Over the weekend, the United States Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, cited the Apostle Paul as a form of support for our government’s draconian “no tolerance” policy that separates children from their parents should the parents illegally enter the U.S. Aside from the unjust practice of punishing innocent children for alleged crimes of their parents, Romans 13 has been woefully misappropriated to justify what is arguably the opposite of Paul’s intent in this celebrated chapter. That is my focus in what follows.[Since this will be longer than a more typical post here are the conclusions which I draw. First, Romans 13 cannot be used legitimately to support any particular governmental policy or program, at any time. Second, nor should it be read as a command for Jesus-followers to support the government regardless of its policies. Third, it is a reminder that government, as such, is good but not absolute; and that leaders are accountable and will answer to God, if to no one else. And, fourth, followers of Jesus have a mission to accomplish with or without the assistance of government, and they are the people called and equipped to demonstrate the good that all governments seek as they give themselves to love. Read on to see why I make such conclusions.]
Before observing what the Apostle Paul says in this highly celebrated text on the Christian’s duty to governing authorities, and then suggesting a reading quite different from our Attorney General’s, here are some important orienting reminders.
Jesus described his followers in this way:“You are in the world but not of the world (values, goals, identity, destiny not to be drawn from the world),” (John 17:16). Paul elaborates by saying (Phil. 3:20-21): You are of the Kingdom (values, goals, identity, destiny are drawn from and rooted in the Kingdom) but in the world (with missional calling). Followers of Jesus are in the world, located within a homeland and conditioned by civil government, in order to bear witness to the kingdom, subverting and transforming the kingdoms of this world.
As we read what Paul writes in Romans 13, we must recognize, own, and as much as possible put aside our point of view in order to consider that Paul may have different points to make than we otherwise can see. (I am not suggesting here anything other than good Scripture Study principles, whatever the passage or issue under consideration.) Here are some common features of our point of view.
Most of us assume that governments are not all that bad, and include many decent people who usually act in good faith, or could if they would. We also assume that the government per se has a legitimate role to play alongside the kingdom of God/church. In fact, since the Protestant Reformation it has been common to think there are two spheres of order or power that are sanctioned by God—the kingdom of God, reflected in the church (we hope and expect!) and the secular world of governmental structures and agencies. Both, we assume, are sanctioned by God to do quite separate things.
Such assumptions predispose us to read Romans 13 a certain way, namely, we have certain duties as citizens of a secular government, which are different from other duties we have as Christians and church members. As a result, we hear the call to submit to government and to obey civil laws as generally good and wise and fully compatible with faithful membership in the church and discipleship with Jesus. In fact, many assume that being good citizens, on such terms as these, is simply an expression of being good Christians.
Here is an important and interesting fact, however. For most of human history few would or could have held this point of view on how following Jesus relates to responding to the government. Instead, imagine that the government was hostile, and its leaders thought themselves divine and godlike, and often acted accordingly. Imagine government that wouldn’t or couldn’t even recognize human rights, dignity or value.
That is the view of people in Jesus’ day and that of his first followers. In that world, might made right. Thus, the powerful and wealthy were always right. The duty of all others was to do whatever was required of them, above all to submit. Good leaders could do good things, but didn’t have to, and often didn’t. Leaders served themselves, their own people, and sought to make a name and glorious reputation for themselves. Most ordinary people were expected to serve the plans and desires of their leaders or pay the consequences.
Therefore, when Paul exhorts his readers to live in submission to the authorities, the Emperor and all his officials, on the surface he was advising what almost everyone did who wanted to survive in such a world. But Paul does not simply espouse the common political wisdom. He speaks in an ironic and subversive way, as an ambassador of the Kingdom to fellow Kingdom envoys. He writes in order to help his readers know how to relate to worldly government to accomplish the goals of the one true God who is King and Lord.
If you read these familiar words quickly, especially assuming our common point of view, it sounds a certain way, but if you know that Paul writes as a “Kingdom-agent” to fellow “agents,” the passage communicates something very different. Note how.
1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.
2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.
3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.
4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.
5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. (Rom. 13:1-5 NLT)
Thus, Paul describes the Roman Empire, and the Emperor who eventually kills him and thousands of other early Christians.
On the surface, Paul writes exactly what the Emperor and governing officials want to hear. But if they could read it carefully and in the context of who the early Christians were, they might think otherwise.
Note that Paul qualifies the governing authorities, their powers, and their responsibilities in four ways. First, he says, (v. 1): everyone (literally, every soul) must submit to governing authorities. That is, everyone who has a soul, must submit to authorities over them. Think about it. Every human being has a soul and therefore every human being has authorities over him or her. Every soul. This is the most general principle.
Here is the point: Caesar, a human being, has a soul. Thus, Caesar also must submit to those over him. He doesn’t know or recognize them perhaps, but even he must submit. Caesar is not God, despite his claims. He is mortal and has a soul. He is accountable, just as every other soul. This is a massive down-sizing of Caesar.
Second, Paul asserts that all power and authority come from God. All governance traces back to God’s plan and wisdom. Anyone in authority should know that they would not have any power whatsoever without God’s permission or authorization. In other words, Caesar is not Lord, God is Lord. And so Caesar is no less accountable to God than any of the rest of us.
Again, this is another massive down-sizing of Caesar. This would be an affront if stated so boldly as this, but that is what Paul is saying for those with ears to hear. All of us must submit to the authorities—it is only right to do—ahem, you too, your Majesty!
Third, Paul then dares to revise the job description of the authorities. He says their job is to advocate, champion, promote and reward good. That is why they are in office. Likewise, they are to expose, correct, condemn and stop evil. That is why they are in office. If that is so, then of course that is precisely why we would want to support and submit to them, and should. That is why we would never fear them, because we know what God wants them to do.
Do you see the irony here? Let me illustrate this using the current situation with immigrant peoples on our southern border. Suppose the leaders of a church wrote their members a letter urging them to holy, loving and missional responses to this sad set of circumstances. As they begin they stress that followers of Jesus should be sure to support and follow the lead of our President Donald Trump. They should because it is surely God’s will for us to do so. After all, President Trump knows that God created all persons in God’s image with incredible dignity, and that includes all ethnicities, both men and women, and especially children. And speaking of children, the President of the U.S. has historically championed the cause of the vulnerable, regardless of their political party. In fact, as we all know, it is the President’s job to see that all are treated with equal respect and treated with the utmost justice. God stands behind our government and its leaders to see that vulnerable people, certainly children, receive care and protection, even if their parents should place them in danger. Surely the President of our great country will step up to such God ordained responsibility.
I am guessing that many members of the church would read or hear the letter and say, “Right on!” and totally miss the point. Others would exclaim, “What?” Hopefully, though, they would eventually get the points: they must respect the President, but not betray the principles of God’s Kingdom, and as they have opportunity they should call the President to accept the responsibilities of his office as would please God.
Just as we might say, “Well, I’m not sure we can trust the President to act in such ways (or, I’m quite sure he cannot be trusted to do so),” so Paul’s readers would have said of Caesar. Paul calls for submission to governing authorities but does so in a way, with a wink perhaps, to remind us that God has a plan, and a way, that must be respected above all, and if not by the leaders, then the leaders themselves will answer for it! He also reminds them, and us, of one other very important conviction.
Fourth, Paul reminds them that what the laws of governing authorities are truly meant to do—to facilitate human well-being and flourishing—ultimately is beyond their competence to do, and should not be trusted to do. Here is how he makes the point. He lists a number of obligations imposed by the laws of the land, such as to pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. (Rom. 13:6-7 NLT). The point in all of this is to work for a stable and peaceful life for all people. That is how Caesar would read Paul.
But then Paul goes on to assert that what the government really would like to accomplish, the realization of human flourishing for all people, can never happen apart from the love of God, at the heart of gospel, that fills the heart, sets people free, and makes them a new kind of people. In fact, he tells them they should accept one primary form of obligation or indebtedness—to love one another, which fulfills the law completely. He then lists the major laws most governments enact only to declare them fulfilled not by obeying the laws of the land, but by “loving your neighbor as yourself,” (Rom. 13:8-10).
In the rest of the chapter, Paul moves seamlessly from talking about taxes and the like to talking about love that fulfills the law, all of it, and reminds his readers that they/we are the people who are able to fulfill this “debt of love” toward all. That is who we are, how we live, and what God wants to accomplish through us. Whatever the government may do or not do, however friendly it is to us or not, the authorities are accountable, they are not God, their day is coming. Meanwhile our day has already arrived. The day of salvation—not only the salvation of our individual lives, but also the rescue of the creation of humanly imposed folly and futility—has dawned, and we have a mission, and accomplishing it is the all-important thing.
So, again, here are my conclusions:
- Romans 13 cannot be used legitimately to support any particular governmental policy or program, at any time. It is not a sanction for governmental policy or a call to unqualified support for leaders.
- Therefore, it must not be taken as a command for Jesus-followers to support the government uncritically, regardless of its policies.
- It is a reminder that government, as such, is good but not absolute; and that leaders are accountable and will answer to God, if to no one else. It is a subversive down-sizing of the god-like pretensions that leaders sometimes have.
- Followers of Jesus have a mission to accomplish with or without the assistance of government, and as they give themselves to love in the way of Jesus they are the people called and equipped to demonstrate the good that all governments seek.