We’ve finally come to some concluding remarks on Romans 13:1-7. It did take a few more words than I anticipated, thus the “Part 6 of 5ish,” as anomalous as that is. We ended last time talking about the theological implications of the passage. I have a few more thoughts on that subject before calling it a day. I’ll pose a few commonly asked questions and do my best to respond to them.
Isn’t God “in control” of everything, including whoever is leading our country?
I hear people cite God’s sovereignty to justify their unbridled support of our present administration, and their immigration policies in particular. God is in control, they say, and make no effort to think through what that really means and how we might think critically through the implications of our responsibility to hold our leaders accountable to humane and just treatment of our neighbors.
Yes, he’s in control but he’s not controlling. He’s in charge of everything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he controls everything that he’s in charge of.
I realize that God knows every sparrow’s life span and has our hairs all counted; but Jesus didn’t go so far as to say that he extends the lives of all birds or gives all bald men more hair! I’m not saying that he couldn’t do those things if he wanted to. If a circumstance presented itself that required such an intervention, I suppose he would do it and not work up a sweat in the process. But that’s not exactly how he usually rolls.
He has control, but he doesn’t exert total control in every circumstance. There’s no doubt that he can and will control the events of history’s final chapter, the ultimate outcome of his free will experiment. In the meantime, however (and believe me, some of these “times” can be pretty “mean”), he doesn’t always intervene to prevent a disaster or even reverse one once it occurs. Sometimes he chooses, what seems like a “hands-off” approach with human affairs and lets our choices sort of run their course. He can, and often does, sweep up our broken pieces in order to create something better than we were before (Romans 8:28). I love it when he does that.
READ ALSO: “LOVING AN UNPREDICTABLE GOD”
If there are exceptions to the “submit to the government rule” why didn’t Paul point them out?
In other words, why didn’t he say, “Submit unless the government asks you to do something against the will of God”?
“Just as no one would think that Romans 14 had said the last Christian word about what one was allowed to eat or drink,” says N.T. Wright, “or that Romans 12 had said the last word about behavior in general, so Romans 13 must not be taken as the sum total of all that Paul might have thought, or could or should have thought, about what we call ‘the state’.”
It seems that Paul was trying to reel in those who sympathized with Zealot ideology that Rome had to burn and they were the ones to burn it! His purpose was not to give a completely balanced view of the relationship between the Church and the state. He focused merely on one side of the issue. For a more complete analysis of this issue (and any other for that matter) you have to take in the “whole counsel of God” that you’ll find in the rest of the Bible.
The Bible doesn’t usually qualify its commands with every possible exception to the rule, but that doesn’t mean there are no such exceptions. For instance, the Bible doesn’t include physical abuse as one of the “grounds” for divorce. Does that mean an abused woman stay with her husband at all cost? The Bible doesn’t address every possible scenario that might pop up in human history. If it did we would need a truck to haul our Bibles around and we wouldn’t need faith in the Spirit’s guidance.
Aren’t we responsible for American-born citizens inside our borders and let others take care of their own?
Since that’s a topic too big for here, I’ll make one remark about “image bearing” and then recommend another article of mine on this…
Martin Luther King Jr. said that segregation substitutes an “‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship [between humans]. The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person.” This is what we’re hearing in the administration’s rhetoric regarding immigrants and refugees. It dehumanizes God’s beloved and makes it emotionally easier for us to keep them at arm’s (or border’s) length when we label them “animals” or refer to them as an “infestation.”
“Let us make humans (not just Americans) in our image,” said the Father to the Son and Spirit. Above all other identifying qualities it’s this divine image that distinguishes us from all the other creatures and gives each of us a dignity above and beyond all other things in the created order. It’s a huge mistake to make Romans 13 mean that America’s present immigration laws are above God’s timeless laws that reach all the way back to creation. Immigrants and refugees are image bearers at our border, people whose needs can’t be dismissed as somehow less important than ours.
One of the best things about living in our nation is that we’re afforded the right to push back on what we consider unjust policies of our government. We do this all the time at the ballot box; through publications; by organizing educational, legal, and civic organizations that would defend other points of view; and by participating in peaceful protests.
Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to move to the back of the bus. It’s called “civil disobedience” or “civil resistance.” I’m glad she did. Speaking of…
Is “civil disobedience” even biblical?
Yes, when necessary. Daniel prayed illegal prayers, his three buddies disobeyed when they refused to bow to the king’s image, and the apostles repeatedly refused to stop preaching when ordered to.
“Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law,” says John Stott, “civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.” Mahatma Gandhi, who fought injustice in British ruled India, said, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”
“We will not cooperate with a government,” says Shane Claiborne, “that separates mothers from their babies and makes children sleep on cement floors.” Amen!
Martin Luther King called the Church “the conscience of the state.” “If the Church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
In conclusion… It’s been quite a journey through these seven verses, which have been used over the centuries to justify all sort of unconscionable behavior by the Church. Christians have used them to rationalize everything from slavery to spousal abuse to putting child refugees in cages. I hope I have given a tolerable correction to this mistaken interpretation and brought out, from the larger narrative of Paul’s letter and the message of Scripture, what our responsibility is and isn’t in relation to “the powers that be.”