“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.” (Romans 13:1)
This text by Paul is one of the most contentious in all history. It has been used by court jesters and regime apologists to justify unconditional obedience to government and government policies. At the height of the notorious apartheid regime in South Africa, it was the reference text by the Dutch Reformed Church– which sought to prop up the regime using biblical and theological arguments.
Unable to reconcile the text to pleadings of conscience, it has caused even some people to doubt the Bible—abandoning the Christian faith as an incongruity.
The Attorney General of the United States invoked it to urge conformity and compliance to the then-controversial government’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”—Jeff Sessions (~ Thursday, June 14, 2018)
Are political leaders appointed by God? Was Joe Biden– God’s choice in the concluded race?
What about Trudeau, Merkel, or Macron?
First, let’s look at the context of this verse. Paul is addressing this letter to believers in Rome. The ruler at this time is a man called Emperor Nero.
Listen to this description of Nero by E.J. Waggoner—in his book, Bible Studies in Romans:
“The emperor reigning at that time was Nero, and he was doubtless the wickedest, the most blood-thirsty, abominable, and licentious monarch that ever sat upon the throne of any kingdom. I suppose there never was a man in the world who combined so much evil in himself as Nero the emperor of the Romans. He was a heathen, and a heathen of the heathens.”
And so it’s clear that when Paul tells believers to be subject to the higher powers—the government of the day in this case—was not one headed by Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela.
There is, therefore, no excuse that this is a qualified subjection depending on the character qualities of the individual leaders.
In fact, Paul prefaced these texts by first commanding Romans to “live peaceably with all men,” to “avenge not” and to do good to their enemies.
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It’s a no-brainer that Roman believers may have battled feelings of severe resentment and revenge against the government of the day. They were experiencing a spate of persecution scarcely paralleled in the history of the world.
Paul’s injunction may have therefore appeared quite odd, counterintuitive–even insensitive. Surely, Nero’s government could not have been ordained by God. Yet we have Paul’s word for it.
But does that mean that Nero was God’s personal choice?
Maybe this is a text that is more read-into than read. How does it read?
“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.”
Paul urges Christians to be subject to the higher powers. I find the arguments of John Howard Yoder, the distinguished Mennonite theologian, very compelling. In his book, The Politics of Jesus, he offers three alternatives:
Interpretation-1: Whatever government that exists is of God and should be unreservedly obeyed.
Interpretation-2: Proper government vs improper government. Christians should obey properly founded governments.
Interpretation-3: God does not institute the powers that be: He only orders them.
He quickly dispenses with the first alternative. Did Paul really believe that Nero’s government was of God—and had the mandate to kill, maim, and murder indiscriminately?
The answer is no.
Governments—generally speaking—do not have the specific mandate of God with respect to individual rulers. In fact, in other areas of the Bible—you will find the exact opposite.
A case in point is Hosea 8:4
“They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not: of their silver and their gold have they made them idols, that they may be cut off.”
The second interpretation is a tacit proposition that God merely approves the idea of “proper” government and that if a particular government fails to live up to its spiritual ideals, the citizens have a right to overthrow it and set up one which can safely claim divine ordination.
The problem with the second interpretive option is this: Who will be the judge—to say that a particular government is ordained or not?
The third option makes sense. God does not institute them—but recognizes their existence and uses them as His agencies to effect order in the world. Hence— “the powers that be.” Meaning that the seal of God—for purposes of order—is set upon them, after they have come into existence.
But of course God sometimes directly intervenes and causes some specific rulers to “be.” Think of Cyrus of Persia.
However, these are rare instances.
Now listen to Yoder on the phrase— “subject to powers that be”:
“It is not by accident that the imperative of (Romans)13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based upon the same root as the ordering of the powers of God.”
Romans 13:1 is a call to subordination—not obedience. And subordination is not the same thing as obedience. Listen to Yoder again:
“Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying.”
And so, Henry David Thoreau may still be subject to the powers that be when he refuses to pay tax as a form of a protest against government policy—and peacefully subjects himself to government’s punishment.
Even Ellen White is still subject to the powers that be when she assists run-away slaves against the laws of the government and urges others to do so.
“When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating the law. The slave is not the property of any man” (Testimonies, Vol. 1, pp. 201-202; 1859-1860).
Subjection is elegantly captured in the italicized words.
But even in the Bible, we have some examples. Think of Daniel, his three friends, –even the Egyptian midwives who refused to kill the infants of Israel.
To me—this seems to be the biblical authority for civil disobedience. You can disobey—but still be “subject to.”
Funny that it comes from Romans 13:1!