Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. A version of this article previously appeared at EthicsDaily.com on April 30, 2012. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What does Romans 13 say about immigration?
Nothing. Not a word. The word doesn’t even appear in the passage. Yet Romans 13 is the text of choice for those who favor anti-immigration legislation.
Romans 13:1-7 says in part: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.”
When an anti-immigration bill was debated in the Mississippi House, lawmaker Andy Gipson cited Romans 13 to support an Alabama-like, copycat bill.
“Laws exist to punish the law breaker,” he said, “and promote those who follow the law.”
After Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley – a Southern Baptist – signed the nation’s most egregious immigration state bill into law, his pastor cited Romans 13 to support the law.
“We have an obligation under Romans 13 – to obey the law,” said Gil McKee, pastor of Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church. He said, “A lot of the folks who are here illegally know the law. It’s their responsibility as a result to abide by the law.”
The GotQuestions.org website asks: “What does the Bible say about illegal immigration?” The answer is found in Romans 13:1-7.
GotQuestions.org says that Romans 13 “makes it abundantly clear that God expects us to obey the laws of the government. The only exception to this is when a law of the government forces you to disobey a command of God (Acts 5:29).
Illegal immigration is the breaking of a governmental law. There is nothing in Scripture that contradicts a nation having immigration laws. Therefore, it is a sin, rebellion against God, to illegally enter into another country.”
The site adds that Romans 13 “does not give any permission to violate a law just because it is unjust.”
Many conservative Christians apparently use Romans 13 as a biblical proof-text to justify their support for mean-spirited laws and negative attitudes toward the undocumented. They do so in large measure because that text validates their pre-existing perception of a widespread narrative that the undocumented are lawbreakers, criminals and bad people.
They also cite Romans 13 because the biblical scales are weighed overwhelmingly in favor of a generous kindness toward the undocumented – and justice for them.
If one is afraid of those with a different language, skin color, culture or religion, one doesn’t want to listen to what the Bible says about welcoming the outsider.
The truth is that the biblical witness is weighed far more in favor of compassion toward and advocacy for the immigrant than obeying the law – whether just or unjust.
The new Common English Bible translates the Hebrew word “ger” as immigrant. Other Bibles translate that word as alien, foreigner, sojourner or stranger.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 reads, God “enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants.”
Deuteronomy 24:14-15 advocates for the protection of immigrants: “Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay.”
Exodus 22:21 reads, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:34 reads, “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.”
Now that’s a text that flies in the face of the anti-immigration laws adopted in Bible Belt states. It instructs people of faith to treat immigrants as citizens.
While the biblical scales tilt in favor of treating the undocumented justly and with mercy, law-and-order Christians face another problem with their making Romans 13 absolute.
Not all laws are just. Not all state power is absolute. No direct line stretches from Romans 13 to the American legal system.
Remember that honoring the Sabbath was the law for Hebrew society. It was instituted by God, appearing as one of the Ten Commandments. Yet Jesus validated Sabbath-breaking. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Jesus also called for discernment about believers’ relationship with absolute state power. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21), he said.
And, of course, there is the story about the apostles challenging the law. Acts 5:27 reads, “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”
Neither disregarding Romans 13 nor disrespecting the law is the point here.
The point here is that text without context is proof-text, and Romans 13 is a weak proof-text upon which is built a Christian justification for hateful laws intended to make life so unbearable that the undocumented will “self-deport” from the United States.
The biblical witness is clear—treat immigrants justly and with generous kindness.
The biblical witness is clear—use discernment about the law.
Tuck this editorial in your Bible or put it in your file for the next time you hear someone cite Romans 13 as the biblical basis for harsh laws against the undocumented or negative talk about the undocumented as criminals.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.