On June 14, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13:1 in support of the current practice of the Trump administration that takes children from their parents for illegal entrance into our country on the southern border. That night, Stephen Colbert on the CBS Late Show answered Sessions by quoting Romans 13:9-10.
I have long studied this passage in Romans 13 and offer some thoughts and insights. These are brief rather than exhaustive, informed by years of study and by New Testament scholars and commentaries.
Author: The Apostle Paul. We know that Paul had been a Pharisaical Jew of impeccable credentials whose life had been turned upside down when the Risen Christ revealed himself to him (Philippians 3:4-11). We also know that Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). Hence, he was a man of privilege, education, and standing. Interestingly, after his conversion he became the apostle to the Gentiles, the outsiders to the people of Israel.
Recipients: The church in Rome, which Paul neither founded nor oversaw, although he was familiar with it and its people, as is evident in Romans 16, where he greets at least 26 people.
Date: About 57 CE. Probably written from Corinth.
Reading in context. Ideally, one should read the entire letter to the Romans in one sitting or several sittings close together. Next, one should read Romans 12:1-15:13 in slower fashion. This is one rather lengthy teaching about how the early Christians, comprised of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, were to live out their faith both in the Church and in the world. Then one should look for parallel passages in the New Testament about how Christians relate to the civil government.
Simply to lift Romans 13:1 out as a reason for Christians to obey a civil government is “cherry-picking.” That is, it is irresponsible exegesis.
Here is the passage under consideration:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
No letter so richly reveals Paul’s understanding of the Gospel of God’s grace through Jesus. Paul has become convinced that that Gospel breaks down the wall that long stood between Jews (insiders) and Gentiles (outsiders). In Christ, Jews and Gentiles become one Church, one community of grace. Salvation is by grace alone, not by works, and through Christ, by the Spirit, is available to Jews and Gentiles without distinction.
The Roman Empire was virtually global and without a rival in that time. Israel/Palestine was ruled by regents appointed by Rome (the Herods, for instance). The emperor when Paul wrote Romans was Nero, but he was early in his reign. He had not yet become the monstrous leader that he would soon enough become (and bring untold suffering to followers of Jesus).
The Roman Emperor was revered and worshiped as a god. Roman law demanded that on certain days, at least annually, everyone in the empire would go to designated places to make their sacrifices of worship to the emperor. His title was Caesar, which literally meant “lord.” Therefore, followers of Jesus, called to name Jesus alone as lord, had to break the civil law if they were faithful to Jesus as the only Caesar, the only Lord. Hence, those early Christians were law-breakers for the very best reason. Any Roman law that conflicted with God’s law was not to be obeyed. Yet they were called to submit to the governing authorities.
How is that conflict resolved? There is one New Testament Greek word for “obey” and another for “submit.” Romans 13:1 calls for submitting, that is recognizing the temporal authority of the civil government, even if at times not obeying it. We see that played out in the Acts of the Apostles: “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” (Acts 5:29.) There is a reason that the church leaders in Acts (and. indeed, the whole New Testament) are in and out of jail virtually all the time. They refused to give absolute allegiance to any civil authorities. Indeed, Jesus was crucified at the hands of religious and government leaders, always a toxic mixture.
Yet they were urged to pay taxes, which is a recognition of the civil government, a way of submitting to that government, even though they would not always obey that government. When the government put them in jail, they didn’t flee, but went to jail, a way of submitting to that government, even though they would not always obey that government.
Romans 13 is not a blanket teaching for obeying the civil government. It is a call to participate in the civil order (even when the civil order wasn’t or isn’t civil).
There are two long traditions in the history of the Church that square with Romans 13:1-7. One is participating in the civil order, by citizenship for all and, for some, by serving in the government. The other is what we often call “civil disobedience,” that is, peacefully resisting any government law or order that violates the faith. In that tradition, notable to Americans is Martin Luther King, Jr. He consistently disobeyed civil government when it conflicted with his understanding of God’s law. He consistently was arrested and jailed. When he was released, he continued speaking prophetically, and often paying a price for it. If his method was non-violence, it was often met with violence from the civil authorities. He and his co-workers were regularly roughed up and sometimes beaten for participating in the long tradition of civil disobedience. King has become the great model for this tradition in the United States, but he is but one of an unnumbered multitude that have done the same thing, before him and after him.
While in a Birmingham AL jail, King wrote one of his most moving and prophetic letters, addressed to the white pastors of Birmingham that stood with the civil government in wanting to slow down or stop the movement for civil rights. Every American should read it on occasion.
Back to Paul’s letter to the Romans in general, and chapter 13 in particular, no simple exegetical cherry-picking without regard to context and content that attempts to speak to the horrendous situation of the American executive branch separating children from their parents can stand as responsible and faithful to the letter and spirit of the New Testament. The kingdom of God always demands greater loyalty and allegiance than any civil government.
Application for today:
We must be careful to understand both the original context and content rather than simply lifting words, inspired by God, nearly 2,000 years ago and placing them on our time and context. Still, these words from Romans 13 are the word of the living God and speak to us today as they did to the Church in Rome in the 1st century. But the contexts for then and now are decidedly different. The life settings of Christians living in 1st century Rome and 21st century Americans are decidedly different.
Stephen Colbert, in his response to Mr. Sessions’s misquoting of Romans 13:1, moved further into the chapter to find these words: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” That teaching is consistent with the entire pattern of Jesus’ ministry and New Testament teaching.
In attempting to defend Sessions’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the Bible has much to say about “enforcing the law.” Not in Romans 13. It would be interesting to hear more from Ms. Sanders on where and what the Bible says about enforcing the law.
People of good will and informed patriotism may disagree about issues related to the securing of our southern border, about how we treat immigrants and refugees, and about how we apply laws concerning such people. But any attempt to bolster one’s views with Biblical teaching should take a longer look at what the Bible says about God’s law and civil law, about the treatment of immigrants and refugees, about the treatment of the poor, the weak, the widow and the orphan, and about family.
[Much of the background material above is from the introduction to Romans in “How to Read the Bible Book by Book,” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.]