Was Jeff Sessions Wrong to Cite St. Paul and Romans 13?

He had a point, though the Bible does not provide direct counsel for U.S. border laws.

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States, stand in line at a facility in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.

By Mark Tooley Published on June 19, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the separation of children from detained immigrants by quoting Scripture back to his critical “church friends.” For this, he has been widely denounced by religious voices.

“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.”

This angered many “church” friends and others. They recall slave masters and Nazis who also cited St. Paul’s “controversial” admonition to obey civil laws when demanding submissive allegiance.

These fulminations against Romans 13 as supposedly a frequent justification for tyranny are fierce. Many may wonder if it shouldn’t just be deleted from the Bible, or at least ignored. Some critics have conflated St. Paul, Sessions and sordid American history as a miasma of interlocking oppressions.

Critics Take on Sessions and Romans 13

An Atlantic article fumed, “Sessions may claim the Bible’s contested authority, but what the attorney general actually has on his side is the thread of American history that justifies oppression and domination in the name of law and order.“

One cleric declared, “As a United Methodist bishop I am ashamed that AG Jeff Sessions is a United Methodist and either never learned the truths taught in our holy scripture or is willing to sacrifice his faith for his political position.”

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Theologians in The Washington Post asserted that “Sessions’s argument that U.S. citizens should unquestioningly submit and obey [sic] to governing authorities follows” arguments from Apartheid’s defenders. They also insisted the “Bible shouldn’t — and can’t — be used to argue against immigration,” offering their own scriptural counsel for open border policies.

Religion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig was unsparing. She accused Sessions of “radically depart[ing] from the Christian religion, inventing a faith that makes order itself the highest good and authorizes secular governments to achieve it.”

Bruenig ominously warned:

If you had all the power in the world, maybe you would also hear a serpent dipping its smooth body down from some shadowy bough to say: God wants you to do whatever you like with your power, and whatever you do with it is good.

What Christianity Teaches About Romans 13

Did St. Paul countenance unlimited state authority? The opening verses from Romans 13 declare:

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.

To hear many of these critics, St. Paul’s words have only be exploited by tyrants to gain unquestioning subservience. But Christians are called generally to obey civil laws in every society unless they are egregiously unjust. Romans 13 has been central to this.

It’s now popular to stress the Bible as guarantor of entitlements in defense of the “marginalized.” That is certainly important. It’s much less popular to cite the state’s divinely ordained punitive duties against disorder. Without that, there can be no pursuit of justice.

The Catholic Catechism quotes Romans 13 when explaining that the “authority required by the moral order derives from God.” And: “The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.”

Thomas Aquinas is quoted in the Catechism:

A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.

The Catechism warns:

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.

A Perilous Move

Sessions is Methodist like me, not Catholic. So he’s doesn’t have the Catechism memorized on this topic. As a traditional Protestant, he was responding to “church friends” deploying scripture against current immigration policy with his own selected Bible verses. Contra his critics, there’s no reason to think Sessions believes in unquestioning subordination to all laws under every regime. He was trying to explain the moral value of a lawful society. And widespread illegal immigration disrupts a lawful society.

In truth, the Bible does not provide direct counsel for U.S. border laws.

Quoting Bible verses to support political specifics is always risk. Perhaps Sessions instead should have explained that any separation of families is tragic and grievous in all law enforcement situations. But, he could have added, an implied free pass for illegals accompanied by children would generate wider upheaval and greater tragedy.

Many “church friends” who are immigration activists have themselves long cited scripture when touting policy preferences. They will treat Old Testament passages commanding hospitality for sojourners as if they entailed more permissive immigration policies by the United States.

Compassion, Justice and Order

In truth, the Bible does not provide direct counsel for U.S. border laws. Christianity teaches all persons are God’s image bearers. That includes illegal immigrants. It also teaches that God ordains civil states to uphold order. The details of policies are largely left to prudential judgment and debate.

It’s now popular in American Christianity to stress the Bible as guarantor of entitlements in defense of the “marginalized.” That’s important. It’s much less popular to cite the state’s divinely ordained duties against disorder. But without that, there can be no pursuit of justice.

The widespread response to Sessions with sweeping caricatures of Romans 13 as enabler of tyrants shows this imbalance. What we need is to reflect on the full counsel of Scripture, which doesn’t isolate compassion, justice and order.

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  • Chip Crawford

    Scripture is interpreted in its context and with others. If an interpretation contradicts other verses, that is not a proper interpretation. That’s what is happening here. You toss out the conflicting interpretation, not the verse. There are no bad verses in God’s word.

  • Trilemma

    When Paul wrote Romans 13, the governing authorities were the Romans. Paul never said to disobey the Romans or to try and overthrow the Romans. Nowhere in the Bible are Christians told to only obey the government if they think the government is good. I guess that means Paul was an enabler of Caesar.

    • Ken Abbott

      The apostles enjoined prayer on behalf of those in civil authority, for order and peace that Christians might live quiet and productive lives to the furtherance of the gospel. Our Lord told us that Caesar should get his due, as should God. Only when Caesar’s requirements run afoul of God’s requirements is a choice forced. And we do well to remember that God holds the king’s heart in his hand.

    • Boris

      Paul did not exist.

      • Trilemma

        How do you know that?

        • Boris

          From reading the dumbest fantasy novel ever written called Acts of the Apostles. It’s impossible that Paul could have done all those things and not be mentioned by one single historian contemporary or otherwise. Same with Jesus and the rest of the apostles. Jesus fame spread throughout the land, according to the Bible. Of course according to the Bible animals can talk, Satyrs (half man half horse), exist and witches are real. Somebody named Paul may have written some of those letters but I doubt that too. The Church wrote the New Testament and in such a way as to convince the moronic masses that their texts were actually written by people who walked with God. It’s the biggest and most obvious fraud ever pulled and the fact that some people can’t see this speaks loudly about human stupidity.

          • Trilemma

            So, you concede there may have been a Paul. Why does Bart Erhman believe Jesus existed? Polycarp claims to have met the apostle John. Did Polycarp exist?

          • Boris

            The Paul described in Acts did not exist. Bart Ehrman has written a lot of books based on the premise that these stories are based on an historical figure. He’s going to cling to that position forever I assume. He has no good reason to hold to this position either. Polycarp, who was supposedly martyred? The flames wouldn’t burn him and so they had to stab him Polycarp? After a sort sermon about hell of course. I doubt it. He’s part of this bogus line of succession from Eusebius back to Peter. This is all done to give all these Christian writings the weight of the authority of God. It’s bad enough this nonsense fooled the moronic masses of the past but the fact that it still does is just inexcusable.

          • As I was saying…

            You remind me of a statement by Ven. Fulton Sheen: “their hatred is their vain attempt to ignore.”

          • Trilemma

            So, who wrote all the books of the New Testament? How did Christianity get started without first century historical people?

          • Boris

            The Church wrote the New Testament. “Look we have these texts written by people who walked with God. We all must obey them. Now give us your money, your political support and your gorgeous young male children for us… uh.. I mean God to use as we.. uh, um He will.” The most obvious scam ever. Do you think all religions are founded upon real historical people? How did Mithraism get started if there was no Mithras?How did Mormonism get started if the Native Americans are not the long lost Jews? Using your logic we must assume that Apollo and Zeus actually existed because how else would religions as them as the central figures get started?

          • Trilemma

            The church did write the New Testament. After Jesus was gone, his followers were the church and they started writing what would become the Bible. All religions were started by real historical people. There’s no way to know who started the religions for Apollo or YHWH or Zeus. Mormonism was started by Joseph Smith. Islam by Mohammed. Scientology by L Ron Hubbard. What became Christianity was started by a man named Jesus who, over time, was deified.

          • Boris

            The problem with your claim about Jesus is that it is not supported by any contemporaneous evidence. There’s not a shred of evidence that any of the apostles existed either contemporaneous or otherwise. No mention of Paul preaching on Mars Hill or arguing with philosophers, which would not have gone well for any Christian preacher. There are no mentions of Peter bringing new doctrine to Rome. There are no records of any of the apostles getting martyred or doing anything else. Outside of the Bible there are no witnesses to any of the events that described in the gospels and that are central to your religion. No witnesses to this supposed trial, or crucifixion, resurrection, the world going dark, dead people climbing out of their graves, Herod killing innocent children (a common theme in fiction) any miracles or anything else. The gospels are not written like history anyway, something like Gaelic Wars which is an historical narrative laced with propaganda. The gospels are written like say Sherlock Holmes where a fictional hero is place in an actual historical setting with real places and real people mentioned in the narrative. This is what fools people into thinking the gospels are historical. However the fact that the existence of none of central figures can be verified nor can any of the stories tells us that these stories are fictional, as is all theology. FYI illiterate men do not take dictation from angels nor do they fly off to heaven on winged horses. Muhammad never existed either.

          • As I was saying…

            You mean you actually think this sneering and blasphemy will make your shame over sin go away?

            blasphemy is the third worst sin of all and cries to Heaven for vengeance. Unless the evil you are trying to cover up with more sin is either abortion or sodomy, you have hurt yourself far worse than the sun that caused your reprobate mind.

          • Boris

            Blasphemy is a victimless crime. I haven’t hurt myself at all and I am not a sinner. You are because you are promoting belief in a God that does not exist which makes you a liar too.

          • As I was saying…

            blasphemy is the third worst sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, meaning it is the third worst sin of all. It incurs punishment in hell worse than the other mortal sins.

            You are the victim of your own capital sin of pride here.

            Speaking of pride, that leads to despair which you show. despair is the mortal sin where you think you will absolve yourself by projection. You won’t.

          • Boris

            It is not accidental that Christianity regards pride a s major sin. A man of self-esteem is an unlikely candidate for the master-slave relationship that Christianity offers him. A man lacking in self-esteem however, a man ridden with guilt and self-doubt, will frequently prefer the apparent security of Christianity over independence and find comfort in the thought that, for the price of total submissiveness, God will love and protect him. In exchange for obedience, Christianity offers salvation, that there is something to be saved from. Christianity has nothing to offer a happy man living in a natural intelligible universe. Id Christianity is to gain a motivational foothold, it must declare war on earthly pleasure and happiness, and this historically, has been its precise course of action. In the eyes of Christianity, man is sinful and helpless in the face of God, and potential duel for the flames of hell. Just as Christianity must destroy reason before it can induce faith, it must also destroy happiness before it can induce salvation. The fundamental teaching of Jesus – the demand for conformity thus gives rise to a fundamental and viciously destructive teaching of Christianity. That some beliefs lie beyond the scope of criticism, and that to question them is sinful, or morally wrong. By this Christianity declares itself the enemy of truth and the faculty by which man arrives truth – reason.

          • As I was saying…

            pride is the original sin. Specifically, the capital sin of pride is attempting to claim divine will for yourself.

            reason is thought using the intellect and no senses. You seem to think reason refers to “gnosis” which is delusion that reality bends to your ego because you want it to.

            You remind me of something Chesterton said: “the fury with which people search for pleasure proves they do not have it.

          • Boris

            The fact is that we unbelievers not only don’t have to search for pleasure we don’t feel guilty for enjoying the things you feel to much guilt to enjoy or even engage in. Like intimacy for example. No fun when your sky daddy is watching you is it?

          • As I was saying…

            So you claim your reprobate mind is based in the capital sin of lust, which is using others are objects?

            Did I tell you what the mortal sin of despair is?

  • Up_Words

    It does appear that Jeff Sessions miscalculated the general tenor of his audience, and of the American church. His comment, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful;”– Seems to echo the Lord’s commentary of end times lawlessness, which, Christ predicted, would eventually trample even those seeking to demonstrate God’s love (Matt. 24:12). In other words, from a biblical perspective he was correct, technically: God does not, in any case, condone anarchy and lawlessness (consider how David refused to avenge himself upon his mortal enemy, Saul: the “Lord’s anointed”). Within a society that elevates principle above “good feelings” such a view might be appreciated. Ironically, within a society such as our own in this twenty-first century, where “self-esteem” often trumps simple humility and (gasp!) the fear of God, such may be (and often is) considered . . . anathema.

    • Kevin Quillen

      Jesus and the Apostles were told not to preach the good news. They disobeyed. We should only obey when government is correct in respect to Biblical teaching. I call myself a Christian Anarchist for this reason. Christians should never conform or compromise with any authority in opposition to Christ.

      • Boris

        Jesus and the Apostles never existed.

        • @disqus_ElxVJPCjj8:disqus : Not true. They are talked about in other extra-biblical writings, particularly Josephus and the Early Church Fathers. Also, the catacombs found in Rome provide archeological evidence.
          The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Christ and His execution by Pontius Pilate

          • Boris

            LOL. Are you kidding me? Jospehus? That’s a forgery done by Eusebius. Even your own “scholars” admit it’s forgery and dumb one at that. Look it up. Tacitus? How come no one ever saw this entry in the works of Tacitus until the 15th Century and then the Church, the world’s largest fabrication factory produced it?. Must be magic! But I will grant you those two things anyway as your best evidence. Best evidence which comes as hearsay and not even first or second hand hearsay and more than a half century removed from the events and people it is supposedly talking about. From people who were not even alive when Jesus supposedly lived! Had you known how flimsy the supposed extra-biblical “evidence” for Jesus really is you would never have bought into the lies of this cult of ignorance and stupidity in the first place and you know it. But now you’ve already been indoctrinated with fear based superstitions and you’re stuck trying to defend your faith with the worst arguments in the history of bad arguments. What you have does not qualify as contemporaneous evidence or even any kind of evidence. It’s an argument that God took human form to come to Earth to found your particular religion and we should just believe it without any evidence at all that this even might be true. Sorry Dude. FAIL.

          • @disqus_ElxVJPCjj8:disqus Not so fast. Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History to record facts before eyewitnesses were killed and libraries burned and destroyed in persecutions by Rome. He transcribed the most important existing documents of his day (including Josephus) so future generations would have the data.
            Tacitus lived from the mid-first into the second century AD. He wrote about the Roman emperors Tiberius through Nero. Even if you’re right that scholars didn’t pay attention to his remarks about Christ until the 15th cent, that does not prove they weren’t there from the start.
            Tacitus was born after the death of Christ, but contemporary with some of the Apostles and certainly the Early Church Fathers. Same with Josephus. They themselves were not Christian, so the mention of the existence of Jesus in their writings cannot be gainsaid.
            You seem to be very angry at God and/or Christ for some reason by your use of language like “ignorance” “stupid” “superstitions”
            Atheism is a belief system which people can be indoctrinated into as much as any other cult. I have found in my life that most atheists don’t really disbelieve in God. The truth is they are angry at God because they are not getting what they want out of life.

          • Boris

            Eusebius is a documented liar and none of what he wrote is true. It’s all propaganda just like the New Testament itself, which was also written by the Church in the Second through Fourth Centuries,. The contemporary with apostles? There’s not a shred of evidence that any of the apostles ever existed either. No mentions by anyone of Paul preaching on Mars Hill, arguing with philosophers or doing anything else. No mention of Peter bringing new doctrine to Rome. No mention of any apostles being martyred or doing anything else.
            Atheists are not angry with God however we do know that is your dirty little secret Believer. All you believers have been angry with God at times in your life because you didn’t get what you want and so naturally you think that is what atheists are as well.
            You could not be more wrong. You have not found that atheists are angry with God, that is a big fat lie. Unbelief is the natural position to take on any subject until something has been proved. The existence of God has not been proved and so the natural position to take on the existence of God is unbelief or atheism. An atheist doesn’t have to be someone who says they know there is no God. An atheist is a person who understands that the evidence for the God question is on the same level as the evidence for the werewolf question. POOF.

  • Robbie

    Thank you for this balanced perspective. The media has wildly exaggerated this story for political reasons, of course.

  • Nutstuyu

    “Liberal” cognitive dissonance:
    Leviticus 19:33 is TOTALLY RELEVANT AND INVIOLABLE LAW concerning immigrants!!!
    Leviticus 18:22 has no meaning whatsoever to any society and is totally hateful and bigoted!!!!

  • There’s certainly biblical precedence for Christians obeying a secular civil government’s law *provided* it comports with the Bible’s immutable/unchanging triune moral law. For example, Romans 12:18: “If possible, as much as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all men.”

    However, be careful, Romans 13 (that Sessions referred to) has *nothing* to do with obeying secular civil governments. There is absolutely nothing in Romans 13:1-7 regarding secular governments. Rather, everything therein is depicting a biblical civil government.

    The one word “continually” in Verse 6 (amplifying Verses 3 and 4) alone proves the point. Unless you’re prepared to say that the Roman Empire (which habitually murdered Christians) was continually a blessing to the righteous and a terror to the wicked, it should be obvious that the Apostle Paul’s dissertation has nothing to do with secular governments.*

    For more, see free online book “The Romans 13 Template for Biblical Dominion: Ten Reason Why Romans 13 is Not About Secular Government.” Click on my name, then our website. Go to our Online Books page and scroll down to title.

    *What makes a government secular is its rejection of Yahweh as its Sovereign and thus His moral law as supreme. Case in point: the United States Constitutional Republic.

    Idolatry is not so much about statues as it is statutes, such as what one considers the the supreme law of the land.

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