“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities…” Romans 12:21 – 13:1a.
The historical context of Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Rome is that of an unpredictable and often hostile government. For the first two and one-half centuries of Christianity the Roman Empire and its local governments would sometimes be openly hostile to Christians, to the point of torture and execution, while at other times benign with a “look the other way” attitude. The Empire was never a friend of Christians during this time, and while there might be local authorities who looked favorably upon the new religion, such instances were rare. Unpredictability was the one constant in the government’s posture toward the Church; overcoming evil with good was to be the one constant of the Church’s posture toward the government.
For Christians who were ethnic Jews this stance was a departure from a heritage that not only included warriors such as King David, but also in more recent history the Maccabees. Galilee and Judah were garrisoned by Roman soldiers because revolutionary ferment was a hallmark of the Jews, a ferment that would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. For Christians who were not Jews, warfare was also likely part of their culture, whether Roman citizens or not. Who ever heard of overcoming evil with good? This was, as we say today, counter-cultural.
And yet, in His first recorded public teaching in a fiercely revolutionary and nationalistic culture Jesus Christ says:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Perhaps we Christians spend more time and energy explaining away these words of Christ than any other of His teachings. Evangelicals who are quick to criticize anything that smells of relativistic thinking are masters at relativizing these words of Jesus Christ. Of course the church as a whole has done so ever since Christianity was legalized by Rome in the 4th Century, so we can spread the relativistic wealth around to virtually all Christian traditions.
It is no accident that as soon as Paul dictates the words, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, that the next words his amanuensis hears are, Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.
What must this unnamed secretary have thought as he faithfully recorded Paul’s words? No doubt he had previously heard Paul’s thoughts on the matter; but still, after all, Paul was writing to Christians in the City of Rome, the heart of the adversarial Empire. How would they react? Paul had already challenged their attitudes toward one another in Chapter 2, then again in chapters 9 – 11, but now Paul is challenging them in their attitude toward a hostile government!
After writing 12:21 Paul takes the most difficult relationship the Church has and brings it to the forefront – he goes directly to the agent of persecution, the Roman government – be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities…
If we will be honest for a moment – how do we measure up to this teaching? If we can just for a moment release our relativistic hands from the text – what is the truth of our obedience in this matter?