Scripture and Politics

Reflection on Scripture and Politics

June 20, 2018

In light of the current practice of separating children from that parents at the border, and the defense of that practice using Romans 13:1, I have been asked to share guidelines for interpreting Scripture and how Scripture should shape our understanding of social and political issues.

Along with most Christians, Presbyterians have taught that Scripture must be thoughtfully and prayerfully interpreted so that we do not just use Scripture to reinforce what we already think, but rather allow Scripture to guide us and shape how we see the world. In the Second Helvetic Confession, written in Switzerland in 1561, Heinrich Bullinger outlines five principles for interpreting Scripture. He says that Scripture should be interpreted:

1)       “From the nature of the language in which they were written”
This is why Presbyterians still insist that pastors study Hebrew and Greek and why study Bibles and commentaries can be helpful.

2)      “According to the circumstances in which they were written down.”
We pay attention to the historical context and how the time and place it was written shapes a particular passage of Scripture.

3)      “In the light of like and unlike passages and many and clearer passages”
We can’t just take just one passage and think we know what Scripture teaches; we should look at the whole of Scripture and interpret each passage in light of the whole. There are also some clear passages that help us understand the rest of Scripture.

4)     “With the rule of faith”
We don’t interpret Scripture on our own, but rather in community, paying attention to what others have heard in Scripture.

5)     “According to the rule of love”
The Protestant Reformers taught that any interpretation of Scripture which does not lead us to love God and to love our neighbor more deeply is a false interpretation of Scripture.So, how do these rules guide our interpretation of Scripture when we look at issues like dealing with families crossing the border?

The current practice of separating children from their parents has been defended by pointing to Romans 13:1, “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.” The basic truth of this passage, I believe, is that order is better than anarchy. I once read a paper which said that that the largest cause of health problems across the world is the absence of the rule of law – in countries where there is no order, no rule of law, where there is anarchy, bad things happen.

When Paul wrote in the 1st Century, Rome was a powerful and at times brutal empire. And yet for all Rome’s flaws, the Empire did bring order and at least a kind of peace. And so, Paul tells the early Christians, “Do not rebel against Rome. Do not seek martyrdom. Obey the law, and stay out of trouble.” And often this is still good advice.

But we can’t take this passage in isolation. There are many other passages where God tells his people to confront unjust laws and unjust rulers. Moses is sent to confront Pharaoh and issue the demand, “Let my people go.” Jesus disobeys the religious authorities and says they have misunderstood the Scriptures.

At various points of history, Christians have wrestled with the question of when civil disobedience or even open rebellion is justified. In the American Revolution, most Presbyterians believed that England’s rule was unjust and so supported the revolution.

In some places, Scripture tells us to obey the governing authorities, and in other places it tells us to protest injustice. As Christians, we often find ourselves wrestling with competing claims in Scripture and trying to decide where God is calling us in a particular situation.

Jesus gives us one clear lens through which all Scripture can be interpreted. When he is asked which of the many Old Testament laws are most important, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, on these two hang all the law and the prophets.”  The apostle Paul reaffirms the priority of the “rule of love” when he says in Romans 13:10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” This is what the Protestant reformers called “The Rule of Love.”

On the particular issue of separating children from their parents when they cross the border, I think most followers of Jesus will agree that this violates the rule of love, and so the practice must stop.

At the same time, I think we need to recognize that order and the rule of law are important, and so we will work with people from various perspectives on immigration policies which balance the law and order with our history of welcoming immigrants and protecting human rights for all. We will avoid the temptation of using this issue to score political points against those with whom we disagree and stay focused on what we can do to help children and families caught in desperate situations.

I’m happy to talk with you or with your small group on this or other issue as we seek to be guided by Scripture and to use the opportunities we have to make a difference in the world.

Ernie Thompson

Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church