Life is a highway and I love road trips! My best friend and I were trying to finish our Masters’ Degree, as part of our ordination track, when we threw caution to the wind and drove two states away, derailing our graduation date, all to take a summer intensive, in developmental theology, from a living legend who was about to retire from teaching.
Driving down the road, eager with excitement, we were just two pastors, yakking on about geeky-theology stuff, and somehow Romans 13:1 ended up dividing us on this issue of God’s role in directing citizens on issues of war and security. Knowing, I was not going to win this debate, I simply, and maybe a bit mischievously, said to my friend, “Hey you know what, when we get to class you ought to ask our professor, Dr. Knight, what he thinks is the correct use of that verse.” That was all it took. My friend took the bait, hook, line-and-sinker. This, honestly, was unfair. Because I had already read Dr. George R Knight’s devotional commentary on the Book of Romans and I knew exactly where he stood.
There we were, the first day of class, super excited to be learning at the feet of Dr. George Knight, himself, and my friend had his hand up, “Sir, Sir, can I ask you a question before we get started?”
I know, I should have tried harder to stop my friend. If you have never met Dr. George R Knight, he has often aptly been described as personifying both aspects of Jesus; the Lion and the Lamb. As my friend eagerly presented his case on
Romans 13:1 being the bedrock of God’s good government on earth, he was sure the good Doctor would concur and correct me.
Doctor Knight, was as gentle as a Lamb. He listened, smiled, leaned down towards the desk making full eye contact, matching faces, like the sweet, joy-filled, grandfather figure that he is; and then with a flicker in his eyes, he transformed, in a millisecond, into the roaring Lion of the tribe of Judah, and barked out, “Don’t you know, that was Hitler’s favorite verse? What’s a teacher to think of you on the first day of class?” And the whole class broke into laughter defusing the matter at hand.
But Romans 13:1 is no laughing matter at all. Romans 13 has been used as a pretext for all kinds of government, and church/ state control throughout history; like Luther to subjugate the peasants, like the British loyalists during the American Revolution and to justify slavery in America, not to mention to keep people from opposing Hitler during the Holocaust, just to name a few. When Christians use Romans 13:1 to justify the injustice of a political power they are ripping the verse right out of the womb of its context, and aborting it from the very message of love, liberty, and freedom of equality both Paul and the Bible teaches.
Romans 13 was originally written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome, just as Emperor Nero was rising to power among other authorities who, in Paul’s time, were hostile to the church. Paul, commonly believed to be writing from Corinth to Christians throughout the Roman Empire, was telling them to keep focused on their religious mission and not stir up unnecessary trouble with the, already hostile, authorities of the time.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Paul was not lending power and authority to the tyrannical Roman government; he was telling Christians to get out of the way! Remember, this was the government that mercilessly persecuted the early church and who had crucified Christ, himself. Yet, Christians from Rome did have some political power, because they had citizenship; even Paul was tempted, at times, to use it. So, Paul warns them that true power resides in God alone! Rome had been chosen by God for a purpose that was not the business of the Church. The church was to be focused on the mission of preaching Jesus to the ends of the Roman Empire and the world.
Professor Ken Boa, (Ph.D., ThM, DPhil, President of Trinity House Publishers) reflecting on this tension found in Romans 13:1-2 offers these important thoughts:
“What Paul wanted the believers in Rome to understand was, in the Roman Empire (or any other), “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another… The fact that “governing authorities” are human authorities—sinners just like us—is perhaps what makes it so difficult… How far is the Christian expected to go in obeying civil authorities—especially when those authorities demand that which goes against the will of God?”
That question provides much-needed context to the Romans 13:1 crisis because God certainly would not have been telling Christian to obey Nero, deny Christ, and worship idols, and submit to death. Furthermore, Paul would never give an absolute command contrary to the rest of the Apostles, who declared, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Paul was not teaching his followers to be patriotic citizens of Rome but rather to be citizens that survived the crushing power of Rome against Christians!
Doctor George R Knight, (BA, MA, MDiv, EdD, a retired professor from Andrews Seminary) the author of, Exploring Romans: A Devotional Commentary says, God established the government because, “Without it, life exists only by the law of the jungle.” In other words, it exists to hold the most basic order of life in place. Yet it only has the authority to do it as a “Servant of God.” That is to say, it is not an unchecked power unto itself, but rather it is an imperfect tool God uses.
Knight goes on to remind us;
“And what about those early Christian martyrs who lost their lives to the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian? They had commanded Roman citizens to worship them on the pain of death. All that a Christian had to do was to bow down and curse Christ. Such was the direct order of the Roman government. We should never forget that it is the very government that Paul refers to in Romans 13 that not only crucified Jesus but would eventually take the apostle’s own life… Thus earthly rulers are not supreme but operate under delegated authority. They are God’s servants and nothing more, in spite of whatever exalted views they may have of themselves… When the state steps out of its rightful role and seeks to become the supreme authority, in the place of God, it has departed its legitimate function. Thus when the regulations of the state conflict with loyalty to God, civil disobedience is not only appropriate but demanded by the first commandment of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:3).”
As we exegete Romans 13:1 and its context, one thing we all must hold certain is that the Bible should never be exegeted by the State; particularly not this verse, because it has been used, historically, to oppress so many people by various governments. It is a fundamental principle of religious liberty that the American government, or any government, should never tell Christians what to believe. This practice should be opposed by all Bible-believing Christians, and particularly by all Protestants and Evangelicals. Protestants have a long and brutal history of having to escape persecution from the State when it united with Papal and other church/state combinations. In fact, the United States arose, in large part, from the very escape of such tyrannical forces.
Our Founding Fathers, when envisioning what sort of nation we were to be, made this idea the founding principle of the Bill of Rights. The first amendment of the constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791, and promised that the government could not show favor to the establishment of any religion because if it did, it would suppress both freedoms of conviction and speech.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Thomas Jefferson in his distinguished and renowned letter to the Danbury Baptists on Jan. 1. 1802, further explained the intent of this concept:
“Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
When Jeff Sessions, acting in his official role as The US Attorney General, stood before the press, defending the policy of his office by saying; “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful” he violated the spirit of the text and the stated intent of Thomas Jefferson and our Founding Fathers for our Religious Liberty. Jeff Sessions, with those words, created what I call the current, “Romans Thirteen: One Crisis”. Regardless if we agreed, or not with his policy, every Bible-believing, constitution loving, Christian in the nation, ought to have stood up, with one voice, denouncing such actions. So why did we not?
Have Christians and Constitutionalist, alike, become so side-tracked with policy, political tribalism, or even apathy, that we would be willing to ignore our very own religious liberties, and bow down once again to the golden statue on the plains of Dura, and worship the golden image, forsaking Yahweh our Lord, and embracing our new rulers? Have we already, sold ourselves back into the slavery of church ruled by the State? This is what I call the “Romans Thirteen: One Crisis,” and now the church must awake to its danger before it becomes the new norm. This is the spirit of those in the crowd, on that terrible day, who cried out with a “zero tolerance” voice for the God who ‘immigrated’ to this world to save them, “We have no king but Caesar!” We must not forsake our liberty of religious freedom, by handing over our religious understanding to the State to use, even if with good intentions, lest we find that Caesar is the only version of God we have left!
To be fair, perhaps Jeff Sessions, and later to a lesser significance Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did not mean act against years of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Perhaps, they felt cornered, or even pressed by the media, or as Christians serving in higher office to defend their own faith because of what people were saying about their current immigration policy, but as gracious as I can be about the motivations of their actions, I cannot excuse the great danger in which they have placed all of America.
It is not enough, that Jeff Sessions’ own church seeks now to possibly discipline him “alleging he has misused his “tremendous social/political power” in his enforcement of the nation’s laws” and “criticizes Sessions for citing Romans 13 to justify the policies.” We all must, as Bible-believing, liberty-loving Christians, stand up and demand that the Government get out of our pulpit, out of our Bible, and out of the business of justifying political policy with subjective interpretations of our Bible! This was not a national prayer breakfast, or a traditional holiday address, or a generic call for God’s blessing on our nation. This was the defense of the execution of the legal policy of the United States Department of Justice, with a personal application, of the preferred peculiar religious discernment, held by the nation’s chief lawyer, the Attorney General; and thus, must be seen as a serious threat to religious liberty and the first amendment. If apathetic Christians, Pastors, Ministers, Church officials, and Denominations do not stand up to abhor and abominate such practices as this, the time will soon be upon us that whoever happens to reside in the White House at any given time might as well be called both President and Pope.
For the irony that directly stands before us is this: The Apostle Paul was writing to Christians living in the greater Roman Empire about appropriate Christian obedience to Rome and yet, this is the exact same Rome that in just a few hundred years, would unite with the church in partnership, and evoke brutal church and state powers and attempt to crush out any Christian who opposed their interpretations of the Bible. The conclusion is sobering, a “Romans Thirteen: One Crisis,” will always, in time, produce a “Revelation Thirteen: Fifteen Crisis.”
“Let anyone who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
 Luther, Martin (1525). Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.
 Mullen, Lincoln. “The Fight to Define Romans 13”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 17 June 2018
 George R Knight. Exploring Romans: A Devotional Commentary. Review & Herald (December 18, 2013)
 “Nero | Roman emperor”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
 Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 392). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Such a position, as this, granted particularly to Jeff Session, is extremely liberal in generosity considering the nature of the position he holds, his vast history of public service, and his University of Alabama School of Law education.