In light of Jeff Sessions’ comments regarding immigrant families, and his citation of Romans 13:1 as the basis for obedience to the laws of the State, it is critical for the Church to understand Romans 13.
Sessions’ comments, which are a blatant and clear misappropriation of that passage, and a disturbing attempt at Biblically justifying the actions of the State, are not something new under the sun…
There are three critical issues that must be addressed if we are to rightly grasp Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:
1) The context of Romans 13
2) What Paul means when he calls the State “God’s Servant”
3) Paul’s call to submit to the State
1) The context of Romans 13
It is critical to understand that Romans 13 is not a stand-alone treatise on the obligations of the Church and the State. Romans 13 is a part of a beautiful, powerful, and closely-argued letter written by Paul to a small Christian community living in the belly of Caesar’s Rome. Paul’s purpose in Romans is to call the Church in that imperial city to live under the Lordship of the one true Caesar, Jesus, and to understand God’s salvation that has come through the Messiah. Romans 13 can only be rightly understood if seen in the flow of the whole letter, and particularly the context of Paul’s teaching in chapter 12.
At the end of chapter 12, Paul is calling the Church to resist repaying evil for evil, to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Paul’s teaching calls the Church to model the life of Christ in her relationship to the State, but it is not a promotion of the State as a co-partner with the Church in a “Two Kingdoms” amalgamation…
So, the context of Romans 12 as it leads into Romans 13 tells us that Paul assumes that the State will be antagonistic to the Church, because the State is all about its power and having its citizens be subservient to its power. This is the opposite of how the passage has been read for much of the history of Christendom. The Christendom reading of the passage creates a vision of the State that expects it to be a partner with the Church in pursuing God’s mission. But Paul’s intent is the opposite: the Roman Church is to expect persecution from the State. So, Paul’s claim of Christ to be the One True Caesar calls followers of Jesus out of a subservient relationship of State-worship and seeing the State as a vehicle for God’s Kingdom purposes, and so places the Church in the position of being liable to persecution at the hand of the State because of our refusal to venerate the State. Therefore, having called the Church not to repay evil with evil at the end of chapter 12, Paul then turns his thoughts to the State in chapter 13, from whom the Roman Church could expect to (and of course did) receive evil. In making this move, Paul calls the Church not to take up judgment against the State, not to assume the place of God in trying to overthrow the State through means of violence and power. Rather, the Church is to witness to Christ while seeking to be at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18), but if the State will not grant them peace, then they are not to take revenge, not to repay evil for evil, not to take the place of God (Romans 12:19). Paul’s teaching calls the Church to model the life of Christ in her relationship to the State, but it is not a promotion of the State as a co-partner with the Church in a “Two Kingdoms” amalgamation in which the Church and the State are partners in ordering the broader cultural/political structures of society. The context of Romans 12 must radically reshape the way we read Romans 13, and must lead us away from a vision of obedience to the State that assumes that the State is a co-equal instrument with the Church for God’s Kingdom purpose in history. That leads us to…
2) What does Paul mean when he says that the State is God’s “servant”?
We have been accustomed to reading the language of Romans 13, in which the State is referred to as God’s “servant”, as meaning that the State serves the positive work of God and so is a partner with the Church in accomplishing God’s purposes of establishing His Kingdom. This is a misreading of Romans 13 that we must overcome if we are to understand our mission as God’s people in a way that will free us from the misunderstandings of Christendom.
According to Romans 13, the State does play a role in God’s sovereign purposes, but this should not be understood as a Kingdom/missional role, i.e., a role as co-partner with the Church working out the mission of God.
The only community that the New Testament describes as the willing, conscious servants of God’s Kingdom purposes is the Church.
The word “servant” being applied to the State has caused great confusion in the Church and has contributed to the deep misunderstanding of Paul’s intent in Romans 13. When we read that the State is the servant of God we assume this means that the State is working positively for and with God for the sake of His Kingdom purposes. But can we really think that Paul believed Rome to be in line with God and His purposes? How could we ever get a vision like Revelation from a Church community who believed that the State was working with God for His Kingdom mission? So what does Paul mean by “servant” in Romans 13?
Biblically, the term servant can be used of those who are actively serving God’s purposes, but it can also be used of those who God uses in spite of their own purposes.
nowhere in the New Testament are we called to offer allegiance to the State, but rather are to offer our allegiance only to Christ.
One other mistake on this we need to correct: When Paul says that God has established governing authorities, he is not declaring that God has endorsed the candidate who has been elected to office. This is a very dangerous mistake the Church makes and leads to the flagrant error of divinizing the results of human political processes, and also extends the Christendom error of assuming that States are divinely decreed for the sake of His Kingdom purposes. It is fascinating that Christians across the political spectrum assume that when the person we voted for is elected, it is God’s will and so established by God in His providence, but when the person we didn’t vote for is elected, it is somehow a mistake that slipped through God’s providence (and so is not legitimate) and we must work with all our might to be sure that person or party is not elected next time. But if the person who is elected is specifically established by God, then on what grounds could Christians ever resist any ruler? Wouldn’t we then be resisting the will of God? Rather than reading Romans 13 as stating that whoever is in office is there because God placed them there, we should rather read it as saying that human governments in general are part of God’s work to keep rebellious humanity from falling into chaos, but we should not read Romans 13 as indicating that the State, and any particular ruler of the State, is to be seen as a vessel of God’s Kingdom purposes in history.
3) What does Paul mean when he says that we are to submit to the State?
The idea that the Church is to be in a submissive relationship to the State is another error arising from the Christendom reading of Romans 13 that we must break from if we are going to be faithful witnesses of Christ in our post-Christendom world.
…represent a deep misunderstanding and misapplication of the relationship between the Church and the State
The comments by the Attorney General represent a deep misunderstanding and misapplication of the relationship between the Church and the State that is consistent with the misunderstanding of Romans 13 that has long plagued the Church.
untangle ourselves from these misunderstandings that have done so much damage to our witness, and to our ability to live out the heart of God in the world.
As a Church in these challenging times, we are going to need a much deeper and more reflective understanding of the many ways we have been made a pawn of East of Eden powers, and untangle ourselves from these misunderstandings that have done so much damage to our witness, and to our ability to live out the heart of God in the world.
Dr. Joel Lawrence is the Senior Pastor at Central Baptist Church and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Bethel Seminary.