Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13:1–7

This article was written by James M. Wilson and published in 1853.  Through a careful reading of the next several posts it will become clear that Christians have lost the truth of the biblical teaching of Romans 13:1-7.

Whether due to laziness, indifference or the cancerous results of materialism on the part of Christians the result is the same – the slow but steady silencing of America’s Christian voice through intimidation, harassment, intolerance, judicial activism, and a myriad of spirits of Antichrists, all in the name of submission to ruling authorities on the basis of Romans 13.

This post will be in 8 parts due to its length.  It is posted in its entirety without editing except for format. As always comments and conversation is welcome.

Enjoy brothers and sisters.


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 enlightened 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 infrequently, 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 — Romans 13:1–7 — has been grievously perverted. One class of expositors endeavor to derive from these teachings of Paul the offensive principle of unresisting, unquestioning subjection to civil authority of whatever stamp. Rulers, say they, may be ungodly, tyrannical, immoral, — 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 favored 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 ate 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 honor 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 “non-resistance” has not entirely succumbed. It has found a place in the commentaries of Haldane and Chalmers, and still lingers in some minds; 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 while 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 honor 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 from 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 o 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 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 anything 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 favored 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.

Next post – Section I – Exposition of Romans 13: 1 – 7

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