I had actually planned on writing my Sunday Meditation about Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead” as prophetic literature. If you don’t know, Nas released a new album last week and it got me thinking about how his 2006 album has some parallels with prophetic literature in the Bible and could even be an interesting access point into biblical interpretation for people who might be fluent in hip hop but not so familiar with, say, Jeremiah.
What I had specifically decided not to write about was Jeff Sessions’ appeal to Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border. It’s not because it isn’t worth writing about, but because so many people have already written about why this is horrible and stupid that I didn’t really see what I could possibly add to the great things people have already said in response. To get you going, I refer you to Fred Clark, James McGrath, and my personal favorite article on this subject, Jason Johnson.
But for whatever reason, I felt very sluggish writing the post I was very excited about and could not make progress on it. I was later reminded powerfully last night that this issue of separating children from families at the border is truly terrible and frightening and you can’t get enough people saying something about it, especially when a public official uses our Scriptures to support such a thing. So, at the risk of being very redundant (but hopefully contributing to overall volume), here’s the deal with Romans 13 and whether or not it gives God’s stamp of approval to everything governments do or demands the passive obedience of Christians to all governments.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament, God has issues with unjust governments, including the one He directly set up, Himself (Israel at Sinai) – maybe especially that one.
One of the earlier clashes God’s people have with government is the story of the Exodus. In this story, the Israelites come to live in Egypt by way of immigration because of Egypt’s prosperity. The Egyptian government becomes concerned at the rapid growth of the Hebrew people and fears they are so numerous and powerful that they could ally with Egypt’s enemies and destroy Egypt or flee Egypt altogether and destroy their economy. Therefore, they force the Israelites to do hard manual labor (Ex. 1:8-14).
God hears the cries of this oppressed people and assigns a man to save them from the Egyptian government – Moses. Although Moses is acting on the calling and power of God, he’s the one who confronts Pharaoh, he’s the one who calls down the plagues, he’s the one who prepares his people to leave, and he’s the one who leads them out. He is not submissive to the government. God not only approves of all this, God empowers it.
Along with all the other things God does through Moses to free Israel from Egypt, God even has Israel rob their Egyptian masters before they leave (Ex. 11:1-2, 12:35-36). What is not advocated is a violent uprising – unlike, say, the American Revolutionary War (I wonder what Sessions makes of Romans 13 and the Revolutionary War).
So, here we have an example of at least one government that God decides is unjust and authorizes a person to speak out against it, bring plagues against it, and even rob it blind.
You just don’t have to go very far in the Old Testament to find examples of God opposing a government and/or using His people to oppose the government. The whole story of Esther depends on this – a story that doesn’t mention God at all.
Even with Israel’s government, God is not shy about calling out injustice and threatening to replace them, take them into captivity, or even destroy them. As one example passage among many, we can look at Ezekiel 34 that begins:
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Ezekiel 34:1-4 (NRSV)
And goes on from there – a round condemnation of the shepherds of Israel that God will actually kill as we read in chapter 35. Ezekiel 16 is also a terrible, bloody condemnation of Israel’s government that warns they will meet the same fate as Sodom because they are committing the same sins as Sodom. And what are those sins?
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
Ezekiel 16:49 (NRSV)
These are just a handful of examples among many. It is easy to see from the Old Testament that God does not approve of governments simply because they exist. Through His servants, God calls governments to accountability to govern their people with justice and compassion, and when this does not happen, God threatens to reverse their positions, often in terrible ways.
A prophet who threatens God’s judgement of America for sexual immorality but is silent about or preaches that the government has nothing to fear from the judgement of God for the government’s treatment of the poor, orphan, widow, or foreigner is a false prophet.
As we move toward the New Testament, it should be noted that Israel (due to her oppressive government) finds herself ruled by a series of pagan empires. During this time, Israel is encouraged to try and leave peaceably under these regimes in order that she might prosper. However, these governments do not escape judgement by God, which is the primary cause of their destruction from the Old Testament point of view, from the trials of Nebuchadnezzar going forward.
To say nothing of the examples of Daniel or his friends and others like this. Would Jeff Sessions have stood over the fiery furnace and said, “This is regrettable, boys, that we’re burning you alive, but God wants us to submit to government. He put Nebuchadnezzar in power, after all?”
Jesus and Government
We don’t know a whole lot about Jesus’ views on the Roman government because the primary antagonist in the Gospels is the power structure of Israel. Rome is almost a good guy by comparison, at least initially.
Still, like the prophets before him, Jesus’ harshest words are for Israel’s leaders – the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, their teachers of the Law in the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus warns them of a wrath to come on account of their oppression toward their own people.
One example among many is Matthew 23, which includes the infamous bit about whitewashed tombs, and also this:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)
Matthew 23 ends with the warning of a coming judgement because of stuff like this. It is also in this larger discourse that he compares the present government to the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes.
One could argue, I suppose, that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem do not represent “the government,” although that seems incredibly weak, especially since at this time the Roman government was appointing the High Priest, but we do have some insight into Jesus’ appraisal of the Roman government.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously reverses the “eye for an eye” ethic in Matthew 5:38-42. Note where some of his examples come from. Being struck on the right cheek and most definitely the example of being forced to carry a burden come from the Roman Empire. It is certainly true that Jesus encourages Israel not to strike back and indeed go above and beyond in a way that clearly marks out who the oppressor is and who God’s people are. This is not just a powerful demonstration of love and trust in God, but it’s also a very wise ethic when you live in a climate of Jewish insurrection and swift Roman retribution.
However, notice the terms Jesus uses to describe the Romans: evildoers, enemies. Romans who use their legal right to force people to carry burdens are enemies of the people. They do evil. Jesus does not approve of their behavior but rather condemns it. The fact that they are the government over Israel does not make their laws or their practices right.
It is true that Jesus also calls for obedience to laws. He tells the people to give Caesar his money, for example. But what we’re trying to determine is whether or not Jesus saw all laws or government actions as inherently good because government comes from God.
It is important to note, too, that Jesus is not in favor of armed resistance to the government, as John 18 shows us.
The Apostles and Government and Romans 13
Two, important things to keep in mind about the time the apostles are writing is that Rome is in power and the relationship between Rome and the Jews is a powder keg that often erupts into small scale (or occasionally large scale) violence and bloodshed. The apostles are trying to keep, comfort, and grow a small group of believers who could be wiped out at any time with very little legal pretext.
We can see this concern in 1 Peter 2:11-17, which also encourages submission to the government. But notice the reason Peter gives for this: so that the Gentiles who slander the believers will be found baseless in their accusations. He doesn’t say submit to the government because they are inherently right and just; you submit to the government because they can punish those who do wrong and people are making false accusations about us. This is not by any means a universal declaration that all government laws and actions are just; this is the same Peter who declares, “We ought to obey God rather than human authority” in Acts 5.
It is, in fact, the charges of sedition and stirring up riots that the apostles are having to defend themselves against in court, as Acts 24 shows us, as one example.
This is all to bring up the historical backdrop for Romans 13, which actually starts in Romans 12.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:14-21 (NRSV)
This is what immediately precedes the Romans 13 passage about government. This is the flow of Paul’s thought. Paul did not divide Romans into chapters. Paul does not stop his thought to deliver a discourse on the divine mandate theory of government.
Instead, Paul is talking about retribution against oppressors. Sermon on the Mount stuff. Taking the law into your own hands. Repaying evil with more evil. Instead, Paul advocates paying back evil with good.
And it is in this context that Paul tells us to be subject to authorities and not resist them.
Paul is not in the least bit saying that everything a government does is right. In fact, like Jesus, he refers to them as “enemies” who are doing “evil” when they persecute. What Paul is doing is telling a small group of believers who are already being accused of sedition and uprisings to go out of their way to be good Roman citizens.
As a general principle, we might take from this passage the same wise instructions. As Christians, we, too, should pursue a path of love rather than retaliation. We, too, should try to be at peace with everyone. We, too, should obey the law. We, too, should not give substance to false accusations against us of being troublemakers. No one should be able to say that the world would be a better place without Christians in it.
But none of this means that everything that governments do are right, and the Bible is full of examples where governments are condemned and even some passages where civil disobedience is what God rewards. We are not to take something Paul wrote in a letter to advise an early church in the first century Roman Empire and make it a declaration that all governments throughout space and time are inherently good and just and everything they do is right because God put them there.
That isn’t even what Paul meant then, much less something we should take away from it now.