Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

3 thoughts on “Romans 13 and the Patriots

  1. Isn’t this separation being imposed on people who come and present themselves as asylum seekers? That seems to be what we are seeing since Jeff Sessions made his policy announcement weeks ago. I don’t equate that with sneaking across the border and being caught red-handed. My understanding is that the change in policy is to treat all cases as criminal cases indiscriminately. I don’t believe that immigration law requires that all comers be treated as criminal cases, as the administration is now doing, presumably as a deterrent to discourage anybody from coming to the US.


  2. Taken literally, one could argue that this verse advocates passive acceptance to each and every government. But literally nobody on the planet actually believes that or lives that way.

    The people who use this to support heartless immigration policy tomorrow will say the Bible teaches us to destroy ISIS or truly evil regimes like Canada. Another example of how people develop cultural views and attribute it to a religious text.

    It’s (but one reason) why the Bible-proof-texting way of reading scripture makes little sense, and why there is no such thing as a literal way to read scripture.


  3. Actually, as long as Trump decides that immigration law should be enforced, it is required for legal authorities to separate children from their parents. Crossing the border illegally is punishable as a crime, according to federal law. So, Trump is just telling the federal law enforcement agencies to actually prosecute everyone suspected of doing that (e.g. the people who cross the border illegally and are caught red-handed). When you go to jail, you pretty much aren’t allowed to take your kids with you, for obvious reasons. Although Trump could decline to enforce these laws (or, like Obama, could use the idea of prosecutorial discretion to say that federal prosecutors have bigger fish to fry and should focus there efforts on more important criminals), he certainly has a point that Congress could change the law and fix things if they feel there is a problem. I’m sure there is a way to improve the system. Of course, things get more complex when you start looking at asylum claims, ports of entry, visa overstays, and the subtle differences between undocumented aliens and regular criminals.

    BTW, I assume you think people who are charged with crimes should be put in jail according to law, right? What about their kids? Saying that Trump shouldn’t separate these families is like saying that the state of Connecticut shouldn’t separate convicted criminals from their families. You commit a crime, you go to jail, you get separated from your kids. It’s just that simple.


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