On Thursday (June 14, 2018), during a speech about immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took time in a speech on immigration to address concerns raised by “our church friends” about children being separated from their parents at the border by immigration.
Attorney General Sessions said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing. And it protects the weak. It protects the lawful.” (You can hear the entire speech by clicking here. His comments on Romans 13 come around minute 18.)
If you are like me, when you heard the Attorney General’s use of Romans 13, you paused and thought, “I don’t know why, but that doesn’t feel right.”
It is not my intention in this essay to debate the current immigration policies of the American Government. Rather, my intention is to examine Romans 13 and how that passage should effect a Jesus follower’s relationship with his/her government.
To do this, in this essay I will:
- take a brief look at Paul’s relationship to the government,
- look at the context of Romans 13,
- examine at the passage itself,
- and finally, return to Attorney General Sessions’ remarks.
LOOKING AT PAUL AND HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE GOVERNMENT
Before we dive into Romans 13, we first need to understand the author. Since Romans 13 is about the government, there are three things we should know about Paul and his relationship to the Roman Empire.
1) Paul was not a model citizen.
While Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire, he was far from an ideal law-abiding taxpayer.
- Paul was driven from the city of Iconium by “devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city.” (Acts 13:44-52)
- The citizens of Lystra banded together and dragged Paul out of their city where they stoned him to death. (Acts 14:19-20)
- In Philippi, Paul was brought before the magistrates for “throwing the city into confusion, being Jews, and proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for the citizens of Philippi to accept or to believe being Romans.” The magistrates agreed, had Paul beaten, and thrown in prison for the night. (Acts 16:14-40)
- In Thessalonica, Paul’s friend Jason was dragged through the streets and brought before the magistrates because “these men who have upset the world (aka Paul and gang) have come here also.” Once Jason was released, Paul fled the city. (Acts 17:1-10)
- In Jerusalem, Paul’s presence insights mob violence. He is arrested and sent to Caesarea, where he is imprisoned for two years. (Acts 23:23-26:32)
- From Caesarea, Paul is sent to Rome where he lives under house arrest. (Acts 28:30-31 and various letters)
- Paul was finally executed by the Roman Emporer. He was beheaded as an enemy of the Roman Empire.
With hindsight, we call Paul a martyr, the most brilliant theologian in history, and a hero of the faith; but from the perspective of the Roman Empire, Paul was as an anti-government revolutionary who caused problems and incited riots everywhere he went. He was a convicted felon who was executed for his crimes.
2) Paul saw himself as an outsider.
While Paul claimed his Roman citizenship when it benefitted his mission, he saw himself as an outsider. He believed that his identity was redefined when he began to follow Christ. The following passages of Paul demonstrate this redefinition.
In chapter 3 of Philippians, Paul says of himself, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ and may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ… For our citizenship is in Heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body or our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” (For clarity: Law in this passage is referring to the Law of Moses, not the laws of the Roman Empire.)
In 1st Corinthians 9:19-23, he says, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews, I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law though not being myself under the law, sot that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men so that I may by all means save some.”
In Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul did not see himself as a Christian first and other things second. Paul saw himself only as a follower of Christ. It was the only identity that mattered to him. All other identities, like that of a Roman citizen, were tools to further his mission of spreading the love of Jesus.
3) Paul built on what Jesus said, and Jesus saw himself and his followers as outsiders.
If we read what Jesus said in the Gospels and think he is contradicting Paul’s writings, or we read Paul and think he is contradicting Jesus, then we have misunderstood one or both of them.
Paul built his theology on the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Old Testament as understood through the lens of Jesus’s teachings. Before diving into Paul’s understanding of the government, it is therefore important to have a basic understanding of Jesus’ view of the government.
Like Paul after him, Jesus saw himself and his followers as outsiders in the world. Take, for example, his prayer in John 17. In the middle of his prayer to the Father, moments before he was arrested by the Romans, Jesus said:
“I have given them (his followers) Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of the world.”
When Jesus spoke about the government, it was often as a warning to his followers that they were going to be persecuted by those in authority. For example, when sending out his disciples in Matthew 10, Jesus told them:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are going to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say.”
We should also take note that, like Paul, Jesus and seven of his twelve disciples were executed by the government.
- Peter was crucified upside down by the Emporer Nero.
- Andrew was tortured to death by the Roman Proconsul Aegeates.
- James the son of Zebedee was executed by the Roman governor of Judea, Herod Agrippa.
- Philip was beaten, imprisoned, and then crucified in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis.
- Matthew was killed in Ethiopia by King Hertacus.
- Thaddeus was crucified at Edessa.
- Simon the Zealot was crucified in England.
- And, of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem.
I think the most telling passage of how Jesus wanted his followers to deal with the government comes in Matthew 22:15-22. (This passage will be especially important when we get into the details Romans 13 below.)
Some Pharisees (religious teachers who were respected in the community) decided to try and trick Jesus. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
With this question, they think they’ve caught him.
- If he says his followers must pay taxes, then he is declaring allegiance to the Roman Empire and they can discredit him among the Jews who saw the Romans as an occupying force.
- If he says his followers are only to be loyal to God, then they can have him arrested for sedition.
Jesus sees their trick for what it is. He tells them to show him a coin and asks them “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
The religious teachers say, “Caesar’s.”
Jesus replies, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
For Jesus, while his followers lived within a government and therefore had to follow that government’s customs, his followers’ allegiance belonged to God alone.
LOOKING AT WHAT COMES BEFORE ROMANS 13
There is a transition in all of Paul’s letters. In the first part of the letter, Paul focuses mostly on theory/philosophy. In the second part of the letter, Paul discussion is more practical, he focuses on the application of the theory.
In the letter of Romans, that transition happens at the beginning of chapter 12 with the words:
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This transition sets the tone for Paul’s instructions. Followers of Jesus are to stand out from the rest of the world by giving themselves over entirely to following Jesus. Paul sees surrendering yourself to Jesus as an act of worship.
After the initial transition, Paul paints a picture of what he hopes a community of Jesus followers will look like. He sees this community defined by its service to one another and its humility. He reminds them that they are of a larger body and that each body part has its own function. Knowing we each have different gifts, he says we should use them. Paul follows this with instructions on how we should work together:
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.”
The image Paul gives us is of a community that sacrificially cares for one another in good times and bad.
Paul continues this image of a humble community that serves others into the community’s interaction with those outside of it. He says:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
Next, Paul turns to the Old Testament and quotes two passages. First, he looks at Deuteronomy 32:35 to tell his followers not to seek revenge but to let God repay wrongs done to them. He then looks at Proverbs 25:21 to say that when someone does evil toward a follower of Jesus, that follower should “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” by feeding the evil doer when they are hungry and giving them something to drink when they are thirsty.
This is where Romans 13, the passage about a Jesus follower’s relationship to the government begins.
To summarize what comes before Romans 13:
Paul is explaining that following Jesus demands we sacrifice who we are so we look different than the world around us. Rather than how the world behaves, we should be people defined by our humble service of others. We are to be people who love, even when evil is done to us.
Full disclosure, I love Romans 12. It is a passage I revere and strive to emulate. I tell my kids all the time, “If you want to follow Jesus, find the person in the room with the least amount of power and go serve them because that’s where Jesus is.”
It is from this description of Jesus followers as radical self-sacrificing humble servants who love everyone, even those who commit evil against them, that Paul begins his discussion of a Jesus followers relationship to governments.
EXAMINING ROMANS 13
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1a)
Paul begins his discussion of the humble servant’s relationship to the government with a bold proclamation, “Subject yourselves to them.” There are two things I think we need to notice about this opening statement.
First, Paul does not specify which governing authority. It’s not important to Paul which one a Christ follower is under at the moment. This is an important point he will elaborate on in a moment.
Second, consider for a moment the alternative to “be in subjection to the governing authorities.” Keep in mind who you know Paul to be. This is a radical thinker who is constantly being imprisoned by the government who believes he carries with him the power of God. Already, according to Acts, Paul and multiple other church leaders have been freed miraculously freed from imprisonment. Peter walks out of prison while all the guards are miraculously asleep and all the doors are miraculously unlocked. Paul is freed once by an earthquake. Even crazier, Paul is stoned to death only to get back up and walk back into the city. It is not a leap to think, “This government keeps locking us up. We should hold stage a revolution.” Paul begins his conversation about a Jesus followers relationship to the government saying, “I know what you are thinking. Don’t rebel. Subjugate yourself to them.”
For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1b-2)
Paul’s reason for Jesus followers to obey the government is because, for Paul, all power stems from God. Remember what Paul said just a moment ago about seeking revenge? If God wants a government removed, he will bring about its removal. Leave space for his vengeance.
There is something that needs to be said. Just because God has permitted a government to exist, does not mean that government is good or right. Think about Paul’s relationship to the Roman Empire. At every turn, they attempt to stop him from completing his mission of sharing the love of Jesus. Under no circumstances would Paul say that the Roman Empire was the voice of God.
For Jesus and for Paul, the government was a tool. Remember what Jesus said? They are going to beat you and arrest you. When they do, don’t be afraid. I’ll give you the words to say and the message of my love will spread.
Remember what Paul said in 1st Corinthians 9? He only claimed his Roman citizenship when he needed it to take the message of Jesus’ love somewhere. His allegiance was to Jesus alone. When he needed to be a Roman citizen “so he might win some” to Jesus, he acted like a Roman citizen.
Also, notice what Paul says about disobedience to the governing authorities, “they who opposed will receive condemnation on themselves.” I don’t believe that Paul intends that condemnation to be coming from God. It is general condemnation. In modern language, it’s like saying, “All power comes from God. Resisting them is resisting the power that God has given them. So know that if you do it, you’re going to be in a ton of trouble.”
Finally, Paul does not talk about here how Jesus followers should behave when it becomes clear that God is standing in opposition to a governing authority and is moving to remove that governing authority’s power; and we should not fault Paul for that. Paul is not writing an encyclopedia. He’s writing a letter to a specific people (the followers of Jesus in Rome) at a specific moment in history (sometime in 57-58 AD). While it would be nice to have a full compendium on his thoughts every hypothetical situation a Jesus follower might encounter, that’s not what the New Testament is and we should not blame him for that.
For rulers are not a cause for fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. (Romans 13:3-5)
Continuing his discussion of why radical self-sacrificing humble serving Jesus followers who love everyone should submit themselves to whatever governing authority they are under, Paul says, “Do good and you will stay out of their way.”
Again, take note that it is not the governing authority that is defining what is good or evil. Paul would never give a governing authority that power. Only God could ever determine what is good. Every time Paul is arrested, the message Jesus’ love is advanced. Paul would see this as a success because loving others as Jesus loves them is the only thing he cares about (which we will see more in a moment). So for Paul, if we are doing good (aka living as a humble self-sacrificing servant who has dedicated himself to Jesus), then we have nothing to fear.
So what then are governing authorities good for?
As Paul said before, God has given governing authorities power. Welding that power is their job. Ideally, they are welding it to stop evil. Again, Paul would not say (and does not say here) that what is an isn’t evil is defined by these governing authorities. What is and isn’t evil is defined by God. Governing authorities are just a tool. When they are working correctly, God uses them to stop evil.
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:6-7)
Now Paul is going to give us an example of how all this works, and it’s an example that should feel familiar. When Jesus was asked about taxes, remember what he said? Give to Caesar (the governing authority) what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.
And with this example, we can see Paul’s whole argument in its fullness:
- As Jesus followers, we are to be living as self-sacrificing, humble, servants who radically love others.
- Although we are different from the world we live in, we live in a world of governing authorities.
- These authorities have power because God gave it to them because sometimes they are a useful tool.
- We Jesus followers should continue doing good (living as self-sacrificing, humble, servants who radically love others) and stay out of the governing authorities’ crosshairs.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law (of Moses). For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law (of Moses). (Romans 13:8-10)
In these verses, we find the key to understanding everything we’ve read about Paul.
For Paul, it’s all about loving others.
And this is not Hollywood, star-crossed lovers, I-love-those-cool-sneakers love.
This is patient, kind, not-envying, not-boasting, not-proud, not-dishonoring-others, not-self-seeking, not-easily-angered, not-keeping-a-record-of-wrongs love.
This love does not delight in evil. It rejoices with the truth.
It always protects those in danger and it leads with trust.
It always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails.
This love is not weak, is not easy, and it is not cheap. It will cost us everything. Even our lives.
This love looks at the suffering of another person, even a person who does not deserve love, and says, I will give everything I have, even my life, to make sure you are protected and cared for.
This is the love that caused seven of the twelve disciples to put themselves in harm’s way and be killed by the governing authorities they were under.
This is the love that caused Paul to be imprisoned by governing authorities over and over.
It is the love that got Paul beheaded by a governing authority.
It is the love that crucified Jesus.
As Jesus followers, we subjugate ourselves to governing authorities because they have power, and whenever possible we need to stay out of that power’s way because otherwise, those governing authorities will try and stop us from loving others.
Do this knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lust. (Romans 13:11-14)
There is one final word from Paul on this that we should examine. Paul believed we live in the night. Governing authorities – they are a relic of the night.
But through Jesus’ love, we are coming into the day. And when the day comes, we won’t have to deal with any of this night nonsense anymore.
And that will be an excellent day.
RETURNING TO THE COMMENTS OF ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS
In his speech on Thursday, June 14, 2018, after explaining why he believes the United States current immigration policies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wanted to address his “church friends” who have voiced concerns about children being separated from their families at the border.
He then went on to say, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing. And it protects the weak. It protects the lawful.”
While Attorney General Sessions is correct that Paul said Jesus followers should obey the law of the government they are under, and that God has given that government power for God’s purposes, he is wrong in assuming that this means the government is right or justified in the laws it sets.
Just because something is orderly and defined by men as lawful, does not mean it is loving (aka “good”). The most hateful and evil acts may be done by a government in an orderly and justified-by-laws fashion.
Additionally, his assertion that “consistent and fair application of law” is moral has nothing to do with Paul or Romans 13. Just because men decide something is law and then consistently enforce that law does not make that law good in the eyes of God. On the contrary, laws created by men are things Jesus followers need to be aware so they are not hindered by those laws in their efforts to love others.
I can agree that if a law is consistently applied those that follow it will be protected from the sword of the governing authority that established that law.
At the same time, a law being consistently applied does not mean the weak are protected. We consistently pass laws that neglect the weak, and thus the application of those laws harms the weak, not protects them.
In following the example of Paul, I will do whatever it takes to share the love of Jesus. I will strive to live as a humble, self-sacrificing, servant who loves radically. And, as Romans 13 suggests, I will submit myself to my governing authority so that my love unhindered by them.
At the same time, those in power like Attorney General Sessions would do well to remember what Romans 13 says about their power. It is a gift from God. They are a tool he uses to end evil; but if that tool ceases to be useful, what happens to it?
In the Gospel of Luke (13:6-9), Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree.
A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.”
But as for me and my house, we will continue to seek to align ourselves with Jesus by finding the person with the least amount of power, standing beside them, and loving them with all we have, even if the effort requires our lives because that is where Jesus is.
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you… This I command you, that you love one another.” (John 15:12-14 and 17)