There’s plenty in the epistles of Saint Paul to evaluate, debate, and discuss. One passage that I know gets more than a little attention is this particular section from Romans 13:
Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves (Romans 13:1-2).
Paul’s message here seems obvious: don’t challenge your leaders, political or spiritual. Obey the laws of the land, and in doing so, obey those whom God has appointed. But is that the only message we get here?
Consider this passage from later in that same chapter:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8).
Now we get into more interesting territory. Christians might find that following “the law” is simple in one regard (e.g., paying taxes) and difficult in another (e.g., using State-sanctioned violence against your own neighbors). Some Christians have argued, for example, that a baker should not be forced to go against their beliefs about sin and the traditions of marriage simply because LGBT discrimination is (in theory) unlawful. Others might argue that committing war is sinful, and so groups like the Plowshares are active in illegal protests against nuclear weapons sites.
But let’s revisit what Saint Paul said. He said to “Be subordinate to the higher authorities” and to “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” But suppose there is a conflict? What happens when loving one another comes in such a way that it gets us in trouble with the law?
Depending on how you feel about the issue, we could look at a case like that of Scott Warren, who risked arrest and prison to bring food and water to migrants crossing the Arizona desert in 2019. Scott’s choice was between obeying the law of the land (which restricted legal immigration) and obeying his conscience (which risked his life and his liberty). In the end, he chose the latter, and he has faced a retrial for the criminal charge of conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants.
I know there are brothers and sisters in Christ who’d argue that Scott shouldn’t have interfered with the Border Patrol’s authority. I know they’d argue that those migrants were trespassing on US soil and endangering the lives of any children on such a long journey through the desert. But I also know that Jesus said, “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35), and that such a line from him did not come with the caveat “But only if the Roman centurions and the Pharisees said it was alright to do so first!”
My concern, as someone who tries his best to follow Christ, is how we in the modern day sometimes use (or misuse) the first part of Romans 13 to justify any number of issues. Where is the line between obeying the laws on Earth and following the law of Christ? If I shelter someone in my home against the authorities, am I justified? If I wear a uniform and legally shoot someone I deem to be a threat, am I righteous in the eyes of the Lord?
These aren’t easy questions. They never were supposed to be. Nothing about following Christ while living in the world ever is.
But, then again, let’s reexamine what Saint Paul tells us in the middle of Romans 13: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Even in an era when the Romans persecuted Christians daily and occupied the Holy Land, Paul urged his fellow disciples to go beyond the fear of punishment and being brought before the magistrates. He exhorted that a spirit of genuine love could fulfill both the law of Moses and the law of the land. After all, would a genuine Christian commit murder? Would a true believer of the Gospels ever steal, or lie, or be unfaithful to their spouse? Would a disciple of Jesus ever cheat their neighbors out of their money or their property?
Paul’s answer is: No, not if their hearts were full of a love of God and a love for others.
Jesus understood that, even when he called us to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), he knew we still weren’t perfect. And as law-abiding citizens of our respective nations, we’re not perfect. Our manmade laws aren’t perfect. Our authorities aren’t perfect. Our criminal justice system is by no means perfect. This, then, is why we need both judges and activists, both priests and prophets, both leaders and rebels. That tension may be overwhelming, but it at least ensures that we speak up for the needs of all people, rather than cower behind the iron-clad wall of “law and order.”