A guest post by Josiah Callaghan and Van Rue. Josiah who recently graduated from Bethel in St. Paul. Minnesota writes about what the application of Romans 13 means. Van Rue formerly of Mars Hill Seattle writes about the immigration situation on the southern United States border.
“Authority and power are two different things: power is the force by means of which you can oblige others to obey you. Authority is the right to direct and command, to be listened to or obeyed by others. Authority requests power. Power without authority is tyranny.”
“Authority is mainly a moral power; therefore, it must first call upon the conscience, that is, upon the duty that each person has to contribute willingly to the common good.“
Pope John XXIII
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Romans 13:1 NKJV
From the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. I am posting this picture of Nazi memorabilia as we are looking at Romans 13 today.
Inter varsity Press on Detrich Bonhoeffer
So I have been spending this weekend buried in notes and more from a long conversation regarding the next church story The Wondering Eagle is going to tell. Its very dark, it deals with a 9 Marks church in the Southern United States, and how a daughter was turned against her parents. I am hoping to get it up in the next week. As I worked on that Van Rue from Seattle contacted me and asked if he could publish a post about the immigration situation on the southern United States border. Van Rue has written a couple of posts to include, “Guest Post: Van Rue, Former Member of Mars Hill Seattle Writes About Shepherding Theology” and “Guest Post: Van Rue Formerly of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle on Shepherding Theology. Looking at Membership Covenants and Church Discipline.” I told him that is fine and that I would be happy to run that for him. While processing that post and figuring out how to do this, I came across a social media post by Josiah Callaghan on what Romans 13 application means. Josiah graduated from Bethel in St. Paul, Minnesota in the fall of 2017. He was accepted into Luther Seminary into their M.A. program for Bible of which he is excited. Josiah has some good things to say so I hope that in the future he can do this again. The second part of Josiah’s post comes from Michael Gorman. I just want to make sure that is attributed correctly. As long as we are looking at Romans 13, John Fea of Messiah College put out some great posts on the subject. I will list those below.
- “Alan Jacobs: Most Evangelicals “are simply not *formed* by Christian teaching…”
- “Romans 13 and the Patriots.“
- “When the Bible Gets Caught-Up in an Immigration Debate.”
- “*The New York Times* on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13.”
- “More From *The Washington Post* on Sessions and Romans 13.“
Thanks guys please know that you are loved.
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.
Consider the following reminders by esteemed New Testament scholar Michael Gorman;
“Romans 13 and Nonconformity: The Christian Community’s Obligation to Oppose Inhumane Laws and Practices
Thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (explicitly) and Sarah Sanders (implicitly), Romans 13 (actually, only 13:1-7—and this point is important; see below) is in the news. This part of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians is being cited as justification for calling those who take the Bible as a moral guide to support and follow all U.S. immigration laws, policies, and practices. This text is especially being cited in support of separating parents and children at the U.S. border.
It would take a lot of space to fully critique their argument.
But here, in a nutshell (ten short points), is why what is happening at the border is not only instinctively morally repelling, but also a misreading of Romans 13:
1. Various aspects of the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 are debated, but its main original intent was to say to the Roman Christians, “Pay your taxes” (Romans 13:7). The text is not a call to blind obedience to all authorities and laws.
2. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it can only mean what it means in light of its context. That is, it cannot be ripped from its context in the letter to the Romans. But this is what Sessions and Sanders have done.
3. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it cannot be understood in a way that contradicts its context.
4. The immediate context of Romans 13:1-7 is the entirety of Romans 12 and 13. In Romans 12 and 13, Paul sets out basic guidelines for the Christian communities in Rome, and for us.
5. Those guidelines begin with a call for *nonconformity to this age,* a radical transformation of attitudes and practices that is appropriate to those who have benefited from God’s mercy in Christ. This spirit of nonconformity and transformation is the prerequisite for knowing and doing God’s will. And it is the fundamental framework for everything that follows. See Romans 12:1-2.
6. After a discussion of various gifts in the body of Christ, Paul calls on the Christian community to practice a radical, genuine form of love that corresponds to the love they have received from God in Christ. This includes hating what is evil and practicing the good; showing hospitality to strangers; loving enemies; weeping with those who weep; associating with the lowly; blessing persecutors; not repaying evil for evil; practicing peace toward all; not seeking vengeance for harm done; and overcoming evil with good. See Romans 12:9-21. The call to this lifestyle is what immediately precedes Romans 13:1-7.
7. Immediately after Romans 13:1-7 is “the rest of the story”: what Romans 13 says as a whole. Here we find another radical call to neighbor-love and a call to avoid the works of darkness by putting on Christ. See Romans 13:8-14.
8. This context for Romans 13:1-7 means that the Christian community must not follow any authority or law that calls them to violate these basic Christian principles. Rather than being a blanket call to obedience, Romans 13:1-7—when read in context—actually supports Christian opposition to many laws and practices.
9. Sessions and Sanders have missed the point of “Romans 13.” If the practices and laws they are defending manifest the opposite of the basic Christian ethic described in Romans 12-13, it is the duty of Christians to oppose those inhumane practices and laws that they are justifying, in part, by their misuse of Scripture.
10. Christians must also be prepared to try to offer humane alternatives to the practices and laws they oppose.” -Michael Gorman (Facebook post)
Van Rue’s Post
The Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Session III yesterday paraphrased Romans 13:1 to justify the Federal Governments cruel forced separation of families at the US border. Jefferson’s argument extremely troubling, essentially to him whatever the government does becomes the will of God himself. This is serious theological issue that places God under the authority of man. Historically Romans 13:1 was the same scripture often used to perpetuate the horrible godless institution of slavery. Stephen Colbert eloquently sermonized in response Jefferson Beauregard Session III neglected the scriptures shortly after…specifically Romans 13:10… “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” See Stephen Colbert’s sermon here
Jefferson Beauregard Session III’s defense this horrible cruelty couldn’t get more loathsome in its abandonment of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, contained in every person and value that God himself places on the blessing of family. I am once again shocked at a new low theologically, morally and relationally that I couldn’t previously comprehend, so I am urgently requesting your help.
As reported on 6/15/18 by Reuters, 2000 children were separated from their parents at the border in a about 41 days, which could result in estimated total of about 20k children separated per year. As previously reported, the government last year “lost” 1475 or about 35% of all children who arrived unaccompanied in 2017. Extrapolating those numbers, its reasonable risk that 7,000 or more children could be “lost” and never seen by their families again under the current system. Since no effort nor any requirement of reuniting these families has never been legislated, federal agencies can essentially do as they wish and it could be vastly more ruinous than even these preliminary numbers suggest. Potentially and from a legal perspective, these 20,000 children and at least 20,000 parents have no assured hope of ever being reunited again. This to me represents an even more horrible level of government abuse than when people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps during WWII, as at least then efforts were made to keep families and even communities together. As such, the risk of permanent separation now may even exceed even that sad chapter in the violation of our Constitution.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits slavery. Slavery was a multi-faceted system that encompassed many unique social and economic elements, the two most commonly known were the treating of humans as property and forced labor without any wages. A lesser known but probably even more horrific and damaging aspect unique to slavery was the forced separation of families, as spouses and children could be taken away or sold at the will and whim of the master. A question then arises if the 13th Amendment can be applied to prevent the forced separation of children of families who have not been convicted or even indicted with a crime?
At the core of a legal question to me is does the 13th Amendment prohibit only the complete set of Slavery’s elements in combination? Or does it prohibit each aspect of slavery separately? Strong evidence that the 13th covers each of the individual aspects of slavery separately are US prisons who pay their incarcerated workers even a small wage for work or prison duties. If the issue of prison wages can be tied to the 13th Amendment, I believe the forced separation of families can as well. There are also additional Constitutional issues of due process of law and the immigration authorities acting in power as a Court only can, as well as previous rulings regarding the internment of people of Japanese descent. But I am not a lawyer, so I leave all these questions to those who have more experience.
There currently is no plan, legal method or requirement to ever reunite these children and parents, so it constitutes a de facto permanent separation, and enormous violation of the separation of powers and loss of due process to probably over 40k people including parents and children per year.
My request is that the Attorney Generals of California Xavier Becerra and Bob Ferguson of Washington States would seek in Federal Court an emergency injunction prohibiting all federal agencies from separating non-convicted families at the border, and ordering the return of the ones previously taken, and I believe the 13 Amendment offers strong legal grounds for such a case.
If you believe as strongly as I do, that a horrific separation of families is both cruel and unbiblical, please sign the petition on Change.org here to Stop the separation of families at the US borders.