Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13:1-7 Part 2

Section I

Exposition of Romans 13: 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.

This passage will be found, upon careful analysis, to embrace the following topics:

I. The duty in general of obedience to civil authority: v.1.

II. General considerations enforcing this obedience: v. 1 and 2.

III. The design of the appointment of rulers, or of the institution of government: v. 3.

IV. The application of these principles to the case of both good and bad citizens: v. 3, 4.

V. The principle of obedience to civil rule: v. 5.

VI. A more specific statement of the duties owing to civil government, as previously described; v. 6, 7.

Section I.

The duty, in general, of obedience to civil authority.

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

1. Civil governments are called “Powers.” The term here used () 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 () would have been more appropriate —but as invested with the right to enact and administer law. “By what authority,” () say the scribes to our Lord, “doest thou these things?” —“who hath given thee this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).

2. They are called “Higher Powers.” The word () 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 () than themselves,” (Philippians 2:3). “And the peace of God, which passeth () all understanding, (Philippians 4:7). “For the excellency () of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord,” (Philippians 3:8). In fact, the passage now before us, and I Peter 2:3, 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.3 Civil rule is a “higher” power — it is vested with an eminent dignity. It spreads its 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 verse 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; verse 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 scepter. 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 slave, 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 () 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 — honor to whom honor.” 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 hearty and prompt; an obedience importing 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,” (Philippians 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. (verse 1).4 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, early 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, not even with suitable limitations, to any other authority; and, also, to confute, beforehand, 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 owes 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 endeavor 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 defense 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.