Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; 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, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. —Romans 13:1–7 (NRSV)
These words have been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of days, primarily because Attorney General Jeff Sessions used this passage to justify the separation of children from their asylum seeking parents at the southern U.S. border.
It has been pointed out that this passage was used by slaveholders in the American South to justify the institution of slavery and to demand the obedience of slaves to the slaveholding system. It has been further pointed out that this passage was also used by the Deutsche Christen (the “German Christians”) in Nazi Germany to justify subservience to the Nazi state. Both of those things are true.
But the question for us is, given the apparent clear language of this passage, how do we make sense of what seems to be a straightforward Biblical admonition to submit to governmental authority? To understand this passage and what it means for us today, we have to bear a few things in mind. Continue reading