Romans 13 Does Not Say No to Sanctuary

Victoria Foley | May 2021

Mass deportations of immigrants call for sanctuary locations, often taking place in churches, predominantly Christian ones. The Sanctuary Movement, although providing shelter and safety for the undocumented, unfortunately confines a person to their immediate surroundings. Individuals in sanctuary lack the ability to see their families outside of the religious space.

Yet, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Christianity condones separating immigrant children from their parents. He justifies the Zero Tolerance Policy with one of the biggest swords to win over Americans﹣the Bible.

At a press conference about the policy, he stated on June 14th in 2016, “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government […]”

But was Paul’s command actually clear?

Sessions refers to Romans 13:1-7:

“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. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Paul, one of the earliest and most faithful Christians, author of 13 books in the New Testament, wrote this letter to the Romans in 57 CE. During that time, the Emperor Nero reigned as a fervent persecutor of Christians. From mass killings to extreme torture, government authorities regarded Christians with no humanity.

In his other letters, Paul writes extensively about his frequent and deadly persecutions at the hands of the state. From stonings to floggings to attempted murders, Paul never writes positively about the government. Of all the figures of the Bible, Paul may perhaps be the most victimized by the government.

Scholars believe that when Paul wrote Romans 13, he did so sarcastically. He also employs sarcasm in others of his letters (see 1 Cor. 2-4 and 2 Cor. 10-13). The scholar T. L. Carter writes about Paul’s use of language as that of blaming through apparent praise.

In the first verse of Romans 13, the phrase, “for there is no authority except that which God has established,” implies that all subjects fall under God’s authority. No one is above God’s law. Furthermore, Paul encourages the use of the conscience in verse 5, which corresponds to what Paul says in Romans 2:15 about God judging each person according to their thoughts and actions done privately.

Some individuals that follow the reasoning of Jeff Sessions argue that in 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter, another apostle of Jesus, writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Yet, Peter draws upon the book of Isaiah located in the Old Testament of the Bible, which repeatedly encourages social justice, so much as even foreshadowing Jesus as a key justice figure in Isaiah 42

Peter writes his first letter also from the inspiration of Psalm 33, which outlines how God is the supreme king, noting that man in itself cannot overrule the authority of God. The scholar Peter T. Egan explains that when Peter wrote 2:13-17, he referred to a divine society that has rulers who obey the will of God. Furthermore, the subordination to rulers that Peter speaks about comes from “servants of God” (2:14), which implies people with spiritual backgrounds. Therefore, the authorities that Paul speaks of refer to faithful leaders who follow God, ultimately stating that everyone falls subject to God’s authority, not to the state government.

Where does this leave the Christians who condone deportation and object to sanctuary? No longer can Romans 13 lie as the chapter that condones all government authority. In the Bible, there are at least 97 explicit verses that encourage caring for the foreigner. Using scripture in an inaccurate way to promote harsh agendas not only contradicts the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 in the least, but also reflects embarrassingly on the morals of the reigning U.S. policies.