The verse, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) has joined “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and “Slaves obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5) as one of the most abused passages of scripture in history. There is a long history of misusing this text to argue that Christians are always duty-bound to obey the civil authorities. This past week U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessionsadded his name to that history.
According to this absolutist view, to resist the civil authorities is to oppose God. God, it is argued, appointed government both to punish wrongdoers and promote good. Civil and religious leaders across the political and ecclesial spectrum have widely invoked this interpretation as a theological weapon, ascribing punishment and damnation to dissenters.
Based on this reading of Romans 13, evangelical Christians in Germany during the Third Reich believed they could question political authorities only if they were forbidden from preaching and practicing their faith. So they said nothing. As the regime’s evils mounted, these people of faith remained silent and deaf to the cries of the oppressed. That history is grounds for suspicion that absolute obedience to civil government is neither wise nor warranted.
Paul himself did not obey civil authority. Nor did he suggest that the state and its officials must always and absolutely be obeyed. He recognized that the power of law can be used for justice, or for injustice and evil. So he urged his readers to be subject insofar as conscience allows (Romans 13:5). Eventually his own conscience got him in conflict with Roman authorities, for which he was imprisoned and finally put to death at their hands.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Ala., because he violated laws that were being used to maintain policies of racial discrimination and segregation, he wrote a letter to white ministers explaining his use of nonviolent direct action. He wrote, “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. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Romans 13 is not a manifesto on the divinely ordained power of the state, and it does not call for absolute obedience to civil authorities. Instead it offers a provisional account of the limits of civil authority for all people of conscience.
By invoking Romans 13 as calling for absolute obedience to civil magistrates, Jeff Sessions and the Trump Administration have embarked on a highly problematic path. They are standing on unstable ground that has been used as a license for tyrants and a justification for abuse. In doing so they invite people of conscience not only to oppose, but to disobey, unjust laws.
I urge those who would stop reading Romans 13 at verse one to continue a little further. There they will discover that the true civic duty is not blind obedience to civil authority, but love for God and neighbor. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul wrote (Romans 13:10). Let’s start with love.
Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of “Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity.”