Northeastern Seminary Blog

Is It Paul or Dr. King?

Posted by Christopher Hopper on Jan 16, 2018 3:36:50 PM

iStock-698402528-952990-edited.jpgPhoto credit: Marilyn Nieves

Northeastern Seminary students share reflections and thoughts on the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This series features voices of students pursuing many different areas of theological study and ministry preparation. Their unique insight and response to the call to ministry provide thoughtful and moving windows into the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   

Growing up, I pictured the Apostle Paul as a middle-aged white male in a toga who spoke old English. Surely such presumptions stemmed from my environment (and an over-active imagination), notions that other middle-class, white, North American evangelicals might readily admit to as well. However, I never pictured him as a black man. That is, until I realized Paul was, perhaps, far more like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than many of us might realize.

Paul’s efforts throughout the book of Romans address the cultural tensions that arose with “the return of Jewish Christians to churches that had become increasingly Gentile in their absence,” a fact that Paul passionately attempts to resolve wherever he can, arguing for a multi-ethnic community of Jews and Gentiles brought together by the covenant-fulfilling work of Jesus.[1] As a result, in Romans 12:9–21 Paul issues new standards that are to hallmark God’s divinely-formed church communities “in a city not known for its loving ambiance,” a sentiment that could surely be applied to Charlottesville, Ferguson, Baltimore, or Staten Island.[2]

Throughout this specific section of text, Paul argues for such strong mutual love within the spiritual community (v. 10) that it flows to those outside of the church, extending even to the community’s enemies (vv. 14, 17, 19–21). He goes to great lengths to detail what such reciprocal love looks like, itemizing the attributes of shared honor (v. 10), financial assistance (v. 13), and hospitality (v. 13) among others. The Apostle has the audacity to claim that redeemed humanity’s new worldview even places demands on emotional behavior: he insists that those who are in seasons of mourning should be joined in their sorrow by those who are not and, likewise, those who are in seasons of rejoicing should find mutual celebration coming from those who have no cause (v. 15). With every line, Paul upends the world’s standards and calls for radical peaceable living precisely because of what Christ has done to inaugurate God’s alternative way of being human.

Perhaps the most significant dynamic that Paul outlines, however, is not the way Christians are called to treat one another but, as previously mentioned, how they are called to treat those who oppress them. As if verse nineteen is not emphatic enough, Paul reiterates his previous ‘non-vengeance’ charge by quoting Proverbs 25:21–22, proving that such an idea does indeed have Old Testament roots (much to the chagrin of Christians who justify present-day violence on Old Testament precedent).[3] While most Bible commentators agree that the phrase ‘heap burning coals on their heads’ is puzzling, Glenn D. Pemberton offers the most concise suggestion in that “a person should provide for the needs of an enemy in order to bring about the enemy’s contrition or perhaps add to their punishment.”[4] In the end, readers are confronted with Paul’s ideology that “to advocate generosity in response to hostility” is the supreme form of Christian protest.[5]

I often wonder if the church is guilty of not giving more credit to Dr. King as a pastor and theologian—as a prophet and apostle to his nation—than an activist. Perhaps, upon deeper reflection, we will find ourselves questioning whether we are reading the Jew from Tarsus or the African American from Atlanta, only to realize we are, in fact, reading both.

Christopher Hopper (M.Div.) serves as associate pastor at New Life Christian Church in Watertown, N.Y. Chris is a published writer and acclaimed musician.


[1] James R. Edwards, “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 2007–08.

[2] Michael F. Bird, Romans, ed. Tremper Longman III, Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 430.

[3] “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22; NRSV).

[4] Glenn D. Pemberton, “Proverbs,” Study Bible, 364.

[5] Charles Cousar, “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: One-Volume Commentary, ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, David L. Petersen (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 782.

Topics: reflection

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