Archive for June, 2018

Romans 13 and Nonconformity: The Christian Community’s Obligation to Oppose Inhumane Laws and Practices

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

[This is the text of a Facebook post from June 14, 2018.]

Thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (explicitly) and Sarah Sanders (implicitly), Romans 13 (actually, only 13:1-7—and this point is important; see below) is in the news. This part of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians is being cited as justification for calling those who take the Bible as a moral guide to support and follow all U.S. immigration laws, policies, and practices. This text is especially being cited in support of separating parents and children at the U.S. border.

It would take a lot of space to fully critique their argument. But here, in a nutshell (ten short points), is why what is happening at the border is not only instinctively morally repelling, but also a misreading of Romans 13:

1. Various aspects of the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 are debated, but its main original intent was to say to the Roman Christians, “Pay your taxes” (Romans 13:7). The text is not a call to blind obedience to all authorities and laws.

2. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it can only mean what it means in light of its context. That is, it cannot be ripped from its context in the letter to the Romans. But this is what Sessions and Sanders have done.

3. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it cannot be understood in a way that contradicts its context.

4. The immediate context of Romans 13:1-7 is the entirety of Romans 12 and 13. In Romans 12 and 13, Paul sets out basic guidelines for the Christian communities in Rome, and for us.

5. Those guidelines begin with a call for *nonconformity to this age,* a radical transformation of attitudes and practices that is appropriate to those who have benefited from God’s mercy in Christ. This spirit of nonconformity and transformation is the prerequisite for knowing and doing God’s will. And it is the fundamental framework for everything that follows. See Romans 12:1-2.

6. After a discussion of various gifts in the body of Christ, Paul calls on the Christian community to practice a radical, genuine form of love that corresponds to the love they have received from God in Christ. This includes hating what is evil and practicing the good; showing hospitality to strangers; loving enemies; weeping with those who weep; associating with the lowly; blessing persecutors; not repaying evil for evil; practicing peace toward all; not seeking vengeance for harm done; and overcoming evil with good. See Romans 12:9-21. The call to this lifestyle is what immediately precedes Romans 13:1-7.

7. Immediately after Romans 13:1-7 is “the rest of the story”: what Romans 13 says as a whole. Here we find another radical call to neighbor-love and a call to avoid the works of darkness by putting on Christ. See Romans 13:8-14.

8. This context for Romans 13:1-7 means that the Christian community must not follow any authority or law that calls them to violate these basic Christian principles. Rather than being a blanket call to obedience, Romans 13:1-7—when read in context—actually supports Christian opposition to many laws and practices.

9. Sessions and Sanders have missed the point of “Romans 13.” If the practices and laws they are defending manifest the opposite of the basic Christian ethic described in Romans 12-13, it is the duty of Christians to oppose those inhumane practices and laws that they are justifying, in part, by their misuse of Scripture.

10. Christians must also be prepared to try to offer humane alternatives to the practices and laws they oppose.


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