How to Read the Bible
by Louise Westfall
A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the thirteenth chapter, reading verses one through seven. Listen for God’s Word to the church.
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. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them–taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. The word of the Lord…thanks be to God!
Did you flinch a bit–as I did–on thanking God for this sacred word? The plain meaning of the text commands absolute obedience to the divinely-appointed authority. Resistance to the government equals resistance to God, who has anointed these leaders for the good of all. In fact, this text has been quoted by civil authorities throughout history, to prove the righteousness of their rule, provide justification for their decisions and actions, and even recently to quash protest and silence calls for strong public reckoning for long-standing injustices.
Both the words and the ways they’ve been interpreted give me pause.
For starters, the apostle himself had suffered greatly under the boot heel of Rome—having been unjustly imprisoned multiple times, beaten, stoned, and finally executed. Paul spent a lot of his ministry slipping through borders and over walls in pursuit of his call from a higher authority. He contradicted the mandates of Rome and debated their leaders. He joins that great cloud of witnesses martyred for their faith. God certainly didn’t appoint dictators whose rule wreaks destruction and not good on its citizenry. And I think of the inspiring legacy of civil disobedience…Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Germany’s “confessing church” that stood up against Hitler, defying his “final solution” and eventually plotting his assassination…John Lewis and others standing arm and arm opposing police sent to keep them from marching for the right to vote, and those young people who broke the law by sitting at lunch counters in the segregated South…Nelson Mandela and South Africans who brought down racist apartheid policies…many of these individual actions and movements grew out of a Christian faith tradition that calls for singular loyalty to God, which makes other loyalties secondary. That is, be subject to the governing authorities certainly; honor the rule of law upon which civilization depends. But in those times when obedience to political power breaches Divine law, when it is wielded without regard for “the good,” or when it is applied unjustly, then it is the responsibility of the faithful to resist and change it.
So I wonder about this text, just as I do every text: how we can hear God’s Word through it to guide our faith and lives.
Three convictions: 1) The Bible is our primary and authoritative guide to faith and practice; it reveals God’s Word like nothing else. 2) The Bible witnesses to God’s Word, not God’s words. That is, the Bible is the product of human writers and editors; inspired unquestionably by the Spirit of God, but subject to error and limitation. Which leads to 3) how we read and interpret the Bible matters.
We interpret the Bible most faithfully in study and conversation with others. Not one of us knows it all; we all benefit from the Church's collective listening and continual learning.
Way back in the wonderful pre-pandemic time of January, our Adult Faith Formation Council sponsored a series of Bible studies on what they named the “clobber passages”–texts that have been used to deny the full application of God’s love and grace to diverse people. Verses such as “Slaves, obey and honor your masters” (I Timothy 6:1); “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (I Timothy 2:12); “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery…” (Mark 10:10); and pretty much all of the Old Testament Levitical “purity code, with myriad laws against eating pork, calling for the separation and confinement of people suffering skin diseases, prohibiting clothing of mixed fabric, and exercising the death penalty against a recalcitrant teenager.
What????? Do we just get to pick and choose the Scripture texts we like and reject the rest?
Well, no. But we do have a responsibility for reading and interpreting the Bible so that we hear God’s Word for the living of these days. How does God speak through an ancient text to the church in the information age, flowing with scientific knowledge, insight into human psychology and sociology, where geographic distance has been bridged by technology in unimaginable ways?
We begin by bringing the very best of God’s gifts to our reading.
Our scientific understanding of how the world began and the processes of human evolution contradict a literal reading of Genesis chapter one, portrayed as a six-day creation, while celebrating the Divine Word that touches every part of it—and every part of us. Physical and mental illness have biological origins and aren’t some kind of plague cast upon us as punishment. We don’t have to ignore science to embrace faith. The Divine image in which we are made has marked us with intellectual abilities, imagination, and curiosity to seek greater understanding.
The Bible itself helps us interpret specific texts, by helping us see the context in which it was written, and by comparing one text with other Biblical teachings. Both Old and New Testaments were written through a lens of patriarchy and reflect its values. Yet we also see how women in the early church served and taught and contributed despite restrictions. And in a text that far surpasses any context we affirm that There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. It took the Church awhile (like, one thousand nine hundred and fifty-four years), but it was this text—and not the prohibitions cemented in a different cultural context–that became the guiding word.
Finally, we interpret the Bible most faithfully in study and conversation with others. Not one of us knows it all; we all benefit from the Church’s collective listening and continual learning. We pray for guidance through the Spirit and together we grow in our ability to hear God’s true Word.
In that spirit, I was surprised to discover a new interpretation of the passage we’re exploring today. Eric Smith is Assistant Professor of Early Christianity and Contemporary Christian Practices at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Some friends shared his new book about the Apostle Paul which delves more deeply into the context of some of his writing. Turns out this passage very likely was not referring to civil authority at all, but rather religious authority. There was a strong Jewish community in Rome before Jesus, and members that became followers of Jesus stayed because that was their tradition, just as it had been Jesus’. But remember that Paul was intent on bringing the gospel to non-Jewish Gentiles and the question of their membership became a sore point. What authority should a non-Jesus- following synagogue leader have over them? Why should Gentile Jesus-followers have to pay the required temple tax, or for that matter, obey any of the practices specific to synagogue life? We’re not Jews, after all! Yet Paul counseled obedience to these synagogue leaders whose authority was divinely appointed. Pay the tax, honor the leaders, who have been ordained by God. Don’t let your freedom in Christ cast shade on the roots from which your faith has grown. [See Eric C. Smith, Paul the Progressive? The Compassionate Christian’s Guide to Reclaiming the Apostle as an Ally, Chalice Press, 2019, pp. 105-120]
Hmmm. Well, if Dr. Smith’s interpretation stands, what does this passage really have to teach us, people in a wholly different context, in which Judaism and Christianity are seen as different religious traditions? We’re separate entities. We’re not paying their temple tax and they’re not pledging to our church’s mission.
Well, at the very least it might call us to deeper interfaith appreciation and more robust collaboration on actions and commitments we mutually value. We can acknowledge the hand of God at work in the synagogue as well as the church.
I wonder if our questions and unease around the text also suggest a certain humility in all of our faith pronouncements. Before we use the Bible to “clobber” someone (even if that someone resides in our own skin!), could we step back for a minute and with humility ask again what God might be saying to us? What Word is God speaking? Where do grace and mercy and love show up?
There’s a verse for that too. The writer of the letter of James (probably not James, by the way) asks Who among you is wise and understanding? And answers the question in the next breath: Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. [James 3:13] Finally, friends, the very best Biblical interpretation comes as we demonstrate its truth in our daily lives, when we practice what we preach, and as we love one another first and last.
May it be so.