Recently, the Trump administration tried to cite scripture in support of its policies. As a pastor, I try to refrain from weighing in too heavily on political matters because I believe that there is a place in the Kingdom of God for people who vote in all sorts of ways. Yet, as a pastor, I am compelled to weigh in on matters of biblical interpretation and, in this case, biblical misinterpretation.
Last week, Attorney Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 in a press conference, implying that Americans should support whatever policies the Trump administration puts forth because it is biblical to do so. Whether you support Sessions and Trump or not, scripture provides a truth that transcends any administration or government. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to let the Bible influence our politics and not let our politics influence our understanding of the Bible.
So what was Sessions referring to? Let’s take a look at the chapter and verses:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad…
- Romans 13:1-3 (NRSV)
Paul wrote to the church in Rome that their fledgling Christian movement was not a political revolution or coup, but a movement of the faithful to proclaim hope and salvation to the poor and downtrodden. In the process of doing so, he warned the early Roman Christians against making the church into a movement of political overthrow. In other words, he wrote to subjects of the Roman authorities that they should remain subjects and avoid becoming revolutionaries, anarchists, or political zealots like other Judeans were prone to be at that time.
However, Paul’s letter is not addressed to governing authorities themselves and Sessions was badly misinterpreting this passage when he cited it in defense of the Trump administrations policy of separating families. Paul was writing to Christian citizens to encourage them to remain law-abiding citizens, not to government officials, like Sessions. It is a dangerous theological and political misstep when governing authorities try to use this passage to say that they can do whatever they want because God is on their side, no matter how heinous or evil their policies.
It is also a highly inconsistent, if not hypocritical, for Sessions, Sanders, and the Trump administration as a whole to invoke Romans 13 as a defense against resistance to their policies. If we follow Paul’s letter to the Romans and trust that “authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1), then that does mean that the Trump administration was instituted by God in this time and place. However, this also means that Barrack Obama’s leadership was instituted by God and that those who resisted him resisted one that God had appointed. Since Donald Trump’s whole candidacy was built on resisting Obama, it is hypocritical to say that one president should be supported without question and another one resisted until they are out of office and beyond. Lest liberals get too comfortable with this line of thinking, that also means that George W. Bush was instituted by God and should not have been resisted… and Clinton… and H.W. Bush… and Reagan…and on and on. To say that the president’s authority is instituted by God is to acknowledge that God has instituted both Republicans and Democrats to lead our nation.
(Important note: Romans 13:6 also says, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are also God’s servants, busy with this very thing” – so claims that it is good and wise not to pay taxes are also unbiblical.)
In a democracy, it is biblical to hold our leaders accountable."
It is important for us to acknowledge that, in a democracy, it is biblical to hold our leaders accountable. Unlike the Roman Republic’s system of governance in which the only ones who could hold office were male, Roman nobility who were voted in by other male, Roman nobility (leaving over 90% of the population without a voice), America’s system of democracy extends the government to “we the people.” Everyone of a certain age has a vote and therefore a voice. It does not matter if you are male or female, if you hold land or not, if you graduated high school or were a drop out, if you wear a blue or white collar to work or are a proud of how red your neck gets from working in the fields all day. The governing authority in the United States of America includes all of us and our leaders are the subjects of their constituents. I believe that our democracy was, ultimately, instituted by God so that our authorities will be subject to the will of the people.
The governing authority in the United States of America includes all of us and our leaders are the subjects of their constituents. "
So, if our elected officials do something that you think is wrong, bad policy, immoral, or even sinful, you are being faithful when you hold them accountable. It is faithful and biblical to vote out the man or woman you don’t like and to write or call our congressional leadership and give them an earful of support… or whatever else you might be inclined to share with them. It is biblical to support our president and it is biblical to resist him. This is what it means to be a “nation, under God” with “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, so eloquently articulated in his Gettysburg Address.
Regardless of your politics, some things are just wrong in the eyes of God. "
As to the matter that Sessions was referring to, his order to separate immigrant children from their parents on behalf of the Trump administration, this kind of policy is also biblical but in all the wrong ways. The Hebrew children were separated from their parents when they were slaves in Egypt, so God raised up Moses to topple the Egyptian empire and lead the Israelites to freedom. Centuries later, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and the Jews were hauled off to exile in Babylon for generations. Why? The prophets tell us that their exile was a punishment for neglecting the poor, widows, children, and immigrants (Ezekiel 22:7 and 29, Jeremiah 7:6, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10). When Herod entertained the wise men from the east, he did not go to worship the Messiah like he told them. Instead, he ordered the massacre of all male children under the age of two (Matt. 2:16-18). God sent the Son into the world to overcome all sorts of evil – the greatest of which are abuses against children. Regardless of your politics, some things are just wrong in the eyes of God. While the struggle over immigration policies and legislation loom large at the moment, we should not use children as a deterrent and we are grateful that the Trump administration stopped this practice yesterday.
In this time of great uncertainty and disruption, where it seems like most of us in middle America will never get ahead and our leaders seem intent on dragging us further behind, may Paul’s words in the verse right before this passage give you hope:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” - Romans 12:21 (NRSV)
Rev. Seth Nelson is the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He serves as a pastor in Ronan, Montana, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.