What does the Bible verse quoted by Jeff Sessions actually mean?



It has been called one of the most important and most misunderstood passages in the Bible: Romans 13: 1-7.

“The most historically influential paragraph Paul ever wrote,” in the words of one scholar.

Likely written by the apostle Paul around AD 57, Romans 13, including the excerpt cited by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday, calls on Christians to submit to “God‘s servants.” That is to say the government.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”, says the passage. “The authorities that exist were established by God. Therefore, whoever rebels against authority rebels against what God has instituted, and those who do will bring judgment upon themselves.

Romans 13 has been cited by Nazi sympathizers and apartheid agents, slave owners and loyalists opposed to the American Revolution. Modern Christians have struggled with how to apply the passage to issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and taxes.

On Thursday, Sessions cited Romans 13 in defending the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration prosecutions. In a speech to his “church friends,” Sessions said:

“I would quote to you the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of government because God has commanded them for the purpose of order.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Sessions, saying “It is very biblical to apply the law.”

In some ways, the Sessions quote from Romans 13 makes sense. Many “Church friends” to whom the attorney general addressed his speech had cited scriptures to criticize current immigration policies, particularly the separation of children from their parents.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, on Tuesday passed a resolution that cited Scripture six times to advocate for immigration reform. (Some Southern Baptists also cited Romans 13 in the controversial decision to allow Vice President Mike Pence to address their annual meeting.)

But what did Paul really mean when he wrote his letter to the Romans? Should Christians be expected to obey all human laws and cooperate with all regimes? And why would Paul advise submission to a state power that had executed his savior?

Here are five ways Christians have tried to answer these questions:

In citing the Romans, Sessions made a small but revealing slip. He said Paul commanded Christians to “obey the laws of government because God has commanded them.”

But Romans doesn’t quite say that. He says to obey the “governing authorities”, that is, the government, not the laws. You could argue that one implies the other, but the Bible is full of examples of heroes who disobey the law.

Hulton Archives / Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans has been quoted through the centuries.

Take Daniel, for example, who was cast to the lions because he did not obey an edict requiring all of King Darius’ subjects to pray only to him. Daniel went home, opened the windows for all to see and knelt down, defying the edict. It was a blatant act of civil disobedience.

“Whenever laws are enacted that contradict the law of God, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty,” wrote late evangelical eminence John Stott in a Bible study on Romans 13.

Big Brother did not exist in the first century, but the life of a Christian, especially a Jewish Christian, was not exempt from state oversight.

Only a few years before Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the empire had expelled the Jews from Rome for “a riot at the instigation of Chrestus,” according to the Roman historian Suetonius. Some scholars believe that Chrestus is a misspelling of Christ.

It is no exaggeration to imagine that Paul, writing to a small group of religious subversives in the empire’s capital, suspected that his letters might fall into imperial hands.

“Paul is probably writing to be read by government officials as well as by the church in Rome,” John Piper, an influential evangelical pastor, said in a series of sermons on Romans 13.

“He knows that this letter will end up in Caesar’s house and in the hands of the civil authorities. He wants them to understand two truths. The first is that Christians do not seek to overthrow the empire politically by claiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, is the Lord.

The other thing Paul wants the Romans to know, Piper says, is that their authority is based on that of God.

Who, exactly, are the “authorities” to whom Paul urges Christians to submit?

Oscar Cullman, a New Testament scholar who died in 1999, put forward an interesting theory: Paul was talking about cosmic authorities, not civilians. Or rather, he was talking about both.

As Cullman noted, some early Christians, such as some first-century Jews, believed that guardian angels – “the angels of the nations” – were seated above earthly rulers somewhere between God and man.

In other parts of the New Testament, Paul sometimes uses the same Greek word to describe earthly and angelic authorities.

On a practical level, you might understand why Cullman, a Lutheran who lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise, would be drawn to this idea. It is easier to advise submission to the angels than to the Nazis.

But many scholars have rejected Cullman’s theory, claiming that the “authorities” in Romans 13 refer to earthly government. Later in Romans 13, Paul notes that Christians pay taxes to “servants of God” – and, as we all know, the taxman is not an angel.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans concerns the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. It was a time when Christians were divided over whether “real” Christians should be one or the other.

Some Bible scholars believe that Paul feared that Jewish Christians would rebel against Roman authorities. He had good reason to be worried. Jewish Christians had just been allowed to return to Rome after being expelled. Government repression could have crushed the small and turbulent Christian community.

“Paul was not trying in Romans 13: 1-7 to write a manifesto for church-state relations for the next two or three millennia,” writes Matthew Neufeld, a Mennonite scholar.

“His concern was pastoral and local. … Paul advised against anti-Roman and Palestinian nationalist sentiments among Jewish Christians in Rome.

At first glance, writes British scholar TL Carter, Romans 13 may sound like “an embarrassing and wholehearted endorsement of the political status quo.”

But Paul probably knew about the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, as well as other persecutions, Carter argues. It is therefore difficult to understand why he would describe the government as being divinely sanctioned.

So Paul’s praise for the authority of government is overstated, he may have meant to be ironic, Carter says. In other words, Romans 13 is not a eulogy, it is a cleverly disguised criticism.

“Using the technique of irony, Paul was able to express his criticisms without fear of repercussions from the authorities, who may not have been aware of the disparity between the ideal he portrays and the reality of their government.

Carter acknowledges that his interpretation is somewhat idiosyncratic. Many Christians take a more direct reading of Romans 13, even though they struggle to apply it to modern life.

“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Romans 13: 1-7,” says New Testament scholar Douglas Moo, “is the history of attempts to avoid what seems be its ordinary meaning. ”


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