In the midst of the frequently confusing hype and outrage regarding the border crisis last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions caused a minor stir when he invoked scripture to justify the “law and order” approach which the Trump administration was taking.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said, “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
Franklin and Ruth Graham along with other Christians and evangelicals, finally identifying a line the Trump administration should not cross, noted how scripture should not be used to promote immoral policies. Various conservative and traditional perspectives within American Christianity rushed to the forefront to discuss the pros and cons of Sessions’ stance. Mr. Sessions is not the first to utilize this specific scripture to support his government’s and political party’s actions and policies. The Atlantic featured a short history of the use of Romans 13 in American politics to both support or oppose everything from the American Revolution to slavery and segregation.
British loyalists utilized Romans 13 in their refusal to rebel against the British crown during the American Revolution and criticized the patriots for their failure to follow God’s law. The American patriots argued that only just laws and authorities were to be obeyed – similar to the argument evangelicals made last week against obeying immoral laws or leaders. Romans 13 was used by supporters of slavery to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act when runaway slaves taking shelter in Christian homes were to be returned to their owners. Abolitionist opponents of slavery meanwhile held that God would not force his people to obey immoral laws.
As I reviewed the various articles and commentaries last week on the use of Romans 13 by Sessions and throughout American history, it struck me as an incredible missing of the most basic of points. In so many of these historical examples, including the most recent one provided by Sessions, scripture was being used to justify a person or a leader’s own will. This is what I want to do and I know it is right and should be agreed to because this is what the Bible says. They were using scripture to justify and empower their own self will.
This stance is in direct opposition to the most basic tenants of Christian faith and philosophy.
Here are just a few scriptural examples to demonstrate what I am talking about:
My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will. Matthew 26:39
I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. John 5:30
For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me. John 6:39
For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain… Titus 1:7
I could list many more verses and these are not what you might call “obscure” passages. A basic tenant of the faith is that a believer does not seek his own will but the will of God – no matter which side of a political issue or Bible verse we might find ourselves on.
Consider the personal context of Paul when he wrote these words that were being debated last week from Romans 13:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This was among the final letters written by Paul. He was a prisoner on his way to Rome when he wrote them. The man who had recently become emperor of the empire was Nero, a man whom history would record as a possible lunatic and the first to carry out widescale persecution against Christians in the empire. Paul would eventually be executed by Nero. The emperor would also execute the apostle Peter. It was Nero who was the first to feed Christians to wild beasts in the arena. It is reported that he would light his gardens at night by hanging Christians from poles and burning them to death. This was the chief authority in the empire when Paul said “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”
Clearly Paul was not giving exception to obeying authorities unless they are immoral. He was establishing a general code of conduct in the daily life of a believer. He also was not giving Nero a license for his wickedness and immorality. Nero was in fact irrelevant to what Paul was actually writing about in Romans 13.
Paul was calling upon the people he was writing to, in his own day and today, to adhere to a higher law than those governing their immediate society and circumstances. There are times when that higher law brings us in line with the laws governing our societies. This is the norm. Christianity was not meant to be some revolutionary movement that would upend the kingdoms of this world. It was not al-Qaeda (although a lot of people at the time feared it was something akin to that). It was meant to be something that takes root in the human heart.
There are other times when obeying the higher law would bring us in contradiction to the laws of man. Hence, we have the Christians being thrown to wild beasts in the arena and other atrocities that were about to unfold after Paul wrote this famous passage from Romans 13.
The keys to knowing the difference between obeying or disobeying the laws of man was simple. At all times, hear God and obey! At no time should you prioritize your own will above the will of God or the will of the government.
This perspective flashes against a lot of the modern philosophies and perspectives within Christianity. We will very likely see more and more popular Christian philosophies and perspectives clash with what scripture actually teaches. This is a natural byproduct of a religious system and leaders who have compromised their faith for the sake of political power.
Did we really think American Christianity’s cozy relationship with President Trump would come without a cost?