Question: How are we to understand Romans 13?
This text has been in the headlines a lot over the past few weeks following the Trump Administration’s decision to separate immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.
In response to the vocal and unified religious opposition against family separation, Attorney General Sessions cited the Epistle to the Romans, specifically directing his comments to “our church friends”:
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.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders later echoed the Attorney General’s remarks:
I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.
For what it’s worth, here’s the relevant text from Romans 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.
So how do we understand Romans 13? Does it give governments carte blanche to act without opposition from the Church?
Short Answer: To again quote Saint Paul, “BY NO MEANS!”
Long Answer: Let me first lay out the structure of this post as it will be quite lengthy. We’ll consider Romans 13 within 1) its immediate textual and historical background, 2) in the broader Scriptural context, and finally 3) within the Tradition of the Church.
1. The Roman Context
Roman society was deeply antithetical to the core beliefs of Christianity. While the Church confesses faith in one God, the Romans were polytheistic. Christians confess that Jesus is Lord, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, and the Son of God, that his coming is Good News; the Romans maintained that Ceasar was king, the one who brought peace, the son of god, and that his edicts were good news. Christianity values the “least of these” and the Cross, which is foolishness to the Gentiles, especially to the Romans, who inflicted the cross upon conquered people.
In his own day, Saint Paul was writing to a community of Christians living in the heart of this oppressive empire. The earliest Christians had no say in electing the emperor; few, if any, could vote in any Roman election. Within Paul’s own lifetime, they would be expelled from the City of Rome.
So how is it that Paul can tell the Roman Christians to be subject to Roman authority?
One possible reading, put forward by Mark D. Nanos in his commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, 2011), is that Paul is referring to the leaders in the synagogue, not the Roman authorities. Nanos posits that obedience to the rabbinical leadership (called archontes or “rulers”) “would follow the general line of instruction, concerned with how these non-Jews were to behave among those who did not share their convictions, and who were perhaps in a position to bring pressure on them to alter those convictions.”
The more prominent view is that Saint Paul is writing about the Roman authorities. Writing in the Fortress Commentary on the Bible (Fortress, 2014), Cynthia Briggs Kittredge writes, “Historical-critical scholars have noted the tension, if not contradiction, between the perspective expressed here and Paul’s view that the form of the world is passing away and that the rulers of the world are ignorant of the purpose of God.” But as a means of ensuring the peace during a the turbulent decades of Jewish revolt against Rome during the first and second centuries, Paul’s advice appears to be “a historically specific and strategic instruction, rather than a generalizable principle about the relationship of church and state.”
According to this position, Paul is essentially saying, “Keep your head down; don’t draw any more imperial attention than you need to.”
But how do we know that the Attorney General’s exegesis of Romans 13 is incorrect? Couldn’t Paul be telling all Christians everywhere to obey their local government? No. As Stanley Hauerwas points out in a panel at the Duke School of Law, one simply cannot read Romans 13 without first reading Romans 12, which leads off with a call to holiness, best summarized in v. 2 with, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect,” and concludes:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the face of persecution, Paul’s advice is to live a life of holiness. To “hold fast to what is good” means rejecting the “might makes right” ethos of Rome. It means overcoming evil and persecution with love.
Moreover, had the Attorney General kept reading, he would have found Paul’s commendation of divine law:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
If we take the first chunk of Romans 13 as a universal maxim, then we will inevitably find ourselves in conflict with Romans 12 and Romans 13:10. What happens when civil law demands that we violate God’s law that we extend hospitality to strangers? Or when the government demands that we wage an unjust war against our enemies?
2. The Witness of Scripture
Throughout Scripture, the people of God are brought into conflict with the law of the land. Just imagine if Moses’ mother had given her son over to be thrown into the Nile God had left the Hebrews to be subjects of Pharaoh. God’s chosen king, David, comes to the throne after leading a coup against Saul; Samuel anoints David even though a king is sitting on the throne! Or consider Elijah and Elisha’s struggle against Ahab. The saga extends over two books, but start at 1 Kings 18 and keep reading until pretty much everyone is dead.
In the New Testament, Christ’s ministry brings him into direct conflict with the “governing authorities.” From the very beginning, his parents fled the massacre of the innocents, calling to mind Moses’ own story. Time and time again, Jesus came into conflict with the Jewish leaders of his age. The week before his crucifixion, Jesus rode into town in a parade laden with political symbolism. And near the end of his life in this world, Jesus stood before Herod and Pilate, refusing to deny his divine nature, even though doing so could have pleased the “governing authorities” and saved his life.
In Saint Paul’s own writing, he is more ambivalent towards the “rulers of this age.” Consider 1 Corinthians 2:
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
More than in his writings, though, Saint Paul lived out this tension. Even a casual read through the Acts of the Apostles reveals a Paul who is comfortable rejecting human authority, an apostle familiar with the inside of a jail and who died as a martyr in Rome.
When weighed against the rest of Scripture, Romans 13 requires a more careful read than the Attorney General grants in his press conference.
The Church has been doing that exegetical work over the past two thousand years, and it’s to that Great Tradition we now turn our attention.
3. The Great Tradition
It’s not difficult to imagine that the earliest martyrs were troubled by Romans 13, or at least would be troubled by such a simplistic reading of the text. In direct opposition to the “rulers of this age,” these saints bore witness to Christ. Like Saint Paul himself, they suffered for it. For the sake of brevity, I will provide two examples. First, one of my personal heroes: Saint Justin Martyr. This gifted apologist directly defied a Roman prefect’s command to sacrifice to pagan idols; Justin responded simply, “No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety.” Second, Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua defied her father and the imperial authorities, giving her life for the Christian faith.
In the Reformation, Martin Luther also took up the topic of civil obedience. Luther’s attempt to end the abuses of the indulgence preachers quickly escalated, and the Catholic leadership mobilized against this upstart monk. By the Diet of Worms in 1521, just four years after publishing the 95 Theses, Luther was openly defied both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. His understanding of civil obedience and disobedience was more complicated, though. While Luther was an outlaw, he also depended on the protection from sympathetic nobles, and he was cautious not to offend them. When the peasants revolted (drawing inspiration from Luther’s writings), Father Martin told the princes to ride through the rebel armies until their spurs were wet with blood. The Lutheran position on civil governments reflects the complexities of Luther’s own time. Luther wrote scathing treatises against legalism, but he also said that the Law shows us how to rightly order society. He wrote of “Two Kingdoms,” a doctrine that has perplexed theologians ever since. (For more on the “Two Kingdoms,” see my essay on preaching and politics.)
Now to shift our attention to the modern era. Many critics have rightly pointed out the historical use of this verse to maintain the oppressive status quo. Over the centuries, the first half of Romans 13 has been used to justify slavery in the American South, Christian obedience to the Nazi regime, and to argue against Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign of civil disobedience. In South Africa, Romans 13 was used as a proof text to support apartheid. These horrific eras divided the Church, and Christians fell in line behind some of the most evil regimes the world has known. From slavery and Jim Crow to the Holocaust, Romans 13 has been used to blind Christians to the evil going on around us.
As the prophets and Saint Paul and our Lord Christ demonstrate, there is room in the Church for acts of civil disobedience. We thank God for the brave witnesses to the Gospel who defied the rulers of this age: for the martyrs of old, for pastors like Bonhoeffer and King, for bishops like Desmond Tutu. We can look to these ancestors in the faith, ancient and modern, for guidance as we discern when and how to defy the governing authorities.
When the law of the land demands that we forsake our Lord’s command that we love God, love our neighbor, love the foreigner among us, love even our enemies, we know that, in those beautiful words of Romans 13, “love is fulfilling the law.”