When Empires Quote Scripture

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

When empires quote Scripture in order to defend their agendas I have reason to be suspicious that there will be something seriously wrong with their interpretation of the text. So, not surprisingly, when Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently quoted Romans 13 to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy that ripped children from their parents I think they missed Paul’s intent by a country mile.

Empires began quoting Scripture back in the fourth century when the church and state merged under Emperor Constantine to create the Great Christian Society. In return for endorsing and protecting the church, the emperor was more or less assured of the blessing of the church. In order to control all the citizens of this new “Christian” state the church carried the threat of hell and the state that of the sword – both quite effective tools.

By the Middle Ages the “divine right of kings” was taken for granted. Kings were God’s agents in the world on par with the church, and could quite readily quote Scripture to demand loyalty. The Protestant Reformation did not really change this formula. Citizens were expected to adhere to the faith and life edicts of their local king.

This understanding in “Christian Europe” was not seriously questioned until the 20th century, first because of the atrocities committed by Lenin and Stalin in communist Russia, and later because of the holocaust brought on by Hitler. By mid-century, most biblical scholars had abandoned the simplistic understandings of Romans 13:1-7 that had been used for 1600 years. In some conservative, Protestant circles the notion still holds sway, but is usually only brought forward when one’s party of choice holds power. Those granting Trump unlimited powers on the basis of Romans 13 would have been aghast if anyone had tried to do the same for Obama.

It simply is not credible to use Romans 13:1-7 as a stand-alone text that defines once-and-for-all the rights and duties of rulers and their subjects. Paul must be read in light of Jesus, his other writings and those of other New Testament writers. It is clear that in the account of Jesus’ temptations in the desert Jesus understood the “kingdoms of the world” to belong within the sovereignty of Satan (Matthew 4:8-10). This perspective can be offensive to the modern democratic mind but we cannot deny that this was part of the biblical material. And it would have set the tone for the Christian understanding of the state for the first 300 years of Christian history.

Taken as a whole, Paul frequently refers to the structures of human life, including that of the state, by using the language of “principalities and powers.” In his book, Christ and the Powers (1962),Hendrik Berkoff argues convincingly that these “powers” are part of God’s good creation, but that in their fallen state they lure people away from the heart of God while they perform their God-given function of holding society together (Romans 8:38, I Corinthians 2:8, 15:24-26, Ephesians 1:20, 2:1,3:10, 6:12, Colossians 1:16, 2:15) But as Berkhof says, “The main point is that by His cross Christ has unmasked and disarmed the quasi-divine authority of these structures” (21).Taken as a whole, Paul’s teaching promotes anything but unquestioning obedience or loyalty to anyone other than Christ and his kingdom.

Further, Romans 13 should always be read in concert with Revelation 13 where most biblical scholars agree the “Beast rising out of the sea” represents the Roman state under Nero, the same state that would eventually execute Paul.

When we return to Romans 13:1-7 we should note a number of things:

  1. This passage should be read in the context of all of chapters 12 and 13. Notice that the section preceding and following these seven verses is fully devoted to an encouragement to love in all circumstances, not follow the dictates of any earthly authority. Love serves as bookends to this section, thus prescribing the lens through which Romans 13:1-7 must be read.
  2. It is clear that Paul understands the political powers to be “ordered” or “established” by God’s creative action but he does not affirm any and all policies and actions of specific governments. Remember, according to Paul, all “powers” are fallen and it will always be more important for Christians to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19).
  3. Submitting to or being subordinate to those in political power is not the same as unquestioning obedience. Those in power are ministers of God to the extent to which they carry out their divinely-given functions. This obviously allows for “civil disobedience” if and when the state oversteps its mandate or fulfills it poorly. Christians must always retain their moral and independent judgment.
  4. In Romans 12 and 13, Paul calls on Christians to hold together two basic principles: be committed to Christ’s way of love and peace, and resist any and all powers that would lure you away from loyalty to Christ – no matter what the cost.
  5. Kurt Willems argues that Romans is written specifically to Gentile Christians in Rome who were tempted to treat Jewish Christians in unloving ways. He argues that Paul inserts 13:1-7 as a warning to such Gentile Christians that if their dispute becomes public they may end up facing the sanctions of those in political power. But, he says, this text is anything but a carte blanche support for the policies and practices of any given government. An interesting, but worthwhile perspective.

Space does not permit a full commentary here, but biblical scholars of most stripes have made it abundantly clear for the better part of a century now, that when empires or governments quote Scripture to bolster their policies and practices Christians should be wary. It is possible that a particular policy or practice does in fact align with the state’s God-given mandate, but it could just as easily be that quoting Scripture to bolster a sinister or harmful policy or practice is an illegitimate use of the Bible.