“The powers that be are ordained of God.” The Prime Fallacy of Many Commentaries. James Wilson on Romans 13

“The powers that be are ordained of God.” The prime fallacy of many commentaries on this entire passage consists in taking for granted that this phrase—”the powers that be”—means all and any existing governments. This cannot be. The considerations already advanced, in setting aside a similar interpretation of the preceding clause, forbid it. Nor are there wanting others, equally conclusive. Of Israel it is said, referring to the establishment of an independent government by the ten tribes under Jeroboam, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew (approved) it not.” (Hos. 8:4.) And the prophet Daniel, and afterwards the apostle John, expressly and frequently denominate the Roman Empire a “beast.” The former, a “beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it.” (Dan. 7:11.) The latter, a “beast having seven heads and ten horns, and on its horns ten crowns, and on its heads the name of blasphemy,” (Rev. 17:1.) Surely such a description was never given of a government that could lay any solid claim to be “ordained of God;” at least, in any other sense than the pestilence is God’s ordinance, existing in his providence, but to be shunned and banished as soon as possible.

No other meaning can be affixed to the language of the apostle, consistently with due reverence for Him who is the Holy One and the Just, the rightful and beneficent moral Governor. Can it be, for a moment, believed, that God has made man a social being—placed him in society, and thus necessitated, by the very laws of the human constitution, the establishment of civil rule, and that he has, after all, set no bounds to the authority, no hedge about the claims of civil rulers? That, after all, He has left this whole matter to be lawfully managed, not by law, even His law, not by rule, but merely according to human caprice, or, what is far worse, human ambition, self-seeking, pride, and violence? And, then, as the issue of the matter, that in case a government exist, whatever the principles that guide its administration, whether it be just or unjust, God-fearing or infidel, liberal or despotic, it exists, and He acknowledges it as “ordained” by Him, and as entitled to the regard, homage and obedience of its subjects? This cannot be. God is not so indifferent to His own glory, or to the welfare of man, and particularly of the church. He never intended, we may assert, with entire confidence, to sign, if we may so speak, a blank, and then leave man to fill it up according to his pleasure. Every attribute of God forbids this. Paul teaches no such doctrine.

Does the Spirit of God here [Romans 13] condemn these efforts of the nations to rid themselves of the yoke of despots? Does this passage rivet the chains of the oppressed? Certainly not. God denounces the oppressor. “Wo to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by wrong,” (Jer. 22:13.) “Wo unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness, which they have prescribed.” (Is. 10:1.) And, to say nothing of the threatenings—repeated and awful—against the ungodly and oppressing powers, symbolized by the “beast” of Daniel and of the Revelation, we have the striking inquiry of Psalm 94:20: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth iniquity by a law?”

It is evident that the proper interpretation of this passage depends upon the meaning of the phrase, “ordinance of God.” What then is its import? Does it mean any and every existing government? Does it mean a Phocas, who “waded to the throne of the Roman Empire through seas of blood?” Does it mean that Joseph of Austria, with his government, is the “ordinance of God” to Hungary? Does it mean the government of the Pope and his cardinals, under which the Papal States groan? In short, is this term applied to any government merely from the fact that it exists? Clearly not; for, then, the powers just mentioned must be also embraced in it—a conclusion equally repulsive to the Christian and to the friend of human liberty. And, besides, if this be its meaning, the very worst government has the very same right to demand an unresisting subjection, as the very best, for both alike exist—exist in the same overruling and all-controlling providence; and both would be armed with the same high sanction: to “resist” either, would be to make the same assault upon the “ordinance of God!”


It is evident that the apostle enjoins subjection only to such governments as answer the ends of the institution of magistracy. Great injustice is done to this passage by regarding it in any other way than as a whole. Separate the first and second verses from the context, and they seem to inculcate a blind and complete submission to any authority that may happen to exist. Study the entire passage, and we learn just the contrary.


It is confidently asserted that the Roman Christians must have understood the Apostle as referring to the Roman government—enjoining subjection to it. This is, perhaps, the prime objection, after all, to the views we have presented of the scope and bearing of this passage, and deserves a tolerably minute examination. And, (1.) The description here given of the magistrate does not correspond to that of the reigning Emperor of Rome, nor to the character of his administration. Nor are any so ignorant as to be without some knowledge of the character of doings of Nero Caesar—that he was a human monster; a bloody persecutor; a tyrant so remorseless that even pagan Rome ultimately dethroned and put him to death. How could it be said by Paul, speaking of such a man, “That he was a terror, not to good works, but to the evil?”—”a minister of God to thee for good?” We again quote Hoadly: “If any should say that he speaks particularly of the Roman Emperor who, at this time, was a very bad man, I answer, if he were such a magistrate as did set himself to destroy the happiness of the people under him, and to act contrary to the end of his office, it is impossible that Paul should mean him particularly in this place. For the higher powers, v. 1, are the same with the rules, v. 3, and whomsoever Paul intended, he declares to be, not a terror to good works, but to the evil. So that if the Roman Emperor were a terror to good works, and not to the evil, either Paul was grossly mistaken in his opinion of him, or he could not be particularly meant here. If Paul intended to press obedience to him, particularly, he manifestly doth it upon the supposition, that he was not a terror to good works, but to evil. And if this supposition be destroyed, the reasoning built upon it must fall, and all the obligation to subjection that is deduced from it.”

— Covenanter James Mcleod Wilson, On Romans 13, 1853


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