Misusing the Bible to Separate Families

June 22nd, 2018

“Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government.
There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God,
and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God.”
— Romans 13:1

When U.S. Attorney General cited Romans 13:1 in defense of the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families, my ears perked up. During my senior year of high school, my Bible class studied the book of Romans, verse by verse, resulting in a one-question final exam: “Explain Romans.” I became familiar with the most popular way that verse has been used throughout our nation’s history: to divinely sanction governments as instruments of God, and coerce people into obedience.

British loyalists used it to counter the American Revolution. Slaveholders used it to promote slavery. Advocates of the death penalty use it to defend capital punishment. And Jeff Sessions has now invoked it to promote an inhumane method of addressing border security.

But if there is anything I learned from having to “explain Romans,” it is that one should never take a single verse out of context. Panning out to all of chapters 12 and 13 reminds us that this is not about the government getting to do whatever it wants to do under the cover of God’s blessing. It is more about abhorring evil and doing good (12:9), practicing hospitality (12:13), being at peace (12:18), overcoming evil with good (12:21), loving our neighbors (13:8-10), and laying aside immoral actions (13:12-14).

But here is the biggest fallacy in using Romans 13:1 the way Sessions used it. Even if it were true that God has certified worldly governments to carry out divine will, there is still always one divinely sanctioned entity that precedes and supersedes political institutions.

The family.

Before there were tribes, nations, borders, political parties, and earthly laws, God created the family. It is the preservation of the family, and particularly the protection of our children, that guarantees our flourishing and fruitfulness as a people. We remember that Jesus had words for the Romans as well, in his command to “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children. (Matthew 19:14) It was an indictment of the way Roman culture had allowed the exploitation and dehumanization of children. Jesus was in no way interested in telling his followers that the abuse of children was allowable as a divinely sanctioned policy.

You may have heard that Jeff Sessions is a member of a United Methodist congregation in Alabama, and that reaction from our denomination has been swift. Bishop Ken Carter, recently elected as the President of the Council of Bishops, issued a strong denunciation.[1] The United Methodist Women has issued its own condemnation,[2] as has a growing list of at least 600 fellow United Methodists who have filed a formal church complaint against him.[3]

The problem is not with a politician quoting scripture. Promoting biblical literacy in the public square can be a good thing. The biggest problem is not even with misinterpreting Scripture. We are all susceptible to doing that. The problem is in its misuse to promote an agenda that is not only antithetical to the Gospel, but is destructive of the highest and best human institution that God created: the family.

Even despite the President’s recent actions to halt the separation, we still must contend with the troubling biblical and theological premises that guided the administration to enact this policy in the first place.

So, in addition to the words of Jesus and Paul, here are five other Bible verses that I suggest Jeff Sessions consider:

  • Zechariah 7:9-10:Make just and faithful decisions; show kindness and compassion to each other! Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!”
  • Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.”
  • Jeremiah 22:3:The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place.”
  • Isaiah 58:6-7: “Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?”
  • Leviticus 19:33-34:When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 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.”

The list could go on and on. We are called to practice hospitality to strangers, promote human dignity and worth, preserve the sacred bonds of family, and protect the children: the immigrant, the unborn, the school aged fearing for their safety, the bullied, the abused, the disadvantaged, the minority, from every walk of life and corner of the world. They are not commodities or pawns in political power games. They are all children of God, and children of ours.


Among the ways you might discern responding to this crisis is to support the United Methodist agency Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), which promotes a just immigration system and provides legal support for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. For more information, visit njfon.org.


  1. "Top Leader Of Jeff Sessions’ Church Condemns Family Separation Policy," Huffington Post, 6/19/2018.
  2. United Methodist Women Statement on Immigrant Parent-Child Separation
  3. "Clergy, laity file complaint against Sessions," UMNS, 6/18/2018.
comments powered by Disqus