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.…
From the admirable spirit which Christianity infuses into society, the apostle next takes us to the spirit which should regulate the believer's relations to the civil magistrate. It is most important that Christianity should leaven all these relations to the powers that be. "I could not," says Dr. Arnold, "name easily any branch of human conduct from which the influence of the gospel has been more completely shut out than this; any one on which worldly motives are avowed more boldly and more exclusively. In fact, many men seem to have vaguely confounded the gospel and the clergy in their notions about these matters; and because clergymen, like other men, have often interfered in them in the worst possible spirit, not setting an example of Christian conduct, but plunging into the lowest motives of passion or interest by which other men are actuated, there seems a sort of fear that the gospel itself will teach something mischievous to the public welfare or liberty. But, indeed, in all moral wisdom, in all duty, whether as private men or citizens, there is but one Master, even Christ, from whom we can draw nothing but what is pure and upright." It is most important, then, to see how the gospel handles the question of citizenship.
I. CIVIL GOVERNMENT IS AN ORDINANCE OF GOD. (Ver. 1.) We are tempted in thinking on civil society, to look upon it "either as a matter of mutual convenience between man and man, or else as an injustice and encroachment made by the rich and powerful on the rights and welfare of others." But in this we are mistaken. It has grown up as a Divine ordinance, and we are not in right relation to it until we recognize this. And this is true not merely of the Jewish commonwealth, where Divine ideas were more or less regarded and embodied, but also of the other nations of the world. They have organized themselves and performed a certain mission, and passed, it may be, from the stage, in fulfilment of a Divine purpose. For each of these nations, as it has been recently said, "he had an office; for each he had appointed a beginning and an end. One by one they rose in orderly succession, those stupendous kingdoms of the East. Babylonian and Persian, Egyptian and Greek, God had required their armies; he had laid his hand upon their captains; Assyria was his hammer, Cyrus was his shepherd, Egypt was his garden, Tyre was his jewel; everywhere he was felt; everywhere the Divine destiny directed and controlled;... the shuttle of God passes in and out, weaving into its web a thousand threads of natural human life. All history is put to the uses of God's holier manifestation; he works under the pressure laid upon him by the wants and necessities of social and political progress." Of course, this does not imply that we are calmly to accept of all a government chooses to inflict; but simply that, speaking generally, civil society and civil government are ordained of God to prevent us descending to beastly levels again.
II. CIVIL GOVERNMENT IS ESTABLISHED AS A TERROR TO EVIL-DOERS. (Vers. 2, 3.) This is the rough yet salutary morality it undertakes. If we will only consider what a state of society we should have if there were no public government to punish crimes, we can have no difficulty in recognizing in it's Divine institution. The arrangement about the manslayer in the olden time was to reinforce the rude justice of the early age before public justice had grown up into the recognized power which in civil government it has now assumed. We thus see that civil government is an institution which professes to favour morality, and, if it professed anything else, it would break down. It may not always succeed, but this is its profession. We are bound to give it a loyal trial, and to submit to it, so far as it does not dictate anything to its subjects contrary to the clear command of God. "The fact that an earthly government may be corrupt and tyrannical does not disprove the Divine origin of government; any more than the fact that parents may be unfaithful to their duties proves that the family is not divinely originated; or the fact that a particular Church may become corrupt proves that the Church is not Divine in its source. St. Paul, however, does not teach here that any degree of tyranny whatever is to be submitted to by a Christian. If the government attempt to force him to violate a Divine command - for example, to desist from preaching the gospel, or to take part in pagan worship - he must resist even unto death (see Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29). Most of the apostles suffered martyrdom for this principle" (so Shedd, in loc.).
III. THE BELIEVER IS EXPECTED TO BE LOYAL TO THE EXISTING GOVERNMENT AS A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE. (Ver. 5.) We have already seen where the duty of resistance to the civil magistrate comes in - where he interferes with God's province and assumes the lordship of the conscience. But when he keeps clear of this we are to yield him obedience as a matter of conscience, and not as a matter of fear. Treason is a business outside a believer's functions altogether. His simple duty is submission; under protest, sometimes, it may be; but he should not incur the curse of taking the sword and perishing by it. "In respect to things pertaining only to this life," says Dr. Shedd, "and in cases in which the rights of conscience and religious convictions are not infringed upon, both Christ and his apostles taught that injustice, and even tyranny, should be submitted to, rather than that revolutionary resistance be made. And this, because merely earthly liberty, and the rights of property, are of secondary consideration. The same rule applies to the relation of the individual to the state, in this case, that applies to the relation between man and man. If a Christian is defrauded of his property by a fellow-believer, he ought to "take the wrong, and suffer himself to be defrauded," rather than "go to law one with another" (1 Corinthians 6:7). In like manner, in regard to merely worldly good, the Christian should forego his rights, and allow himself to be ill treated even by the government under which he lives, rather than organize a rebellion and bring on war with its untold evils."
IV. TAXATION IS THE SUPPORT OF A DIVINE ORDINANCE. (Ver. Romans It may be hard to believe that ministers of state are at the same time ministers of God, and that heavy taxation for government extravagance is stipend to God's officers; yet so it is. They are "servants of the people appointed of God," and so must get their tribute. Of course, it is open to the Christian citizen to criticize the government management, and seek that the ordinance of civil government do not become a tax such as no citizen will be able to bear. When the Church and the state are compared, the Church is out of sight the cheaper institution. Still, it does not become the Christian, any more than his Master, to be haggling about tribute; and there will usually be some way, though not perhaps through a fish's mouth, of meeting the tax-gatherer's demands.
V. THE RECOGNITION OF STATE CLAIMS AND HONOURS BECOMES, IN FACT, RELIGIOUS. (Ver. 7.) All are to get their due, whether direct taxes, or duties of excise, or fear and honour; for these arrangements of state are, as a rule, favourable to good morals, and deserve to be respected. Now, there are one or two objections to the principle of Christian citizenship as here laid down which, before concluding this homily, we may dispose of.
1. How about a state when it proceeds to persecution and injustice? Answer: The believer in such a case must protest against the injustice, and patiently bear it, while he respects the Divine principle embodied in the persecuting state. He avoids disloyalty, yet advocates reform.
2. Is the Church to be the tool of the state? Answer: By no means. They have distinct spheres. It is as false to put the Church against the state, as to confound the Church and the state. The Church recognizes the state as a moral institution for securing justice, and the state should recognize the Church as a Divine institution for securing love. The state enforces justice by penalties; the Church promotes love by persuasion. There need be, and should be, no confusion between them. - R.M.E.
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.