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Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

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. 

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 

For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 

Romans 13:1-6

This passage speaks of two matters: the Christian’s calling toward the civil government, and the civil government’s calling toward its citizens.

Let every soul be subject to the higher powers! This means precisely what it says. Every soul means every person. No one is excluded. All people must be subject to the higher powers.

Those higher powers are those who stand above or over us and who, therefore, are superior in rank to us. The reference is to the governmental authorities, or civil rulers. In the apostle’s day these higher authorities were the rulers of the Roman Empire, from the Emperor down to the lowest-ranking local officials in the Roman provinces. In our day and land the higher powers are the national and state (provincial) governments, the judicial officials, and the police.

The translation “powers” is a bit unfortunate. The apostle does not mean to refer to raw or sheer power but to the authority which these officials have been granted. These officials have been given the right to govern us in the civil realm. Thus they possess the authority to rule our outward life.

These higher powers are said to be “the powers that be.” These are the existing authorities at any given time in history, in whatever form, and in any given country. The point is that Scripture does not here or in any other passage sanction a particular form of government. Nor does Scripture condemn any particular form of government. A democratic form of government (American or otherwise) is not given the stamp of approval by the Bible. Nor does Scripture condemn a monarchy or socialism or a dictatorship. As a matter of fact, “the powers that be” of the apostle’s day were imperial Rome, a government about as corrupt as any in all of history! Scripture does condemn the sinful misuse or abuse of authority. Scripture also calls rulers to govern justly and obediently.

To these higher powers, the powers that be, the rulers (verse 3) we must be subject. To be subject means to arrange ourselves under, to yield ourselves under, or, more simply, to obey the civil authorities.

We are subject to the higher powers when we do not resist them. Resistance the text plainly forbids! That word “resist” is interesting. It means to “range oneself in battle against.” One who resists the authorities battles against them! In other words he rebels or revolts against the authorities. This is more than disobedience; it’s revolution. To resist is to attempt to overthrow the civil authorities. This the Bible plainly forbids. Revolution even against a corrupt, ungodly government such as existed in Paul’s day is sinful. We may not do that! The only exception to our obedience to the rulers is when they require of us that which is contrary to the law or will of God. In that case we must say, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Cf. Acts 4:18, 19 and Acts 5:29.) But even then we must not attempt to overthrow the government. We obey God rather than men and suffer patiently the consequences at the hand of an unjust, corrupt government.

Still more, we must not do the evil, but we must do the good. This simply means we must live in harmony with the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture and summed in His Law. We are to obey the civil government. Our calling is to obey the laws of the land.

And it’s necessary that we be good, loyal, obedient citizens, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (verse 5). In other words, we are to obey the authorities not because we fear the punishment they are authorized to inflict upon evil doers (verses 3, 4), but for Gods sake. We “know with” (this is “conscience sake”) God that His will is that we should obey the civil authorities.

This the inspired apostle applies very specifically in verse 6 which reads:

For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Not resisting the government, refraining from doing evil, and doing good means we must pay our taxes. We must contribute to the support of the civil authorities so that they are able to carry out their God-given duties. Whether they misuse those tax monies or not makes no difference. Our calling is to pay them tribute.

Why must we obey the higher powers? Because “there is no power but of God.” Gods is all the authority! There is no authority above God or even equal to God. God’s is all the authority. Ephesians 1:19-23 makes clear that God’s great, sovereign power and authority are revealed in that He raised Christ from the dead and set Him at His own right hand in heavenly places, far above all principalities and authorities and might and dominion and every name that is named.

Thus the text teaches that the powers that be are ordained of God. God ordains, sets up, puts in place the authorities. Whether the authorities acknowledge this or not, whether they know it or not, whether they strive to serve God in their positions of authority or not, they are placed there by God. And for this reason we must obey them.

This means that if we resist them we are resisting the ordinance of God! The one who takes his stand against the authorities has set himself against that which God Himself has ordained. To disobey the authorities is to disobey God. And the one who resists incurs damnation, the just punishment of God!

This is our calling over against the state.

But the civil authorities also have a calling over against their citizens. They are said to be Gods ministers or servants. Their calling as God’s servants, again whether they realize this or not, is to reward with praise those who do good and to punish those who do evil. They must govern the outward behavior of their citizens. Thus God has provided for good order and decency in society.

God has given the sword power to the civil authorities. They do not bear that sword in vain, without purpose. As God’s ministers they have been given the authority to punish evildoers and reward those who do good with praise.

Let us then be subject to these higher powers. God has placed them over us for the sake of His church and cause in the world. Let us obey them since “it pleases God to govern us by their hand” (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. XXXIX).