Civil Magistrate

And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
~ Deuteronomy 17:12, Ephesians 5:21

He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and he hath set the world upon them. Howbeit the LORD God of Israel chose me before all the house of my father to be king over Israel for ever: for he hath chosen Judah to be the ruler; and of the house of Judah, the house of my father; and among the sons of my father he liked me to make me king over all Israel: And of all my sons, (for the LORD hath given me many sons,) he hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of the LORD over Israel.
~ 1 Samuel 2:8, 1 Chronicles 28:4-5

By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.
~ Proverbs 8:15-16

I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me. And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him. And all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son’s son, until the very time of his land come: and then many nations and great kings shall serve themselves of him.
~ Jeremiah 27:5-7

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
~ Joh 19:10-11

Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,
~ Titus 3:1

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
~ Isaiah 58:2

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
~ 1 Peter 2:13-18

Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans XIII. 1-7, by James M. Willson. Published in 1853. The following contains an excerpt from his work.


The subject of civil government is, in all its aspects, of no little importance. It occupies a large share of men’s thoughts in all enlivened countries, and awakens, just now, the liveliest concern. This is not strange; for its influence is felt in every department of human action. It has to do with the peace, the order, the material prosperity of the commonwealth; with the rights and liberties of the citizens, and exercises no inconsiderable influence upon the interests of morals and religion. In all these respects, in the last particularly, the institution of civil government is deserving the attention of the Christian and of the Christian minister. Moreover, the inspired writers take occasion, not unfrequently, to state, sometimes summarily in the doctrinal form, and sometimes in narrative and in detail, leading principles by which the intelligent and faithful may be directed as to the part which they are to take in setting up, in administering, or in supporting political constitutions. Hence, no apology is necessary in entering upon such an examination as that which is now proposed. The topic itself is of great moment, and the light and authority of God’s Word are before us.

Again: these researches are imperatively called for, inasmuch as the particular passage to which the attention of the reader is asked—Rom. 13:1-7—has been grievously perverted. One class of expositors endeavour to derive from these teachings of Paul the offensive principle of unresisting, unquestioning subjection to civil authority of whatever stamp. Rulers, say the, may be ungodly, tyrannical, immoral,—they may use their power for the worst ends,—they may subvert the liberties, and take away the rights of their subjects. Still, but one course is open; even to such rulers and to such authority, there must be yielded at least a “passive obedience;” no “resistance” is ever lawful, though made by the entire body of the oppressed, and that under peril of eternal damnation: for “the powers that be are ordained of God; and he that resisteth the power receiveth unto himself damnation.”

This principle was a very prominent topic among the controversies that arose in England after the restoration of Charles II., in 1660. The advocates of high Episcopacy—particularly the Oxford theologians—stated it in the strongest terms, maintaining the divine right of the restored government to an unlimited allegiance. It was revived, after the Revolution of 1688, by the non-jurors and their friends, who urged it against that settlement of affairs. The conflict raged long and was very bitter; for all, whether in church or state, who favoured the expulsion of James II., and the establishment of the succession to the throne in the house of Brunswick,—the friends of civil liberty,—were equally earnest in maintaining the right of a nation to take measures for the prevention of tyranny and of an arbitrary power over the rights of the subjects. All these, including such men as Burnet and Hoadly—while they vindicated monarchy as the best form of government, in this agreeing with their opponents, were no less vehement in asserting and also in proving that the apostle’s doctrine implied certain limitations; that it must be interpreted so as not to conflict with the plain dictates of reason, or the liberties of nations. This form of the controversy regarding this celebrated passage, has passed away. Even Oxford found it impossible to carry out its own doctrine; and hence when James II. attempted to lay violent hands upon its chartered rights and immunities, Oxford resisted: it (did) eat its own words, and took rank with the most decided adversaries of that Popish king in his assaults upon English law and Protestantism. While power was in the hands of a court professedly Protestant, and zealous for the ecclesiastical supremacy of the Church of England, it was all well enough; but when a new government arose which sought to transfer all the posts of honour and influence in church and state into popish hands, these conscientious defenders of an absolute divine right took the alarm, and refused to be bound by their own repeatedly asserted doctrines. After the Revolution, this principle did not outlast that generation which felt itself chagrined at the toleration of dissenters from the established religion. They had fought at a disadvantage, and lost ground. A new generation arose, and at last, as a topic of controversy, the subject was dropped, and hence, whatever private views may have been since entertained by the more bigoted loyalists and ecclesiastics, it has long ceased to figure in the annals of literature.

However, even the “exploded” doctrine of “no-resistance” has not entirely succumbed. It has found a place in the commentaries of Haldane and Chalmers, and still lingers in some mind; at least, in the form of doubts as to the propriety and lawfulness of setting aside institutions and men—by violence, if necessary,—that have proved themselves incompetent to answer the ends of political arrangements and authority.

There is another class of expositors, embracing a large proportion of the more modern, and some of the ancient, commentators; who, while they admit that nations may remodel their constitutions so as to suit themselves, and even resort to violence for the overthrow of tyrannical power—in other words, they admit the right of revolution—still hold and teach, as the doctrine of this passage, that so long as a government exists, whatever be its character, it is entitled to, and may demand, in the name of God, a conscientious obedience to its laws, unless they conflict with the laws of God.

This is a view highly plausible and popular, and yet to say nothing, at present, of its inconsistency, (for, how could there be a revolutionary movement, unless conscience had previously ceased to feel any obligation to respect and honour and fear the existing government?) it will appear in the sequel that it gains no countenance from the teachings of Paul, and for the reason that the passage makes no reference, as we think will appear upon strict examination of its terms, to any “power” but that which answers in some good measure the ends of its institution. Whatever may be the regard, if any, due to an immoral and tyrannical, and, of course, hurtful government, this passage makes no reference to it. It teaches one set of truths, and one only,—the nature, functions, and claims of a good government. In the language of Bishop Hoadly: “As the apostle’s words stand at present, and have ever stood, it is impossible to prove that he had in view any particular magistrate acting against the ends of his institution;” and again, “All that we can possibly collect for his (Paul’s,) injunctions in this place is this, that it is the indispensable duty of subjects to submit themselves to such governors as answer the good ends of their institution. There is nothing to make it probable that Paul had any governors particularly in his eye, who were a terror to good works and not to evil; or that he had any other design in this place but to press submission to magistrates, upon those who acknowledged none to be due in point of conscience, from the end of their institution, and the usefulness of their office. And in whatever instances submission can be proved to be due from this argument, I am ready to acknowledge that Paul extended it to all such instances. But as for submission in other instances, the apostle’s reasoning here cannot defend or justify it, but rather implies the contrary. For if submission be a duty because magistrates are carrying forward a good work, the peace and happiness of human society, which is the argument Paul useth, it is implied in this that resistance is rather a duty than submission, when they manifestly destroy the public peace and happiness.”(1)

We are aware that the truth of these assertions remains to be proved: their truth will appear in the analysis of the passage, but we would now state it distinctly and emphatically, for it is the key to the right understanding of this, and parallel passages. Keeping this in mind, the scope and bearing of Paul’s doctrine on civil government and submission to authority, is as clear as a sunbeam. He gives no countenance to any slavish doctrine—to any claim of divine right to do wrong—to any principle that would tie up our hands, or in the least interfere with the right of the Christian citizen to “prove,” by moral and scripture rules, as well as by the laws of self-preservation, any and all institutions and laws. In what light we are to regard tyrannical and ungodly powers, we may ascertain elsewhere, but cannot here, except, and the exception is important, that inasmuch as Paul gives us the character of government, as God approves it, and then enjoins subjection, we can pretty directly infer that in case a government does not possess, at least, a due measure of the requisite qualifications, the command to obey cannot apply to it.

A greater interest is, moreover, to be attached to such investigations as we propose, from the fact that the infidels of our times make use of this passage to serve their own purposes. We live in an age and country of liberal ideas regarding government—an age when the rights of the people are watched with the utmost sagacity and vigilance.—Popular rights are matters taken for granted, and any thing that runs counter to them is at once rejected. Infidelity attempts to turn this feeling in behalf of liberty into its own channel—to rouse it against the Bible, as if it favoured absolute and irresponsible power; and they avail themselves, and with no little success, of the mistaken exposition of the very passage before us. The expositors to whom we have referred intend to strengthen the arm of any and all civil authority—these interpretations the infidel school use for the overthrow of the authority of the Bible. Both are met and foiled by one process—simply by a just analysis of the passage itself.

This we now proceed to attempt, hoping to demonstrate, on the one hand, that a good government finds here both a guide and a pillar—and on the other, that a bad government finds not the faintest shadow of countenance, but is inferentially, but not the less effectually, condemned.

(1) Hoadley’s Submission to the Powers that be; pages 49,22,50.

Exposition of Romans XIII. 1-7.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Section I.-The Duty, in General, of Obedience to Civil Authority.

“Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.” verse 1.

l. Civil governments are called “Powers.” The term here used (ἐξουσία) is employed to denote any species of authority—paternal, ecclesiastical, magisterial. That in this instance it means civil rule, is abundantly clear from the whole tenor of the passage. It is important, however, to remark that it designates civil government, not as an institution endued with ability to execute its will—for this another term (δύναμις) would have been more appropriate—but as invested with the right to enact and administer law. “By what authority,” (ἐξουσία) say the scribes to our Lord, “doest thou these things?”—”who hath given thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23.(Appendix A))

2. They are called “Higher Powers.” The word (ὑπερεχούσαις) here rendered “higher,” properly signifies prominence, or eminence, and hence it comes to mean “excellent,” or “excelling,” and must be translated by these or equivalent expressions in a number of passages in the New Testament. “Let each esteem other better (ὑπερέχοντας) than themselves,” (Phil. 2:3.) “And the peace of God, which passeth (ὑπερέχουσα) all understanding,” (Phil. 4:7.) “For the excellency (διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον) of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord,” (Phil. 3:8.) In fact, the passage now before, us, and Pet. 2:13, a parallel passage, are the only instances in which our translators have furnished a different rendering. Hence, some expositors have been disposed to lay no little stress upon this epithet, as distinctly defining the character of the powers here intended, and as limiting to such the subjection here enjoined, the “excelling powers;” that is, powers possessing a due measure of the qualifications requisite to the rightful exercise of the power of civil rule.

That such is the fact—that the duty of subjection to civil rule is not absolutely unlimited—that it must be determined by other and higher considerations than the mere fact that it exists and brandishes “the sword,” is a most important truth—a truth no where taught more clearly, as we shall find, than in the passage before us. Still we are not disposed to insist upon any different rendering. We neither deny nor affirm. To elicit the true meaning and import of the passage does not require the aid of minute, and, after all, doubtful criticism.(Appendix B) Civil rule is a “higher” power—it is invested with an eminent dignity. It spreads it aegis—when properly constituted and administered—over the whole commonwealth, with all its varied interests, and claims an unopposed supremacy. There is an inherent majesty in lawful governmental power calculated and designed to impress subjects and citizens of every class and character with a salutary awe. And whether the attributes of inherent moral excellency be expressed in the designation here given or not, it may be readily inferred, for “power,” without moral character, is a monster indeed.

It is, however, government and not the particular magistrates by whom authority is exercised, to which Paul here refers. The distinction is important. “Rulers” are mentioned for the first time in v. 3. He now treats of the institution of civil rule. The “powers”—the “higher” powers,—Government in the abstract—the institution of civil rule.

3. Subjection is enjoined to civil government; v. 1: “Be subject:” that is, voluntarily, freely, and cheerfully rendering allegiance and homage, and yielding a uniform and conscientious obedience to the wholesome laws enacted by the “higher powers.” In other words, what is here meant is something far different from an unresisting submission to what cannot be helped, as when the unarmed traveler submits to be despoiled by the highway robber. This kind of submission is, indeed often called for. The slave must, of necessity, do the bidding of his master. The power is unjust. It may be tyrannically exercised. It is, in its very nature, despotic. But the victim of wrong has, for the time, no alternative. By obedience alone can he secure exemption from greater suffering. So the unhappy subject of arbitrary civil rule. He is beneath the iron heel of the despot. He must obey. But it is a forced obedience, wrung from him by the irresistible might of the tyrant’s sceptre. So also, the Christian may be compelled to yield a kind of submission to overwhelming power. He is in its hand. The sword is ready to enforce the mandates of unholy authority. The salve, and the subject of despotic civil rule, alike submit; but both for the same reason—the impossibility of escape, or of successful resistance.

To nothing of all this does the inspired apostle here refer. He employs a term (upotassesqw) that denotes an orderly and due submission—a genuine and hearty subjection; and to fix the meaning of the injunction beyond dispute, he defines it more fully, afterwards, in verses 5 and 7: “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake: fear to whom fear—honour to whom honour.” In short, whatever may be the duty of the oppressed, and whatever his rights, Paul does not here consider either. He deals with but one topic: the duty of subjection to civil government—civil government as he afterwards describes it, with its duties, its character and its claims. To such a government there is due, not mere obedience, but an obedience hearty and prompt; and obedience importing an acknowledgment of its being and authority—an obedience originating in an intelligent perception and appreciation of its character, design, and happy fruits. But even this, we may safely say, is not inconsiderate or unlimited, for it is an obedience limited, after all, by the paramount claims of the law of God. For surely none but an atheist can deliberately affirm that even the law of the land can set aside, weaken or nullify the authority of the law of God. To the best government, obedience can be yielded only in things lawful; for there is a “higher law” to which rulers and subjects are alike amenable. “The heavens do rule.” There is a God above us, and “to Him every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil. 2:10,11.) And, surely, if obedience to the best government is thus limited, it need hardly be added, that submission to an unholy power does not go beyond this. This also is limited by the law of God. It can only be yielded when this can be done without sin. In every other case, the subject—the slave even—should imitate the noble example of Daniel, and of myriads of the faithful before and since, and suffer rather than sin.

To return: the duty here inculcated is that of a hearty recognition of a rightful civil authority, together with an active support of its claims, and a personal and respectful obedience to its lawful enactments.

4. This injunction lies upon every citizen. “Let every soul be subject,” &c.(1) (v. 1.) There is no exception. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the Christian and the infidel, the minister of Christ as well as the private member of the church must be subject. In this lies much of the emphasis of the apostle’s language; for it is clearly intended to rebuke the notion, earthly entertained, and that has still found a place among the professed followers of Christ, that it is unworthy of a Christian to be subject to civil rule; that having one master, even Christ, obedience is due, in no sense, no even with suitable limitations, to any other authority; and, also, to confute, before-hand, the arrogance of the popish priesthood, who claim, as all know, exemption from civil control. Equally opposed to both these is the explicit declaration of Paul, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.”

Nor can this be wrested to the establishment of any authority on the part of the civil magistrate over the church of Christ. The church is an independent society. Her constitution, her doctrines, her laws, her administration, all are from Christ. To him alone is she subject. She exists, indeed, among and in the kingdoms of the world, but owns no allegiance to any other Head than to Christ. To claim supremacy over her is a presumptuous and unwarranted usurpation; God alone is Lord of the conscience.


1. Christians should endeavour to understand, and should take suitable interest in the subject of civil government. It is neither remote from them, nor too unholy to occupy their attention. From the mere contests of faction they may, indeed, stand aloof; but, surely, that which attracted the attention of an inspired apostle is not beneath the study of the most spiritually-minded of the followers of Christ. He should study the subject, moreover; for without this, he cannot with becoming high intelligence perform his own duty respecting it.

2. The Christian minister may and ought to present the doctrine of the word of God, on this, as on other subjects of which the inspired writers treat. The time was, when it would have been necessary to argue elaborately in defence of this statement. It is not necessary now. The pulpit has been compelled to enter this field—long almost abandoned. An age of, at least, attempted social reformation, has driven every party in turn to seek the powerful aid of the Christian ministry, and while we cannot in many instances find much to commend in the manner in which the subject has been presented, it is still so far well, that portions of the Word of God which exhibit the character, functions, and claims of civil power, are no longer regarded as forbidden ground. Still, there is need of wisdom. In such discussions, the ambassador of Christ should keep close to the footsteps of his Master and of his inspired followers, and rising above the transient conflicts and unworthy behests of party, should essay to exhibit and illustrate the entire subject of governmental arrangements and polity, in a manner becoming an exalted moral institution—so as to bring a revenue of glory to Christ the Supreme Lawgiver.

(1) We might, perhaps, have adduced this clause—the term “soul” particularly—as an argument confirming our interpretation of the command, “be subject.” It is not outward submission merely, but a subjection in which the “soul” goes along with the external act.

Section II.-General Considerations Enforcing the Duty of Obedience to Civil Rule.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
~ Romans 13, Verses 1,2.

Having stated the duty, the apostle now proceeds to show the grounds on which it rests, insisting upon two classes of arguments, and

1. They derive their power from God, or in other words, government is a divine institution, originating in, and, of course, sanctioned by the will of God. For (1.) “There is no power but of God.” This is true, whatever sense we attach to the word “power.” All physical power—all executive energy, in every department of creation, is from God. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28.) In this sense the power of evil beasts and even of the devil, is from God. “By Him all things consist,” (Col. 1:17.) Again, if we understand by “power,” the possession of the reins of government, it is, certainly, through Him that kings are permitted to occupy their thrones and that, whatever the steps by which they may have succeeded to the seat of authority. Pharaoh was “raised up” in the course of that providence which controls all the affairs of men. God “gave the kingdom” to Jeroboam. The same hand “raised up” Cyrus, and our Lord expressly declares to Pilate, the unholy Roman governor, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given to thee from above,” (John 19:11.) Even the devil has “power,” in this sense, from God. Does Paul mean no more than this? Assuredly he means something far different. This clause assigns a reason for that hearty subjection which the apostle had just enjoined. But, surely, the mere fact that one possesses “power,” can be no reason why his claims should be acknowledged, and his laws conscientiously obeyed. If so, the slave—ay, the slave who has been stolen from his own land and ignominiously held as a chattel—would be required to admit, as from God, the validity of his master’s claims. To throw off his chains, and make his way to his native home as a freeman, would be rebellion against God. No doctrine could be more agreeable than this to tyrants, and to all the panders to unholy power; for, if this be Paul’s meaning, there is no despot, no usurper, no bloody conqueror, but could plead the divine sanction, and, more than this, the devil himself could lay the teachings of Paul under contribution to enforce his pre-eminently unholy authority. An interpretation which leads to such monstrous conclusions—that would bind the nations to the footstool of power with iron chains, and utterly crush every free aspiration—that would invest with the sanctions of the divine name the most flagrant usurpation and the most unrelenting despotism—stands self-condemned.

But we go further. Providence is not a rule of action. Sin and evil of all kinds exist in the course of the same providential administration, as that which furnishes a place for governments which contemn God and oppress mankind. And yet who claims for sin a divine sanction? who denies to the suffering the right to rid themselves of their trials? Carry out this interpretation, and you furnish the bloody government of the Papal states an impregnable defence against the efforts of the liberators of Italy.

The truth is, the apostle has no reference here at all to any thing but the institution of government;(1) and designs to assert, and does assert, that there is no authority properly exercised over men, but that which God has established. This is true in the largest sense: for man is God’s creature and subject, and he who sets up claims to dominion over him must be prepared to show that he exercises an authority of that sort and of that character which bears the stamp and sanction of divine institution. Had Paul, indeed, said no more, it might have been argued, with greater plausibility, that he designed in this passage to give the tyrants of the earth, what they have always claimed, the sanction of the Most High in their course of monstrous iniquity. Even then, however, we would have endeavoured, and we think successfully, to vindicate the word of God against so abhorrent a conclusion. But Paul did not stop with these general assertions. He proceeds, as will presently appear, to define, with great distinctness and brevity, his own meaning: to designate the sort of “power” to which he alludes: not any and every existing government, but that which answers the end of its institution. In short, the design of this clause: “There is no power but of God,” is merely to assert the general principle that subjection is due to civil government, inasmuch as government is a divine institution. This appears more distinctly from what follows.

(2.) “The powers that be are ordained of God.” The prime fallacy of many commentaries on this entire passage consists in taking for granted that this phrase—”the powers that be”—means all and any existing governments. This cannot be. The considerations already advanced, in setting aside a similar interpretation of the preceding clause, forbid it. Nor are there wanting others, equally conclusive. Of Israel it is said, referring to the establishment of an independent government by the ten tribes under Jeroboam, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew (approved) it not.” (Hos. 8:4.) And the prophet Daniel, and afterwards the apostle John, expressly and frequently denominate the Roman Empire a “beast.” The former, a “beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it.” (Dan. 7:19.) The latter, a “beast having seven heads and ten horns, and on its horns ten crowns, and on its heads the name of blasphemy,” (Rev. 17:3.) Surely such a description was never given of a government that could lay any solid claim to be “ordained of God;” at least, in any other sense than the pestilence is God’s ordinance, existing in his providence, but to be shunned and banished as soon as possible.(2) And, in fact, for this end, among others, the gospel is sent into the world. It is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands,” which is to “smite the great image (Dan. 2.) and break it in pieces.” One ordinance of God, smiting, and breaking in pieces, another! The term “powers” here denote, as before, the institution of civil rule. This, with all other kinds of power that may be lawfully exercised among men, is “ordained of God.” In other words, the Most High has made provision for the exercise of civil authority. He has not left mankind to be controlled by no other government than that of parents over their children, of masters over their servants, of church rulers over private Christians. He has, also, provided for the setting up and administering of another kind of power, having its own peculiar ends, its rules, its limits, and its administrators—the power of civil government. God has willed the existence of a national organisation and polity; and, in so doing, has fixed its ends, which it must subserve; has given it a supreme law, which it must observe; has bound it by limits which it may not pass over. In short, God has “ordained”(3) civil government as Christ has ordained the ministry of reconciliation, not by merely willing its existence, but by prescribing its duties, its functions, its ends, and its limitations.

No other meaning can be affixed to the language of the apostle, consistently with due reverence for Him who is the Holy One and the Just, the rightful and beneficent moral Governor. Can it be, for a moment, believed, that God has made man a social being—placed him in society, and thus necessitated, by the very laws of the human constitution, the establishment of civil rule, and that he has, after all, set no bounds to the authority, no hedge about the claims of civil rulers? That, after all, He has left this whole matter to be lawfully managed, not by law, even His law, not by rule, but merely according to human caprice, or, what is far worse, human ambition, self-seeking, pride, and violence? And, then, as the issue of the matter, that in case a government exist, whatever the principles that guide its administration, whether it be just or unjust, God-fearing or infidel, liberal or despotic, it exists, and He acknowledges it as “ordained” by Him, and as entitled to the regard, homage and obedience of its subjects? This cannot be. God is not so indifferent to His own glory, or to the welfare of man, and particularly of the church. He never intended, we may assert, with entire confidence, to sign, if we may so speak, a blank, and then leave man to fill it up according to his pleasure. Every attribute of God forbids this. Paul teaches no such doctrine.

The terms employed by the apostle, and the connection of the clauses, accord precisely with these views. He first asserts “power is not, except from God:”(4) God alone is the source of legitimate authority. He is sovereign. Man is His. Power, not derived from God, is ever illegitimate. It is mere usurpation; as, for example, the Pope’s claim to reign in the church, and over the nations. The apostle then adds, in vindication of civil government, “the powers that be”—governmental institutions; “are arranged under God,”(5) or if this be preferred, “by God.” There is such a “power” as that of civil rule. It is among the kinds of authority for which the Most High has made provision, and to which he has assigned the requisite laws and functions.

But we rest our interpretation upon no mere verbal criticism. God is the only source of power. And God has in the sense in which we have explained the term, “ordained” civil government. He is the source of power, that power of which Paul speaks, not as He endows with physical strength, or even as He opens the way, in his providence, for its successful employment in subjugating mankind; but as he has authorized the exercise of that particular kind of authority; of course, putting upon it, when measurably conformed to his institution, the impress of His own dignity, and the sanction of His law.(6)

Is it inquired, where this institution is found? The reply has been, in part, anticipated. In the constitution of man, and in the principles of piety, of equity, of beneficence, originally implanted in the human heart, but now, much more clearly, in the written Scriptures, which abound with instruction, addressed to rulers and people, and furnishing all the light mankind need for the organisation and administration of the most salutary political regimen. The passage before us is an example. It is proper, however, to add, that instruction is given in the word of God, not so much in regard to the particular form which the government should assume, as in reference to the ends it should see, the principles that should guide the administration, and the character of those into whose hands national affairs should be committed.

This is Paul’s first argument enforcing the duty of obedience, and to demonstrate that it is not beneath the dignity of the Christian to be subject to civil government. So far from offending Christ, such subjection honours him—for it is yielded to a divine institution, and for the same reason, it cannot safely be withheld. Hence Paul argues

2. From the sin and danger of resisting civil authority, and

(1.) The sin. “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”—Verse 2d.

The distinction is still kept up between the institution—”the ordinance” of God and the magistrate in whose hands the reigns of government happen to be found. “Whosoever resisteth the power.” A most important distinction. For, in truth, there are occasions when it is not merely lawful, but a matter of high and imperative duty, to resist authority. The case of the high priest, Azariah, and his brethren, who withstood Uzziah, king of Judah, in his attempt to pass over the limits of his power and obtrude into the priest’s office, is well known to every reader of the Bible: “It pertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord; but to the priests, the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary, for thou hast trespassed.” (1 Chron. 26:18.) And still more to the purpose are the cases of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, and afterwards of Daniel, who all refused compliance with laws enacted by the then supreme authority in Babylon (Dan. 3:6.) To the same effect is the refusal of Peter and John to obey the command of the Jewish magistracy “not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus.” They reply, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye,” (Acts 4:18,19.) Indeed, until of late, the duty of refusing to obey the commands of the civil power, when they conflict with duty to God was never, so far as we know, denied by any bearing the name of Christian. It is certain that the advocates of the doctrine of “passive obedience and non-resistance” during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, did not go so far as this. The very terms in which the announced their doctrine make this manifest, “passive obedience, non-resistance.” They acknowledged a higher law than the enactments of human, and, of course, fallible, and often impious power. The first prominent enunciation of the principle of unlimited and unquestioning obedience, was reserved for an atheist—Hobbes of Malmesbury. Denying the existence of any fixed standard of right—and, consequently, of any such things as virtue and vice—this speculative philosopher resolved all the laws of morality into one—the will of the legislature. But who were his disciples? None but the godless, the dissipated, the scorners of all that is sacred. The heart of England was shocked at the daring attempt to dethrone the Almighty. It was reserved for another age and another land to hear and assent to the blasphemous asserting, that the law of the land overrides all other laws, and must be obeyed under penalty of resisting the ordinance of God.

But we may go further, and assert that Paul did not intend, by the language before us, to forbid even the forcible resistance of unjust and tyrannical civil magistrates, not even when that resistance is made with the avowed design of displacing offending rulers, or, it may be, the change of the very form of the government itself. There are few in this land, or in any free country, to deny the right of a nation to rid itself of oppressive power—whether foreign or domestic. The right of revolution, for the purpose of throwing off usurping or tyrannical rule, need not, now and here, be defended. That question was settled in England by the Revolution of 1688, when the nation, rising in its might, expelled James II. as an enemy to the constitutional rights and liberties of the people. The separate national and independent existence of these United States is the fruit of successful revolution. And where is the American—the American Christian—who does not rejoice in the hope that the principles of liberty will spread and prevail, even though they be ultimately established upon the wreck of thrones demolished or overturned?

Does the Spirit of God here condemn these efforts of the nations to rid themselves of the yoke of despots? Does this passage rivet the chains of the oppressed? Certainly not. God denounces the oppressor. “Wo to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by wrong,” (Jer. 22:13.) “Wo unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness, which they have prescribed.” (Is. 10:1.) And, to say nothing of the threatenings—repeated and awful—against the ungodly and oppressing powers, symbolised by the “beast” of Daniel and of the Revelation, we have the striking inquiry of Psalm 94:20: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth iniquity by a law?”

Now is it credible that notwithstanding these denunciations, the Most High does still forbid, under penalty of his high displeasure, all conflicts for liberty? That he so far takes under his patronage ungodly governments which despise his law and his Son—as to regard any opposition to their authority as opposition made to his own holy “ordinance” of magistracy? To persuade us of this, we may first demand the clearest evidence.

It is evident that the proper interpretation of this passage depends upon the meaning of the phrase, “ordinance of God.” What then is its import? Does it mean any and every existing government? Does it mean a Phocas, who “waded to the throne of the Roman Empire through seas of blood?” Does it mean that Joseph of Austria, with his government, is the “ordinance of God” to Hungary? Does it mean the government of the Pope and his cardinals, under which the Papal States groan? In short, is this term applied to any government merely from the fact that it exists? Clearly not; for, then, the powers just mentioned must be also embraced in it—a conclusion equally repulsive to the Christian and to the friend of human liberty. And, besides, if this be its meaning, the very worst government has the very same right to demand an unresisting subjection, as the very best, for both alike exist—exist in the same overruling and all-controlling providence; and both would be armed with the same high sanction: to “resist” either, would be to make the same assault upon the “ordinance of God!”

What, then, is its import? The reply has been already anticipated.(7) It denotes God’s moral ordinance of civil government—it refers to such a government as Paul afterwards describes—a government which is “a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to them that do well”—a government that in due measure answers the ends of the institution of civil rule, a government of law, of equity, possessed of moral attributes, and ruling “under God,” by whom it has been “ordered,” for the execution of high and useful functions.

Who, then, resists? The reply is at hand, and conclusive. He who opposes the rightful exercise of civil rule; he who would attempt the overthrow of just and wholesome authority; he who endeavours to weaken the hands of the “higher powers” in their performance of the trust committed to them: he who rises against the restraints imposed upon the lawless, the profane: he who wilfully disturbs the peace, and interferes with the regular administration of justice: for such, and such alone, assail “the ordinance of God.” Indeed, we may well ask how this can possibly apply to any but those who invade the good order of the commonwealth by opposing wholesome rule? The end for which governments were established is, surely, more important than government itself, and much more important than the particular form, or the mere fact of the possession of power by this individual or that. How, then, can any one be regarded as chargeable with the sin and crime of resisting God’s “ordinance,” who refuses to obey an unjust enactment, or who even goes so far as to attempt the overthrow of or remodeling of a government that is, by tyranny, or injustice, or ungodliness, working harm to society, and dishonour to God, and so tends to defeat the very ends for which the “ordinance” of civil rule was established? The commands of a maniac or drunken father may be disregarded—the wife or even the children taking the government into their own hands—much more may institutions and laws be disregarded when these run counter, either in their constitution or administration, to the divine law, and thus tend to the manifest injury of the common weal.(8)

But does not this tend to the enfeebling of the claims of even legitimate authority? By no means. True, all institutions administered by human hands will, necessarily, bear the marks of human imperfection, and it may be difficult, in theory, to draw the line, and say, this much is requisite to constitute a government on which we may inscribe the title “the ordinance of God;” but, in practice, the difficulty will not be often very great—no greater than in many other departments of duty. Surely, we may go so far as to affirm, with confidence, that every “ordinance of God” will acknowledge his claims—the claims of His Son (we speak of governments in enlightened lands,) and the supremacy of His law, and will seek to promote the welfare of all the subjects or citizens.

That this doctrine, moreover, is liable to be abused by the lawless, we admit. The opponents of the slavish principle of “passive obedience” encountered the same objection. Says Bishop Hoadly, “The great objection against this, though it be all founded upon the will of God, who sincerely desires the happiness of public societies, is this, that it may give occasion to subjects to disturb and oppose their superiors. But, certainly, a rule is not therefore bad, because men may mistake in the application of it to particular instances; or because evil men may, under the umbrage of it, satisfy their own passions and unreasonable humours; though these latter, as they are disposed to public disturbance, would certainly find out some other pretence for their behaviour, if they wanted this. The contrary doctrine to what I have been delivering, we know, by an almost fatal experience, may be very much abused; and yet that is not the reason why it ought to be rejected, but because it is not true. Every man is to give an account for his sins; and the guilt of those who, under any pretence whatsoever, disturb the government of such as act the part of good rules, is so great, that there cannot be a stronger motive than this against resistance and opposition to such.”(9) It may be added that every argument on behalf of civil liberty may also be abused, and equally, the doctrines of grace. And yet, after all, we need not much fear any liability to abuse in the application of this principle, provided it be rightly understood; for its very basis and groundwork is that God has ordained civil society and organisation, and that existing institutions are only to be resisted when they fail to answer the ends for which government has been established among divine ordinances, while—and this is the apostle’s argument—to “resist” a government which is really an “ordinance of God” is a sin of heinous character. This is plainly taught when Paul proceeds to enforce subjection.

(2.) From the danger of resistance. And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation, (krima-condemnation,) v. 2. From what quarter? from the government, or from God? That the apostle designed no more than to assert the fact that such as inpugn the authority of government, or resist its commands, or oppose themselves to its authority, will meet with civil punishment, does not appear probable. This would be to assert a fact too well known to require so emphatic and solemn an enunciation. Of course, no government will tamely allow its injunctions to be set at naught, so long as it bears the sword. And, moreover, it seems hardly consistent with the high and religious tone of the entire passage, to understand this clause as having no higher reference than to the infliction of civil punishment upon the disorderly and rebellious. What immediately precedes contains a pretty distinct intimation, as has already been remarked, or the fact that “resistance” to legitimate authority is not only a sin, but a sin of a heinous character. Nor are more express declarations to the same effect wanting elsewhere in the Word of God. We may refer to the case of Korah and the princes of Judah, whom God visited with a most signal token of his wrath for this very sin. “They went down alive into the pit.” (Num. 16.) And all remember the sad story of Absalom, who also died in the same sin in an attempt to overturn a lawful power.(10)

Still, we are not to infer that the sin of resisting civil rule involves necessarily eternal ruin. It deserves “condemnation.” God sees it. It highly offends Him. He will vindicate his own “ordinance.” And why not? If it be, as it certainly is, a most beneficial one—if it promote directly every temporal interest, and, at least, indirectly bears upon the moral and religious welfare of the community—if successful resistance to good government opens the flood-gates to violence, irreligion, vice, and misery—if no interest can flourish when good laws are not well administered—can it be regarded as unworthy of the Divine Spirit to attach this emphatic sanction to the institution of civil rule—to assert, in this explicit form, that God will mark with his evident disapprobation every act of resistance to the righteous exercise of magistratical power?

On these high grounds, then, does Paul enforce subjection to the “higher powers.” Government is from God—to resist, is to resist his “ordinance,” and “he that resists receives a righteous ‘condemnation.’” (Appendix C)


1. That civil government is, as an institution, from God.—National organisation is not the mere creature of the voluntary action of the inhabitants of a particular country or district. It is their province, indeed, to establish the particular institutions by which they are to be guided and governed; and in this sense, political arrangements are “the ordinance of man,” (1 Pet. 2:13.) Still, it is not optional with men whether such an institution as civil government exist at all. God has “ordained” it. And it is important to remark, that government once set up, its rights and prerogatives are not wholly determined by the popular will. To some extent they certainly are; but in others they, as certainly, are not. The Most High has fixed the leading ends of all civil rule;(11) and has also defined, to some extent, the means to be employed in effecting these. It is not optional, for example, with any people, whether they shall commit to the magistracy the power of inflicting death upon the murderer—the law of God determines this. It is a subtle question, and one that is some respects possesses a practical importance—whether civil power is, in the aggregate, a collection made up of contributions of right thrown in by individual members of the commonwealth—each resigning a portion of his own. By no means. No man has a right to take his own life, and yet society has the right to inflict capital punishment, and, moreover, such a notion is entirely inadmissible on another ground. Man was made for society, and, hence, so far is he from being necessarily restricted in his rights in the social state, that it is as a member of society alone, that he can enjoy all the privileges and perform all the duties of manhood.

In short, while the people of a country have in their own hands the setting up of their government, and the choice of rulers—when this is once done, and rightly done—the authority by which the government is administered is to be regarded as derived from the divine institution of the ordinance of magistracy. Hence,

2. The principal standard by which this institution is to be measured is the Word of God.—This may be inferred directly from the fact that the scriptures treat so fully on the subject. It appears in each Testament, and in every form of instruction. There are didactic passages—such as that before us. Of this character are the teachings and the precepts of the moral law, which contains a complete exhibition of all that relates to the ends, the principles, the methods of civil rule—and much of the detail respecting magistratical duties, and their correlates, the duties of subjects and citizens. the narratives of the Bible largely illustrate its didactic rules and precepts. It abounds with exemplifications both of good and bad governments, and the issues of the one and of the other. Much of prophecy, both of the Old Testament and of the New, is designed to shed light upon the subject of civil polity, and the divine administrations respecting it.

Where else can this be learned? Not from the light of nature merely. True, the essential principles of social organisation, and even of political regimen, are contained in the moral law, and that law is the same that was inscribed upon the heart of man at his creation. But the “law of nature” is not to be confounded with the “light of nature”—the law as a complete rule of human duty is man’s primitive condition—the light that is now in man is too feeble to discern it in any thing like its holiness and perfection. To reject the Word of God in this, as in any other department of duty, is, to use the words of John Brown of Haddington, “an obstinate drawing back to heathenism.”

There is still another reason why we must refer to the Scriptures, and make them the supreme standard. There, and there alone, do we ascertain the now essential principle of right civil rule, the Headship of Jesus Christ: for “He is made head over all things to the church,” (Eph. 1:22.) To Him “all judgment is committed,” (John 6:22.) He is “Prince of the kings of the earth,” (Rom. 1:5.) And not merely do we learn this fact, but having ascertained it, we are led at once to the conclusion that to His own Word must we now address ourselves, if we would become acquainted with that institution itself of which He so plainly claims the supremacy.

3. Disorderly and seditious behaviour is here most signally rebuked.—The ordinance of magistracy, rightly set up and administered, ranks among the most important: in some respects, it is first of the institutions with which men have to do. And social order is of itself “of great price.” How wrong to disturb it by disorderly and lawless conduct. It is sometimes, indeed, a matter of no little moment to determine where the guilt lies! We would not style any either disorderly or seditious, who are contending in a right spirit against the corruptions of the State, or of the public administration of affairs. Sometimes the rulers themselves are disturbers of the peace, and upon them falls the threatening of this passage. However, we now speak of the seditious and disorderly, of those who are such in a community where a scriptural magistracy and wholesome rule are in operation. These are to be regarded as chargeable with an offence of no inferior turpitude; as deserving of the most severe reprobation, and as fit subjects for punitive inflictions. And, it may be added, that the spirit of peace and order should, as far as possible, characterize the conduct of those who dissent from unholy and oppressive governments, and attempt their reformation.

(1) “Power is to be distinguished from persons; for Paul loved polity and power; but Caligula and Nero he execrated as monsters in nature, instruments of the devil, and pests of the human race.” Lectures on Romans by Andrew Melville, Edin., 1850, p.487.

(2) “So are fevers, plagues, fires, inundations, tempests, and the like. And yet Almighty God not only permits, but requires us to use all prudent methods of resisting and stopping their fury, but is far from expecting that we should lie down, and do nothing to save ourselves from perishing in such calamities. So likewise are robbers and cut-throats God’s judgments, but this doth not prove that you must submit yourselves and families to be ruined at their pleasure. So again are inferior magistrates, if they make use of their power to fall with violence upon their neighbours, and attempt their lives, or the ruin of their families; and yet they may be resisted, and their illegal violence repelled by violence. And so, lastly, are foreign enemies and invaders, always reckoned amongest God’s judgments, and amongst the most remarkable of them; and yet there is no necessity, I hope, from hence, of tamely submitting ourselves to them: and no argument from hence, against the lawfulness or honourableness of resisting them. Either, therefore, let it be shown, that this objection holds good in other of God’s judgments; or, that there is something peculiar in this to exempt it from the common rule; or let it be acknowledged that it signifies nothing in the present case.” Hoadley’s Submission to the Powers that be. London, 1718, p.85. Hoadley presents this, it will be seen, as an answer to the objection, that bad governments are to be submitted to, and not thrown off, because they are judgments of God. It comes in as well here.

(3) The marginal translation, “ordered,” is rather better that that of the text.

(4) Οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ Θεοῦ.

(5) Αἱ δὲ οὖσαι ἐξουσίαι, ὑπὸ Θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν. We here quote from the commentary of Andrew Melville. He says, “The third argument is taken from the order divinely constituted under God—for the glory of God; for so I interpret ὑπὸ τοῦ, &c. Not so much ‘from God,’ which has been already said, as ‘powers are arranged under God.’ Which with the article τας ουσας he calls εξουσιας—as if he had said τας οντως, &c. ‘which are truly powers’ and deserve the name. Whence, an impious and unjust tyranny, which is not of God, as such, nor accords with the divine order, he excludes, as illegitimate, from this legitimate obedience.” Comment. p. 497.

(6) “And this may serve to explain yet farther in what sense these higher powers are from God; viz., as they act agreeably to his will, which is, that they should promote the happiness and good of human society, which Paul all along supposes them to do. And consequently, when they do the contrary, they cannot be said to be from God, or to act by his authority, any more than an inferior magistrate may be said to act by a prince’s authority, whilst he acts directly contrary to his will.” Hoadley, p. 5.

(7) See page 23.

(8) “Now this being the argument of the apostle, all that we can possibly collect from his injunctions in this place is this: That it is the indispensable duty of subjects to submit themselves to such governors as answer the good end of their institution; to such rulers as he here describes; such as are not a terror to good works, but to the evil; such as promote the public good, and are continually attending upon this very thing.” Hoadley, p. 7.

(9) Hoadley, pp. 10,11.

(10) (Charles) Hodge says, “Paul does not refer to the punishment which the civil magistrate may inflict, for he is speaking of disobedience to those in authority as a sin against God, which he will punish.”

(11) The fact, and what these ends are, will be the subject of our next section.