Squaring Romans 13

Baptists have a reputation for not getting along with one another.
In his book, The Challenge of Being Baptist, historian Bill Leonard puts it like this:
“From the beginning of the movement,” he writes, “Baptists have been plagued by schisms, divisions, and intra-and interchurch feuds.”  Our democratic way of church governance makes these sorts of disagreements—over matters both significant and trivial—almost inevitable.

That’s why it was noteworthy when, late last month, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists—which, respectively, occupy conservative, moderate, and progressive positions on the theological spectrum—all issued, within a few days of one another, formal statements opposing the United States government’s position of separating immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.  The Southern Baptists, for example, called for immigration reform that “maintains a priority of family unity,” a sentiment echoed by the other two groups.

I agree wholeheartedly with the shared conviction of this diverse—and unlikely—coalition of Baptists.  Separating children from their parents in this way is wrong and contrary to the biblical imperative to care for the weak and vulnerable among us.  I am glad that the government reversed course on this policy.  It was the right thing to do.

That said, I was struck by the fact that, for a brief moment during the public conversation surrounding the policy and its enforcement, the spotlight shone on chapter thirteen of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It’s rare for the Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Baptists, and the Alliance of Baptists to agree.  It’s even more rare for a handful of New Testament verses to figure so prominently in a public policy debate.  When I heard Romans 13 invoked, my ears perked up.

Now it’s July—and my ears are still perked.  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” writes Paul, “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” (Romans 13:1-2).  These were the verses cited by the attorney general to support the government’s position—and call into question the resistance of those opposed to that position.  This was not the first time Romans 13 has been so used, and it undoubtedly will not be the last.  Usually when these verses show up in these circumstances, the argument goes something like this: The law is the law and Christians ought not only to obey it, but be submissive toward those who enforce it.

Fair enough.  What is a Christian to do, though, when the governing authorities act in a way that’s contrary to what either Scripture or conscience tells us is right in the eyes of God?

It’s a question that cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a Baptist.  This is where we started, as dissenters in 17th century England.  When forced to choose between obeying God and obeying laws they considered unjust, our spiritual ancestors repeatedly chose the latter.

For these Baptists, Romans 13 presented a moral and theological quandary.  It still does.  As Christians who take the Bible seriously and are committed to honoring its authority over our lives, how should we understand Romans 13 when our reading of Scripture, or the demands of conscience, puts us at odds with the
governing authorities?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:21 to “give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”  The entire book of Revelation is more or less
a long letter of encouragement to Christians who
are being persecuted by an unjust government.
The message: Be true to Jesus and don’t cave in to Caesar’s demands.

There are other, similar voices heard throughout the Bible, but perhaps the clearest, most concise answer comes from Acts 5:23.  The ruling Jewish council in Jerusalem had banned Peter and his fellow apostles from proclaiming the risen Christ in public, yet they continued to preach.  Hauled once again before the council to account for their defiance, Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authorities.”

That’s bold.  It’s scary as well.  It’s also—and, maybe, most importantly—a position that requires us to be familiar with what God’s expectations of us are as revealed in Scripture.  In other words, when we feel compelled to take a position that is at odds with the governing authorities, we need to ask ourselves: Is our position consistent with what God wants for His children, not just in one or two isolated verses, but as revealed throughout the whole of Scripture?  If we’re going to resist human authorities in the name of God, then we need to be well-grounded in God’s truth and what it demands from us in terms of holy, righteous,
and just living.

American history is replete with examples of Christians—such as the abolitionists in the 19th century, or those who pushed for civil rights in the 20th century—who’ve felt compelled to take this difficult path.

The same can be said of Baptist history.  We’ve always made room for dissent and respected the dictates of individual conscience.  Our theological convictions about religious liberty have sometimes rubbed uneasily up against our civil obligations to the
governing authorities.  When Caesar gets it right, it’s easy to square Romans 13 with our commitment to obeying God.

On those happy occasions, we ought to be grateful.  In a fallen world, however, Caesar sometimes gets it wrong—and when that happens, writes theologian N. T. Wright, Christians have a moral duty to hold Caesar’s feet to the fire, urging him to do what is just in the eyes of God for the good of all God’s children. At our best, Baptists of every theological persuasion—conservative, moderate, and progressive—do exactly that, not because it’s easy or popular but, rather, because it’s right.

May the peace of Christ be with you!