What To Do with Romans 13

By Bill Mefford

It has been yet another discomforting week in trump's America as we heard Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (mis)using Romans 13 as a biblical defense for ripping children from their families. Then, doubling down on this Empire brand of evangelical theology, Sarah Sanders supported his approach saying it was biblical to enforce the law. To all of us paying attention, this was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time. It is unsurprising because this administration, supported by their largely evangelical base, has consistently engaged in sinful behavior while receiving a pass for their immorality from their supposedly moral voters. 

It is also not surprising that this administration openly quotes Romans 13 to support an obviously heinous policy as it joins numerous oppressive governments from across history whose supporters have used such specious biblical reasoning for propagating dehumanizing policies against vulnerable people. The trump administration now joins the South African government which engaged in apartheid, the British governments which colonized many black and brown nations throughout the world, the European and US governments which enslaved millions of Africans, the European and US governments which engaged in genocide against indigenous peoples, and the Nazi government which committed a holocaust of over six million Jews. All of these governments depended on churches to use Romans 13 as a defense and validation of their sinful policies and dehumanizing practices. 

So, what do we do with this very troubling chapter Paul's letter to the church in Rome? We do have to admit that AG Sessions is correct, Paul does encourage the Christians in Rome in verse one to be subject to ruling authorities. But let us do better than Beauregard and his evangelical Methodist leaders who discipled him and let's look briefly at the context of this letter and this passage.  

When we approach Romans 13 we have to back up and first acknowledge that this letter to the Christians in Rome is far different from the other letters Paul wrote for one simple reason: unlike the other audiences he had written to, Paul had never visited the Christians in Rome. This made an absolutely huge difference. 

Unlike other letters in which Paul addresses specific situations and specific people with words of advice, words of encouragement, and even words of rebuke, here, Paul is writing this in hopes to be invited to visit. Paul sees Rome as the center of power in the world. So, his goal is to appeal to and impress them so that he can be invited to visit them. 

In so doing, he makes in this specific chapter several claims that are flat out wrong, but they all seem to pivot on one in particular. In verse three he writes, "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad." This is a lie. We know this looking back at the policies in history I listed above put into place by governments that have murdered, enslaved, raped, tortured, and in general, dehumanized people for centuries that this is a lie. Repeatedly, governments reward bad conduct and oppress good conduct.

But Paul knew this as well. Think about his own experience. As a Jewish teacher, Paul knew intimately the story of his people, how they were enslaved and treated horribly by the Egyptians (not to mention the Babylonians or Assyrians at other times), and from which God called Moses to lead the Exodus of the Jewish people out from Egyptian slavery. 

Did Paul believe that the Egyptian Pharaohs were not a terror to good conduct? Did Paul believe that his Jewish ancestors deserve to be enslaved; that they did something bad enough to be enslaved for generations? Because that is the argument he is making. And sadly, this is the argument that every oppressor in every society has made who has had a church with leaders eager to support them. This is what angers me about this passage and how Sessions and so many other oppressors have used it. 

It is not surprising that donald trump, in his remarks on Monday, defending the policy of his administration of separating families, immediately jumped into how horrible immigrants are, using Paul's argument in verse three perfectly. trump was saying that immigrants deserve to be treated inhumanely and without regard for human rights. 

Paul, like donald trump and like all historical oppressors before, is wrong. Dead wrong. And Paul's misguided attempts to impress his fellow Christians in Rome, has had devastating results on vulnerable people throughout history. Frankly, it is incredibly hard for me to read the first part of this chapter. 

Yet, that is what most progressives tend to do - we tend to ignore and skip over Romans 13:1-9a and try to jump to the second part of verse nine when Paul reminds the Romans that love is most important. I agree we should remind folks that this passage is in there as well, but let's not ignore the passage before this. It is there and we should point out to folks that it is there and that Paul was wrong in his claims.

We should also remember that Scripture is checked by and balanced by other Scripture. We must always be ready to balance Paul's misguided claims in the first part of Romans 13 with the stories of the disciples in Acts 5:29 when they tell their religious leaders that they must obey God and not their ruling authorities. Jesus regularly disobeyed his ruling authorities and was, lest we not forget, crucified as an enemy of the Roman state for doing so! If Jesus had followed Paul and Sessions, there would have been no crucifixion and the book of Romans would never have been written!

We will not go to hell for pointing out that Paul is wrong in his claim here. We must deal honestly with this passage and that means to call Paul out for writing something that is simply factually and historically wrong. 

I believe in the authority of Scripture. I believe that God can use Scripture to shape us, encourage us, rebuke us, and transform us. But the beginning of Romans 13 has been used to justify oppression and brutal violations of human rights throughout history. We must not shy away from Romans 13 and we must answer it with the overwhelming number of other places in the canon where following God meant disobeying ruling authorities.

If people in our churches want to know how we should publicly engage in the missional work of organizing and advocating for justice, there is much in the Old Testament (like Esther) that we can learn from. There are many passages in the gospels we can learn from. There is much in the rest of the New Testament, including other letters from Paul, that we can and should learn from. Let's not forget the tremendous harm that overly simplistic and acontextual interpretations of Romans 13 have caused and remember the entirety of Scripture when seeing how we, the Body of Christ, should relate to the state. And for today our calling is clear: we must RESIST. 

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