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Paul Louis Metzger: “Reforming Our Understanding of Romans 13 on Immigration Reform”

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 neig