In Context

Romans 13:1-7
Mark 4:35-41

A Sermon Preached on June 24, 2018
Beaufort, SC

A couple of Sundays ago, I did something I believe was irresponsible. In preaching on how important it was to honor your family in Jesus’ day, I tossed out a reference to a passage from Deuteronomy 21 that addressed the consequences of being a rebellious son. I did not provide any context to that passage; I neglected to talk about its historical setting or its contemporary application. Our belief in the nature and power of scripture means that we need to treat it with reverence and responsibility. I was remiss in regard to that passage and my use of it. In doing what I did, I engaged in the ancient practice of something called ‘proof-texting.’ When you engage in proof-texting, you take a small part of scripture, out of context, and use it to support an idea, argument, or practice to which the scripture itself was never meant to apply.

Part of the reason I came to realize that I had been irresponsible with the Deuteronomy passage a couple of weeks ago is because I heard a blatant, and in my mind inexcusable, example of proof-texting last week. As our nation began to react to the impact of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on illegal immigration at the US border, Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, used the passage we read from Romans as biblical justification for the policy and practice of separating children from their families. His comments, delivered to “religious leaders” and “church friends”, served as an attempt to chastise them for their opposition to the policy.

Sessions is not the first person to use Romans in this way. Leaders of our nation have used this passage to support British rule, oppose British rule, justify governmental support of slavery, and enforce Jim Crow laws. It has been used in other contexts as well, including in a sermon delivered to the newly seated parliament in Germany in March of 1933, when a Protestant theologian named Otto Dibelius invoked the passage as a reason why Germans should support Hitler. This passage, he argued, meant that Christians must support the state, “even when [the state] acts hard and ruthlessly[1].” However, the church has stood against political and ideological powers that manipulate scripture to oppress people and achieve their goals. In the context of Nazi Germany, Karl Barth, one of the most important and formative theologians of the Reformed tradition, concluded in his book Church and State that “Romans 13 does, in fact, not call upon people blindly to obey the state. Quite to the contrary… Paul’s epistle to the Romans requires people to rise against the state when the state is the source of injustice[2].” The PC(USA) embraces a doctrine of opposing the misuse of scripture to further injustice on the part of the state. You can find examples of this in our own Book of Confessions, one of our governing documents, especially in The Theological Declaration of Barmen, which Barth himself helped write, and which decried the Nazi’s manipulation of scripture and religion. Another example is found in The Belhar Confession, which denounced efforts to use scripture, including Romans 13, to support apartheid in South Africa.

Context matters when it comes to reading, understanding, and applying scripture. Context includes knowing what is going on behind the scenes of any particular passage, and how a given scripture text fits in with the larger message of the entire Bible. For instance, in the case of Romans 13, we need to understand the context of Paul’s letter. Paul was writing to Christ-believing non-Jews in Rome to give them guidance about how to live faithfully in the Roman Empire and among the Jews there with whom they had associated. The Roman Empire was not a democracy, so the Gentiles whom Paul was addressing had no way to influence its laws or policies. That might be an important piece of context to consider when we think about how that passage might apply to us, as American citizens, with the rights of free speech, the right to vote, and the right to peaceful protest. We have so much more influence and power than our Roman ancestors, and with that power comes responsibility.

The larger context of Romans 13 is important, too. We need to consider how these seven verses fit in with the other 31,095 verses in the Bible. If we read through the verses preceding this passage, we hear Paul urging the members of his church to resist conformity to this world, embracing transformation that leads to the ability to discern the will of God, or those things that are good and acceptable and perfect. He tells them to let their love be genuine, to hate evil and hold fast to good, loving one another with mutual affection. If we keep reading beyond Romans 13:7, we would hear Paul tell his friends that they should not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. In fact, he says, all the commandments are summed up in this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love,” Paul says in Romans 13:10, “does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul draws from the Torah, what we call the Old Testament, and echoes Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbor and one another. Romans 13:1-7 is sandwiched between appeals to be transformed by our faith, not by the world, and to make love our highest pursuit. We cannot divorce this passage from the underlying current of love; we must understand our obedience as an act of love, just as governing authorities, be they state authorities or church authorities, should rule with love, compassion, and justice.

If we take an even broader look at this passage in light of the rest of scripture, we must take into account the numerous places where the Bible addresses caring for the outsider. Biblical scholars Margaret Aymer and Laura Nasrallah point out that, “passages from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the prophets argue for care for the stranger and the immigrant[3].” The passages they refer to are akin to this one, found in Leviticus 19: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” The New Testament reinforces this concern. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how the infant Jesus and his family fled to Egypt out of fear for their lives, becoming refugees and immigrants themselves, finding, we presume, safe harbor in a foreign land. Jesus, in his ministry, advocates inclusion of outsiders, challenging people to think differently about who they considered their neighbors. Jesus even ministered to outsiders, entering areas like Samaria and the Decapolis, healing and evangelizing neighboring Gentiles.

I do not believe that there is any way that we can legitimately use Romans 13:1-7 as a basis to justify policies and practices that are evil and anathema to the overwhelming mandate of scripture to love God and love our neighbor. We, as Christians, bear the responsibility of taking great care in reading and understanding God’s Word, and an even greater responsibility in applying it in our choices, decisions, and actions. Love can and must be the force that guides us, for God is love, and Love-in-flesh walked among us and died for us, and sent his loving Spirit to fill us and direct us.

In making his argument that God is indeed love, the writer of 1 John makes the bold assertion that “there is no fear in love… perfect love casts out fear” (4:18). I try to love and not be afraid, yet there are times when fear does get the better of me. In those moments, I can easily understand what motivates some people to want to build walls and protect what they have at all costs. The love that Christ and the Bible summon us to live by is a sacrificial love, and fear, not hate, is its opposite. We do not want to lose what we have, what we have worked for, what we have earned. We do not want to lose what has been given to us. It is natural to fear. I look at the disciples in the boat with Jesus, I see them spring into action as the waves begin to swamp the boat. They bail out the water, but the waves crash in faster and faster. The bow dips under the surface and stays under a little bit longer each time. They do not want to perish. Most people do not want to perish, to lose it all. I understand their panic and their fear.

Yet Jesus, upon waking and stilling the storm, asks them a profound question, which they never answer: “Why are you afraid?”

“Why are you afraid?” he asks them. “Have you still no faith?” We have embraced a false choice between loving sacrificially and giving up everything. The great irony of scripture is that it teaches us that we lose things when we cling to them too tightly. It is in our willingness to let go that we truly receive. Jesus wants his disciples, and us, to know that we have no reason to fear. In the end, it is fear that will sink the boat, fear that will kill us. It is faith that will save us. Faith that all will be well. Faith that God is with us, no matter what. Faith that pours out of us as perfect love that casts out fear, and empowers us to give freely and generously, to stand up for justice for our neighbors, and to proclaim the Good News, which sets captives free – not serves as the rationale for imprisoning people, especially children. With faith in our hearts, and love as our rule, we can stand up for what is right, and trust – know – that Jesus is by our side. That is context enough for me.


[2] Ibid. Emphasis mine.