Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13:1-7 in order to defend the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from their parents among groups of people seeking to enter the country. Mr. Sessions, and later Sarah Huckabee Sanders, cited the Bible in order to ward off criticism that further traumatizing those who are fleeing already traumatic situations is morally outrageous and shockingly inhumane.
It is worth considering the thrust of Paul’s exhortations to the Roman Christians to discern whether such appeals to Christian Scripture are faithful.
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to subject themselves to the governing authorities and warns them against rebelling. He bases this on the reality that the authorities that exist are established by God. They are “God’s servants” for the Roman Christians’ good.
- Does this mean that governments can inflict injustice without the objection of Christian people?
- And does Paul enjoin Christians to endorse the government without question and turn a blind eye to its pursuit of injustice?
A few thoughts:
(1) Paul’s instruction here is similar to Jeremiah’s, in a letter he sent to the exiles in Babylon:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:4-7).
As a vulnerable and traumatized community relocated to the heart of the imperial power, God’s people were to cultivate internal practices of mutual care, love and economic sharing, while also blessing the surrounding culture.
In the same way, Paul writes a pastoral letter to a network of small groups of Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire. He is not writing an abstract theological treatise that touches on a timeless theology of the secular state. He is giving the Roman Christians wisdom to navigate their situation fruitfully as a vulnerable community in need of resolving internal disputes and maintaining community cohesion.
(2) Just as Jeremiah’s exhortation to the exiles in Babylon is not an endorsement of the goodness of the Babylonian empire or the rightness of its actions, so too, Paul’s exhortations are not an endorsement of the Roman empire or the rightness of its actions.
Jeremiah and Paul address the manner in which their audiences ought to see their situations in order for them to make a way forward fruitfully and faithfully. They are to seek peace and avoid rebelling.
If Jeremiah intended to speak of the Babylonian empire in itself, which he does in chapters 50-51, he would speak of the empire’s injustice and inhumanity, of how God is going to destroy Babylon, avenging its cruelty and appetite for destruction with such breathtaking completeness that it will become “an object of horror among the nations” (Jer 51:41). Addressing nations in themselves, the prophets routinely refer to them as ravenous beasts that destroy the earth and mistreat the vulnerable. The God of Israel stands against these entities in judgment and will destroy them thoroughly.
In the same way, if Paul were to speak of the character of the Roman Empire in itself, he would likely take up the prophetic critique (as John does in Revelation) and refer to Rome as a ravenous beast that plunders the earth, cruelly mistreats the vulnerable and seduces churches into compliance and accommodation. Because of these evils, God will come against Rome in fearsome judgment.
Paul’s description of governing authorities as “servants of God” is meant to shape the imagination of the Roman Christians so that they do not contemplate rebellion but rather focus on unifying their communities and caring for one another. This does not imply that governments can do what they please and that the church owes them unquestioning support. If anything, it indicates that ruling authorities are not ultimate, but are accountable to the one true God, and the vulnerable Roman Christian communities can rest in confidence that the Judge of all the earth misses nothing and will judge the “servants of God” rightly.
(3) The pressing issue giving rise to Paul’s words here is most likely the burden of taxation.
A heavy tax load on the Jewish Christians is exacerbating the developing divisions in the Roman church. Robert Jewett notes that Nero’s administration was wary of people fleeing localities to avoid paying taxes (Romans, p. 799). Jewish Christians who were banished from Rome in 49 and who returned in 54 may have been susceptible to an unusually burdensome series of taxes.
In light of a temptation to join the tax revolt movement, Paul commands the Roman Christians to be in subjection (vv. 1, 5) and to continue to pay the taxes owed (vv. 6-7). Because God is a God of order, and the governing authorities in some way are “servants of God,” the Roman Christians are to order themselves rightly, taking their place in subjection to authorities. Paul does not exhort his readers to endorse, or even to be supportive of the governing authorities. But they must not rebel against the authorities for they would be opposing God, resisting his rule.
(4) Some conclusions regarding the bearing of Paul’s text on contemporary Christians:
- Romans 13:1-7 enjoins us to remember that the church is not an entity that rebels against governing authorities. Rather than being an agent of social chaos and insurrection, the church seeks peace, cultivates a fruitful community life of service and sharing and creatively blesses the surrounding culture. Paul’s exhortations go thus far and no further.
- To make Romans 13 a totalizing text for a Christian understanding of modern national governments is to misunderstand Paul’s exhortations in Romans. It also ignores the complex portrayal of Scripture when it comes to nations and empires. On one hand, these play a role in the structure of God’s good world, but on the other, they are demonically inspired, ravenous beasts headed for God’s judgment.
- Paul does not speak to the prophetic role the church ought to play when it comes to nations or governments enacting policies and practices of inhumanity and cruel injustice. Without raising an armed rebellion, the church ought to rise up and prophetically decry such cruelty and advocate for those who are mistreated.
- It is a gross misappropriation of this text to claim that it gives warrant to governments to treat the vulnerable cruelly. Paul indicates that governing authorities are ultimately subject to God. The prophets of Israel say the same. Governments that enact cruel policies against the vulnerable can expect that the wrath of the God of Israel is aroused against them.
This is the same God who spoke these terrifying words, not to Babylon, but to Israel, God’s own people:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exod 22:21-24).
The cries of traumatized mothers and fathers, and the terrified screams of children ripped from their parents are doubtless arising to the very God whom Mr. Sessions invokes to support his policy of terrorizing the already-traumatized.
Mr. Sessions and Ms. Huckabee Sanders ought to consider carefully how they invoke Christian Scripture. American Christians ought also to consider the terrifying warnings of the God they claim to worship, who takes up the cause of the orphan and the mistreated foreigner (Deut 10:18), threatening God’s own people with death and destruction.