Long before Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to respond to critics of the administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, other prominent American Christians were using Biblical verses about the role of the government to justify their support for President Donald Trump.
Verses about submitting to authorities are scattered throughout the New Testament, most often in letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, an early convert to Christianity. 1 Timothy 2:1 urges Christians to pray for “kings and all who are in authority.” Titus 3:1 reminds them to be obedient to rulers. 1 Peter 2:17 says bluntly, “Fear God, honor the emperor.”
One of the defining characteristics of the evangelical Protestant tradition is a belief in the infallibility and authority of the Bible. Trump’s evangelical advisers and supporters have repeatedly returned to these biblical verses about submitting to authority to justify their support for the president’s actions ― and it’s likely that they will continue to do so.
White evangelical Christians have long been the president’s most reliable supporters. Although Trump isn’t a perfect ambassador for Christianity, some evangelicals see him as a leader chosen by God to bring honor, healing, and restoration to America, no matter the tactics he employs to achieve that end.
But New Testament scholars say that it’s crucial to look at the historical context in which these verses were written ― and that early Christians had a radically different reason for submitting to those in authority.
Why Early Christians Submitted To Authority
The Bible’s verses about submitting to rulers should be analyzed within the context of early Christians’ status in the Roman Empire, according to Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham. Moss told HuffPost that the early church lived during an era when new movements like Christianity could easily be seen as politically subversive. If followers of Jesus were seen as politically hostile or even just bad members of Roman society, they were likely to be marginalized and even arrested and executed.
“Many of the writers of the New Testament are trying to present their religious beliefs as socially acceptable to those who might worry that joining this movement made them social outcasts,” Moss told HuffPost.
Moss also doesn’t believe there’s any indication that the writers thought their words about submitting to authority applied in all situations across time and place. The letters attributed to Paul were meant to offer Christians practical instructions about negotiating day-to-day affairs, and they speak to specific churches at particular points in time.
Clearly, Paul did not take his own advice and believed that there were contexts in which one should not submit to the governing authorities.
Candida Moss, theology professor at the University of Birmingham
It’s also important to note that Paul, believed to be the author of these letters, was eventually executed for refusing to bend to Roman authorities.
“Clearly, Paul did not take his own advice and believed that there were contexts in which one should not submit to the governing authorities,” Moss said.
Jeremiah Johnston, a Baptist New Testament scholar based at Houston Baptist University, told HuffPost he believes early Christians were seeking to establish their identity as good citizens of the Roman empire. Johnston said Paul’s commands to submit to authority echoed a statement that Jesus made in the Gospels to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” ― or essentially, “Pay your tax to Caesar; give me your life.”
“Verses in the [New Testament] where Christians are taught to pay taxes, be good citizens, remind us that Christians want to be seen as exemplary citizens,” Johnston told HuffPost. “But this is not a cultural blank check.”
Different Standards For Churches And Government
Ignoring the historical context of these biblical directives, some American evangelical leaders have used them as theological justification for their support of the Trump administration’s policies.
The basic idea among some modern-day Christians is this: While it’s incumbent on Christians and church groups to welcome the stranger, that’s not the role of the government. The government’s job is to protect citizens, using whatever methods are necessary. And Christians are to honor, obey and submit to that government.
This argument creates a distinction between Christians’ moral standards and the morality Christians expect from their government, at least when it comes to immigration issues. It allows Trump’s evangelical supporters to essentially give his White House a pass to do whatever it thinks is best to protect the country.
Immediately after Trump announced the first iteration of his travel ban, for example, his evangelical advisers reached for the Bible to explain how it was Trump’s “God-ordained” responsibility to protect the American people.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, a senior pastor of Arkansas’ Cross Church who was part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, told HuffPost last January that the government’s first job is to protect the people and the church’s first job is to serve people.
“We don’t advise the government on questions of national security and they don’t advise us on who and how we serve people,” Floyd wrote in an email.
Last August, longtime Trump supporter Rev. Robert Jeffress used Romans 13 to explain that the Bible has given Trump the authority to “take out” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un using whatever force is necessary, including assassination or war.
The Bible’s verses on submitting to authority have also been used to explain why evangelicals should show deference and respect to government officials. At a recent annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, leaders cited these and other Bible verses to justify their controversial decision to allow Vice President Mike Pence to speak at the conference, even though some Southern Baptists objected that evangelicals of color would be hurt by the invitation.
The long list of Bible verses read out at the conference echoed the same sentiment ― that Christians are to submit to governing authorities and “honor the king.”
The Challenge For Modern-Day Christians
The circumstances in which certain modern-day Christians are interpreting these verses about submission are vastly different from those their predecessors faced. Christians in America are not a marginalized community seeking to survive persecution. In fact, Christians constitute a majority in Congress. Conservative Christians, in particular, have become the president’s closest faith advisers.
Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the faith-based Poor People’s Campaign, told HuffPost it’s important to remember that these biblical passages have been used throughout history to oppress the vulnerable and to justify support for slavery and white supremacy ― which makes it imperative to remember their original context. That means verses that instruct people to “honor the emperor” must be considered alongside other commands in the Bible that call on nations to care for the poor and welcome the stranger.
“There is surely a heretical theology that is being applied today that tries to use the Bible and take biblical passages out of their context, and wrap them around in terms of having them be adherent to the powers that be, adherent to empire, rather than the revolutionary and resistant way they were actually written,” Theoharis said.
In Romans 13, for example, after the verses about submitting to authorities, Paul instructs the Roman church to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“We need to put that in conversation with other passages in the New Testament that speak about justice, caring for the vulnerable, the immigrant, the stranger, and the oppressed,” Theoharis said.