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The ’Splainer: Why is Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 and why is it so often invoked?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a point during his speech at the Western Conservative Summit on June 8, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border this week by citing a passage from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

“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 them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”


RELATED: Sessions cites Bible to defend separating immigrant families


Later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders summed up the same idea: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

But is it? Does the Bible really preach to obey the laws of government? If so, was Sessions right to use this passage to defend the government’s actions? Let us ‘Splain.

What does Romans 13 say?

Sessions appears to be referring to the first half of the chapter. The first two verses in the popular NIV translation read:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

It goes on to say that those who do right will be commended and those who do wrong should be afraid, describing rulers as “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” It also includes a plug for paying taxes.

Why is Jeff Sessions quoting it?

It’s no secret the government’s policies of tearing families apart — as well as denying asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence — has come under sharp criticism from many Christian leaders. Among them are the very ones who have championed Trump’s policies in the past, namely conservative evangelicals. Evangelist Franklin Graham called the policy “disgraceful,” and the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for immigration reform that maintains “the priority of family unity.”

Sessions was replying directly to “church friends” when he made his comments, suggesting the administration’s policies were perfectly justified by appealing to a higher set of principles, God’s principles.

How do Christians feel about his exegesis?

Well, that depends who you ask. CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) News’ chief political correspondent, David Brody, shared a screenshot of Romans 13:1-7 on Twitter Thursday (June 14) saying Sanders was “right” to say enforcing laws is biblical and encouraged members of mainstream media outlets reporting on Sanders’ and Sessions’ comments to read the Bible.

But many Christian leaders and institutions tweeted or issued statements critical of Sessions’ use of Scripture. They include the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers); the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral; and the Rev. James Martin, editor at large of America magazine. Johnnie Moore, one of President Trump’s most influential unofficial evangelical advisers warned against “proof texting,” or selectively using a Bible passage to prove a point.

“While Sessions may take the Bible seriously in this situation he has demonstrated he is no theologian,” Moore said.

Even talk-show host Stephen Colbert took time to address Sessions’ remarks on “The Late Show” Thursday, reading what came a few verses later in Romans 13: “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

How does this fit into how Romans 13 has been used historically?

Romans 13 played a critical role in the American Revolution, writes George Mason University historian Lincoln Mullen. For obvious reasons, loyalists who favored obedience to King George III of England liked to quote Romans 13; revolutionaries also used it to argue that Paul never meant to justify despotic rulers.

Prior to the Civil War, after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, the passage was cited again. The act, which allowed slaves who had escaped to freedom in the North to be forcibly returned to their owners in the South, was employed this time to rein in anyone who would challenge the lawfulness of slavery.

The passage was used once again in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously made a point about it in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as he explained that Christians should subject themselves to the governing authorities as they do good, not evil:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

Does Sessions’ use of the passage match its original context?

The Apostle Paul wrote that passage while living under the brutal Roman Empire. Paul, a convert to Christianity who went around evangelizing people, was a known troublemaker, said Douglas Campbell, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. His preaching had caused riots in Ephesus and Jerusalem. These public disturbances earned Paul disfavor with Roman administrators who greatly feared any incitement to revolution.

“He was in legal trouble so he had to cover himself,” Campbell said.


RELATED: N.T. Wright on the Apostle Paul’s sudden popularity


Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome before he had met its recipients. Many Jewish followers of Jesus were returning to Rome under the emperor Nero years after the previous emperor had expelled a number of Jews, according to Lynn Cohick, chair of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Cohick describes the passage as an introduction, as well as instructions: “After five years, how are they going to reintegrate?” she said. Chapters 12 to 15 deal with that question, with Paul echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in lines like, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and “Bless those who persecute you.”

“He’s framing all of this in their context of, ‘We want you to be a good citizen as much as you are able. You’re not going to be able to offer sacrifices to the emperor. … If that’s the law then you’re just going to break the law and go to jail.  In terms of the government raising funds through taxes, that’s just what you do,” Cohick said.

That’s where that plug for taxes comes in.


RELATED: Politics, persecution and ‘ardent love’: New movie aims to show why Paul is still relevant


But the fact Paul himself was imprisoned by governing authorities several times and eventually executed shows “You don’t follow the government at all costs,” she said.

“That’s not what Paul was saying.”

(RNS national reporter Jack Jenkins contributed to this report.)

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

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