Rescuing Romans 13:1-7 – How do we answer authoritarian use of these words?

Originally published on the Quaker Universalist Fellowship blog (6/30/18)

Amid the wide global turmoil stirred by America’s current flexing of authoritarian nationalism, a deeper spiritual turmoil has been brought to light by the current administration’s use of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

There is a willful blindness at work in this government and its supporters, a steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge—or care—that the families fleeing to the United States from Central America are refugees seeking asylum from violence in their homelands.

Romans 13:1-7

13 1 Let everyone obey the supreme authorities. For no authority exists except by the will of God, and the existing authorities have been appointed by God. 2 Therefore those who set themselves against the authorities are resisting God’s appointment, and those who resist will bring a judgment on themselves.

 3 A good action has nothing to fear from rulers; a bad action has. Do you want to have no reason to fear the authorities? Then do what is good, and you will win their praise. 4 For they are God’s servants appointed for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you may well be afraid; for the sword they carry is not without meaning! They are Gods servants to inflict his punishments on those who do wrong.

5 You are bound, therefore, to obey, not only through fear of God’s punishments, but also as a matter of science. 6 This, too, is the reason for your paying taxes; for the officials are Gods officers, devoting themselves to this special work. 7 In all cases pay what is due from you—tribute where tribute is due, taxes where taxes are due, respect where respect is due, and honor where honor is due.

A New New Testament: A Bible for the Twenty-First Century,
edited with commentary by Hal Taussig (2013)

The statements that stirred the controversy

Attorney General Jeff Sessions – “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.”

– “Sessions cites Bible passage used to defend slavery
in defense of separating immigrant families
by Julie Zauzmer and Keith McMillan,
The Washington Post (6/15/2018)

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – “Where in the Bible does it say that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?” [CNN reporter] Acosta asked. “I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing,” Sanders replied. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law.”

– “‘You’re a parent!’ Things got personal in the White House briefing ...,”
by Callum Borchers, The Washington Post (6/14/2018).

How does Romans 13 apply to immigration matters?

As an exercise, here are literal readings verse of Romans 13:1-7, along with queries and plausible conclusions regarding the controversy between these officials and a range of Christian leaders.1

The verses

  1. You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities are appointed by God and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God’s decision, and such an act is bound to be punished.
  2. You must all obey.
  3. You must all obey the governing authorities.
  4. All government comes from God.
  5. The civil authorities are appointed by God.
  6. Anyone who resists authority (of governing authorities) is rebelling against God’s decision.
  7. An act (of rebellion against governing authorities) is bound to be punished.


  • Which statements are true?
  • Which are true to your experience?
  • Which should be obeyed by all people?
  • What are the implications for your life?
  • Which should be taught to children?
  • Are any of these statements literally true?
  • Substantially true? Partially true? Selectively true?
  • Significantly true? Historically true?

Plausible conclusions

It seems that the U.S. government, President Trump, Jeffrey Sessions, President Bush, President Clinton, President Reagan, and President Carter are correct in their application of Romans 13 to the separation of refugee children from their parents, and in the prosecution, detention, adjudication, incarceration, and deportation of refugee children and parents.

It seems that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Franklin Graham, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, McGill University, and the America magazine are not correct in their interpretation of Romans 13 with regard to the separation of refugee children from their parents.

Reclaiming Paul

Texts do not exist in some realm of timeless truth. They are always located, both in their creation and in their contemporary interpretation. Treating a text as if it can simply be abstracted out of its social and cultural context is, in fact, to strip it of its full original meaning….

While fundamentalists—whether Biblical or Buddhist—assert that a naïve uninformed reading of a religious text is the best means of revealing its meaning, such a reading only unreflectively locates our own meanings into the text.

– “In Defense of Ritual,” by Richard Payne,
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly (Summer 2018)

In his 2004 book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, John Dominic Crossan describes the social and cultural context in which Paul wrote his letter to the Christian house churches in Rome.

Crossan explains that Romans “must be read against the specific situation of Roman Christianity in the mid-50s with the old emperor, Claudius, very dead and the new emperor, Nero, very alive.” Claudius had persecuted Christians violently and driven them out of the city of Rome. Nero would do the same.

[Paul] recommends obedience to human authority especially with regard to taxes (read 13:1-7). This is not an abstract theology of civil authority that can be generalized to all Christian situations, but rather concrete and prudent advice for Roman Christians…not to rebel against civil authority for what happened to them under Claudius and for what awaited them when they returned a decade later under Nero.” (394)

To make sure that modern readers of Paul understand this context, Crossan adds the following:

There is a time and a way to obey, and a time and a way to disobey. There is a hierarchy within resistance, opposition, and negation. On June 17, 1940, according to Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, when the fall of France made everyone around him jump up to give the Nazi salute, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did likewise, saying, “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (394)

What, then?

“Paseo de Humanidad” (Parade of Humanity), by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
A painted metal mural on the Mexican side of the US border wall in Heroica Nogales, Sonora.

This brings us to a final biblical admonition, one far more deeply and powerfully embedded in the Old Testament’s prophetic speech than Paul’s compassionate cautioning of his Roman followers.

Leviticus 19:33-34 33 And should a sojourner sojourn with you, you shall not wrong him. 34 Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns with you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary,
translation and commentary Robert Alter (2004)

What is your response to Romans 13:1-7?  How do we witness to our faith in this time and place in history?  How do you answer those in power?

Note & Image Sources

Image: “Icon of the Apostle Paul," by Adrian Hart. Based on the work of Russian iconographer and fresco painter, Archimandrite Zenon, which draws on early Christian iconography.

1 See “Christian Leaders to Jeff Sessions: The Bible Does Not Justify Sepa...,” by Jennifer Bendery, Huffington Post (6/15/2018).

Image: “The Wall in Nogales,” by Jonathan McIntosh on flickr (9/17/2009) [ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) ].

A painted metal mural attached to the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, Sonora. The mural is titled “Paseo de Humanidad” (Parade of Humanity) and was created by artists Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano. It depict the struggles and harsh realities of economic refugees traveling through the Sonoran desert to reach the US.

Views: 292

Comment by David McKay on 7th mo. 2, 2018 at 9:43am

It is by no means clear to me that the "supreme authorities" from Romans 13:1 is referring to civil authorities. A lot of work was done in the 20th century on powers and principalities theology. And there's a range of interpretations. In the earliest 20th century Oscar Cullmann proposed that this passage and that term referred to supernatural beings — angels and demons so to speak. In the later 20th century Walter Wink proposed that the powers and principalities were simultaneously social institutions and spiritual forces. These spiritual forces were unable to exits part from incarnating in social; institutions/practices.

Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 7th mo. 2, 2018 at 1:49pm

We are surely not surprised that there are those who would use the Scriptures for their own justification, are we?  This is as old as the Scriptures themselves, and we are all familiar with how Jesus confronted the Pharisaical examples of it.  None of this is new to us.

But there are other ways to understand Paul in Romans 1-7, especially since he takes such a radical departure from his arguments in these chapters in the subsequent ones, which describe God's overreaching Grace.

Theologian Douglas Campbell described the historical context of Romans in his 1200 page treatise, "The Deliverance of God".  Campbell believes that Paul was using the ancient rhetorical device, the diatribe, where the speaker takes opposing views (argument within argument).  Paul is arguing against a "teacher of the law" in order to drive home his point about God's Grace in the second half of his letter.  Bearing in mind that these texts were meant to be read out loud, with an audience, Paul Nuechterlein of has proposed how some of this dialog between Paul and his opposing "teacher" would look as spoken diatribe at:

This hypothesis is at least as plausible as the prevailing one of a kind of dual personality Paul, one that speaks of our "obligations" under the law in one breadth, and the sufficiency of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus in the next.  Rather than rest with a schizophrenic Paul, I would explore this alternative.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 10:53am

Basically we've got some inflated pastoral advice: 'Stay out of trouble if you can, and don't stir up unnecessary trouble by picking fights with the authorities.'

God determines who receives earthly power... [and Jesus makes it clear that what God does is for our ultimate good] but the immediate purpose may well be that of any "act of God" in the insurance sense of the word: When a nation is 'wrong' in behavior or attitude, bad stuff is going to happen. Jesus does say not to 'set your self against' a person who means you harm,

ie It isn't that people shouldn't oppose evil or avoid harm (if possible) -- Jesus' own words can be harsh against the rulers of his day -- but that this shouldn't lead to becoming an enemy of anyone, not even of a cruel and senseless ruler.

Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 11:57am

Thank you very much, Friend David. This is an important alternative reading of Paul that I had not learned of before. I will share the Cullmann and Wink perspectives with my fellow Friends.

Would you be willing to add this comment to the original post at or to allow me to do so?


Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 12:05pm

Thanks, Friend Randy.  This too is a valuable expansion of this blog post's intent.

You write:

[Douglas] Campbell believes that Paul was using the ancient rhetorical device, the diatribe,...arguing against a "teacher of the law" in order to drive home his point about God's Grace in the second half of his letter....
This hypothesis is at least as plausible as the prevailing one of a kind of dual personality Paul, one that speaks of our "obligations" under the law in one breadth, and the sufficiency of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus in the next.  Rather than rest with a schizophrenic Paul, I would explore this alternative.

It took me several decades to reclaim Paul, and understanding his audience and the sort of teaching and debate with which they were familiar has been key to that process for me.


Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 3:41pm

Friend Forrest, A good comment.  You write:

Basically we've got some inflated pastoral advice: 'Stay out of trouble if you can, and don't stir up unnecessary trouble by picking fights with the authorities.'

In fact, I left out of the Crossan passage a segment that speaks somewhat to your concern. Following the sentence about persecution under Claudius and Nero, Crossan writes:

Even granted that, [Rom 13:1-7] does not sound very Pauline, as it has nothing whatever about Christ. Most likely, therefore, it is...a standard example of Jewish synagogue advice for survival in a potentially hostile environment. As such it would be especially appropriate for Christian Jews in Rome. (394)

Thanks again for the observation.

Comment by Randy Oftedahl on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 4:38pm

Indeed, and this would also make sense to the diatribe hypothesis.  If Paul was speaking both the voice of Grace (as he does earlier in chapter 12, when he counsels the faithful to bless those that persecute them and overcome evil with good), AND the voice of the "opposing teacher," the verses in question would be the response, and it would be one that makes perfect sense to the observers of the law.  

Comment by David McKay on 7th mo. 3, 2018 at 6:11pm

Just cross-posted this my comment to the blog post at Universalist Friends. I have added some book references. Cullmann I don't have in my library but others cite it.

Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 11, 2018 at 1:47pm

Thanks again, Randy.

I feel modern Christians misunderstand and misuse Paul, because they read him from their own modern point of view, rather than learning about and appreciating his context in the Greco-Roman world of religion and debate.


Comment by Mike Shell on 7th mo. 11, 2018 at 1:53pm

Thanks, David. Your post is at on the QUF blog.



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