The Bible has long been one of the world’s best-selling books. In its pages, readers encounter the person of God and learn the redemptive history of the people of God and are invited to follow Jesus. The Bible has been loved by many and hated by others yet it continues to impact people groups and cultures. God never intended his word to be used to promote political agenda, religious or not.
You have probably seen Romans 13 quoted in favor of recent immigration laws. Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 in his June 15 address in Fort Wayne Indiana. In the passage, Christians are urged to submit to the governing authorities because the government has been established by God. Sessions made some great points about submission to the laws of the land but his use of the passage to promote the separation of immigrant children from families was a hermeneutical and an ethical misstep. Before we delve into this issue further we must be reminded of some key hermeneutical principles.
Biblical hermeneutics involves:
- Understanding what a particular passage meant to those who received it first. This involves examining the selection from a literary and historical perspective.
- Consideration of the differences in us and the original audience of the text.
- Reflecting on the theological principle of the text.
- Viewing the theological principle against the backdrop of the entire Biblical narrative.
- Applying the Biblical text in a way that contemporary readers relate to.
See Duvall, J. Scott and Hays, J. Daniel. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.
I am not upset with Sessions for quoting the Bible or attempting to make his faith public. I believe the Bible is relevant for all matters of faith and practice. Even so, Sessions could have argued in favor of the president’s immigration policy without quoting that passage (out of context) from Romans.
I am concerned with the idea that all people must submit to every government or “be prosecuted”. Government is good as long as it exists to protect against injustice and the cruel treatment of others. Following the law is a good thing as long as the law does not contradict the will of God as revealed in the Bible. Sometimes
My concern with Sessions’ usage of Romans 13 is that, apart from careful hermeneutics, cruel government leaders can use this text as a proof text by which people are forced to act against their consciences. Consider religious liberty, for example. Christian pastors could be ordered to submit all sermons to a government agency for approval. If the government instructs these pastors to submit their sermons and stop preaching on controversial topics the pastor has a choice to make-preach the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Bible or capitulate to the government’s request to stop. Another example includes one of my favorite pastors from history, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He helped establish the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s. He led his church to resist the state’s persecution of Jews and eventually involved himself in the resistance movement. Was Bonhoeffer clearly ignoring the Bible’s teaching or was he applying an ethic of duty to God before duty to the state?
There are times when Christians must choose between Jesus and Ceasar. Careful prayer and discernment are needed in times when Christians choose to submit to God rather than the government. Submissiveness to God must be prioritized over resistance to the government.
The Bible is relevant for all matters of life including ethics and politics. Scripture shapes the Christian worldview which has the potential to transform individuals and culture. The Bible should be understood hermeneutically and its passages must not be used in isolation to support one’s views on a matter. Consistent hermeneutics must be practiced when the Bible is referenced. This applies to those inside the church as well as those outside the church. Christians, we are guilty of committing the same hermeneutical misstep that Attorney General Sessions did in support of American immigration laws. May we repent from our own misuse of Scripture and return to how God intended His word to be understood and applied by people of all cultures and times.