Yoder criticizes the positivistic view of government — that whatever government is in power is in power due to God’s will and therefore the government’s will is God’s will. The obvious counter-example is Hitler, and the argument against it is that Paul does not approve of the policies of the Roman government by saying it’s “of God.”
He also criticizes the normative view, which is that Paul is approving good government in the abstract but not approving the particular government of Rome. He is not saying that good government is of God and therefore good.
Yoder questions both our wisdom to make that judgment — which government is perfect? — and notes that this is simply not what Paul says in Rom 13. In historical context, Paul was writing shortly before the Jews in Judea were to rebel against Rome and suffer a horrific defeat. He did not want the Jews and God fearers in Rome to so sympathize with them that they participate in the rebellion. Paul was speaking of rebelling against Rome — the very pagan government then in power.
Yoder argues that Paul is merely noting that God “orders” the powers. 13:1 says that God has “established” the governments in the NIV, but the Greek is better translated “ordered.” The word is sometimes translated “assigned.”
The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise, God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are.
God never created government. Rather, government has been around as long as there has been society. But God’s providential hands moves governments — even wicked ones — to work his will, but their evil is still evil.
Yoder argues that because the Christians had no voice in the Roman government, Paul isn’t telling them to participate in military or police service. After all, subject peoples generally weren’t required to fight in the military (which was also the police). Rather, military service was performed by citizens or as a hereditary position. Slaves and Jews would never have been asked to fight.
(Of course, Yoder fails to recognize that some Christians were indeed citizens — Paul — and soldiers — the Philippian jailer, Cornelius.)
Bearing the sword
Yoder argues that Paul’s reference to “bearing the sword” is speaking of the police, not the army or even the death penalty. The Romans crucified criminals that suffered the death penalty — they weren’t killed by the sword. Rather, the sword was symbolic of judicial authority. Indeed, at this time (the Pax Romana), there were no wars going on, only skirmishes to protect the border — so Paul had the police, not the military, in mind.
Yoder then distinguishes the military from the police. Although the police use violence at times, their goal is not the death, but the arrest, of the criminals, whereas the military often works to kill, not arrest, the enemy. And the innocent are much less likely to be harmed in a police operation, whereas warfare always harms the innocent.
“The authorities are ministers of God”
The NIV translates verse 6 —
(Rom 13:6) This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
The KJV is more precise —
(Rom 13:6) For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
“This very thing” is a reference to v. 4, speaking of the government’s role to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do good. On grammatical grounds, Yoder argues that translation should be —
(Rom 13:6) For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, [when] attending continually upon this very thing.
— taking the final clause as an adverbial modifier. (I’ll let the Greek grammarians sort this out). Thus, Paul isn’t saying Rome is good, but that it’s good when it does these things.
Thus, Yoder discusses —
(Rom 13:7) Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect [phobos = fear], then respect; if honor, then honor.
— noting that “everyone” translates pas, that is, all. Thus, you owe to each only what you owe. You owe Caesar taxes, as Jesus taught, but you only owe fear to God.
V. 1, Yoder argues, commands hupotasso — subordination, not obedience. If a Christian is drafted, he does not have to obey by going to war, but he must submit to the punishment that a refusal to serve entails. And this put Yoder squarely in Lipscomb’s camp.
Yoder argues that a willingness to suffer punishment at the hands of the government for being like Jesus is the essence of Christianity.
Yoder is a far better advocate than most, largely because he goes to the trouble to understand Christianity as more than obedience to rules. Thus, we are fortunate to have an argument that goes deeper than “thou shalt not kill” and “love thy enemies.” And this means he offers a doctrinal framework rather than merely preferring his interpretation of certain verses. It’s nice to get beyond the proof texting that both sides can be so guilty of and consider the issue in light of some of the truly big issues.
And it’s challenging to consider the views of someone who see suffering for Jesus as an entirely acceptable alternative — a view that most modern Christians aren’t willing to seriously consider.