Forgive my hastily compiled thoughts, but I figured this was an appropriate topic to offer some reflections on after the recent claims made by some very high profile figures regarding a particularly misunderstood Bible passage.
First of all, the Gospel should never be compromised by partisanship or your political preferences. This applies to conservatives and liberals. And Christians of all persuasions (myself included) are guilty of putting ideology before their faith. But this is a failure to abide by the standards set forth by the New Testament. It should go without saying that the commandments of Jesus should never be trumped (pun intended) by the policies of the political party you support.
The appropriation and misuse of Romans 13:1-2 in recent days by figures within the government reveals the true priorities of those who have attempted to find support from the Bible for the inhumane treatment of immigrant children.
Because this part of the Epistle to the Romans is such a rich text, there are numerous avenues of interest that cannot be explored here. So these reflections are barely touching the surface on how and why some interpret Romans 13 so mistakenly. So even if we put aside important textual and exegetical aspects of interpreting Romans 13 faithfully, a few basic questions and problems arise concerning the unconditioned claim that Christians should obey governing authorities and the laws they put in place.
The first problem with this claim and those who have made it (Sessions, Pence and others) is that even they don’t follow it consistently. The other is that our ultimate obligation is to obey God rather than men when the two obligations are in conflict/disagreement (cf. Acts 5:29). For the true Christian, God’s law always takes precedence over human law. Submission to governing authorities is only applicable to the extent that a law is not contrary to God’s revealed will. We submit to authority when appropriate, but where the laws contradict God’s will, we disobey them (in a Christ-like manner) and then submit to the government’s penalty for doing so; as Jesus, Paul and the early church martyrs modeled, at the cost of their lives.
If Romans 13 means that Christians are to submit to authority in every detail, then what about the early Christians, who refused to worship Caesar and were martyred for it? Were they disobeying God by choosing not to worship Caesar? On another ironic note, most conservative American Christians who interpret Romans 13 as teaching that we are to render total submission to governments also happen to adore the founding fathers. But if they apply their reading of Romans 13 consistently, they would then ultimately have to conclude that the American Revolution was in direct contradiction to God’s ordinances since the American colonists were rebelling against their government. How then should we view Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany? Were they also mistaken in their resistance against the Nazi regime? Was Martin Luther King Jr. also in the wrong to refuse to submit to the legal orders forbidding his marches and demonstrations? If this reading of Romans 13 was true, then Christians shouldn’t have opposed slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation. If this reading of Romans 13 is applied in the same manner as it has been to the treatment of immigrant children, then why should we oppose abortion, since it was legalized 1973?
The truth is that people like Sessions and Pence don’t apply their own convictions consistently when it comes to Romans 13. They choose to read Romans 13 a certain way because it protects their assumptions and their agendas. Christian’s are simply not called to give unquestioning obedience to every particular law or policy of the State. That is a deeply mistaken reading of Romans 13. Obviously Christians were right not to submit to Caesar or to Hitler. Christians were and are right to oppose slavery, segregation, abortion and now the inhumane treatment of immigrants. When our allegiance to Christ appears to conflict with the call to submit to authority, our submission to Christ should always come first.
If we read Romans 13 contextually and in light of broader New Testament teachings, it is clear that believers are to challenge and resist unjust laws and policies (again in a Christ-like fashion). Furthermore, we are then expected to submit to the punishment that a government may impose as a result of our actions (See the rest of Romans 13 and many NT commentators on this idea).
Throughout history, this popular misinterpretation of Romans 13 has unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) become a highly convenient way to justify injustice biblically, especially for those who want to implement their political agenda. In fact, as many have noted, Romans 13 has been a favorite proof-text of many tyrants, including the Nazis and slave-owners.
If you have political preferences, that’s okay. And it’s okay for Christians to have disagreements in the realm of politics. But our faith should never be relegated to the second tier, particularly when we have clear guidance from Christ and from Scripture.
And when it comes to the treatment of immigrants, Jesus and the Bible place compassion above all else (See Lev 19:33-34, Deut 27:19, Eze 47:22, Zech 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2 for starters).
Romans 13:1-2 cannot be read in a vacuum. The surrounding texts qualify what submission should look like. Likewise, we must remember that Romans was written to a specific context during a specific time. We cannot just pluck Bible passages out as if they are all little nuggets of truth that exist on their own and are meant to read by us in the same manner as they were in the 1st century of the Roman Empire.
This post was also shared on the wondering eagle blog, which can be found here.