been regret over the Church’s alignment with the Nazi regime that has forced a reconsideration of these verses, particularly by German biblical scholars.
“Again, a careful reading of the text along with an awareness of the historical context is essential for understanding this problem passage. It must be noted that Paul does not say “obey” or “disobey” governing authorities. He instead speaks of “being subject”, which can include disobedience.” (©1992, Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary, p. 288)
We all may mean something different when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, but what we mean when we say it will determine how we use these sacred texts—for good or for evil. We should remember that the Bible, itself, says that Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1) For those of us who call ourselves Christians, Jesus should be our hermeneutic, our lens for reading, interpreting and understanding the words of scripture. And he was executed for challenging authority.