Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.…
The reception of a new truth requires its adjustment to previously accepted truths. The introduction of a new system like Christianity necessitated an examination of its relationship to existing systems of government. There was a danger of Jewish fanaticism being fanned into heated sedition in Jewish converts to the gospel by the very joy of finding the Messiah and of hopes concerning a literal temporal kingdom. And the novelty of the views opened up before Gentile converts might easily beget in them a feeling of freedom from and superiority to all law and custom. Yet the advice to such, in order to be practical and effective, must be simple and concise. The apostle, therefore, enunciates a principle, and leaves its limitations to be afterwards discovered.
I. THE DIVINE FOUNT OF AUTHORITY. Government is traced to its source in God. "Order is Heaven's first law." Where no order reigns, there is no security, no progress to better things. Absolute equality is impossible amongst men; society has no safeguards, no cohesion, without a recognized tribunal of authority. Whether this authority is taken and exercised as a matter of course by the wisest or strongest, or is the acknowledged result of station conferred by the community, the necessity for such leadership and oversight manifests the will of God, and authority as such is seen to emanate from him. The Creator controls the works of his hands. The camp of Israel maintained a certain disposition of tents and tribes at rest and on the march, because of a Divine ordinance. Disorder would ill have befitted the presence of the Monarch Jehovah. Whatever the forms which government assumes, we are compelled to ascend in thought by rising steps and hierarchies up to him who sitteth on the great white throne, the mighty Arbiter of all events, the Judge of quick and dead. Recall the majestic passage from Hooker: "Of Law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world: all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power: both angels and men and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy."
II. THE HUMAN ADMINISTRATORS OF JUSTICE. "The powers that be are ordained of God." Not that he has placed each ruler in office or assents to each judicial function. But the leaders of human society represent the authority of God on earth. They are the "ministers" of God, acting in subordination to him; at least this is the fundamental idea of their position, however overlooked in practice. "They bear the sword" for God, are his vicegerents, and herein lies the honour and accountability of their decisions. Let them recollect that "One higher than the highest regardeth." "He that ruleth over men righteously, ruling in the fear of God, he shall be as the sunny light of a cloudless morning." Cf. Samuel's account of his judgeship, that he had defrauded none, oppressed none, nor taken a ransom from any. As families are governed by their natural head, the father, so is the universal family named after and ruled by the great Father in heaven, whom earthly parents are to copy. The fact that parents use delegated authority lends weight and responsibility to their behaviour. For the superintendence of Israel the seventy elders received a special donation of the spirit of Moses. How needful that rulers in Church and state, in households and in municipalities, should seek wisdom from him that giveth to all men liberally! Many a riotous subject has become a thoughtful, self-restrained governor when realizing the momentous grandeur and obligations of his office.
III. THE GENERAL RULE OF OBEDIENCE. Submission follows the recognition of the Divine authority at the back of magistrates. To rebel, to disobey, is to cast off allegiance to God. Even the apostle, smarting under the illegal order of Ananias, regretted his strong language when informed that he had reviled the high priest. To refuse due honour to rulers and parents is to demoralize society. The Saviour resisted not the officers of justice, though he was unjustly condemned to death. The apostle urged slaves to be quiet, and subject to their froward masters, that by well-doing they might silence malicious accusers of Christianity. This did not signify that the gospel sanctioned slavery and despotism when the time arrived for their peaceful overthrow. Submission to persecution has been mightier, more lasting in its effects than an armed resistance, for it enlightens public opinion without kindling strife, and prepares for a change that shall be virtually unanimous. The two sanctions of the magistrate's authority are mentioned in ver. 5, viz. "wrath," that is, punishment, and "conscience," that is, the assurance which the peaceable subject has that he has acted in accordance with the mind of God.
IV. PARTICULAR EXCEPTIONS. No public edict has a right to coerce any man's conscience. Let the ruler attempt to promulgate a law that sins against morality, and obedience must be refused at all hazards. When Caesar steps out of his province into the realm of religion, no regard for the "powers that be" can for a moment be suffered to suspend compliance with the felt dictates of the Almighty. The proclamations of Nebuchadnezzar commanding to worship the golden image, and of Darius prohibiting prayer to any save the king, were rightly unheeded by God-fearing men. But let each protester take great care to have his conscience illumined, lest he erect his individual judgment into a law of God. Again, when a government has shown itself incapable of protecting the good and punishing the transgressors, and is notorious for its reversal of the true principles which should guide its action and for its forgetfulness of the intent of its functions, it has put itself outside the pale of respect and submission; it may lawfully be overthrown and another substituted. Allowance must, however, be made for the human infirmities even of kings and councillors. In modern states agitation can effect needed reforms in public administration. It behoves each citizen to think, speak, and vote as he deems will best promote the interests of the state. Indifference, on whatever spiritual grounds, to evils which he can remedy, carelessness respecting the general welfare, - this is a crime. It is a refusal to employ a talent which Providence has committed to his care. Modern legislation does not hesitate to withdraw children from the custody of parents who act with cruelty or surround their offspring with deleterious influences. - S.R.A.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.