You might remember a couple of years ago when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration law.
What exactly did Sessions say in a speech to law enforcement officers on June 14, 2018? I checked four sources and came up with two different versions. (That should remind us to check multiple sources and realize that errors are made.)
“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 them for the purpose of order.” (USA Today and The Independent)
“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.” (New York Times and Washington Post)
Romans 13:1 says this:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God.”
WHAT ROMANS 13:1 MEANS (MAYBE)
What did Paul mean? We can make some reasoned guesses. Some say that Paul was being sarcastic or appeasing authorities he knew would intercept his mail. The Greek word he used to describe authorities in Romans 13:1 is a word he used at other times to mean “morally superior” or “excellent”, so it could be argued that he meant that people should submit only to morally superior authorities. We get some insight by considering what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” In other words, we should follow those who follow Christ.
WHAT ROMANS 13:1 DOES NOT MEAN (DEFINITELY)
We are unlikely to determine Paul’s exact meaning simply by looking at one or two texts. What we can do, however, is know for sure what Paul did not mean, and that is incredibly important.
Let’s leave Paul for a moment. Remember Daniel in the lions’ den? Daniel said something similar to what Paul wrote:
“The Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and … He appoints over it whomever He wills” (Daniel 5:21).
Does that mean that Daniel always obeyed earthly rulers? Nope. In the very next chapter, Daniel learned of a new law in the kingdom and immediately broke that law in front of open windows for all the world to see. Cue the lions. After God rescued him, Daniel claimed, “I have committed no crime.” He had zero regard for an earthly law that was in violation of God’s law.
Back to Paul. He wrote Romans 13:1, and he lived a life of civil disobedience. He was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by order of Nero.
Perhaps we can’t know for sure what Paul and Daniel meant by their similar statements, but we can know for sure that they did not mean that people should obey civil authorities no matter what. Check out Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a more recent example of Godly civil disobedience.
This being said, it is important to note that Daniel, Paul, and Bonhoeffer didn’t confront all civil authority with impertinence. They broke human laws only when those laws were in conflict with God’s laws.
WHAT WE SHOULD DO ABOUT IT
How important it is for us to discern whether laws and authorities are right and good! The best way to make that determination is to be clear what is right and good, and there’s no better source for that than the Bible — properly understood and applied. We must not pluck passages out of context. Above all, we must seek to know and reflect the heart of God. Again, Bible study is the best way to undertake that endeavor.
At least Jeff Sessions got us talking, studying, and (I hope) thinking. Some have the task of governing. The rest of us have the task of discerning whether that governance is to be respected or rejected. May we choose well.