“Let every soul
be subject unto the higher powers.” This is Paul’s positive declaration
recorded in Romans 13:1, and there is no verse in Scripture that has
been misapplied more than this one. In all church theology “the higher
powers” are made to be the civil authorities, whoever they may be in any
country and at any time. And it needs to be said that of all the absurd
interpretations ever made by theologians, this one takes first prize. It
is unworkable and unbelievable, and it cannot be followed out through
the additional statements that follow this declaration.
declaration of Paul seems to present no great difficulty, since most
law-abiding men are quite willing to be subject to those who rule over
them, so far as the submission required does not conflict with duties
toward God. However, the next statement, which is actually a part of the
sentence, creates impossible difficulties. If “the higher powers” means
the civil authorities, I cannot believe this statement; and I doubt if
any of my readers can believe it unless they are given to simple-minded
Paul enforces his
first statement by declaring that “there is no power (authority) but of
God.” If this is applied to civil authorities, then we must believe that
their authority comes from God; but the idea that those who govern
derive their just powers from the consent of those governed, as our
Declaration of Independence so majestically declares, must be
rejected. That their authority comes from God, I do not believe and this
It would be
interesting to know who first applied these words to civil authorities.
One suspicions [sic] that this happened in the days when men
believed in the divine right of kings, when the civil powers and
organized religion (the church) worked hand in glove to maintain
absolute domination of the lives and thoughts of the people. Whoever it
was began a chain of errors that have been millstones upon the necks of
many whose sole desire is to believe and practice whatever is written in
the Word of God. This passage they cannot believe unless they close
their eyes to the most obvious facts and divorce it from all that
follows. The assiduous Bible student knows that Paul did not intend to
convey any such ideas since he had already told the Corinthians to
ignore the civil authorities when one believer had a matter against
another (1 Cor. 6:1-3).
After his initial
declaration in Romans 13:1, Paul goes on to say that “the powers that be
are ordained of God.” The phrase “the powers that be” has become by
popular usage a familiar synonym for the civil authorities, but this
cannot be what Paul meant when he first wrote these words. If this is
what it means, then we must believe that all civil authorities are God
ordained men, that anyone who resists them is resisting the ordinance of
God, and that all who do resist shall receive to themselves
condemnation. This I do not believe, and this I cannot believe.
If I believed
this, I would have to believe in the divine right of all who govern. And
if these words speak of civil authorities, then we must admit that some
of the heroes of the faith, whom we now honor, are honored because they
did the very thing condemned here. History is filled with the deeds of
faithful and heroic men who defied the civil powers in order to worship
and serve God according to the light they had received. With them it was
even as Peter said to those who ruled in Jerusalem, ‘Whether it be right
in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.
For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts
4: 19, 20).
It would seem
that the first two verses of Romans 13 present enough problems for those
who insist that this passage sets forth the Christian’s duty toward
civil authorities, but every declaration that follows creates another
major problem. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the
evil,” Paul continues. These words, if applied to civil authorities, are
in direct contradiction to those spoken by Christ when He warned the
apostles to, “Beware of men: for they shall deliver you up to the
councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be
brought before governors and kings for My sake” (Matt. 10:17 18).
applied to civil authorities would make perfect saints out of all who
govern, but we know from experience that this is not the case. Too
numerous to mention are the rulers who have persecuted those who have
done good and have favored those who have done evil. God’s Word does not
teach ridiculous things; therefore, it cannot be that the “higher
powers” or “the powers that be” in Romans 13 has any reference to civil
still more evident when the balance of Paul’s words is considered. We
will go over this in a more accurate and literal translation.
You desire, do you
not, to have no reason to be afraid of the authority? Well, do the
thing that is right, and you will have praise from the same. For the
authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is
wrong, be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword for no
purpose: it is God’s servant, an avenger to inflict punishment on evildoers.
Wherefore, it is necessary to be in subjection; not only because of
wrath, but also because of conscience. For because of this you are paying
taxes also; for they are God’s servants, constantly attending
to this very thing. Rom. 13:3.6.
these words, the reader should ask himself if he believes that tax
collectors are God’s servants who are doing His work in imposing and
collecting the taxes laid upon us.
Through the years
I have consulted many com-mentaries on this passage, commentaries from my
own library, in other libraries, and from the shelves of bookstores. All
of these have agreed that Paul speaks here of civil authorities, but all
problems are ignored and all difficulties are glossed over. One
expositor sums up his comments by saying: “Since there are no spiritual
authorities among men today to whom these words refer, then, in spite of
the great difficulties created, we must apply them to civil
authorities.” This commentator
stumbled upon the solution when he said, “no spiritual authorities
today.” This is the key to the whole matter. But what about the day when
these words were written, the time period to which they should be
applied? Will anyone dare to say that there were no such authorities in
the thirty-three years of which the book of Acts is the history? There
were men of God on earth then of whom every word spoken here was true,
and to whom every statement could be applied without modification or
alteration. These words belong to that New Testament time period, “The
Acts Period” (see Issue No. 23).
characteristic of this time was the presence upon earth of
God-commissioned, God-empowered, and God-authorized men called Apostles.
We first read of this great authority in Matthew 10:1 where we are told
that Jesus Christ gave them power (exousia-authority) over
unclean spirits and over all manner of sickness and disease. This
authority was in no way based upon their faith, devotion, or holiness.
It was given even to Judas Iscariot (Matt. 10:4). This authority was
renewed and extended in Matt. 16:19; John 20:22, 23; and Luke 24:49.
These words made these men the “higher powers” (Gk., superior
authorities) of the Acts period.
We see this
authority exercised in Acts 3:6 when Peter used it to bring complete
healing to a man over forty years of age who had never walked. We see it
from another standpoint in Acts 5 when he pro-nounced a sentence of death
upon Ananias and Sap-phira. He spoke and their death followed. He did not
wear the sword as an empty symbol. We see it in the life of Paul in Acts
13 when he spoke the words that brought total blindness on Elymas the
sorcerer. We see it again in Acts 14 when Paul commanded the impotent
cripple to “Stand upright on thy feet.”
authority that was given to men in the Acts period was not limited to
the twelve apostles. In Rom. 12:8 Paul exhorts those who rule to do it
with diligence. He instructed the Thessalonians to recognize those who
“are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). There were gifts of
government (1 Cor. 12:28), and some were set among the out-called ones
for this specific purpose. All who possessed this gift qualified as
“higher powers,” or superior auth-orities to whom all believers were to
When we read
Romans 13:1-7 in the light of these positive truths, all questions are
answered and all difficulties disappear. The apostles and other divinely
appointed rulers of the Acts period were the “higher powers” to whom
every soul was to be subject. They had their authority from God and they
were ordained of God. If anyone resisted their authority, he resisted
God’s arrangement; and such actions were sure to result in divine
punishment. These authorities were never a terror to good works, only to
If any complained
of the power of these men (the words of Rom. 13:3 would indicate that
some did), they were told to do good and they would have no cause for
fear, and would be sure to receive praise. But if they did evil, they
would have every cause to fear; for these men did not bear in vain the
power to exact the most severe penalties. They were God’s servants, His
avengers to execute wrath upon those who did evil.
Thus, we find in
Romans 13:1-7 a most powerful argument for rightly dividing the Word of
Truth (2 Tim. 2:15), and the necessity for recognizing to the fullest
extent the unique position of some men in the Acts period and the unique
character of God’s dealings with men at that time.
In regard to the
believer’s present relationship and responsibility toward human
government, I have said nothing. This is not the subject of this study,
and with this Romans 13:1-7 has nothing to do.