NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson III)
Albert Barnes also notes that the Apostle Paul gives a reason why Christians should be subject to human government. It’s because these civil servants have received their appointment from God. As Christians, therefore, we are to honor God by honoring the arrangement which He has instituted for the government of mankind. No doubt, Paul also intends to subdue the needless curiosity that some have about what qualifies a person to hold the title of the office to which they are being elected or appointed. This is to guard against becoming involved in arguments and conflicts over who the favorite should be. The question really is, are they qualified to do what the office calls on them to do. Are they running for that office in order to serve the people or just to acquire the power that it gives them? Are they using fair tactics or trying to bring pressure on the citizens so that they do get the position? Paul doesn’t believe Christians should be involved in such questions. The government was established by God and they were not to seek to overturn it.1
Henry Alford takes note of what the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “How can Christ get along with the devil? How can one who has put his trust in Christ get along with one who has not put his trust in Christ? How can the house of God get along with false gods? We are the house of the living God. God has said, ‘I will live in them and will walk among them. I will be their God and they will be My people.’2”3 In other words, God has ordained that human governments exist and operate under His authority and power. Alford points out that the Apostle Paul here pays no regard to the question of the duty of Christians in revolutionary movements. His precepts regard an established power, be it what it may be. However, I might add that back in Alford’s day were no communist or socialist governments run by dictators. So we must understand that Paul is applauding the system of government God ordained to be administered by civil servants. Nevertheless, when the system is taken over by depots and cruel leaders, they cannot claim God’s blessing on them or their regime. Christians must believe that God will take care of such hijacking of the system.
One thing is clear, all laws and regulations that believers are bound to obey must be lawful. After all, even parents must abide by the law in raising their children. Therefore, if the civil power commands us to violate the Law of God, we must obey God first and foremost. If they command us to disobey the common Laws of human decency or the sacred institutions of our country, our obedience will be based on the higher laws of virtue, ethics, and morality, rather than frivolous and meaningless laws. These distinctions must be drawn by the wisdom granted to Christians in the varying circumstances of human affairs. Alford also believes that Paul is advocating that the removal or alteration of an unjust or unreasonable Law, is another part of a Christian’s duty. For all authorities among mankind must be in accord with the moral sense of the highest authority. But even where Law is hard and unreasonable, legitimate protest is the duty of the Christian, not disobedience.4
Bible teacher H. A. Ironside shares his feelings about the position of Christians in this present world and under the current order of things which are peculiarly difficult and almost abnormal. They are citizens of another world, passing as strangers and pilgrims through a foreign land. They remain loyal in their hearts to the royal King above, whom earth rejected and counted worthy to die as a criminal on a cross, they are called upon to walk in a godly and discreet way among a majority for whom Satan, the wrongdoer, is the prince and god. Yet they must not allow themselves to be persuaded to become anarchists, nor are they to become obstinate or unruly with regard to the present order of things. Their motto should always be: “We must obey God rather than man.”5 But this gives them no right to live openly in opposition to human government, even though the administrators of that government may be people of the most unrighteous type.
Ironside goes on to point out that Paul is not seeking to establish the doctrine of the divine right of kings, but it simply means this: That God, who sets up one ruler and pulls down another for His own infinitely wise purpose, ordains that certain forms of government or certain types of rulers may be in power at a given time. As the book of Daniel tells us, the Most High is ruler over the nations of all peoples. He gives it to whomever He wants and lets the least important of individuals rule over it.6 But in any case, there should be no authority recognized by Christians that is not permitted and recognized by God Himself.7
Baptist Preacher Octavius Winslow remarked in one of his sermons that even Jesus recognized the existence of the civil power as an institution of God Himself.8 The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, the person who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. This must be our starting point in all our relations to civil government. Recognizing the human ordinance to be of divine appointment, the question of reverence to authority and of obedience to Law should not be forgotten by any believer, even for a moment.9
Charles Hodge strongly suggests that this was a peculiar necessity during the apostolic age for instilling respect for civil magistrates. This necessity arose in part from the fact that a large portion of the converts to Christianity had been Jews who were very much against submitting to heathen authorities. This reluctance (as far as it was peculiar) arose from the prevailing impression among them, that this subjection was unlawful, or at least highly derogatory to their character as the people of God, who had lived so long under a theocracy. In Deuteronomy, they were told that in the event they must appoint a king, it must be one whom Adonai their God will choose, the individual must be one of their kinsmen. They were forbidden to appoint a foreigner over them who was not born an Israelite.10
Hodge goes on to note that another source of the restlessness of the Jews under foreign rule, was that they anticipated the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom. As they expected the Messiah to be an earthly Prince whose kingdom should be of this world, they were ready to rise in rebellion at the slightest call of anyone who cried, “I am Messiah!” The history of the Jews at this period shows how great was the effect produced by these and similar causes on their feelings towards the Roman government. They were continually breaking out into riots, which led to their expulsion from Rome, and, finally, to the utter destruction of Jerusalem.
So it isn’t surprising that converts from among such people should be admonished and warned to be subject to the higher earthly powers. Besides the effect of their previous opinions and feelings, there is something in the character of Christianity itself, and in the incidental results of the excitement which it brings, to account for the disgust of many early Christians to submit to their civil rulers. They misused the doctrine of Christian liberty, as they did other doctrines, to suit their own inclinations. This ideology, however, is to be attributed not to religion, but to the misunderstanding of Scripture that led to the contamination of Gospel.11
Robert Haldane also has something to say on this subject. When Paul said: “Let every soul,” he was using a very comprehensive expression to show that to every Christian, in every country, in all variety of situations, and on all occasions, must apply what he was about to say to their situation. Then Paul begins by saying that believers should “Be subject to the higher powers.” By this expression, Paul means the people who possess the supreme authority, who are in the 3rd verse called “rulers.” Today, we use the word government in referring to those in power. No phrase could more clearly and definitely express the duty of subjection to the civil rulers whom God has placed over us, than that which the Apostle Paul employs here by calling them “higher powers.”
This passage also calls on everyone to obey all levels of governments equally. The word is rendered “powers,” not “the powers.” As such it was not an exclusive reference to the Roman government. It comprehends governments universally. If any of the Roman Christians had gone beyond the bounds of the empire, their duty of obedience to the government of the country to which they moved would be the one to whom they gave their allegiance. And the foreigners who may have lived in countries beyond the borders of their own were taught to obey the powers of that country until they returned home where they would once again but subject to their home country.
The Apostle Paul also speaks of “powers” without specifically identifying them. Everyone, without exception, is, by the command of God, to be subject to the existing powers in whatever situation they may find themselves. For instance, when you enter an establishment that has rules of conduct that apply only within its walls, those rules must be obeyed. It is true that Caesar subverted the Laws of his country; Jeroboam established idolatry, and Nebuchadnezzar carried Judah into captivity. Yet the successors of Caesar were recognized by Jesus, as were the rulers of the Roman empire when the Apostle wrote; Jeroboam was expressly appointed by God as king over the ten tribes, and the oppressed Jews were commanded to pray for the peace of Babylon.12
Frédéric Godet also addresses the same question about the believer’s dual role. But first he wants to know, why does the Apostle Paul say: every soul, instead of every person, or rather every believer? Is he suggesting that submission ought to proceed from the inmost sanctuary of each human being – their conscience? The word every does not correspond well with this explanation. It makes us think that what he is suggesting that it is a duty necessary for every human being. This is not an obligation on all believers arising from their spiritual life, like the precepts of Chapter 12. Rather, it is an obligation of common sense which is the joint domain of all mankind. Every free and reasonable being should recognize how logical this is.
1 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Leviticus 26:12; Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 31:32(33), 32:38; Ezekiel 37:27
3 2 Corinthians 6:15-16
4 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 114
5 Acts of the Apostles 5:29
6 Daniel 4:17
7 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Matthew 22:21
9 Octavius Winslow: Sermon: Consider Jesus – in Obedience to Human Law; Text: Matthew 22:23
10 Deuteronomy 17:15
11 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 629-530
12 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 577-578