Everyone should be in submission to the governing authorities. For there is no authority apart from God, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1-2).
Our government’s deterrence-aimed policy of separating migrant children from their parents has been roundly—and rightly—reviled. Punishing children for the decisions of their parents is beyond the pale of any Christ-centered understanding of biblical ethics. Yet confusion persists because Romans 13 undeniably admonishes us to show proper respect for civil government. Likewise, the Lord Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). A line of demarcation exists between Christ and Caesar, but what do we do when our loyalty to Christ collides with our loyalty to our nation state?
Historically, Christians have fallen into one of two camps when it comes to Romans 13 and debating government policy. On the one hand are those who utilize Romans 13 to enforce law-abidance and to squelch dissent. Disobeying the government’s laws, this camp says, is equivalent to disobeying God. On the other hand, those who oppose the government’s actions tend to downplay the import of Romans 13. Sometimes they sideline Romans 13 in favor of passages more conducive to the themes of love and mercy. At other times, they argue Romans 13 is only applicable if a government’s laws are just.
Over against these timeworn options, I want to offer a way to give full-throated endorsement to Romans 13 while simultaneously acknowledging that even the most just governments can be guilty of committing injustices. Such perennial tension is never easy to unravel, but I hope these principles derived from Romans 13:1-7 will help us honor God by doing everything we can to live peaceably and honorably as American citizens.
1. Submission need not entail unquestioning obedience. Paul was careful to always show respect to Roman authorities (even in the face of martyrdom!). Indeed, without the roads connecting the Roman empire, without shipping lanes free from piracy, and without Roman administration, Paul’s missionary journeys may have been severely limited.
2. Seeking a change in government need not entail rebellious anarchy. We can vote, advocate, and even fight for righteous causes without succumbing to the chaotic danger of anarchy. Granted, tyrants do not give way easily, and so sometimes revolution for the sake of just government is the only viable alternative (e.g. the ancient Israelites in Egypt).
3. Paying our dues to the government need not entail shortchanging God. God raises up governments and tears them down (Dan. 2:21). Our part is to do everything we can to honor authority while remaining focused on our primary mission to see God’s Kingdom realized on earth as it is in Heaven.