Or, Why Everything You’ve Heard about Law & Order is (Mostly) Wrong
1. Somehow, for reasons not fully understood, many people have been taught to read Romans 13 as a “law and order” text. For example, when he was acting Attorney General, Jeff Sessions appealed to this text in defense of the Trump administration’s immigration policies: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Similarly, I recently heard a Pentecostal denominational leader say Paul directs us to obey all laws just as if they were God’s. (He, like Sessions, was talking about our immigration laws and the enforcement of them.) Finally, just last week, I heard a TV personality (on CBN) say that Romans 13 teaches “police officers are messengers of the gospel.”
This reading of this passage is, as I suggested, a misreading. A misreading with serious real-world consequences. So, I’ll say it as bluntly as I can: Romans 13 is not a “law and order” passage and must not be read as such. Of course, even if it were, we would have to take it in conversation with the whole of Paul’s writings, as well as the whole of Scripture revealed in the light of Christ’s teachings and received by the church. But, again, it is not such a passage. Paul is not saying that all authorities are God-ordained and God-supported. He is not saying that all laws are good or that all laws should be obeyed. Most of all, he is not saying that police officers (or judges, or lawmakers, or presidents) are “messengers of the gospel.” After all, as Paul knew better than most, messengers of the gospel, like Jesus himself, end up at the mercy of these authorities, and in that way expose how these authorities are anything but godly. It is not for no reason that the symbol of our faith is a government-sanctioned torture device.
Romans 13 is not a “law and order” passage and must not be read as such. Paul is not saying that all authorities are God-ordained and God-supported. He is not saying that all laws are good or that all laws should be obeyed.
2. How do we know for sure that this is not a law and order passage? First, we know it because we know who wrote it. If we read the NT, it becomes clear that Paul’s entire ministry was a challenge to authorities. He was, as my fellow theology professor Ken Archer has said, a zealot, a “radical,” from beginning to end. It is obvious if you think about it: in every letter he wrote he challenged the accepted, authoritative readings of the Law and Prophets. At one point, he challenged Peter, the leading figure in the church, face-to-face, and we know he challenged other Jewish and Christians leaders, as well. This is why he had enemies, and why his enemies were eager to silence him.
When these Romans 13 words were first written and read, Paul was soon to die in Rome, condemned by the very rulers he says here should be honored – rulers paid by the taxes Paul says here should be paid; killed by the very “sword” he seems here to be celebrating. But we know, of course, that Paul died as a martyr, which means his death, by definition, was unjust. The sword that killed him, therefore, could not have been the instrument of God’s wrath. It was a weapon of darkness, wielded against God’s light. The rulers that condemned him were not God’s servants. They were tools of Satan. If we hope to understand what this passage means, we have to read it with these facts about its writer in mind.
Second, we know this is not a law and order passage because Paul has already made it clear in the preceding chapters that we are fractured by sin, and that sin uses the Law against us in such a way that all that is wrong with us is only intensified by its enforcement (see Romans 7). We might say that where the Law abounds, sin much more abounds. This, then, is the question we should ask ourselves: if evil can make destructive use of the divine Law, how much more easily and effectively can it use human laws?
This, then, is the question we should ask ourselves: if evil can make destructive use of the divine Law, how much more easily and effectively can it use human laws?
It may be that the rulers of this world have been entrusted with “the sword” to wield against wrongdoers. But we, as the people of God, are called to an entirely different way of life. Paul spells it out in no uncertain terms:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12.14-21).
Paul’s argument seems to work like this: the rulers, when they act faithfully, and only then, embody the “wrath” of God (inasmuch as they enact correctives for wickedness, resist injustice, and seek to limit, and where possible right, wrongs). But we, as the people of God, do not do that. Instead, we “leave room” for this “wrath” by treating our enemies as God has treated us. Knowing Christ, we know that the towel, not the sword—forgiveness, not vengeance—overcomes evil. Reading Romans 13 in the light of what Paul says at the end of Romans 12 makes it clear that wrath, even God-sanctioned wrath, does nothing to bring salvation. At most, it can awaken in us a desire for salvation. Only goodness can bring healing and wholeness.
Third, we know this is not a law and order passage because in both the immediately preceding and the immediately following passages Paul says that the only thing that truly matters is that we love our neighbors. In the light of those passages, we can sum up Paul’s theology of authority and power pretty simply: the sole purpose of authority—any authority— and the sole purpose of law—any law—is to make it easier for us to love our neighbors well. “The one who loves has fulfilled the law.” All that to say, any authority, any law, that is not loving is not just, and if it is not just, then it is not from God, and if it is not from God, then we must resist it. Laws are not good in and of themselves. They are good only insofar as they uphold God’s will. And, as Aquinas would say, any law that is not doing good for us—for all of us—is a failed law. It is not truly a law at all. It is our duty to break it.
The sole purpose of authority—any authority— and the sole purpose of law—any law—is to make it easier for us to love our neighbors well.
3. If Romans 13 is not about law and order, then what is it about? What does it mean for us?
First and foremost, in these directions Paul is asserting the supremacy of God over the emperor and all authorities. Essentially, Paul means that in spite of Caesar’s claims to divinity, Jesus is the source of all authority. Paul was no fool. And he knew how to speak subtly, cleverly. What he says about authorities and the sword was said almost facetiously. It was his subversive way of making it clear that the emperor is not to be worshipped. At most, the emperor, like all rulers, is at times an instrument of the one who is to be worshipped and adored.
What Christ said to Pilate is true of all rulers: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (Notice, Pilate has been given power ‘from above’, and yet he is wrong, grievously wrong, to condemn Jesus. Judas is ‘guilty of a greater sin’, but Pilate is guilty, too.) in short, Paul is saying that laws, lawmakers, and law-enforcers should be God’s servants for our good. That is, he is exerting more pressure on the rules and the rulers than he is on the ruled ones.
Second, Paul is putting his readers at ease, empowering them to live peaceable lives in the pagan world—insofar as such lives are possible. He does so by saying that as long as they can do so lovingly and faithfully, and in good conscience, they should live in compliance with Roman law and custom. They need not “come out from the world” in the sense that they refuse to pay taxes or show honor to rulers. But again, we may notice that Paul has to tell them that they can live as Roman Christians and not just Christians in Rome. Christians, even though they are Roman citizens, live above all as followers of the way of Jesus They make good citizens, except when laws or customs or rulers require them to live in ways false to the gospel. They would pay taxes and pray for the peace of Rome, but they would not worship the emperor or offer sacrifices to the gods. If Paul had not said so explicitly, these Roman Christians would perhaps have assumed that they should not pay taxes or show honor to their rulers. Certainly, they knew down to their bones that their confession of Christ as Lord held enormous socio-cultural and political implications, and that they were peculiar citizens of the empire. Their way of life did not quite “fit.”
4. That was true of them, then. But the problem we’re facing now is a very different one. Many Christians in our society are drawn to “law and order,” thinking that such a decisive and forceful approach will address problems of social and political corruption and confusion. And, as I suggested at the beginning, we often appeal to Romans 13 as justification for this line of thinking. But, again, Romans 13 cannot be read that way—at least not in good faith. No one should want to read it in that way in the first place, because we Christians do not believe in law and order. We believe that laws matter, of course. It is true, in a sense, as Oliver O’Donovan says, that “political existence depends upon structures of command and obedience.” But those commands and that obedience must be suffused with mercy and gentleness and patience and kindness—the character of God—or they fail to secure the common life that is purposed for us. The truth is, as we all already know, that some laws are good and others bad, some better and others worse. The same goes for rulers. We make that judgment on the basis of our conviction that what matters—really, the only thing that matters—is loving our neighbors, attending to them in such a way that God’s love, God’s life, happens for them. In short, Christians believe, not in law and order, but in the Spirit. And as people of the Spirit who find ourselves living in times of social upheaval and political instability, we need to be reminded that nothing violates our identity as Christ’s body and the Spirit’s temple more than asking rulers and their rules to rid us of or separate us from the neighbors we are called to love. Rulers and their rules can serve God’s work in the world. But they rarely do, and that is at least in part because we rarely demand that they do it.
In short, Christians believe, not in law and order, but in the Spirit.
It is sometimes said that Christians make the best citizens. And rightly understood, that is certainly true. But too often what we mean when we say it is that Christians are the most likely to “go along” with the status quo, the least likely to defy rulers or to buck the rule of law or to question the established way of things. In fact, however, Christians, as I said already, peculiar citizens. Oddly, they think of themselves as aliens and/or ambassadors in whatever nation they find themselves living. They are first citizens of the city of God, and they are good citizens of the city of Cain precisely and only because they do not simply accept the status quo as “good.” Committed to the politics of God, they stand ready and willing to resist, and even overthrow, the establishment. Empowered by the Spirit, they are ready and willing to do whatever is needed for neighbors to live together in and toward shalom.
5. It is sometimes said that morality cannot be legislated. But of course we all know that that is wrong. Morality has to be legislated or it will not hold for long. Holiness cannot be legislated, however. Holiness—the life and liveliness of God—happens in us, and when it does, it exceeds morality. As Paul would say it, love fulfills—and supersedes—the law. All to say, people of holiness are people who are compelled to alter their societies morality in whatever peaceable way they can so that it more fully aligns with the truth revealed in Christ. That is, they do what they can to undo bad laws and remove bad rulers, and to make the good laws as good as they can be. Holiness is ultimate, and morality is penultimate. But precisely because we are claimed by the ultimate, we must take care for the penultimate as well. We cannot leave “politics” to the politicians. Insofar as “politics” affects the lives of our neighbors, we must care about it. How can we care from, seeking their healing and wholeness, if we ignore the forces that are wounding them?
Christians care about the rule of law. But they are also not easily fooled by it. They know that as a rule, evil enslaves us with lawfulness, the desire for order, and the safety and prosperity that a lawful and ordered society guarantees. They know this because they never forget about the torture and execution of Jesus. They know that in the final months of his life, Jesus was perceived, not without reason, as a usurper, a threat to Rome’s claims to supremacy. They know that shortly after the temple-cleansing incident, which confirmed all the leaders’ worst fears, Jesus was arrested, charged, and condemned. Pilate, like Caiaphas and Herod, as well as other Jewish and Roman leaders, recognized that this prophet from Nazareth threatened the social order, and they knew, as all rulers everywhere know that their political futures depended on “keeping the peace.” In the end, then, Christians never forget that Jesus died as a lawbreaker among lawbreakers, killed by the lawmakers and law-keepers in accordance with established laws. And in dying that death, he both exposed evil’s wicked use of rules and rulers and the astounding possibility of living and dying a truly human life and death in spite of the law and it rulers. They never forget it because they tell this story one way or another every week at the Lord’s Table (Or at least they should).
6. The truth is, the gospel would never have reached us if it were not for those who refused to give to Caesar what belongs only to Christ, if not for those who broke bad laws for the sake of their neighbors’ good. Without the radical disobedience of Shiphrah and Puah, Moses and his mother, Jocbhed, and his sister, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, and Rahab, then Israel would have died in Egypt and Christ would never have been born. Their holy disobedience—and the very fact that they needed to disobey in order for God’s goodness to be brought to bear in their world—revealed the need for God to deliver us from law and order. And that is precisely what God has done in Christ. It is for freedom—from law and order—that Christ has set us free.
Their holy disobedience revealed the need for God to deliver us from law and order.
Earlier in the letter to the Romans, Paul reassures us: nothing and no one, not even rules and rulers, can separate us from Christ: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8.38-39). And just as these rulers, these powers and authorities, cannot keep us from Christ, they cannot keep us from being Christ to others— although that is precisely what they in fact are trying to do.
It’s simple, really. The rulers of this world—and we should not abstract this into the spiritual realm without first taking seriously how it applies to quotidian politics and everyday social order—are not our friends, even when they reluctantly serve our good. They work against Christ, not always, but usually, and they do so by setting up boundaries, social, economic, political, religious boundaries—all kinds of supposed identities that stand at odds with Christ’s boundary-breaking redemptive work in the world. Insofar as we let those boundaries determine the shape of our lives, Christ is muzzled and the church’s witness is chained. Insofar as we let Christ and his agenda determine our identity, all of those boundaries become porous and permeable, that is, transgressible. And we find we are not able to resist treating everyone we meet with the respect they deserve. Perhaps this is what Paul means when, after he contrasts the “fruit of the Spirit” with the “works of the flesh,” he says, “no law can touch these things” (Gal. 5.23 NJB). Law, at least when it goes wrong, wants to limit the gifts that can be lavished on our neighbors and our enemies. “Law and order” wants to determine for us ahead of time who is worthy and so eligible to receive our devotion, our care, and how much of it we can give. But the Spirit, overflowing, boundlessly excessive abundance of the divine life, mocks all of those restrictions, transgresses all of those boundaries, as God’s nature comes fully alive in our lives for our neighbor’s good. So, instead of being people of Romans 13, at least as we are reading it now, looking to Caesar and his sword to give us the life we think we want, we should be people of 1 Corinthians 13, caring for the weak and vulnerable around us in such a way that they see Christ. That, and only that, can fulfill the gospel Paul proclaimed—and died for. And that gospel, the one for which Paul died, is a promise that someday, somehow, every sword, even the sword of God’s wrath, will be beaten into a spade or a pruning hook.