Many who read the New Testament see it as advocating for and supporting the oppressive structures of its time. They argue that it is patriarchal and pro-slavery. St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters is thus seen as an endorsement of slavery as an institution. His admonition, though, belongs to a category of teachings known as the haustafeln (household rules). An example is found in Colossians:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Slaves, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, give your slaves what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18-4:1)
Such passages, as well as those giving instructions regarding the Emperor and the respect due to authorities, are often treated as a Christian support for the powers of this world. Romans 13, for example, is frequently cited as a model for a “two-kingdom” approach to things:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom 13:1-7)
Indeed, this passage has even been used to suggest that those like Bonhoeffer who sought to kill Hitler were somehow opposing God’s plan.
All such treatments fail to understand the “upside-down” character of Christ’s actions and teachings and their continuation in the Apostolic writings. Christ does not teach us to love our enemies because our enemies are good or have somehow been ordained as our enemies. He teaches us to love our enemies because God is good. And that is a very different thing.
The household rules and the Romans sword passage are examples of Christian subversion: they are practical applications of the Cross to life in this world. They do not exist to uphold the powers that be, but to undermine them by asserting that God alone is Lord and His kingdom alone is the purpose of our life.
Consider this passage:
If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)
“For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head…” These are not the words of an Apostolic endorsement of the structures of this world. It is the proclamation that the “vengeance of God” is brought forth by means of bearing the Cross. The way of the Cross is the way of life. Or, as the Elder Sophrony taught, “The way up is the way down.”
In all of these admonitions, the locus of the authority that is being observed is God Himself, not the thing we are honoring. Slaves do not obey their masters because their masters have a just right of ownership. Rather, it is a matter of doing all things “as to the Lord.” We are slaves of no man, but bondservants to God alone.
In one of the great historical ironies, slave-owners in the American South allowed their slaves to become Christians. The very Scriptures that they heard, over time, provided the hope of deliverance and revealed the coming wrath of God for those who mistreated them. Israel was once in bondage in Egypt and God heard them. In the Scriptures it is quite clear that God sides with the slaves over their masters. The lessons were not lost. African American resistance to systemic oppression has almost always had a profound connection to the gospel.
Christ Himself points to this subversive quality in his conversation with Pontius Pilate. Pilate threatens Him and reminds Him that he has the power to release Him or condemn Him.
You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (Jn 19:11)
In that saying, Christ strips away every pretense of Roman imperial power. “You would have no authority…” Indeed, Christ could rightly have said, “You cannot do anything to me that I don’t want you to do.” It is an essential element of Christian teaching that Christ’s death was voluntary. “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own free will.”
The same is true in all the household rules and the relationship with the powers of the state. The honor we offer, the obedience and service we render, are not offered out of obligation or by rightful demand. They are voluntary offerings of the Cross – “as unto the Lord.” I am able to lose my life because in Christ my life has already been redeemed and rescued. You can do nothing to me. I can obey you as my master, but in so doing I am heaping coals of fire on your head. Those coals are either the burning of God’s judgment or the burning away of sins. But the coals are a promise.
The early Christian martyrs frequently lived this subversion out in a manner that frustrated their persecutors. St. Lawrence, being fried on an iron griddle, is reported to have said, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” The desired result of violence was rendered empty and powerless through the courage of the Cross and the Christian refusal to treat death as though it were to be feared. In time, it brought the empire to the Baptismal font.
For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. (1Co 4:20)
The Kingdom of God, inaugurated in the coming of Christ, is not weak (though it appears as such). Its power does not lie in persuasion or violence. The power of the Kingdom is made manifest in the Cross. Weakness overcomes strength. Honor overcomes dishonor. Service subverts oppression. Death begets life.
When Christians lose this singular vision, particularly when they agree to become a religious institution within the greater life of society, the Cross is discarded. We begin to think that our lives are found in the ballot box or shouting louder than those around us. The slave overthrows his master only to become a master over his own slaves. You don’t need a God to do the politics of this world.
“But be of good cheer,” Christ said. “I have overcome the world.”
Addendum: On Symphonia
I have heard numerous objections to this series of articles and their approach on the basis of the theory of symphonia, the cooperative work between Emperor and Church that became a primary vision of the Byzantine synthesis. Its legacy is the double-headed eagle that adorns both national flags and Church decoration to this day. Symphonia (two voices in harmony) represents an icon of the Kingdom of God in this world (though not the thing itself). It served as a guiding principle in Orthodox nations for many centuries, and then lingered like a precious lost object for centuries ever after.
It should be noted, first, that symphonia always sounded better in theory than in practice. Emperors rarely behaved themselves and acknowledged boundaries and limits to their power. As often as not, they resorted to the crude life violence. Many saw in Russia the continuation of Byzantium (the title “Tsar” is the Russian form of “Caesar”). Symphonia lived on as an icon and a promise. But that vision was repeatedly violated. From the time of Peter the Great forward, for example, Tsars sought to subjugate the Church in an effort to rationalize state control. The Patriarchate was abolished (thus cutting off one head of the double-eagle) and the Church was largely reduced to a department of state modeled after German Lutheranism (many Tsars admired German efficiency). The nadir of symphonia in Russia can be seen in the Nikonian reforms where the state became the persecutor of Christians in the name of reform with a bitter legacy that the Church has sought to heal in recent years.
The greatest problem of symphonia today is its use as a tool of modernity in contemporary Orthodox. Modernity is a project to refashion and build a better world (I refer the readers to many previous articles). It is a mindset, a drive to refashion, create, build in the name of an ideal. Its problem is not in its faulty ideals. Rather, it is the nature of the very project itself. Building a better world, even in the name of Orthodoxy, yields little more than a darkened version of the faith. The only means of Christian life is the Cross in the fullness of its self-emptying and brokenness.
O Lord, save Thy people! And bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the Orthodox peoples, over their adversaries!
And by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation!