Quaker Universalist Conversations

Rescuing Romans 13:1-7

How do we answer authoritarian use of these words?

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.

"Icon of the Apostle Paul," by Adrian Hart 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 room,”
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 Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom, by John Dominic Crossan (20040 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?

"The Wall in Nogales" by  Jonathan McIntosh

“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. Used by permission of the artist.

1 See “Christian Leaders to Jeff Sessions: The Bible Does Not Justify Separating Families,” 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.


For me this query highlights what I believe to be the most important aspect of Quakerism: questioning. We have a responsibility to question until we find answers that fit with our own experience. We have an obligation to never accept anything without questioning and that includes quotes from religious texts. In this particular case, perhaps Paul’s advice was appropriate for a certain time and a certain place. Based on my experience, Paul’s advice is not relevant today when our government (and most governments around the world) are acting in the interests of the elite and wealthy leaving the majority of us in the dust of ignorance, injustice, and poverty. This is against my personal values and even logic of what works and what doesn’t. I’m guessing if Paul were round today he’d agree with me.
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 exist part from incarnating in social; institutions/practices. See: Walter Wink: “The Powers That Be”; Walter Wink: “Engaging the Powers” Marva J. Dawn: “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God” and Henrikus Berkhoff: “Christ and the Powers” for differing yet related takes on this same issue.
The literal interpretations are rooted in the ancient belief in the “Divine Right of Kings,” which was changed by the American Revolution. As the Declaration of Independence states: “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments are formed to ensure these rights and “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, people are not given their rights by some divine government fiat, but people are infused with these rights by their Creator at birth. This concept, as developed by Locke, etc., was considered new and was why the American Revolution was considered so unique. Peace, Joanne Herrmann
Not that I want to defend Paul or make him authoritative for our time: but Jesus and Paul were living in occupied Palestine. Government corruption and enforcement of rights of the haves against the have-nots was much worse than it is today — even in tyrannical third world nations like the US. So the “times-have-changed” argument doesn’t quite apply here.
In Paul’s letters and in the stories about him in Acts we read that Paul was repeatedly arrested by Roman authorities. When he was heading to the West and stopped in Rome, he was again arrested and this time executed by Roman authorities. This may have been under Nero when Nero was blaming those disobedient Christians for setting the fire that destroyed so much of the capital of the empire. Therefore, Paul and those Roman Christians must not have been following Paul’s apparent advice in Romans 13: 1-7. Second, in addition to this qualifying historical context, the text itself disputes the reading that our Attorney General and White House press secretary assume. Of course, they are not the first to claim that reading is correct. First, just before Romans 1, the final verse of chapter 12 advises: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Immediately following is this: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet: and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:8-10). So, putting the selected text of Romans 13: 1-7 in its own con-text of the letter provide more evidence to dispute the reading of Romans 13 as saying we ought to do whatever the government tells us to do. Implicit in the text from chapter 12: 21 through 13: 10 is that we ought not “obey” the government when what is demanded violates the commandments, summarized in the love commandment. Within Romans 13: 1-7 there are other clues that undermine the simplistic reading of this troubling text. When Sessions says that Paul says we ought to “obey” the government, he is using a translation of the Greek that has been rejected in more recent translations. Rather, as in the NRSV or the NIV, terms such as “be subject to” or “submit to” are used. Paul uses the term translated as “obey” in other texts in relation to the commandments and to Christ. That is, whatever Paul means by advising the Christian congregation in Rome to “be subject to the government authorities” this advice is not primary. Obedience to Christ is primary. Further, there is reason to understand “be subject” used here and in other places to mean that one is not to violently rebel against such government authorities. Finally, this all suggests that there is a more ambiguous reading of verse 7 which says : “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Like Jesus’s reply to those asking—with ill intent—if Jesus is saying the people ought not pay Caesar’s taxes (Mark 12: 13-17), Paul may be read as suggesting that there may be some circumstances in which taxes, revenue, respect and honor are not due to those authorities. This of course does not mean that we just need to get the correct reading of these difficult biblical texts and then “obey” them. Paul is in a different context and when we read this text along with other of his statements, it seems reasonable to think that Paul thought that the Roman Empire was soon to be brought down by God. Whether Jesus thought the same is an ongoing debate (I think he did not think so). However, even when we have done our careful work to try out best to be clear how to interpret biblical texts and still reject what is said as not applicable to our experience now, that does not mean we cannot learn from the larger Christian tradition. After all, there are some things I imagine we reject about what George Fox or John Woolman thought. Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to engage with our past. That past is still part of our experience today.
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