It is easy for us to think that the Bible was written as theological-thought-units. We often read the gospel of Mark as a series of stories instead of one big story, or Romans as a series of devotional thoughts instead of a unified letter. Sometimes this challenge results in theological error (which should not be minimized), but other times it can even result in seemingly faith-filled choices that put lives at risk.
Without using hyperbole, viewing Romans 12 without Romans 13 is an example of the latter. The end of Romans 12 is a very memorable passage on how to deal with interpersonal conflict.
Romans 12:14-21: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
We read this and are challenged to be exceedingly gracious. We are hopeful that our kindness would be used by God to awaken the person who is sinning against us, and help them see the wrongness of their actions. But it often begs the question, “Is this all we can do? Does there come a point where God allows us to be more assertive in response to the abusive sin of others?” If stop with Romans 12, then it feels like the Christian response to abuse is passivity; as if self-protection is selfish or that legal protections were expressions of bitterness and revenge.
This is when it is vital to realize Paul was writing a letter and not a daily devotional. Look at what Paul’s next words were. There was only a dip of his writing quill between Romans 12:21 and Romans 13:1.
Romans 13:1-7, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Paul’s next words after “be exceedingly gracious” were, “God has placed the civil authorities over our lives to be an expressions of his hand or protection.” So what does this mean? It means a battered wife can get a restraining order without violating Romans 12. It means it is not unforgiving or punitive for Christians to call Child Protective Services if they suspect a child is being harmed or neglected.
My concern is that most Christians are more familiar with Romans 12 when it comes to conflict, and miss the application of Romans 13 when conflict transitions from a personal offense to a legal offense. We read Romans 12 and think of harsh interpersonal conflict. We read Romans 13 and think about obeying speed limits and paying our taxes.
In order to represent God’s word well, we need to teach with balance from both Romans 12 and Romans 13.
- Romans 12 is God’s instruction for the best way to (a) redeem the aggressive sinner and (b) protect the person being harmed. Fighting back (physically or emotionally) escalates an encounter and may confuse who is at fault. Wisely obeying Romans 12 helps curtail the intensity of an unhealthy encounter, and makes it clear who needs to change.
- Romans 13 is God’s civil instruction to ensure that Romans 12 does not allow abuse to go unpunished, and to keep his people from being unprotected (see a similar principle in Matthew 7:1-6).
If you want to dig deeper into the balanced application of Romans 12 and 13 for chronically broken relationships, I would recommend the following books. They do not exegete these passages, but they offer a more in-depth, biblical perspective on how to respond when interpersonal conflicts move from moderate to severe.
- The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick
- Mending the Soul by Steven Tracy
- Is It My Fault? by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
- Self-Centered Spouse by Brad Hambrick
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.