Should we always obey the government?

Donald Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on immigration, leading to the separation of children from their parents at the US/Mexico border, has dominated the foreign news in the UK this week. As with all such news items, it is much more complex than at first reported, and we need to understand carefully what has been going on.

The situation hit the headlines with an unconfirmed recording of children crying who had been separated from their parents, and a picture circulated on Twitter apparently showing children in cages because of Trump’s policy—but this turned out to be from 2014. In fact, the policy of separating some children from their parents came from Obama’s period in office, and the same happens in the UK in cases of illegal immigration where parents are deemed to have committed an offence. The reason for this is that children cannot be imprisoned along with their parents—and the change that Trump made was to criminalise all those crossing the border, rather than trying to separate out illegal immigrants from genuine asylum seekers. Trump’s reversal of the separation policy came in response to the outcry—though it was not clear exactly what it specified or what it would mean for those already separated.

Adding to the emotion and confusion in this situation, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Paul’s words in Romans 13  to deflect criticism and suggest that Christians should simply accept the Government’s approach:

“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,” Sessions said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

What is odd about Sessions reaching for this text is that it was previously called upon in two key moments of US history:

“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.” The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong. I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

The current use (and previous use in Europe to justify loyalty to Adolf Hitler in pre-war Germany) might suggest that the Bible is useless as a guide for anything, since its texts are so pliable and can be used to support opposite positions. But this is not a problem with the Bible—it is a problem with language! Any text, taken out of its context, can be made to mean anything. This is the basis of the entertaining videos by the comedy duo Cassette Boy.

Although Cassette Boy is cutting up words and phrases, the same issue applies when you cut up whole sentences. This can be seen clearly in the joke about the person wanting guidance from the Bible, and sticking a pin in it three times, only to read:

Judas went out and hanged himself (Matt 27.5)

Go thou and do likewise (Luke 10.37)

What you have to do, do it quickly (John 13.27)

This is the problem with all ‘sampling’ approaches to the Bible—not because it is the Bible, but because it consists of human language, and this is a problem with treating language of any kind in this way.

So how should we read Paul’s injunction in Romans 13? We need to read it as we need to read any biblical text—but asking what kind of writing it is (genre), exploring its context, seeing where it comes in the canon of Scripture, and paying attention to its content, what the text actually says. (See my Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible for a longer exploration of these principles.)

The first thing to note is that this is a letter, and not part of a doctrine text book. This means that it was written in a particular time and place to particular people in a particular situation; like all letters it is ‘occasional’, that is, written on and for a particular occasion. That does not mean it is trapped in its context or that we cannot learn important theological truths from it. But we need to remember that, whilst as part of Scripture it is written for us, it is not written to us. Paul was not thinking of protests about child separation at modern borders when he was writing it, and we need to go on a brief hermeneutical (interpretive) journey to see how it applies to us.

Secondly, what is the context in which Paul is writing? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Paul is writing to a very small minority group in the capital city of a massive, powerful empire which dominated what was considered the known world. He was not writing as a powerful office-holder in the world’s largest economic and military power. This is important, since power dynamics are key to shaping the meaning of texts, and when the power dynamics are inverted (as in this case) this is the most direct way to change what a texts means and what it implies.

More specifically, Paul is writing (unusually) to a church community that he did not found, and one that was in some tension. The Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome at some point around 50; Luke says that this is why the Jewish Priscilla and Aquila had ended up in Corinth, along with many other Jews (Acts 18.2). This explains why there is a ready market for Paul’s tent-making skills, providing temporary lodging for the many refugees. If Romans was written by Paul in the later 50s, then by now Claudius has died and the Jews have been able to return. But Suetonius notes that Claudius’ edict ‘was on account of Chrestus’ which could indicate that it was the result of Jewish objections to the proclamation of the good news about Jesus (we see similar agitation happening in Thessaloniki and Ephesus in Acts). If so, this would explain why Jewish-Gentile relations between believers shapes Paul’s argument in Romans, as he deploys classic Jewish criticisms of gentiles in Romans 1 and then Old Testament texts in Romans 2. (When he says ‘all have sinned’ in Rom 3.23, this refers less to ‘all humanity’ and more to ‘all, both Jew and gentile’.) In this context, it is vital that the Jewish-gentile Christian community is not seen by the authorities to be agitating and disruptive.

The third issue in reading well is looking at the canonical context—that is, the place of the text in the context of the Bible as a whole, considering both the immediate verses around it as well as other related passages. This is where Jeff Sessions’ use because even more ironic. Romans 13.1 needs to be read in the context of the whole of Romans 12 and 13; we must not be misled by the chapter divisions (introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton) to detach the start of one chapter from the end of another. In the previous verses Paul is addressing those tempted to take the law into their own hands by seeking revenge, and Paul’s injunction is to leave judgement to God, and instead ‘kill’ people with kindness, citing Proverbs 25.21–22:

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

It is in this context that Paul encourages submission to ‘the powers that be’; they are the ones to whom God has given the authority to reward good and punish wrongdoing, so we should not presume to do this for ourselves. Paul then continues by outlining what laws we are obliged to keep—reaching a climax with the law to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, echoing the explicit teaching of Jesus in Mark 12.31. Both Paul and Jesus are citing Lev 19.18, which comes in the context of rehearsing many of the Ten Commandments, and includes not only the prohibition on taking revenge, but also the injunction to care for the ‘poor and the foreigner’:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19.9–10)

And the context of of the whole of Romans 12–13 is set by Paul’s opening words:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12.1–2)

Rather than pressing us into a docile acceptance of whatever the government of the day says, Paul is here advocating a radically distinctive way of living—though one that avoids any unnecessary conflict with the authorities (‘as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ Rom 12.18).

We are then led to consider the wider biblical context of Paul’s teaching about governments and political power. One of the constant themes running through scripture is the tension between the will of God and the actions of those in power, even amongst the people of God. A key moment in the Old Testament history comes when the people demand a king ‘like the other nations’ in 1 Samuel 8. The prophet Samuel warns them extensively of the dangers of political power, and how easily a king will exploit resources, take what is not his, lead the young men off to death in battle and exploit the people with heavy taxes for his own benefit (1 Sam 8.10–18). The uneasy settlement over kingship (and with it all political authority) can be seen in the subsequent account of the kings, some good, but many ‘who did evil in the sight of God’ and led his people into disobedience and, ultimately, the destruction of exile.

This ambivalence is captured in two quite distinct episodes in the New Testament. One is Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Mark 12.16–17 on whether we should pay taxes (an issue still to the forefront in Romans 13). Jesus highlights the problem inherent in the question, by noting the coin’s image of Caesar, something that breaks the second commandment, and that within the temple precincts. But in his answer ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ Jesus is not dividing the world into the two regions of the secular and the sacred, but highlight the limitations of ‘Caesar’s’ demands and the total nature of God’s. In other words, the demands of secular power can never trump (!) the moral demands of God. There is a similar distinction evidence in 1 Peter 2.14–17; governors should be ‘honoured’ but it is God who is to be ‘feared’.

The other very different episode comes in Revelation 13, a description of Roman Imperial power as the ‘beast from the sea’ (redeploying the imagery of Daniel’s four beasts in Daniel 7) who makes claims that only God can make, tramples on his people, and is an agent of the devil in opposing God’s work. Romans 13 can never be read without also reading Revelation 13.

This all points us back, finally, to the actual content of Romans 13. At the centre of the pericope (the unit of text) is Paul’s assertion that ‘the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.’ This implies an obligation to submit to good law—but also enjoins Christians in contexts where they have a free voice to remind governments whose power they truly exercise and therefore to whom they must give an account. ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ Jesus reminds Pilate (John 19.11), pointing out to whom he must be accountable in this exercise of power.

So what does Romans 13.1 means for us in this context? Obey the authorities as far as you are able; recognise that God institutes governments for the good of people, to render judgement between good and evil. Don’t cause unnecessary trouble, living at peace with all as far as you are able. But recognise, too, that the ultimate authority is God’s, and this calls you to live distinctive lives, following in the first instance God’s commands for holy living. This includes care for the weakest and the vulnerable, including the refugee and the foreigner.

All this is not to say that biblical interpretation is somehow more important than caring for children. But it is to note that reading the Bible badly can be used to shield our conscience from what is evidently wrong—and reading the Bible well makes it clear what God’s priorities are in this kind of situation.

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14 thoughts on “Should we always obey the government?”

  1. I think Sessions’ observations about the good of law and order and the message of this passage are basically right, and it is good to see officers of state still prepared to cite scripture in defence of principle, though one might have hoped for a less controversial (and apparently inhumane) context in which to do it.

    However, I think perhaps Sessions is mixing up the right to make law (for public order and the public good) with the separate issue of whether those laws are right (and possibly a third issue of what it is permissible for people to do about laws they deem wrong).

    There can be little doubt that the government has the right to make and follow the policy it has in this matter, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better policy that achieves the same legitimate aims in a kinder and more compassionate way.

  2. This seems a good and biblical perspective. There is also no logical reason why the number of occasions and situations where the law cannot in conscience be obeyed would never proliferate beyond imagining.

    The principle of rule of law has to earn the respect it expects. The existing problems with it include:

    -It is no great feat to walk into a lobby – what respect does that demand?
    -Those who do so are not even specialists for the most part.
    -They have votes to gain or lose, and seats to hold.

    I think Paul’s situation was potentially even worse since when Romans was written the empire was in thrall to the whims of a very young and also immature emperor-dictator. No Trump comparisons please….

    • I don’t think the rule of law does need to earn anything, or indeed, as a principle, that it can really be said to expect anything. Rather it is a principle of the rational moral law, that human society should be governed by public law not private whim or inclination. That doesn’t mean of course that all laws are good or just laws.

      Despite the empire being ‘in thrall to the whims of a very young and also immature emperor-dictator’ Paul still wrote that the governing authorities are to be obeyed as the servant of God, and Jesus asserted that Caesar and Pilate had authority from God. I don’t see any warrant in scripture for making any kind of habit of disobeying government or regarding law as optional. Jesus even agreed that they should pay the temple tax. The times when it is necessary to take a stand of conscience and engage in civil disobedience (or something less peaceful) need to be rare. We can’t indulge in civil disobedience over every perceived mistreatment of people – though we can of course protest and point out what is wrong with current policy and legislation.

      • ‘Jesus even agreed that they should pay the temple tax.’

        Surely, the point of Jesus’ question and comparison was to demonstrate that just as earthly rulers were not expected to tax their immediate families, so also, God would not require taxes of those who, through Christ, comprise His spiritual family.

        The Temple tax was a religious requirement derived from the Atonement Tax, which was prescribed as a reminder of every Israelite’s indebtedness to God for redemption from certain destruction in Egypt. (Ex. 30:15).

        Ultimately, the miraculous supply of the silver coin paid the tax not only without any hint of Jesus being in thrall to it, but also without Him having to renege scandalously on Peter’s earlier presumptuous agreement to pay the Temple tax collectors.

        While, you don’t see ‘any warrant in scripture for making any kind of habit of disobeying government or regarding law as optional’, scripture does provide ample warrant for peacefully challenging the interpretation of laws which promote false assumptions, or contradict other legal doctrines and constitutional rights.

        Jesus did that all the time.

        • Hi David.

          Thanks for the explanation about the temple tax. And I agree about peacefully challenging unjust and ill-conceived laws. But that isn’t the same as saying that the rule of law needs to earn the respect it expects!

          • (1) We say that civil disobedience should be rare. But it ought to take place where laws are sufficiently wrong. In culture A, 1% of laws may be sufficiently wrong. In culture B, 38% of laws may be sufficiently wrong. Supposing that 38% of laws required us to sin or suffer punishment for not sinning – what then?

            (2) Secondly I don’t see any merit in the rule of law per se. It depends entirely, from first to last, upon what those particular laws might be.

          • Yes, the principle of the rule of law is that, by being objectively defined and promulgated, it challenges the arbitrary exercise of power.

            I doubt that Paul would have accepted the argument that it was no great feat to become Emperor by being born into Caesar’s family, that his heirs were not specialists for the most part and that they would be swayed by the alliances which they stood to gain, to lose or hold.

          • So, so far, we have some pros and some cons for the rule of law.

            Law in itself is no good unless there be some requirement that law correspond to reality.

            It is vital that law prevent the arbitrary exercise of power (pro).
            But what happens when a clique of lawmakers use lawmaking for the arbitrary exercise of their own power (con)?

            That is actually far worse.

            The breaking of law by arbitrary exercise of power can be challenged by referring to the law.

            Whereas the incoherence of the laws themselves or their tendency to serve the interests of a clique cannot be challenged.

            In this central case, the con is therefore more notable than the pro.

            Once the felony lies within the law itself, we have problems.

            And there is nothing at all to prevent that: the lawmakers are neither experts nor free of self-serving. Thirdly, a high proportion of them turn up for the vote only, having not attended the actual debate. They expect us to be impressed that they have taken a walk to a lobby.

        • Hi Christopher,

          Paul uses the word, antitassomai, which, in antiquity, described armed resistance, rather than conscientious objection.

          A good example of culture B was when Diocletian, at Galerius’ instigation, published edicts which rescinded Christians’ legal rights and meted out imprisonment and execution for refusal to sacrifice to pagan gods.

          Despite the terrible persecution that the Church underwent from 303 to 311, there is no record of the Christians of that period engaging in armed resistance to overthrow Roman rule.

          Fast forward to 1534 and, as you know, St. Thomas More, while steadfastly loyal to Henry VIII as king, was charged with treason for refusing to swear the oath of supremacy which affirmed the King’s supremacy over the Church.

          However we might disagree with his ecclesiology, More’s reply was as ‘wise as serpents, but harmless as doves’ in its balance of reason and rhetoric. It remains as sublime today as it was 480-odd years ago:
          ‘“Inasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior Himself, personally present upon the earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same See, by special prerogative guaranteed, it is therefore in law among Christian men insufficient to charge any Christian man.”

          “this realm, being but one member and small part of the Church, might not make a particular law [that was] disagreeable with the general law of Christ’s
          Universal Catholic Church any more than the city of London, being but one poor member in respect of the whole realm, might make a law against an Act of Parliament to bind the whole realm.”

          When, as you say, ‘the law does not correspond to reality’, it is for the those who follow Christ to speak truth to power similarly, whatever the personal cost that this incurs. (Rev. 12:11)

          • That’s illuminating – thanks.

            As to armed resistance, chance would be a fine thing, even if the Christians wanted to do that, which they wouldn’t remotely.

            Generally, Jesus and Paul spent a lot of thir time setting themselves against the prevailing system.

  3. It is a subtle point, but Paul does not say ‘obey’ but ‘be subject/submit to’ the governing authorities. Compare this with Eph 5.21-22 and Eph 6.1,5. I have heard it said that the difference in this context is that to be subject to the authorities is not to do what they say, but accept willingly the consequences of your disobedience.


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