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Christian duty to replace unjust laws

By Thurman Hayes

By now most Americans have watched with horror the scenes that recently played out at our border, as children and parents were forcibly separated from one another.

This separating of parents and children was condemned by every major Christian denomination, including my own family of churches, the Southern Baptist Convention. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to defend the practice by appealing to the Bible. Sessions said, “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of government because God ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Commenting on Sessions’ comments, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore remarked that Sessions needed to spend “more time in Sunday School.” I would agree. But like most errors, the Attorney General’s error was mixed with a grain of truth. Romans 13 does contain an element of “law and order.” The Apostle Paul wanted the early believers to be good citizens, not anarchists. Therefore, he wrote for believers to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

However, this verse is easily abused and misapplied. It was used prior to the American Revolution to argue for blank submission to the British Crown. If that advice had been taken, there would be no United States of America. It was used to defend the institution of slavery in the 1850s and 1860s. Finally, it was used in Nazi Germany to urge cooperation with Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

In all of these cases, the argument was, “Romans 13 commands submission to the governing authorities. Therefore, just be quiet and support what the government wants to do.”

But this interpretation is a perversion of Romans 13. Here’s why: First, as Paul states in verse one, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” In other words, any authority that a government possesses is a derived authority. Earthly authorities get their authority from God. Therefore, when earthly authorities make laws that are unjust and violate God’s laws and character, those laws need to be changed. In extreme circumstances, governments themselves must be replaced. (This is precisely the argument that is made in our Declaration of Independence.)

Furthermore, it is the duty of Christian citizens to advocate for the removal of unjust and unmerciful laws, and their replacement with laws that reflect the justice and mercy of God.

As Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma pointed out, “God’s design” is for young children to be with their family unit. Another Republican senator, Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, said, “Family separation is wicked … Americans are better than this.” Both Lankford and Sasse are strong Christians, and are committed to putting their faith into action in the public sphere.

None of this means that we need “open borders.” Every country must secure its borders, for all kinds of reasons. This is common sense. However, the United States must also devise immigration reform that reflects both justice and mercy. That is the character of our God. As I wrote in a recent column, he commands us to treat refugees and immigrants with compassion. That begins with not ripping little children from the arms of their parents.

Dr. Thurman R. Hayes Jr. is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at @ThurmanHayesJr.