Albert Barnes Bible Commentary, Romans 13:1
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.
Let every soul - Every person. In the seven first verses of this chapter, the apostle discusses the subject of the duty which Christians owe to civil government; a subject which is extremely important, and at the same time exceedingly difficult. There is no doubt that he had express reference to the special situation of the Christians at Rome; but the subject was of so much importance that he gives it a "general" bearing, and states the great principles on which all Christians are to act. The circumstances which made this discussion proper and important were the following:
(1) The Christian religion was designed to extend throughout the world. Yet it contemplated the rearing of a kingdom amid other kingdoms, an empire amid other empires. Christians professed supreme allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ; he was their Lawgiver, their Sovereign, their Judge. It became, therefore, a question of great importance and difficulty, "what kind" of allegiance they were to render to earthly magistrates.
(2) the kingdoms of the world were then "pagan" kingdoms. The laws were made by pagans, and were adapted to the prevalence of paganism. Those kingdoms had been generally founded in conquest, and blood, and oppression. Many of the monarchs were blood-stained warriors; were unprincipled men; and were polluted in their private, and oppressive in their public character. Whether Christians were to acknowledge the laws of such kingdoms and of such men, was a serious question, and one which could not but occur very early. It would occur also very soon, in circumstances that would be very affecting and trying. Soon the hands of these magistrates were to be raised against Christians in the fiery scenes of persecution; and the duty and extent of submission to them became a matter of very serious inquiry.
(3) many of the early Christians were composed of Jevvish converts. Yet the Jevvs had long been under Roman oppression, and had borne the foreign yoke with great uneasiness. The whole pagan magistracy they regarded as founded in a system of idolatry; as opposed to God and his kingdom; and as abomination in his sight. With these feelings they had become Christians; and it was natural that their former sentiments should exert an influence on them after their conversion. How far they should submit, if at all, to heathen magistrates, was a question of deep interest; and there was danger that the "Jevvish" converts might prove to be disorderly and rebellious citizens of the empire.
(4) nor was the case much different with the "Gentile" converts. They would naturally look with abhorrence on the system of idolatry which they had just forsaken. They would regard all as opposed to God. They would denounce the "religion" of the pagans as abomination; and as that religion was interwoven with the civil institutions, there was danger also that they might denounce the government altogether, and be regarded as opposed to the laws of the land,
(5) there "were" cases where it was right to "resist" the laws. This the Christian religion clearly taught; and in cases like these, it was indispensable for Christians to take a stand. When the laws interfered with the rights of conscience; when they commanded the worship of idols, or any moral wrong, then it was their duty to refuse submission. Yet in what cases this was to be done, where the line was to be drawn, was a question of deep importance, and one which was not easily settled. It is quite probable, however, that the main danger was, that the early Christians would err in "refusing" submission, even when it was proper, rather than in undue conformity to idolatrous rites and ceremonies.
(6) in the "changes" which were to occur in human governments, it would be an inquiry of deep interest, what part Christians should take, and what submission they should yield to the various laws which might spring up among the nations. The "principles" on which Christians should act are settled in this chapter.
Be subject - Submit. The word denotes that kind of submission which soldiers render to their officers. It implies "subordination;" a willingness to occupy our proper place, to yield to the authority of those over us. The word used here does not designate the "extent" of the submission, but merely enjoins it in general. The general principle will be seen to be, that we are to obey in all things which are not contrary to the Law of God.
The higher powers - The magistracy; the supreme government. It undoubtedly here refers to the Roman magistracy, and has relation not so much to the rulers as to the supreme "authority" which was established as the constitution of government; compare Matthew 10:1; Matthew 28:18.
For - The apostle gives a "reason" why Christians should be subject; and that reason is, that magistrates have received their appointment from God. As Christians, therefore, are to be subject to God, so they are to honor "God" by honoring the arrangement which he has instituted for the government of mankind. Doubtless, he here intends also to repress the vain curiosity and agitation with which men are prone to inquire into the "titles" of their rulers; to guard them from the agitation and conflicts of party, and of contentions to establish a favorite on the throne. It might be that those in power had not a proper title to their office; that they had secured it, not according to justice, but by oppression; but into that question Christians were not to enter. The government was established, and they were not to seek to overturn it.
No power - No office; no magistracy; no civil rule.
But of God - By God's permission, or appointment; by the arrangements of his providence, by which those in office had obtained their power. God often claims and asserts that "He" sets up one, and puts down another; Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21; Daniel 4:17, Daniel 4:25, Daniel 4:34-35.
The powers that be - That is, all the civil magistracies that exist; those who have the "rule" over nations, by whatever means they may have obtained it. This is equally true at all times, that the powers that exist, exist by the permission and providence of God.
Are ordained of God - This word "ordained" denotes the "ordering" or "arrangement" which subsists in a "military" company, or army. God sets them "in order," assigns them their location, changes and directs them as he pleases. This does not mean that he "originates" or causes the evil dispositions of rulers, but that he "directs" and "controls" their appointment. By this, we are not to infer:
(1) That he approves their conduct; nor,
(2) That what they do is always right; nor,
(3) That it is our duty "always" to submit to them.
Their requirements "may be" opposed to the Law of God, and then we are to obey God rather than man; Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29. But it is meant that the power is intrusted to them by God; and that he has the authority to remove them when he pleases. If they abuse their power, however, they do it at their peril; and "when" so abused, the obligation to obey them ceases. That this is the case, is apparent further from the nature of the "question" which would be likely to arise among the early Christians. It "could not be" and "never was" a question, whether they should obey a magistrate when he commanded a thing that was plainly contrary to the Law of God. But the question was, whether they should obey a pagan magistrate at "all." This question the apostle answers in the affirmative, because "God" had made government necessary, and because it was arranged and ordered by his providence. Probably also the apostle had another object in view. At the time in which he wrote this Epistle, the Roman Empire was agitated with civil dissensions. One emperor followed another in rapid succession. The throne was often seized, not by right, but by crime. Different claimants would rise, and their claims would excite controversy. The object of the apostle was to prevent Christians from entering into those disputes, and from taking an active part in a political controversy. Besides, the throne had been "usurped" by the reigning emperors, and there was a prevalent disposition to rebel against a tyrannical government. Claudius had been put to death by poison; Caligula in a violent manner; Nero was a tyrant; and amidst these agitations, and crimes, and revolutions, the apostle wished to guard Christians from taking an active part in political affairs.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
Whosoever therefore resisteth ... - That is, they who rise up against "government itself;" who seek anarchy and confusion; and who oppose the regular execution of the laws. It is implied, however, that those laws shall not be such as to violate the rights of conscience, or oppose the laws of God.
Resisteth the ordinance of God - What God has ordained, or appointed. This means clearly that we are to regard "government" as instituted by God, and as agreeable to his will. "When" established, we are not to be agitated about the "titles" of the rulers; not to enter into angry contentions, or to refuse to submit to them, because we are apprehensive of a defect in their "title," or because they may have obtained it by oppression. If the government is established, and if its decisions are not a manifest violation of the laws of God, we are to submit to them.
Shall receive to themselves damnation - The word "damnation" we apply now exclusively to the punishment of hell; to future torments. But this is not necessarily the meaning of the word which is used here κρίμα krima. It often simply denotes "punishment;" Romans 3:8; 1 Corinthians 11:29; Galatians 5:10. In this place the word implies "guilt" or "criminality" in resisting the ordinance of God, and affirms that the man that does it shall be punished. Whether the apostle means that he shall be punished by "God," or by the "magistrate," is not quite clear. Probably the "latter," however, is intended; compare Romans 13:4. It is also true that such resistance shall be attended with the displeasure of God, and be punished by him.
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