A Reflection on Romans 13 in light of its use by Attorney General Sessions

By Steve Flowers

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7, NRSV)

Romans 13 was brought to mainstream attention when U.S. Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions referenced it on June 14, 2018 as part of justifying a change in immigration policy that included separating children from their parents. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs released the AG’s prepared speech online which was entitled “Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders.” It includes this excerpt:

Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law.

First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Most Christians tended to judge the AG’s remarks based more on their personal view of the measure that separated children and the larger issue of immigration as a whole than they did his application of Romans 13. But is it a correct understanding of Romans 13 that God and Paul (the writer of Romans) have given Christians a “clear and wise command” to always “obey the laws of the government?” No, it is not. You’ll have to continue reading to see why, but my only goal here is to reflect on Romans 13:1-7, not argue for or against any U.S. immigration policy.

My reflection will be guided by interacting with a sequence of filtering questions. Each question strains out smaller and smaller impurities to our interpretive method, leaving us with what I believe is the best material on which to meditate. The series of questions can be adapted to any biblical passage to help understand and apply it.

What is the purpose of the Bible?

However you decide to interpret/apply Romans 13:1-7, it must first fit within your understanding of the Bible as a whole, including how the Bible is inspired. This is the first (and arguably most important) filter that sifts out the biggest contaminants of incorrect biblical interpretation.

“The Bible is the Word of God which means we must obey its commandments!”

Word of God? Yes. Giant Holy Rulebook? No.

All Christians look to the Bible for guidance and direction to be applied in their lives, but the Bible’s primary function is not to codify laws for human living. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal Jesus. Its inspiration and interpretation are both Jesus-centric so every application of scripture must be worked out through that lens. For greater explanation, see The Jesus Criterion series (particularly posts 9, 10, and 14) also found here on Stories From A Village (shameless plug now concluded).

Why did Paul write Romans?

However you decide to interpret/apply Romans 13:1-7, it must also fit within your understanding of what Paul’s intention and historical setting was when he wrote the book.

Paul writes a long theological argument to the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church at Rome who were having serious problems figuring how to “do church” together. The following is excerpted from a blog post by Dr. Pete Enns in which he includes a summary of Romans:

Paul is arguing in Romans that what marks off the people of God amid the pagan culture isn’t… particular segments of the Mosaic Law, however cherished and biblical they were, but “faith” in Jesus… Because Paul’s central concern in Romans isn’t “Here’s how you go to heaven”… But Paul’s central concern is really a question: “Who constitutes the people of God?” Paul’s answer (if I may paraphrase): “Jews and Gentiles together, on equal footing, united in and marked off by not by observing circumcision and dietary restrictions, but by their common faith that Jesus is God’s final answer to how all the world will be reconciled—and that is why you have to get along and love each other. All of you, Jew and Gentile together, are the new ‘people of God’” (see Romans 13-15).

Why did Paul include Romans 13:1-7?

Our next question includes asking both “What does this passage mean?” and “How does it fit into the context of the surrounding passages?” Scholars see the greater context of Romans chapters 12-15 as Paul’s pragmatic teaching on how to live in Christian unity. In particular, note the very next three verses Paul wrote in Romans 13 which echoes what Jesus said was the second greatest commandment:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 NRSV)

So why did Paul seemingly ordain a hybrid monarchy/aristocracy like the Roman Empire as an instrument of God’s purposes in 13:1-7 in the middle of speaking about church unity? He didn’t. Paul is not consecrating governments or giving them a pass. He is admonishing church behavior. He is not speaking to the government’s actions but the church’s. Any primary application of Romans 13:1-7 today has to address what it is saying the church is to do.  Applying the passage to mean Christians must accept all the actions a government takes is not being true to its original meaning.

So what is Paul saying to the church? Well, if you find someone beginning a sentence “Therefore whoever resists authority” (13:2), then it’s probably because there has been a problem with someone resisting authority. Some group within the church was the cause of some unknown resistance to the point that, if continued, the empire would likely take action against them. Paul knew that Emperor Claudius previously expelled Jewish Christians from Rome, at least in part for being viewed as religious deviants by not sacrificing to the Roman gods. So as Paul writes Romans some 5-15 years after that expulsion and having heard of this new resistance, he knows that Rome is likely already casting a wary eye upon the current Christian church as a potentially rebellious sect.

Paul believes that when governments keep order, it creates the space where the church can work its mission. And for Paul, the mission of the church is first and foremost to always be about influencing others toward Jesus. But if part of the church is creating chaos, not only is the church not unified but Paul knows the church’s capability to work its mission will be reduced (if not eliminated altogether).

In Romans 12-15, Paul is telling the church that how you conduct yourselves as a body of believers, whether it is internal to them or external to the government, will directly affect your unity. This, in turn, will determine how effective a church will be at the mission to which it was called. A church consumed with division that seeks uniformity of piety or extremism to intimidate governments is not unified and, thus, cannot accomplish its mission.

How are we to apply Romans 13:1-7 today?

Well, what we do not do is proof text the passage to support personally held political beliefs. That form of biblical interpretation is called eisegesis. It happens when we impose our personal ideologies or biases into a passage instead of studying the scripture to draw out what the author intended then and God intends today.

So how do we apply it? If God breathed Jesus through the storytellers, authors, editors, scribes, and councils that formed our Bible, then inspiration is not complete until we breathe Jesus through our lives. Jesus is breathed out upon all people through this passage when the church works together not to nurture chaos but to embrace unity in Christ. We do this not for the sake of the government but for the sake of the mission Jesus entrusted to us— loving God by loving others in order to break in “the kingdom of God.”

One last note— What if you believe a government is conducting its self unjustly? Paul is not addressing that topic in Romans 13. A Christian response to that question requires a deeper understanding of both the whole of the Bible and the acts Jesus is doing through the Holy Spirit today. However, Paul did add a nugget in 13:4 that must be included in that discussion. He states that God has put authorities in place “for your good.” Paul implies there is an accountability standard of what God desires for a government— that it conducts itself for the good of the people.

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