Romans 13:1 MEANING

Romans 13:1

(1-7) Subject unto the higher powers.--Looking impartially at the passage which follows, it would seem at first sight--and perhaps not only at first sight--that the Apostle distinctly preaches two doctrines, both of which are now discredited, the doctrines of divine right and of passive obedience. The duty of obedience is grounded upon the fact that the power wielded by the magistrate is derived from God, and that duty itself is stated without qualification.

What are we to understand by this? Are we to say, for instance, that Hampden was wrong in refusing the payment of ship-money? Or if he was not wrong--and the verdict of mankind has generally justified his act--what are we to think of the language that is here used by St. Paul?

1. In the first place it should be noticed that though the duty of obedience is here stated without qualification, still the existence of qualifications to it is not therefore denied or excluded. Tribute is to be paid to whom tribute is due. But this still leaves the question open, whether in any particular case tribute is rightfully due or not. There may possibly be a conflict of rights and duties, and the lower may have to yield to the higher. All that is alleged is that, prima facie, the magistrate can claim the obedience of the subject. But supposing the magistrate calls upon the subject to do that which some other authority co-ordinate with that of the magistrate forbids--supposing, for instance, as in the case of Hampden, under a constitutional monarchy, the king commands one thing, and the Parliament another--there is clearly a conflict of obligations, and the decision which accepts the one obligation is not necessarily wrong because it ignores the other. There will always be a certain debatable ground within which opposite duties will seem to clash, and where general principles are no longer of any avail. Here the individual conscience must assume the responsibility of deciding which to obey.

We are not called upon to enter into the casuistry of the subject. It may only be well to add one caution. Any such seemingly direct collision of duties must be at the very lightest a most serious and difficult matter; and though the burden of deciding falls ultimately on the individual, still he must be careful to remember that his particular judgment is subject to that fallibility to which, all individual judgments are liable. Where the precept is appealed to, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," one man will say that the particular point in question comes under the first head, another that it comes under the second. In either case a great responsibility is assumed, and it is especially desirable that the judgment of the individual should be fortified by the consent of others, if possible by the suffrages of the majority of those who are in a position to judge. It is one thing to say that a conflict of duties may arise, and that the higher is to be obeyed. It is another thing to say that in a certain given case such conflict has arisen, and that the duty which commends itself to the individual is the higher of the two. Whatever the decision arrived at, it ought not to be made in a spirit of levity, nor ought it to be supposed that the dictum of the single conscience bears anything like the same validity as the universal principles of morals. And there will be the further drawback, that in such cases the individual usually acts as judge in his own cause, where his conscience is pretty sure to be biased. There is therefore a very strong onus probandi thrown upon the person who takes upon himself to overrule what is in itself a clear obligation.

2. But the question of political obedience cannot be rightly considered without taking into account the relation of Christianity to political life generally, neither can this isolated passage in an Epistle of St. Paul's be considered apart from other teaching upon the same subjects in the rest of the New Testament. Very similar language, it will be remembered, is found in 1 Peter 2:13-17. And going back to the fountain-head of Christian doctrine, we find, indeed, no express statements, but several significant facts and some important intimations. When He was arrested by the civil power, and unjustly tried and condemned, our Lord made no resistance. Not only so, but when resistance was made on His behalf, He rebuked the disciple who had drawn the sword for Him. When the didrachma was demanded of Him, which it was customary for the Jew to pay towards the repair and maintenance of the Temple, He, though as Lord of the Temple He claimed exemption, nevertheless, for fear of putting a stumbling-block in the way of others, supplied the sum required by a miracle. On another occasion, when a question was asked as to the legitimacy of the Roman tribute, He replied in words already quoted, "Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's." And, lastly, when appeal was made to Him to settle a disputed inheritance, He refused, saying to His petitioner, "Man, who made Me a judge or a divider over you?" Here we have really the key to the whole question. So far as His practice was concerned, our Lord pursued a course of simple obedience; into the theory of political or civil obligation He absolutely refused to enter. The answer, "Render to Caesar," &c., left matters precisely as they stood, for the real question was, "What was Caesar's, and what was not?" The ambiguity of the reply was intended. It was practically a refusal to reply at all.

The significance of this comes out very strikingly when it is contrasted with the state of feeling and opinion current among the Jews at the same time. With them politics and religion were intimately blended. They carried into the former sphere the fanaticism natural to the latter. Their religious hopes took a political form. The dominion of the Messiah was to be not a spiritual, but a literal dominion, in which they, as a people, were to share.

Clearly, the relations which our Lord assumed towards politics had especial reference to this attitude of the Jews. He wished to disabuse His disciples once and for all of this fatal confusion of two spheres in themselves so distinct. He wished to purify and to spiritualise their conception of the "Kingdom of Heaven," which He came to found. And, lastly, He finally submitted to the civil power, as the instrument divinely employed to inflict upon Him those sufferings which were to be the cause of our redemption. Vicit patiendo.

It would seem as if by some intuitive perception the disciples entered into the intention of their Master. Towards the civil power they maintained an attitude of absolute submission. They refused to avail themselves of the elements of fanaticism which existed wherever there were Jews, and at the head of which they might easily have placed themselves. Instead of this, they chose to suffer and die, and their sufferings did what force could never have done--they leavened and Christianised the world.

3. It is an expression of this deliberate policy (if by that name it may be called) which we find in these first seven verses of Romans 13. At the same time, the Apostle may very well have had a special as well as a general object. The Church at Rome was largely composed of Jews, and these would naturally be imbued with the fanatical spirit of their countrymen. The very mention of the Messiah would tend to fan their smouldering passions into flame. The Apostle would be aware of this. His informants at Rome may have told him of excitement prevailing among the Jewish portion of the community. His experience in Palestine would tell him to what unscrupulous acts of violence this might lead. And he forestalls the danger by an authoritative and reasoned description of the attitude which the Christian ought to assume.

It does not necessarily follow that precisely the same attitude is incumbent upon the Christian now. In this section of Christian teaching there was something that was temporary and local, and that had reference to conditions that have now passed away. And yet as a general principle, the injunctions of the Apostle entirely hold good. The exceptions to this principle are few and far between. And he who would assert the existence of such an exception must count the cost well beforehand.

(1) Every soul.--A Hebraism for "every person," though at the same time here, as in Romans 2:9, there is a slight stress upon the fact that man is a conscious and intelligent being, capable of moral relations, and it is especially with reference to these relations that the phrase is used.

Higher powers.--Authorities, i.e., magistrates, the abstract for the concrete.

There is no power.--It is strange that the Apostle seems to go almost out of his way to include even usurped and tyrannical power. He is, however, evidently speaking of the magistracy in its abstract or ideal form. It is the magistrate qua magistrate, not qua just or unjust magistrate. In this sense, not only is the human system of society a part of the divinely-appointed order of things, but it partakes more especially in the divine attributes, inasmuch as its object is to reward virtue and to punish vice. It discharges the same functions that God himself discharges, though in a lower scale and degree. Hence Bishop Butler feels himself justified in taking the principles which regulate civil society as an analogy for those which will regulate the ultimate divine disposition of things. "It is necessary to the very being of society that vices destructive of it should be punished as being so--the vices of falsehood, injustice, cruelty--which punishment, therefore, is as natural as society; and so is an instance of a kind of moral government, naturally established, and actually taking place. And, since the certain natural course of things is the conduct of Providence or the government of God, though carried on by the instrumentality of men, the observation here made amounts to this, that mankind find themselves placed by Him in such circumstances as that they are unavoidably accountable for their behaviour, and are often punished and sometimes rewarded under His government in the view of their being mischievous or eminently beneficial to society." In other words, the machinery of civil society is one of the chief and most conspicuous instruments by which God carries out His own moral government of mankind in this present existence. It may be said to be more distinctly and peculiarly derived from Him than other parts of the order of nature, inasmuch as it is the channel used to convey His moral approbation, or the reverse.

The powers that be.--Those that we see existing all around us.

Verses 1-8. - From admonitions to keep peace, if possible, with all men, whether or not within the Christian circle, and to act honourably and benevolently towards all, the apostle now passes to the duty of Christians towards the civil government and the laws of the country in which they lived. It is well known that the Jews were impatient of the Roman dominion, and that some held it to be unlawful, on religious grounds, to pay tribute to Caesar (Matthew 22:17). Insurrections against the government had consequently been frequent. There had been the notable one under Judas the Gaulonite of Gamala (called ὁ Γαλιλαῖος, Acts 5:37), who left followers behind him, called Gaulonites, and to whose tenets Josephus attributes all subsequent insurrections of the Jews ('Ant.,' 18:01. § 1). Recently one had broken out in Rome, which had caused Claudius to order the expulsion of all Jews from the city (Acts 17:2; cf. Suetonius, 'Claud.,' 25; Din Cassius, 60:6). The Christians, being regarded as a Jewish sect, and known for their acknowledgment of a Messiah and their refusal to comply with heathen usages, were not unnaturally confounded with such disturbers of the peace (cf. Acts 17:6, 7; Acts 21:37). It was, therefore, peculiarly needful that the Christian communities should be cautioned to disprove such accusations by showing themselves in all respects good, law-abiding subjects. They might easily be under a temptation to be otherwise. Feeling themselves already subjects of Christ's new kingdom, and regarding the second advent as probably near at hand, they might seem to themselves above the powers and institutions of the unbelieving world, which were so soon to pass away. St. Paul himself condemned resort to heathen tribunals in matters which Christians might settle among themselves (1 Corinthians 6:1, etc.); and many might go so far as to ignore the authority of such tribunals over the saints at all. Peter and John had at the first defied the authority even of the Sanhedrin in matters touching conscience (Acts 4:19); and many might be slow to distinguish between temporal and spiritual spheres of jurisdiction. St. Paul, therefore, lays down the rule that the civil government, in whatsoever hands it might be, was, no less than the Church, a Divine institution for the maintenance of order in the world, to be submitted to and obeyed by Christians within the whole sphere of its legitimate authority. He does not refer to cases in which it might become necessary to obey God rather than man: his purpose here does not call on him to do so; nor were the circumstances so far such as to bring such cases into prominence; for he was writing in the earlier part of Nero's reign, before any general persecution of Christians had begun. Nor does he touch on the question whether it may be right in some cases for subjects to resist usurped power or tyranny, or to take part in political revolutions, and even fight for freedom. Such a question was apart from his subject, which is the general duty of obedience to the law and government under which we are placed by Providence. This is the only passage in which he treats the subject at length and definitely. In a doctrinal and practical treatise like this Epistle, addressed as an apologia pro fide sua to the metropolis of the world and the seat of government, it was fitting that he should express clearly the attitude of the Church with regard to the civil order. But his teaching in other Epistles is in accordance with this; as where (1 Corinthians 7:21) he bids slaves acquiesce in the existing law of slavery, and (1 Timothy 2:1, etc.) he desires especially prayers to be made in behalf of kings and rulers. And he himself notably carried out his principles in this regard (cf. Acts 23:5; Acts 25:8-11). There is a closely similar passage in the First Epistle of St. Peter (1 Peter 2:12-18). Verse 1. - Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of (rather, from) God: the powers that be are ordained of God. It is of God's ordering that there should be human governments and human laws. Without them there could be no order, security, or progress among mankind. Imperfect as they may often be, and in some instances oppressive and unjust, still they exist for a purpose of good, and form part of the Divine order for the government of the world. In this sense all are from God, and ordained of God; and in submitting to them we are submitting to God.

13:1-7 The grace of the gospel teaches us submission and quiet, where pride and the carnal mind only see causes for murmuring and discontent. Whatever the persons in authority over us themselves may be, yet the just power they have, must be submitted to and obeyed. In the general course of human affairs, rulers are not a terror to honest, quiet, and good subjects, but to evil-doers. Such is the power of sin and corruption, that many will be kept back from crimes only by the fear of punishment. Thou hast the benefit of the government, therefore do what thou canst to preserve it, and nothing to disturb it. This directs private persons to behave quietly and peaceably where God has set them, 1Ti 2:1,2. Christians must not use any trick or fraud. All smuggling, dealing in contraband goods, withholding or evading duties, is rebellion against the express command of God. Thus honest neighbours are robbed, who will have to pay the more; and the crimes of smugglers, and others who join with them, are abetted. It is painful that some professors of the gospel should countenance such dishonest practices. The lesson here taught it becomes all Christians to learn and practise, that the godly in the land will always be found the quiet and the peaceable in the land, whatever others are.Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,.... The apostle having finished his exhortations to this church, in relation to the several duties incumbent upon both officers and private Christians, as members of a church, and with reference to each other, and their moral conduct in the world; proceeds to advise, direct, and exhort them to such duties as were relative to them as members of a civil society; the former chapter contains his Christian Ethics, and this his Christian Politics. There was the greater reason to insist upon the latter, as well as on the former, since the primitive saints greatly lay under the imputation of being seditious persons and enemies to the commonwealth; which might arise from a very great number of them being Jews, who scrupled subjection to the Heathen magistrates, because they were the seed of Abraham, and by a law were not to set one as king over them, that was a stranger, and not their own brother, and very unwillingly bore the Roman yoke, and paid tribute to Caesar: hence the Christians in common were suspected to be of the same principles; and of all the Jews none were more averse to the payment of taxes to the Roman magistrates than the Galilaeans; see Acts 5:37. And this being the name by which Christ and his followers were commonly called, might serve to strengthen the above suspicion of them, and charge against them. Moreover, some Christians might be tempted to think that they should not be subject to Heathen magistrates; since they were generally wicked men, and violent persecutors of them; and that it was one branch of their Christian liberty to be freed from subjection to them: and certain it is, that there were a set of loose and licentious persons, who bore the name of Christians, that despised dominion, and spoke evil of dignities; wherefore the apostle judged it advisable especially to exhort the church of Rome, and the members who dwelt there, where was the seat of power and civil government, so to behave towards their superiors, that they might set a good example to the Christians in the several parts of the empire, and wipe off the aspersion that was cast upon them, as if they were enemies to magistracy and civil power. By "the higher powers", he means not angels, sometimes called principalities and powers; for unto these God hath not put in subjection his people under the Gospel dispensation; nor ecclesiastical officers, or those who are in church power and authority; for they do not bear the temporal sword, nor have any power to inflict corporeal punishment: but civil magistrates are intended, see Titus 3:1; and these not only supreme magistrates, as emperors and kings, but all inferior and subordinate ones, acting in commission under them, as appears from 1 Peter 2:13, which are called "powers", because they are invested with power and authority over others, and have a right to exercise it in a proper way, and in proper cases; and the "higher" or super eminent ones, because they are set in high places, and have superior dignity and authority to others. The persons that are to be subject to them are "every soul"; not that the souls of men, distinct from their bodies, are under subjection to civil magistrates; for of all things they have the least to do with them, their power and jurisdiction not reaching to the souls, the hearts, and consciences of men, especially in matters of religion, but chiefly to their bodies, and outward civil concerns of life: but the meaning is, that every man that has a soul, every rational creature, ought to be subject to civil government. This is but his reasonable service, and which he should from his heart, and with all his soul, cheerfully perform. In short, the sense is, that every man should be subject: this is an Hebraism, a common way of speaking among the Jews, who sometimes denominate men from one part, and sometimes from another; sometimes from the body or flesh, thus "all flesh is grass", Isaiah 40:6, that is, all men are frail; and sometimes front the soul, "all souls are mine", Ezekiel 18:4, all belong to me; as here, "every soul", that is, every man, all the individuals of mankind, of whatsoever sex, age, state, or condition, ecclesiastics not excepted: the pope, and his clergy, are not exempted from civil jurisdiction; nor any of the true ministers of the Gospel; the priests under the law were under the civil government; and so was Christ himself, and his apostles, who paid tribute to Caesar; yea, even Peter particularly, whose successor the pope of Rome pretends to be. "Subjection" to the civil magistrates designs and includes all duties relative to them; such as showing them respect, honour, and reverence suitable to their stations; speaking well of them, and their administration; using them with candour, not bearing hard upon them for little matters, and allowing for ignorance of the secret springs of many of their actions and conduct, which if known might greatly justify them; wishing well to them, and praying constantly, earnestly, and heartily for them; observing their laws and injunctions; obeying their lawful commands, which do not contradict the laws of God, nature, and right reason; and paying them their just dues and lawful tribute, to support them in their office and dignity:

for there is no power but of God; God is the fountain of all power and authority; the streams of power among creatures flow from him; the power that man has over all the creatures, the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fishes of the sea, is originally of God, and by a grant from him; the lesser powers, and the exercises of them, in the various relations men stand in to one another, are of God, as the power the husband has over the wife, parents over their children, and masters over their servants; and so the higher power that princes have over their subjects: for it is the God of heaven that sets up kings, as well as pulls them down; he is the King of kings, from whom they derive their power and authority, from whom they have the right of government, and all the qualifications for it; it is by him that kings reign, and princes decree justice.

The powers that be are ordained of God. The order of magistracy is of God; it is of his ordination and appointment, and of his ordering, disposing, and fixing in its proper bounds and limits. The several forms of government are of human will and pleasure; but government itself is an order of God. There may be men in power who assume it of themselves, and are of themselves, and not of God; and others that abuse the power that is lodged in them; who, though they are by divine permission, yet not of God's approbation and good will. And it is observable, that the apostle speaks of powers, and not persons, at least, not of persons, but under the name of powers, to show that he means not this, or the other particular prince or magistrate, but the thing itself, the office and dignity of magistracy itself; for there may be some persons, who may of themselves usurp this office, or exercise it in a very illegal way, who are not of God, nor to be subject to by men. The apostle here both uses the language, and speaks the sentiments of his countrymen the Jews, who are wont to call magistrates, "powers"; hence those sayings were used among them; says Shemaiah (t),

"twvrl edwtt la, "be not too familiar with the power".''

that is, with a magistrate, which oftentimes is dangerous. Again,

"says (u) Rabban Gamaliel, , "take heed of the power" (i.e. of magistrates), for they do not suffer a man to come near them, but in necessity, and then they appear as friends for their own advantage, but will not stand by a man in the time of distress.''

Moreover, after this manner they explain (w) Proverbs 5:8,

""remove thy way far from her", this is heresy; "and come not nigh the door of her house", , "this is the power". The gloss on it is, magistrates, because they set their eyes upon rich men to kill them, and take away their substance.''

And a little after it is observed,

""the horse leech hath two daughters, crying, give, give", Proverbs 30:15, it is asked, what is the meaning of give, give? Says Mar Ukba, there are two daughters which cry out of hell, and say in this world, give, give, and they are heresy, "and the civil power".''

The gloss on this place is,

"Heresy cries, bring a sacrifice to the idol; "Civil Power" cries, bring money, and gifts, and revenues, and tribute to the king.''

Nevertheless, they look upon civil government to be of divine appointment. They say (x), that

"no man is made a governor below, except they proclaim him above;''


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