I don’t usually write blog posts that are tightly bound to current events. Rather, I try to create articles that speak to what’s happening in the headlines but will still stand on their own in the future, offering principles that can be applied to new issues as they come up. But in this case, I feel led to address a current event using the platform I’ve been given. So if this article seems dated in the future, I apologize, but this is the issue for people of faith in my country right now, and I feel that it would be wrong not to say something.
It’s recently come to the light that the U.S. border patrol has been practicing a policy of separating families at the border. Specifically, officers are taking children away from their parents who are found without proper documentation or come seeking asylum from their home countries. Rather than letting these undocumented families wait together for an immigration trial, officers are arresting the parents and sending their children off to DHS. All of this is part of an attempt by the current administration to deter people from trying to immigrate to the U.S., basically by saying, “If you come here, we’re going to treat you like a criminal and take your kids away. So stay out.”
As one might imagine, this has created a great deal of backlash both in the United States and around the world. Citizens and politicians alike have spoken out against this policy. The United Nations drafted a letter calling for this practice to cease immediately. U.S. Senators are trying to pass legislation that would put an end to it. Even the president himself has said he is against separating families at the border.. Opposition to this practice seems universal.
Which is why the world was floored by a couple of statements made by prominent political figures last week. In a speech Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the separation of families at the border, citing Paul’s command in Romans 13 for Christians to follow the law. And later in the day, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders aligned herself with Sessions’s comments, claiming, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”
These comments were extremely troubling, especially for Christians. The policy of separating children from their parents is evil on its own, but trying to defend that policy using the sacred text of our faith only makes matters worse. By making these statements, Sessions and Sanders were trying to legitimize a horrible policy implemented by the administration they work for, but in reality, they simply brought more criticism upon themselves and misrepresented the Christian faith.
Since then, countless Christian voices have come out of the woodwork denouncing the words of these two individuals and stating in no uncertain terms that separating children from their parents goes against the teachings of the Bible. I’d like to add my voice into the mix, and I’d like to do so by calling into question Sanders’s statement. Is it actually biblical to enforce the law?
Let’s start where Sessions started: Romans 13. It is true that in this chapter, the apostle Paul tells Christians that they should obey the law and submit to governmental authorities. Here’s Romans 13.1-4a, the first bit of that chapter:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have een instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.
According to Paul, Christians should submit to governmental authorities because they have been instituted by God to ensure that people do good. While one might take the first sentence out of context and conclude that Christians are supposed to submit to authorities no matter what they do, that’s not the case if you read on. We are to submit to authorities insofar as they promote good (that is, the will of God). This is the gigantic, gaping hole in the Sessions/Sanders argument: The policy they’re defending is not good. In fact, it’s downright demonic.
Throughout history, the people of God have always recognized that the powers that be in the world are in some way instituted by God. They are a necessary means of organizing and protecting large groups of people. At their best, they can promote community, offer support to those in need, and lead us to accomplish things collectively that we couldn’t do on our own. But we have also always recognized that there is a higher law than that of man, and that is God’s law.
This recognition has been with us from the very beginning. When the family of Jacob, the ancestor of the nation of Israel, moved to Egypt, they had their first real experience of being subject to a human government. The relationship was strained to say the least. When Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, forced inhumane demands on them, and killed their baby boys, did God tell them to submit themselves to the king’s authority? Of course not. He sent his servant Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” God freed them from an oppressive ruler who had strayed from his law by oppressing people made in his image.
Things didn’t get much better when God’s people started ruling themselves. When the nation of Israel asked him to give them a king, he obliged and appointed King Saul, but he did so reluctantly. And it wasn’t long before this new government diverged from God’s law. By the end of his reign, Saul had become violent, power-hungry, and consumed with rage. He disobeyed God by trying to take over the priesthood and use the nation’s religion for his own gain. And when that didn’t work, he turned to witchcraft. God didn’t tell the people to follow this ruler as he spiraled into desperation and ruin; God replaced him with someone else.
On and on the story goes, the story of God’s people resisting the rule of those who do not follow his laws. The prophets who called out the kings of Israel and Judah for their idol worship and accumulation of wealth. (Many of them were killed for speaking God’s truth to power, by the way.) The young queen who risked her life to stop a government official from committing genocide. The exiles who refused to bow to a foreign king’s idol. (He tried to kill them, too.) Over and over again, God’s people remained faithful to him by opposing rulers who set themselves against him.
And then there’s Jesus, who provoked both the Jewish rulers and the Roman rulers to the point that they executed him as a criminal. Christians are quick to point out the truth that Jesus never committed any sin, but have we stopped to consider that he must have done something to get himself arrested and sentenced to death? The truth is that Jesus broke a lot of laws: over-legalistic religious laws concerning sabbath, laws concerning interactions with other people groups and those with diseases, the Roman law that said no one but Caesar could claim to be a king, and more. (It was probably that last one that got him crucified.) Jesus didn’t break laws arbitrarily, but anytime the law of human beings conflicted with God’s law, he made it clear which side he was on. And he was right in doing so.
The early Christians did the same. Peter and John were arrested for spreading the gospel and commanded not to speak the name of Jesus, but they ignored the rulers’ orders. Stephen, one of the original deacons of the church, was arrested and stoned as a result of his work for Christ. Paul himself, the apostle who wrote Romans 13, was arrested and later executed for sharing the good news of Jesus. Do these sound like people who blindly submitted to governmental authority to you?
Throughout the church’s history, Christians have engaged in civil disobedience to defy and protest unjust laws. From ancient Roman Christians who were executed by the state for refusing to worship the emperor all the way down to Dr. King’s marches for racial justice (and all of the false arrests that were made as a result) and even today in countries across the world where evangelism is outlawed, when governments oppose God’s word, Christians resist. Because we know that when we’re forced to choose between following human laws and following God’s laws, we’ll follow God’s laws every single time.
So no, it isn’t always biblical to enforce the law. In fact, if the law goes against the will of God as communicated in his word, it is decidedly unbiblical to enforce the law. In cases like this, it is actually biblical to break the law, change the law, and, if necessary, replace the people who created the law rather than to follow it. There is no biblical justification for enforcing, following, or supporting evil laws.
Yes, Christians are called to obey the law of the land in most cases, as Romans 13 demonstrates. Most laws in this country , like those protecting the right to life and property, are good. But we are also called to fight against evil in this world, including evil laws from the governments we’re typically meant to submit to. After all, as Ephesians 6.12 reminds us,
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (emphasis mine).
You know who wrote that? Paul, the same guy who wrote Romans 13. His outlook might have been a little bit different in this passage, though, considering the fact that he was in a Roman prison awaiting trial when he wrote it. That tension you feel between Paul in Romans 13 and Paul in Ephesians 6 is the tension we as Christians are each called to live into every day as we seek to follow God’s will in this world.
In the case of separating families at the border, it’s pretty clear that this policy goes against everything we know about God from the Bible. From his concern for the foreigner, the poor, and the oppressed to the importance he places on the family unit to his great commandment to love others as ourselves, the Bible is chock full of passages and principles that clearly condemn this practice. Our government, the officers who enforce this policy, and all who defend it ought to be ashamed of themselves for their role in destroying the lives of these families. They are not on the side of God.
It is my hope and prayer that this policy be reversed immediately and the damage repaired as much as possible. (Some of it can never be undone.) And I believe that this practice will soon end. But our struggle is just beginning. This is not the only case where the law of the land is opposed to the law of God. And these cases aren’t simply legal matters or political matters; they’re matters of right and wrong, good and evil. It’s clear which side God is on, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that we’re always on his side, no matter what human-made entity that may put us in opposition with.
The consequences of opposing human authorities may be dire, but the consequences of opposing God are much more so. I’ve already decided which side I’m on. Have you?