Scripture informs how I spend my money, where we live, how we are raising our daughter, my vocation, how I love my husband and how my family interacts with our neighbors. Scripture is the driving force for how I vote and how I engage with our government.
Because of the centrality of scripture in my life, when someone twists the bible to defend unjust laws, I cannot keep silent
Yesterday, Jeff Sessions claimed that Romans 13:1 gave permission for the Justice Department to rip children from their parent’s arms. And while our country needs to have an honest and civil debate in Congress about immigration, twisting scripture to promote immoral laws is not okay.
So, what does Romans 13 really mean and how should we apply it?
The letter of Romans is written to the church in Rome, which most Romans considered a sect of Judaism. At the time of writing this letter, Rome was ruled by Nero. This letter was written before Nero started to persecute Christians. Rome was not considered “a good moral government.” Quite the opposite. Rome is referred to as Babylon in scripture. It is the “whore” that entices others into their riches. And while I believe that the United States shares a shocking resemblance – especially under this administration – to Rome, the United States is not actually the backdrop of this letter.
Jewish people felt repressed in this government. Rome had expelled all Jewish people around 40 AD, during the rain of Claudius. Jewish people could return to Rome after Claudius death. The Jewish people, who were predominately poor, were dispersed across Rome. “When Jewish people felt repressed for their ethnic and religious practices, submission to civil authorities was the ultimate example of nonresistance an attitude that they did not always achieve.” according to Craig S. Keener. We see this sentiment in Romans 12: 17-21 ending with “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Those who chose to obey saw obedience as a form of civil disobedience to the Roman government.
When Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” he was writing in this context. Paul wasn’t arguing for them to be submissive because of the justness of the Roman government. Following and obeying unjust governments was a form of civil disobedience that we see in the Old Testament. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel all are examples of a non-resistant form of obedience, by bringing God’s kingdom to where they were despite living under unjust regimes.
But following the law was only allowed – even according to Paul – until the law called the people to disobey God’s law. The early church was asked to disobey the Roman government by not participating in the Imperial Occult. John urges the early church to “Be faithful, even to the point of death” in their disobedience to the government.
I believe that as an individual citizen, I am called to obey the laws of the land, even when I don’t agree with them. But Paul’s words do not give me permission to abandon God’s law. When the government infringes on my ability to obey God, then I must disobey. Like Paul, I will gladly choose to be in chains for the gospel rather than abandon my belief in Christ.
Daniel illustrates how to follow this verse. As a young man, he is kidnapped with other Israelite men and brought into King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. There he serves the king, but he also follows God’s commands. Through his service, he earns Nebuchadnezzar’s trust. However, the moment that Nebuchadnezzar asks him to disobey God, he stands up to Nebuchadnezzar. He submits to the consequence of disobeying the law, but because he did good, and not evil, God rescues him.
This is what Paul is asking people to do. Like Daniel, the church is Rome is living under a bad government. But the church still is being asked to obey the government out of civil disobedience.
Like the church in Rome, I believe we live under an unjust government that values money and power over God’s law. I also believe that I’m asked to obey and to earn the favor of those around me. I will pay taxes, and as Jeremiah urged, I will pray for this country. I will be a good citizen as a testimony to Jesus. But the moment that this country asks me to defy my God, I will do good and obey God.
Asking me to stay silent in the presence of injustice, is asking me to disobey God. I follow in the footsteps, of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my unwillingness to back away from calling out unjust systems, because I believe in this passage and the entire Bible. But because I believe in Romans 13:1, when I stand up to our government, I also must suffer the earthly consequences. But like Daniel, because I’m doing good, my God will protect me.
Romans 13:1-3 is an opportunity for us to testify that we believe that God’s kingdom is the actual kingdom and that Rome – and by extension, the United States – only has power as long as God allows it. So, I obey the United States laws only if they don’t contradict God’s laws. Romans 13 also demands that I must always do what’s right, including call out unjust laws.
Romans 13:1 is not Instruction for a Government.
Paul did not intend for a government to use Romans 13 to place chains on people’s necks. The verses are instruction for those of us who believe in Jesus. And if you are a Christian politician then living by Romans 13:1 means also living by Romans 13:9-10, “and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13 does not give you permission to act unjustly, but it does command you to love our neighbors in South America and Central America.
This verse was written to a specific church at a specific time. And while we can learn from it, taking it out of context and applying it blindly to give permission to an oppressive regime is propaganda. And shame on any politician who uses the bible to apply chains of injustice.
There are actually verses about immigration and verses about how we treat the stranger, our neighbors, and immigrants. Here are a few of those verses:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34
Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. Zechariah 7:9-10
You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. Ezekiel 47:22
I wish our elected officials would use these to debate how we treat our neighbors to the South.
But Jeff Sessions, please don’t pervert the bible for your own means again. Paul is not giving you, or any other government the ability to rip children out of their mother’s hands. Instead, he commands you – and me – to love our neighbor. As a mom of a young child, I can tell you that taking a child away from their parents is not love and therefore not following Romans 13.