My mother named me for the Apostle Paul. Perhaps she had a premonition that I would be called into ordained ministry. Or perhaps not. She never said.
Nevertheless, I long have had an especial affection for the Apostle, even amid modern and post-modern critiques of his theology; by some, considered radically, whole-heartedly anti-equality and anti-feminist. However, I aver that such views largely arise given how Paul has been interpreted rather than what he may have intended.
To wit, the U.S. Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III, recently called on Paul to defend the Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance for unauthorized crossings of the border from Mexico into the United States, particularly involving the practice of separating immigrant parents from their children. Sessions, in a speech to law enforcement officers, said, in part: “I would cite…the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
First and foremost, by virtue of a Christian theology and ethic that values the foundational and formative cultural construct of the family, I consider the separation of parents and children morally indefensible and undeniably harmful emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
Moreover, I find dubious Sessions’ employ of Paul,(2) especially in the light, aye, the shadow of prominent American historical examples of how Romans 13 has been used; first, in the 18th century by English loyalists who opposed the Revolution and the War for Independence and, secondly, in the 19th century antebellum period by those who supported the institution of slavery and opposed the abolitionist cause.
Still more, Romans 13, sometimes referred to as Paul’s theology of state, must be read in the context of all of Paul’s writings, indeed, all of scripture.(3) To wit, Paul was aware of “the rulers of this age”, that is, established worldly authorities who governed for selfish, self-interested, status quo-maintaining purposes and, thus, opposed the will of God’s unconditional love and justice.(4) And Paul freely and fully testified to his sense of himself and his willingness to suffer at the hands of recognized civil authorities.(5)
In a word, Paul’s understanding of governments and laws was nuanced. His chiefest loyalty was to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news, again, in accordance with my interpretation, of unconditional love and justice for all, always and in all ways.
(1) The full text of Romans 13.1-7: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 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. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
(2) To be fair to the Attorney General, his is not the first (nor, doubtless, will his be the last) time that the Bible has been cited to support questionable positions and policies. (To be fairer still, the same can be said about sermons that border on and cross over the line from substantial theology and sound ethics to heresy!)
(3) I believe this to be true as an operative principle for interpreting any verse, chapter, or book of the Bible. For ancient (and, I believe, still false) is the practice of cherry-picking or proof-texting, that is, taking a verse or chapter or book of the Bible from its context, which, again, is the whole of the Bible, and reading it solely in terms of the apparent, face-value meaning of the words.
(4) See 1 Corinthians 2.6-8 and 15.24-26.
(5) See 2 Corinthians 11.23, 25-27.
Illustration: The Apostle Paul, Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708-1787). Note: Batoni portrays Paul wearing a red robe, emblematic of his martyrdom, clutching a tome, representative of his epistolary writings, and a sword, symbolic of the sword of the spirit (in the Latin, gladius spiritus), a reference to Ephesians 6, sometimes attributed to Paul (Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God…[which includes] the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God).