Reforming Our Understanding of Romans 13 on Immigration Reform

This piece was originally published at the Evangelical Immigration Table.

A student from Arizona once remarked in a class discussion on justice and immigration that it was against Arizona law to give a cup of water to an undocumented person. As a result of his understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Arizona law, he said he would not provide relief to someone he knew was undocumented. He was surprised when I asked, “What would Jesus do?” if our Lord faced the same situation. After all, Jesus often disobeyed the Sabbath laws of his day, for example, by healing people on the Sabbath (e.g., Mark 3:1-6). Regardless of the intricacies of the Arizona law and accuracy of the student’s claim, the discussion raised an important issue for Christians to discuss. Is civil disobedience ever warranted of Christians?

It is worth noting that, under current law—at least in most of the United States, most churches are not currently faced with this question of civil disobedience: nothing in federal law prohibits churches from ministering to undocumented immigrants in need, and there is no requirement that a church or an individual report someone whom they suspect of lacking legal status. Neither ministering to undocumented immigrants nor advocating for reforms to our immigration legal system puts a church or individual followers of Christ outside of submission to the governmental authorities. However, the political climate the past several years could put pressure on certain elements of a church’s ministry to the undocumented, making it appear unlawful, in view of ambiguously-worded immigration bills at both the state and federal levels. In this climate, the question of whether civil disobedience is ever warranted (or even required) of Christians in view of biblical texts on care for the stranger is worth considering (See for example Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Matthew 25:43, and Luke 10:36-37).

The question of civil disobedience becomes more complicated when one considers such biblical texts as Romans 13. For many Christians like the student in my class, Romans 13 preclude the possibility of ever disobeying a government’s law in good conscience. Romans 13:1-7 reads,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (ESV).

From a surface reading of the text, it might appear that Christians are to offer blind obedience to the governing authorities. Such is not the case. We are to subject ourselves to the governing authorities as they do good, not evil, for God has authorized them to nurture and protect the good of all, not to do harm (Romans 13:4). Ultimately, Christians are to subject themselves to Christ in the sphere of the state. From the vantage point of Christ’s lordship over all spheres, the church and state are subject to Christ’s kingdom.[1] Thus, Christians and the church are to approach the subject of obedience to the state in view of their ultimate allegiance to Christ and his call on his people to care for the stranger and neighbor in need.

In this context, it is also worth noting that the text that immediately follows in Romans 13 (verses 8-10) focuses on what is essential to fulfilling God’s law as revealed in the Old Testament—love your neighbor as yourself:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

The church is to dedicate itself to fulfilling God’s law, which centers on love of neighbor, as well as the love of God (cf. Mark 12:30-31), even if that puts it at odds with the state from time to time.  Jesus redefines for us who our neighbor is. He is not the person like us or who likes us or whom we like. It is the person who stands or lies before us, including the person in need, as in the story of the Samaritan of exceptional mercy in Luke 10:25-37. It could very well be the case that the Jewish religious leaders who passed the beaten and robbed man lying on the road did so because they feared he was dead and to have touched him would have made them ceremonially unclean. Jesus calls them and us to a higher law—love of neighbor. Only the Samaritan cared for their neighbor that day. Only he proved to be a neighbor to the person in need. And, as Pastor Rick Warren says, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person, ‘Are you legal or illegal?’”

Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates for us how to apply Romans 13 in our current democratic context. The Apostle Paul had no way of influencing legislation of laws in his day, but Christians, just like King, do so in our society. Providentially for us, King did not offer blind obedience to the state. If he had, we might still be experiencing forms of Jim Crow legislation today. Or else, the overturning of these laws might have come through violent forms of disobedience, not civil disobedience as with the movement inspired by King and the African American church.

From his Birmingham Jail cell, King responded to the white clergy who were troubled by his civil disobedience:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King understood the consequences for disobeying governing authorities—jail or worse. But King also understood the consequences of not obeying one’s own conscience and God himself, who calls us to promote just laws that favor the love of neighbor as ourselves regardless of the cost. King had the King of Kings as his exemplar: it is lawful to do good, not harm, to save life, not to kill, even if one gets killed in the end by the authorities for doing so, as happened with Jesus (See Mark 3:1-6).

The Evangelical Immigration Table offers a balanced approach to the subject of immigration reform in a democratic system. Rather than having to pursue blind obedience to unjust laws or dismissing the rightful rule of law, its principles include the following: respecting the God-given dignity of each and every person, whether documented or not, respecting the rule of law, and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents. Our current immigration laws are out-of-synch with the needs of our labor market and thus have been only selectively enforced for decades, sending mixed messages to immigrants desperate for work; a biblically-appropriate respect for the rule of law should guide us to reform a system that is not currently functioning well, restoring the rule of law while also respecting the human dignity of each person made in God’s image.

In the end, Christians have a responsibility in our democratic society to promote and live by laws that promote God’s law of love of neighbor—documented or not, as disclosed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ.

[1] Karl Barth writes of Romans 13 that “the last thing this instruction implies is that the Christian community and the Christian should offer the blindest possible obedience to the civil community and its officials.” Karl Barth, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community,” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946-1952, ed. R. G. Smith, trans. E.M. Delecour and S. Godman (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1954), p. 24. According to Barth, the church is to submit to Christ in the sphere of the state (See p. 29). The church’s ultimate allegiance to Christ puts a check on its submission to the dictates of the state. The church and state are subject to Christ, who is Lord over all spheres.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • KSele

    The legalistic extremism of not being willing to help someone who was undocumented based on a supposed law that forbade giving a cup of water, can only emanate from a theology of self-righteousness. In Arizona, the white conservative anger towards their Mexican “neighbors” as immigrants, documented or not, resulted in the yanking of a school curriculum that resulted in higher educational success rates for Latinos and reflected Mexican-American culture and history. My own children thankfully were allowed to learn about Mexican-American, East Asian, African, African-American, Latin American, North American, Native American, Western European, Asian-American, Russian culture and history, etc., giving them the enriched education through the public school system I was hoping they would receive. Our white children need to grow up understanding and embracing the multi-cultural world created purposefully by our triune God for our benefit. How can we love our neighbor if we summarily judge and dismiss? Is that the ministry Jesus walked?
    In both situations above, the law is being used to either withhold aid or purposely hurt. Is that the nature of the law Paul calls us to honor? Is that the kind of fasting God has asked for? (Isaiah 58) It is the nature of the law that we are to honor. Thank you Dr. Metzger for including Dr. King’s differentiation between just and unjust laws. I cringe when I remember the Holocaust, African-American slavery, etc., and can’t possibly embrace a legalistic view of following all laws without discernment. And while we are called in Romans to respect the law, nowhere does scripture call us to elevate the law of man above the law of God. In fact, if we do not show mercy and love our neighbor, we do not extend Jesus’ work in our own “undocumented kingdom-citizenship” lives and scripture raises the question of whether the love of God is truly in us. (1 John 3:17-18) As politicians wrangle with the complexities of their immigration and constituent agendas, may we Christians love with actions and in truth. May our voices be heard as we extend a cup of water and an equal opportunity for educational success.

    • pmetzger

      KSele: Karen, thank you for your focused passion as a public school teacher. Your multi-cultural vision is so greatly needed today. I appreciate the perspective you articulate here. Most striking to me was this comment: “Our white children need to grow up understanding and embracing the multi-cultural world created purposefully by our triune God for our benefit.” Amen. I need to embrace that world, too!

  • Joe-Silem Enlet

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks for continuing to push us to see our world and its “principalities and powers” in light of scripture and the gospel of love. A problem that I find in our society is the fact that many of us have ordained the U.S. government as God’s divine government reigning on the earth. Thus, whatever the U.S. government does in terms of local or foreign policy or whatever the American culture defines is taken as God’s way of doing things and God’s universal culture. So our reference point to begin with is already skewed. We need to first question our assumptions before we can really begin to engage from the reference point of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that reigns in just love. I absolutely love the phrase by KSele that we have our own “undocumented-kingdom citizenship” lives. If our reference point is always the unquestioned U.S. government we will never begin to cultivate faithfulness to the kingdom of the king of kings. So as citizens of the world and of the Heavenly kingdom, who’s undocumented by who? On whose terms? So when we speak of obedience or disobedience, we should ask “obedience to whom?”

    • pmetzger

      Hello Joe, Thanks for this stimulating response. I was struck most by your comment: “A problem that I find in our society is the fact that many of us have ordained the U.S. government as God’s divine government reigning on the earth.” May Christ and his kingdom captivate our imaginations. Only then will we as Christians be able to be salt and light that truly benefits the United States so that it might become all that Christ envisions for it.