Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Charles Ellicott explains his understanding of who the authorities are that Paul is speaking of. For him, Paul is evidently speaking of the magistracy in its abstract or ideal form. It is the position called magistrate.1 He is not distinguishing between a just or unjust magistrate. In this sense, not only is the human system of society a part of the divinely-appointed order of things on earth, but it mirrors the divine attributes of God as our King, inasmuch as it is designed to reward virtue and to punish vice. It discharges the same functions that God Himself discharges, though in a lower scale and degree. In other words, the system 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 approval or disapproval.2

Bible scholar F. F. Bruce also has some enlightening things to say. First, he notes that some scholars have raised the question of whether the “governing authorities” here are angelic powers, or human powers, or both? The general Biblical view is that secular power is influenced by “the host of heaven, in heaven” as well as by “the kings of the earth, on the earth.”3 It is true, moreover, that the plural of the Greek noun exousia (“authority”) is freely used by Paul to denote angelic powers.4 We may compare what he says about “the rulers (Greek noun archōn) of this age5 who were responsible for crucifying “the Lord of glory.” So it appears that Paul has more than human agents in view. Yet in the present context the “authorities” are best understood as human rulers, who implement the sword” for the punishment of wickedness and the protection of the good, who, therefore, have the right to command and receive obedience, and who are to be paid appropriate taxes and other dues, together with fitting respect and honor.

Bruce mentions that Paul’s references elsewhere to angelic powers are very far from suggesting that Christians should be subject to them in any sense. On the contrary, Christians are liberated from their jurisdiction through their union with Christ, for He is the creator and head of all those powers,6 and their conqueror when they set themselves in hostility to Him and His people.7 There is no contradiction between Paul’s principle and the argument where Christians are persuaded not sue or prosecute one another in secular Law-courts.8 Recognition of the civil authorities makes no difference to the fact that it is unbecoming for Christians to wash their dirty linen in public. And while civil magistrates or judges are divinely ordained, that ordination carries with it no status in the church: they are “men who count for nothing in our community of believers.910

John Stott puts what Paul says here into this context: He notes that in Romans 12 Paul has developed our four basic Christian relationships, namely to God (1–2), to ourselves (3–8), to one another (9–16) and to our enemies (17–21). In Romans 13 he develops three more – to the state (conscientious citizenship, 1–7), to the Law (loving our neighbor as its fulfillment, 8–10), and to the day of the Lord’s return (living in the “already” and the “yet to be,” 11–14).11

One Jewish scholar gives us the view held by the Jewish believers in Rome at this time. He tells us that the citizens in Rome needed no reminder about their duties to the Roman government. If Paul was putting out a Jewish citizen’s notice he would not identify the government of Rome as being “ordained of God.” At the time of this writing, Nero was Emperor. He was evil and not “of God.” But from the Jewish point of view, Synagogue government was “ordained by God” to interpret righteousness for the people, for praise of those who did good, and discipline of those who did not. (Recall Yeshua’s comments in Matthew about the people obeying the religious leaders who “sat in Moses’ seat” of authority.)12 The early Messianic community viewed the secular government as empowered by Satan, not God.13 The first-century Messianic view was that evil pagan governments would come to an end and thus not to be worthy of support. Paul himself speaks of such unrighteous secular authority14.15 So it must be understood that Paul was speaking of government as a “form of governing,” but not a specific form such as a Monarchy, Republic, Democracy, or Dictatorship.

Verse 2: So anyone who is against those in authority are really against something God has instituted. People who are against those in authority bring punishment on themselves.

But Paul has more to say on why it is so important for Christians to acknowledge their responsibility to be compliant to governmental authority. Since God ordained them to be leaders, if they resist their authority in enforcing the Laws is to resist God’s will and purpose. God’s message to His people through the prophet Isaiah says of them: “They look for Me day by day, and are happy to know My ways, as a nation that has done what is right and good, and has not turned away from the Law of their God.16

Early church scholar Origen says that this is not applicable to Persecutors of the Faith. For him, Paul’s bidding does not apply in the case of authorities who persecute the faith. It only applies to those who are going about their proper business.17 Then the Bishop of Cæsarea writes that true and perfect obedience of subjects to their superiors is shown not only by their refraining from every improper action in accordance with such a ruler’s advice but also by their not doing even what is approved without his consent.18 The Bishop of Tarsus then adds that even believers who disobey the king have committed a crime and should face judgment.19

Early church preacher Chrysostom accepts what Paul is saying as a way of combating any Christian’s reputation for being a rebellious citizen. Chrysostom believes that by Paul saying this, he was more likely to convince civil governors who were unbelievers to accept the Christian faith and to persuade believers to obey them. For it was commonly rumored in those days that the Apostles were guilty of plotting sedition and revolution, claiming that all they did and said was planned subversion of the established institutions of government. However, when we see that Christ’s command is that we should obey the authorities, all rumors of this kind are shown to be false.20 And Ambrosiaster says that Christians should not try sidestepping the Law. Paul was against anyone who believed that because of their own power they cannot be apprehended and so, therefore, they can play fast and loose with the Law. He shows them that this is the Law of God and that those who by some deception escape it for a time, will not escape God’s judgment.21

Charles Hodge explains that this passage (verses 1-2) is applicable to people living under every form of government, monarchy, socialism, or democracy, in all their various modifications. Those who are in authority are to be obeyed within their sphere, no matter how or by whom they were appointed. It is the powers that be, the de facto government, that is to be regarded as, for the time being, ordained of God. It was to Paul a matter of little importance whether the Roman emperor was appointed by the Senate, the army, or the people; whether the assumption of the imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, or whether his successors had a legitimate claim to the throne or not. It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed. The extent of this obedience is to be determined from the nature of the case. They are to be obeyed as magistrates, in the exercise of their lawful authority. When Paul commands wives to obey their husbands,22 they are required to obey them as husbands, not as masters, nor as kings; children are to obey their parents as parents, not as sovereigns; and so in every other case. This passage, therefore, affords a very slight foundation for the doctrine of passive obedience.23 This is the very core of law and order, be it secular or sacred.

F. F. Bruce also addresses this subject of submission to civil authority. Bruce quotes Oscar Cullmann (1902-1990), a highly respected Lutheran theologian who stated that “‘Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one.”24 He thinks especially of its misuse in justifying uncritical submission by dictators of totalitarian governments by Christians. But it is plain from the immediate context here in Romans, that the state can rightly command obedience only within the limits of the purposes for which it has been divinely instituted – in particular, the state not only may but must be resisted when it demands the allegiance due to God alone. ‘The obedience which any Christian owes to the State is never absolute but, at the most, partial and contingent. It follows that the Christian lives always in a tension between two competing forces, that is, under certain circumstances disobedience to the command of the State may not only be a right but also a duty. This has been classical doctrine ever since the Apostles declared that they ought to obey God rather than men25.26

1 In the New Testament the Greek word archon rendered “magistrate” (Luke 12:58; Titus 3:1), means one first in power, and hence a prince, as in Matthew 2:6, 8. This term is used of the Messiah, “Prince of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).

2 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

3 Isaiah 24:21

4 Cf. 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Colossians. 1:16; 2:10, 15

5 1 Corinthians 2:8

6 Colossians 1:16; 2:10

7 Ibid. 2:15

8 1 Corinthians 6:1–8

9 Ibid. 6:4 – New English Bible

10 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. Vol. 6, pp. 234–235

11 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

12 Matthew 23:2

13 See Luke 4:6-7; Revelation chapters 12, 13, 18

14 See 1 Corinthians 2:8, 61; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; and 2 Thessalonians 2:6-12

15 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

16 Isaiah 58:2

17 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

18 Basil: An Ascetical Discourse

19 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

20 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23

21 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

22 Ephesians 5:22-24; cf. 1 Peter 3:1

23 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 631-632

24 Oscar Cullmann: The state in the New Testament, Published by C. Scribner’ Sons, New York, 1956, pp. 55f.

25 Sir T. M. Taylor: The Heritage of the Reformation (1961), pp. 8F, (the closing reference is to Acts 5:29)

26 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 235–236

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s