Pastor’s Column: Reflections on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13
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.
This has been among the most misunderstood sections of Scripture throughout the reign of Christendom. 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. The Church has long misunderstood this passage, and it has led us to seek an unholy alliance of Church and State, a habit that we must break as we live out the Gospel in a post-Christendom world. So, what follows are some thoughts on Romans 13 that reject the Christendom interpretive lens of “Two Kingdoms” so that we might be better equipped to be a Sabbath people who live under God’s rule and who don’t confuse our allegiance to God with an allegiance to a State claiming to be God’s vessel for working out God’s mission on earth. This claim is nothing but idolatry and leads the State to use Christianity to support its purposes in ways that, as Sessions’ comments do, twist and misrepresent the Christian vision of the relationship between the Church and the State.
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). In other words, Paul is calling the Church to love her enemies and not to engage in evil as a defense against evil. His comments then flow into a reflection on the relationship between this small, powerless Church and the ruling authorities, i.e., Rome. Reading it out of context, the Church has long read Romans 13 as a passage in which Paul gives the State status as an equal partner with the Church in the outworking of God’s mission, a misunderstanding that has yielded a long history of “Two Kingdoms” theologies, which teach that God rules the world through the two institutions of Church and State. However, this idea would be anathema to Paul, as it was to Jesus (see Jesus vs Pilate), to John the Revelator, etc. Nowhere in the New Testament are we called to view the State as a co-partner with the Church in the outworking of God’s mission. The whole witness of Romans and the New Testament is clear: The Church is the community through whom God’s mission goes forward, not the State. The State has a role to play in God’s providential purposes, but it is not what we have assumed it to be, and it is not what Jeff Sessions thinks it is. More on that in point 2 below…
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. In this passage, Paul declares that the role of the State is to maintain some level of order so that the human society in rebellion against God doesn’t descend into chaos. The State bears the sword as a way of maintaining a basic order of justice in the world, but this bearing of the sword is not to be understood as identical with Divine justice. Divine justice isn’t a function of the sword, but of the cross. Divine justice doesn’t come through the laws of States, but through the cross of Christ. The laws of States are necessary in our East of Eden reality of human rebellion, and are the means by which a basic order is maintained in society, but we are not to confuse this role of the State with the Church’s role in history.
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. So, we must be reminded that the term servant doesn’t necessarily mean that the State is to be seen as the means by which God is establishing His purposes. For instance, in Jeremiah 43, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, is called God’s servant. This means that God is using Babylon for His sovereign purposes of judgment, but it doesn’t mean that Babylon should be seen as a partner with God, or with Israel, for the establishment of God’s Kingdom purposes. So, when Paul describes Rome as a servant of the Lord in Romans 13, he is not declaring Rome to be a co-partner with the Church as two means by which God is establishing His Kingdom. Rather, he is saying that, in His grace, God has established the State to keep order, and He will use the State as He wishes, but this does not mean that the State is a positive partner in God’s missional purpose. In Romans 13, Paul is using the language of servant as it is used to describe Babylon in the Old Testament, not as an endorsement of the State as a willing servant of God’s missional purposes. The only community that the New Testament describes as the willing, conscious servants of God’s Kingdom purposes is the Church.
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.
As those who belong to Christ’s nation, we are to recognize the Divine role given to the State, and not try to take that role for the Church. To be in submission to the State doesn’t mean to give allegiance to the State, but to recognize its role and not seek that role for the Church. It doesn’t mean that we are to owe allegiance to the State. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament are we called to offer allegiance to the State, but rather are to offer our allegiance only to Christ. We are to be peaceful citizens of the State, we are to live at peace with all people as much as depends on us, but we are not to give the State the allegiance that is due to Christ alone. To submit to the State means to recognize God’s purpose for the State and not to confuse the Church with the State, but it does not mean that we are to give our allegiance to 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. Since Romans is not a text intended to be used by ruling authorities to call their subjects to obedience, any such use this passage by a governmental authority is by its very nature a misuse of the text. This passage was written to call the Church to be as Christ to all, even to a government who will bring evil upon them, not as a call to statecraft. The problem with the Christendom/Two Kingdoms misreading of Romans 13 is that it has consistently led the Church into a vision of her relationship to the State that isn’t supported by the New Testament. The Christendom interpretation of Romans 13 has warped our view of the relationship between the Church and State. The New Testament shows little interest in proper statecraft; rather, the New Testament shows concern for how the Church will witness to Christ.
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.