There seems to be much confusion about the law, as it relates to the issues of immigration and the crisis at the border. The complexity of the issue certainly makes that understandable. However, we need to allow this crisis to provide the opportunity to inform and challenge our thinking and presuppositions.
Yesterday, in response to my prior post, I received a text from a friend who asked, “…. if we as Christians provide assistance (to these children) are we aiding in breaking the law?” The position of my friend was that we are “commanded to obey the laws of authority - aka the U.S. Constitution.”
Where do we begin to rethink this question of who will I obey? Let me begin to unpack this with three simple points to consider:
First, the U.S. Constitution does not in itself tell us what kind of immigration policy is right and just. What the Constitution, the 14 Amendment, does tells us is that anyone born here is a citizen (and those born to U.S. citizens have the same status regardless of where they are born.) The 14th Amendment was needed to address the citizenship rights of those brought here as slaves under prior "laws of authority." Think about that for a moment.
Second, nowhere in scripture are we commanded to obey the “laws of authority,” as opposed to the laws of God. If that were true, the Church would have died in the 1st Century. I'll get back to this point.
Third, some confusion arises from a misapplication and misunderstanding of what Paul is saying in Romans 13:1-3. I have seen this passage appealed to a number of times in recent days. There Paul writes:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Paul was writing to the Church of Rome – an “illegal” church! The Christian movement during the first three centuries from Christ was an illegal, thought to be subservice, movement in the Roman Empire. It was not until April 311, that Roman Emperor Galerius, who had previously been one of the leading figures in the persecution of Christians, issued an edict permitting the practice of the Christian religion under his rule.
Prior to that time Christians were prosecuted and persecuted for their faith, but the movement grew from a handful to over 25 million in the first centuries. For Paul to take all this time in his inspired letter to the Romans, of how to live the Christian life, and then conclude that it was unlawful to do so would be irrational.
In Romans 13:1, the word “subject” is the Greek word “hypotassō” which means to subordinate oneself. Paul’s advice is to subordinate ourselves to the governing authority, because they have been established by God. The opposite would be rebellion but is rebellion against the governing authority, in all cases, rebellion against God?
Governments are established to maintain civil order and protection of the citizenry. That is the proper role of government. The rebellion of which Paul speaks is to disturb and disrupt civil order. Paul earlier, in Roman 12:18, instructs “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Certainly, that is great advice, for it maintains a level of civility for human flourishing.
But is everything that a government does good and right before the Lord? Of course not. What do we do when government fails to protect civil rights? Do we simply subject ourselves to the “governing authorities”? The precedents we find in Church history and in Scripture tell us otherwise.
Daniel had been ordered not to pray, by governing authority. He went directly against a king's decree because it was the right thing to do. He did so in a way that was publicly noticed, standing firm on his right of freedom of worship. If we take Romans 13 to mean that we are subject to every whim of government, every decree issued, all laws of the land passed, Daniel was obviously in grievous sin.
In Daniel 6 verse 5 we read the legislative conspiracy to entrap Daniel: “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.” That led to the unrighteous degree issued by King Darius, that anyone who prayed to any god or human being during a thirty day period, except to the King, would be thrown into the lions’ den (Daniel 6:7).
Daniel needed to decide whom he would obey. His response needs to inform us: “Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” (Daniel 6:10).
If we know the rest of the story, we know that God rescued Daniel from the lion’s den. Daniel’s experience also tells us that often there is a price to pay for doing the right thing, for obeying God, but if God is with us that too will be made clear. If God is for us, who can stand against us?
Ray Stedman, speaking to the Romans 13 passage, writes: “Governments have authority over what we do with our property and how we behave with one another, but our Lord clearly indicates they have no right to touch what God has put his image on, which is the spirit of man.” The image of God in the individual takes precedence over the right of governments. Responding to and respecting the “imago Dei” is always the right thing to do.
We claim to be “One nation under God.” What should that mean for us as we respond to the needs of the foreigners and fatherless at our border? Do we allow our immigration laws, that gave us our broken immigration system, compounded by an Executive Order of the current President, to be the supreme authority or do we obey the Word of the Lord, which is meant to best serve the “spirit of man”?
Today, if we are to submit to all governing authority, do we not as Christians need to rethink our opposition to 'gay marriage' and abortion? The conclusion of being subject to all governing authorities would lead us to acquiesce to laws that damage and or destroy the image of God. I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind.
Why then do many want to uphold the U.S. Constitution as above the law of God, and his many decrees for the foreigner and fatherless? Because they are not citizens? Is that a valid reason? Not according to the precedents set in the Bible.
What is our motive for appealing to our immigration laws as supreme, when migrant children are in harm’s way and being abused?
We need to take those questions before the Lord, understand his Word, and know what to do about this crisis. We are not "aiding in breaking the law" especially since these children might be rightly considered refugees. These children also have at least temporary status here under the law for their protection. But there is an even higher law we are subject to.
Paul goes on in Romans 13 verse 10 to tell us, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Do we really need to ask again, “who is my neighbor?” We need to take this opportunity to rethink our position on immigration as we follow Paul’s advice in Romans 12:1-3:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”