The Law is the Law, or is it? – Romans 13 and the Refugee Crisis (Part 2 of 5ish)

romans 13

“You Christians have been lawyering the Bible for 2000 years!” Bill Maher

“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Jesus Christ

Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted from Romans 13 to support the administration’s justification of incarcerating refugees like criminals and separating parents from their children. I consider his approach to this passage a classic example of Bible-lawyering and in this series I’ll take a stab at un-lawyering it.

Bible scholars talk about the difference between “exegesis” and “eisegesis.”  Put simply, one has to do with forming our beliefs out of the Bible rather than imposing our presuppositions, agendas, or biases into it in order to make it mean whatever we want it to mean.

We all have preferences and prejudices that effect our objective interpretation and application of Scripture, however, an honest and humble heart that simply longs to know the truth can blunt this tendency. “My theories,” someone admitted, “were attacked by a gang of ugly facts!”

Ralph Drollinger does some serious Bible-lawyering in his “Members Bible Study” missive called, “What the Bible Says About Our Illegal Immigration Problem.” Drollinger teaches the White House Bible study that Jeff Sessions and other lawmakers attend wherein he specifically imposes––on wonky Scriptural ground––his political agenda regarding immigrants and refugees. He claims that God “frowns on illegals immigrants” in the same way he frowns on “children ruling the roost”!

He claims that “illegals” bring little more than “weapons of destruction, disease, property and job theft, the importation of illegal drugs” and that our biblical mandate to protect our border from such intrusions is paramount to all of God’s laws. For a finale he advocates not only the deportation of immigrants but wants to charge them a fee on the way out! A pretty creative way to fund ICE, wouldn’t you say? Welcome to the White House Bible Study!

In the introductory post I promised a brief study of the passage from four perspectives: lexical, contextual, theological, and historical. Let’s deal with the first of these here.

A lexical look at Romans 13:1-7

“Lexical” simply refers to the actual words used in the passage itself. Though I’m no Greek scholar, I will point out three things included in Paul’s original terminology that aid our understanding of what he intended us to hear.

First, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities….”

Other versions translate it “submit” to such authorities. Please note the not-so-fine distinction between “submitting” and “obeying” the government. They may overlap, and while submission is often expressed in obedience, it certainly is not always the case.

We submit to someone when we recognize their authority and respect it. Paul uses the very same term (hupotasso) when he mandates us to submit to spiritual leaders (1 Corinthians 16:16), to one another (Ephesians 5:21), wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:24), slaves to masters (Titus 2:9), and prophets to one another (1 Corinthians 14:32).

In each of these cases he calls for respect from one to another for the position they have and the role they play in their lives, keeping in mind that God is over all. But in none of these cases are we to assume that he prescribes a blanket and unqualified obedience––of wife to husband, church member to pastors, or slaves to masters. God alone is the only one to whom we reserve our unreserved obedience. While he authorizes husbands, pastors, bosses, and governing entities, each of these is flawed and subject to making errant demands on those under their influence.

The woman whose husband tells her to obey their his whim, the Christian whose pastor requires compliance in all matters, or the citizen whose government requires them to violate their conscience before God are to respectfully decline and not to obey.

“We must obey God rather than human beings!” said the apostles to the authorities who ordered them to stop preaching Jesus. We respect our government, spouses, pastors, and bosses; and will do all we can to obey their demands when such demands comply with the clear will of God. But when they don’t, we respectfully disobey them in order to obey him.

In his seminal “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

“It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”

Secondly, let’s look at Paul’s claim that “the authorities that exist have been established by God.”

Some have taken this verse to mean that Donald Trump and virtually every other world leader is put in office by God and must therefore be God’s choice that we must submit unconditionally to his administration’s lead and laws. But according to scholars the term “established” might better be translated “ordered by God.” It’s not that every governing authority on God’s green earth is ordained by him, but ordered.

This sense of “ordering” implies that God participates in governments in a more indirect way than many imply. The term (tasso) doesn’t mean ordained, approved, instituted, or underwritten–by God. It means rather that governments are “ordered” by God and in some sense serve his purposes, but it is not to be understood that one or another state or its leaders are directly blessed by God as his direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Paul and his Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, let’s look at Paul’s warning that whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” 

It’s evident from the term he uses for “rebels” and the punishment he prescribes for those who rebel he’s not talking about speeding on the freeway or changing lanes without signaling. He had something else in his mind than misdemeanor offenses. The term here means to oppose or “take a stand against” as in Acts 18:6 where the Jews in Corinth “opposed and became abusive” toward him.

In Romans 13, the apostle isn’t referring to taking our lumps from the governing authorities for breaking this law or that one. He’s warning the Romans Christians (and us) against fomenting a violent revolution against the government, which was, for many Jews in Paul’s day, on the short list of options on how to free themselves from Rome’s oppressive rule. We’ll take another look at this historical context in a future post, but suffice to say, the “terror” and the “sword” that Paul says the state holds is for insurgents who revolt against it. As Christians we are neither permitted to revolt violently against Caesar nor excuse his bad behavior.

Bonhoeffer, who some nineteen centuries later would be, like Paul, killed by a ruthless empire, wrote regarding this very passage, “St. Paul is talking to the Christians, not the State. His concern is that Christians should persevere in repentance and obedience wherever they may be and whatever conflict should threaten them. He is not concerned to excuse or condemn any secular power.”

Our agenda in relation to Empire should not be hostility or to wrest the steering wheel from those in power. We speak truth to power but we’re not permitted to steal their power and use it against them. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. “If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 

In light of such things, using this passage to justify criminalizing and detaining the families in detention camps, refusing asylum to fellow humans being recruited by murderous thugs in their home countries, and telling women that domestic violence doesn’t qualify them asylum is not only not biblical, it’s unconscionable.


Next time we’ll look at the context of this passage in Romans and how it further confirms this thesis.

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