This a 1500 word exegesis on a selected Pericope that I had to do this week for my Study at Fuller Seminary. (A pericope is just academic speak for a passage of scripture)
How to Behave Like a Christian
The Pericope selected for exegetical analysis is Romans 12:9-21. Paul is drawing together the last 11 chapters of theological discourse and to show how that manifests through our behaviour into both the church world and the broader world at large.
The summary title in the New King James Version, which is obviously not part of the original text from Paul, titles this Pericope:- How to Behave Like a Christian. This provides a succinct summary of what the emphasis and thought is that Paul is communicating to the church at Rome. Brendan Byrne in Sacra Pagina Vol 6 Romans uses two titles Love in Action Within the Community (v 9-16) and Love in Action Outside the Community (v17-21).
Paul, after drawing from many Old Testament sources for his discussion on God’s faithfulness to the Covenant with Israel in Romans 9-11, continues to draw widely on sources for his discourse on Christian Behaviour. These sources are “the prophetic and wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, the “Jesus” tradition preserved in the early communities, and ethical reflection and maxims of popular Greco-Roman Philosophy” (Bryne 2007:375)
After spending so much time quoting from the Old Testament in Chapters 9-11 it is surprising to me that Paul’s behavioural model was not directly reflective of the Ten Commandments, which may have been more acceptable to his Jewish audience. As Professor Rich pointed out, Jesus however did say in Matthew 22:37-40 that the entire Law and Prophets was summed up by Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Paul in verses 9-16 is teaching the church at Rome how to do Christian Community in light of the faith based relationship with God which he has unpacked by looking at the role and significance of Jesus Christ in prior chapters. It would therefore make more sense to quote Jesus’ summary of the law as a model of behaviour as opposed to using the Ten Commandments.
The outworking of humanity’s relationship with God manifest through behaviour is a consistent thematic throughout both the Old and New Testament Texts. (Examples: Ten Commandments, God’s chiding of Israel in Isaiah 1, Sermon on the Mount, Fruits of the Spirit). God wants our relationship with Him to change the way we engage with each other in our faith based communities and with our engagement in the world. This particular pericope sits in a broader context of expected behaviours of Christians that Paul discusses from Romans 12:1 to Romans 15:13.
To summarize this pericope I will use an idea from Kent Hughes’s book on Romans:
1) Love’s Quality – Love must be sincere
2) Love’s Morality – Hate what is evil and cling to what is good
3) Love’s Commitment – Be devoted to one another
4) Love’s Energetic Expression – Never be lacking in zeal (Hughes 1991:230-231)
I would add the 5th point
5) Love’s Focus – Live peaceably with all men.
It is puzzling to note that there is no mention of divinely endorsed sexual behaviour after Paul clearly articulates the kind of sexual behaviour that attracts the wrath of God in Romans 1. Additionally Paul was writing this particular letter post his writing to the church at Corinth where he has had to address inappropriate sexual behaviour within the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 5): but yet in relationship to the Church at Rome he is silent on sexual behaviour. Possibly his exhortation to “abhor what is evil,” (v9) could be an encouragement to the church to distance themselves from the sins that are listed in Romans 1.
It is interesting to note that Paul has up to this point broken the world up into Jew and Gentile divisions. (2:10, 2:17, 3:1, 9:30). In this passage the division is no longer Jew or Gentile, but instead those within the faith community called the church, and those outside of the community. Professor Rich suggests Paul is paralleling Jew vs. Gentile with Christian vs. Non Christian. I would think that for people in the early church as they read this letter, this point would be a unifying point. Division is no longer race based but faith based. It could also be seen as Paul defining a new worldview for his Jewish audience: no longer Jew or Gentile.
Elsa Tamez in Bible of the Oppressed uses a term “agents of oppression” (Tamez 1982:31) as she describes the characteristics of oppressors. Right now in Australia there is a Royal Commission (equivalent I believe to a Congressional Hearing in America) into the widespread sexual abuse of Children through the Catholic and Anglican (Episcopalian) churches. The church has been an agent of oppression. I wrote a paper for the Fuller subject World Religions, examining the theology of the church at the turn of the first Millennia, that allowed Pope Urban I to call the church to the First Crusade and for the church to respond positive to the idea of going to kill thousands of Muslims. (You can read that paper here). The church was an agent of oppression. In another subject Poverty and Development, I wrote a paper titled “Cutting the Rose” on Female Genital Mutilation. In this paper I quoted the statistic that 85% of girls in Nigeria are cut and that its predominately enforced by Christians in that country – the church again, an agent of oppression. In yet another subject:- Globalisation, we studied Western Missionaries going into Third World countries and bringing a colonialization that suppressed indigenous culture – the church acting as an agent of oppression. But Paul’s behavioural prescription in Romans 12:9-21 is an antidote for this.
When Paul says Let your love be sincere (V9), the word for Love that he uses is agape. Up to this point Paul has used agape in Romans only for divine love (5:5, 8:35,39), except in 8:28 where he used it for man’s love for God. But here it is used to indicate the kind of love Christians are to show to others. If the church throughout time was truly characterized by agape, then they would not have ever been agents of oppression (a broad brush generalisation I know, as at times we can be agents of oppression in ignorance). The little statement – let love be sincere, is so simple and so straightforward yet profoundly powerful: it must be foundational to our Christian conduct. The comment was made in the lecture on this pericope “The Church does not exist in a Vacuum. The whole purpose of its ongoing presence in the world is precisely to be in the world as a blessing to the world.” This certainly sits well in the broader reading of scripture where God’s heart for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor the weak, is communicated consistently and strongly. (Examples: The Parables of the Sheep and Goats and the Good Samaritan, Leviticus 23:22, Proverbs 31:9, Micah 6:8).
Paul also addresses what our behaviour is to be when the church becomes the oppressed. “We meet here Paul’s sense of Christian life as a drama played out upon a world stage before a basically hostile, non comprehending audience” (Bryne 2007:381). It is puzzling that toward the end of this pericope on love within the church community and love to the world at large, Paul indicates that part of the motive in feeding our enemies is to “heap coals of fire on their heads” (v20). This is hardly a motive born from agape love. This is hardly the right thing to do when we are called to be a blessing to the world and it’s hardly a reflection of the words of Christ on how we treat our enemies in Matthew 5:44. Bryne postulates that the coals of fire reference may be a prelude to salvation –“ where kindness melts the heart and effects lasting reconciliation” (Bryne 2007:382). Having looked at the Proverbs context from which Paul is quoting (Proverbs 25:22), it is hard to come to the same conclusion as Bryne has done for this verse. I am unsure too how this fits into Tamez’s concept of God as Liberator – if the church is truly being oppressed. To understand this we need to understand the world behind the text. According to B.M Bowen in Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind: Historically almost everything was carried on the head. In many homes the only fire they had was kept in a brazier, which they used for simple cooking and warmth. The plan was to always keep it burning. If it should go out, some member of the family would take the brazier to a neighbor’s house to borrow fire. If her neighbour was a generous woman, she would heap the brazier full of coals. To feed an enemy and give him drink was like heaping the empty brazier with live coals – which meant food, warmth and almost life itself to the person or home needing it, and was the symbol of finest generosity. Now that is agape love in action and certainly more consistent with the thematic of the rest of the pericope.
Byrne, Brendan. 2007. Sacra Pagina: Romans. Collegeville:Liturgical Press
Bowen, Barbara. 2013. Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind. Whitefish:Literary Licensing
Hughes, Kent. 1991. Romans: Righteousness from Heaven. Wheaton: Crossway
Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.
Tamez, Elsa. 1982. Bible of the Oppressed Eugene:Orbis Books