Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible this week to defend a controversial Trump administration policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy toward illegal immigration. Specifically, Sessions was responding to criticism from Christian leaders, who find the policy abhorrent.
"Illegal entry into the United States is a crime — as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution," Sessions said. "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."
While Sessions may have thought he had concrete biblical evidence in his corner to support the policy, he couldn't have been more wrong. Romans 13, specifically a verse that calls for Christians to abide by the laws in the nation where they live, does not at all address what Sessions believes it does.
So, what does Romans 13 really mean?
Sessions was referring to the opening verses of Romans 13, the Apostle Paul's most well-known letter.
Those verses say: "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."
Paul, a zealot Jewish Pharisee turned Jesus follower who had numerous run-ins with the Roman government, was not writing the Roman Empire a blank check and instructing the church in Rome to blindly submit to the will of the Emperor.
See, to understand what Paul meant by his writings in Romans 13 you must first understand the political context for the letter.
Jews and new followers of Jesus — known as Christians — were facing intense persecution throughout the Roman world.
However, there was also tension between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentiles who became Christians. In the context of the letter, Jewish followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were just returning from a lengthy exile — about 5 years — at the hands of Emperor Claudius. When the Jewish followers finally returned, they found a church that had become very non-Jewish.
The Jewish followers argued that Gentiles needed to observe Jewish laws and customs, such as eating kosher, keeping the Sabbath and becoming circumcised. Gentile followers argued they were free in Jesus' death and resurrection and were not required to be Torah observant.
This created a very divided church, one that could hardly find common ground. This presented a major problem for Paul, who sought a strong and unified Roman church, one that could be used to spread the good news about Jesus further West.
Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul makes the case that Jews and Gentiles — both followers of Jesus — are one in Jesus. There is no longer a division between the two groups. They are the new humanity being transformed by the Holy Spirit, which is how God has chosen to fulfill his promises of a unified family in the Old Testament.
In light of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, Paul explained how Jews and Gentiles are to be unified in the church, which will be obtained through a commitment to love and forgiveness. This commitment also fulfills Jesus' greatest command, which is to love God and to love your neighbor like yourself.
So in one word, the context of Paul's Romans 13 words is: Unity.
Aside from the history of the Roman church, Jesus made it very clear what he thought about inhumane actions, such as separating children from their parents. Look no further then Matthew 25. To ignore the vulnerable, Jesus said, is to ignore and deny Him.
Why is this context so critical?
It's simple: Because in world history, and American history in particular, Romans 13 has been used to justify very abhorrent acts, such as, most notably, slavery.
Indeed, the words have a deep history of being ripped out of context by governments seeking blind submission — something never OK for any group of people, let alone Christians.