Our interpretation has brought out very distinctly the principle that no immoral civil power can demand, at least from any of Paul’s teachings in this passage, the conscientious allegiance and subjection of the citizen. This principle does not meet with ready acceptance. Many who admit, and teach that the obedience due to human authority is in every case to be limited to things in themselves lawful —that is, not contrary to the law of God — d still insist that even in the case of an immoral government —a government, for example, that sanctions or practices oppression, that refuses to acknowledge the Most High, his law and his Son, that sustain false religion, or gives its influence to corrupt forms of Christianity, that winks at and protects flagrant idolatry, that is administered, mainly, by ungodly men; still even such a government is to be recognized as God’s, and as such to be obeyed for “conscience’ sake.” The advocates of this principle are neither few nor un-influential. They comprise a very great majority, not of the godless alone, who view all things
irrespective of their moral aspects and character, but also of the members and ministers of the Christian churches. Indeed, the opposite opinion, that which we have drawn from the passage, as at least fairly implied in it, is regarded as extreme and fanatical. To this, then, we will direct some attention, and will likewise endeavor, in this connection, to vindicate the truth of our leading principle in the interpretation of this passage.
It is, surely, rather an ungracious task for any Christian to undertake to defend the principle that God recognizes as exemplifications of His ordinance of civil rule, governments of such a character as most of those now existing on earth —to teach that Christ, by his apostle, has enjoined obedience to civil powers, irrespective of their moral character —that whether a government accords with the divine institution of magistracy, or not, it is to be honored as God’s —that the thunderings of divine wrath against those who “resist” authority are directed equally against such as refuse to acknowledge God-forgetting and man-oppressing authorities, and those who endeavor to overthrow or bring into contempt such as are based upon righteousness, and are administered with equity and in the fear of God. Yet such expositors there are. —And
1. Some assert that the command to be subject is
unrestricted, and unlimited. Says Haldane, “They (Christians) are bound to obey not good rulers only, as Dr. McKnight unwarrantably limits the word, but oppressive rulers also.” “The people of God ought to consider resistance to the government under which they live as a very awful crime, even as a resistance to God himself.”* The only limitation he admits —the only excepted case— is when a government commands a sinful act.
unnecessary to enter here upon a very minute examination of these singular
assertions. The age will not bear them. The voice of suffering humanity is
raised against them, and true piety revolts at such a partnership in iniquity
and wrong, as such a doctrine charges upon the Most High. However, we remark,
(1.) If this were true, then Moses and the Israelites did an immense wrong in
setting themselves against Pharaoh. The Israelites had gone voluntarily into
* Commentary on the passage.
righteous refusal to obey a government under which the Israelites had been born and reared. (2.) This writer, and he is not alone, makes no distinction between a government which exists in God’s providence merely, and a government which accords with His will, and answers the ends, in due measure, of His institution of magistracy. Let Haldane’s principle be universally applied, if applied at all: let no resistance be made to the robber, or the assassin; for the same providence permits —the same providence is concerned in their assaults and bloodthirsty violence, as in “raising up” a Pharaoh or a Nero. (3.) Such an interpretation runs counter, among others, to the following passage of Scripture: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law?” (Psalm 94: 20)
2. Some assert that the only government that may be lawfully resisted is one tyrannical and oppressive; that is, if a government regard the common rules of equity in its laws and administration, it is to be obeyed for conscience’ sake, let its character otherwise be never so godless. On this we remark, (1.) That it admits the property of applying some test to existing institutions. It abandons the
principle of unquestioning subjection to any and every existing institution. For, once admit that character is to be looked after at all, and we not only establish a new rule as our guide, but we absolutely discard, ipso facto, the doctrine that a merely providential existence is to be regarded in the matter. If it should, it avails the oppressor as well as the benefactor who occupies the throne and holds the scepter; for the same providence, we repeat, has brought both into being, and invested them with the functions and insignia of power. Moreover, the admission, and we believe it is now generally made, is one of no little practical moment. By use of this test, we at once set aside as God-given and reverend, such governments as the Austrian, the Russian, the Tuscan, the Neapolitan, the Papal, the Turkish —and, in a word, all the despotic, and Popish powers of the old world and the new. Nor will the government of this land bear well this test. A constitution that throws its shield over the crime of slave-holding, which puts, to nearly all intents and purposes, three millions of its population out of the pale of its protection, surrendering them to a bondage tenfold more bitter than that of Egypt, has need to tremble lest the doom of the oppressor overwhelm it. (2.) The objection overlooks the fact that this passage describes a moral government.
That the passage does so, we have already endeavored to show. It exhibits a magistrate ruling as God’s minister, administering laws which countenance good works and discourage the evil. It is an exceedingly unfair interpretation that would present the apostle as defining civil government as concerned only about breaches of the public peace. The common sense of all enlightened communities repudiates such an exposition. Hence the encouragement given by such to science; the institution and support of schools and colleges, and kindred efforts for the promotion of the public intelligence: and direct efforts also —as in legislation against intemperance and its causes —in behalf of morals. No government among a professedly Christian people has yet been able or, perhaps, disposed, to fall into the limits which in theory certain expounders set around it.
But by what right does anyone assert that a practical vindication of human rights is sufficient to render a government valid, while it utterly neglects the acknowledgment of God and of his Christ? or if it names Him, does so merely, or mainly, to establish its own claims, while practically regardless of Him? or, perhaps, while professing to honor Christ, gives its sanction and aid to some corrupted form of Christianity, or to anti-Christ himself? or,
finally, which puts true religion and false, Christ and Belial, on the same level? Surely that cannot be “the ordinance of God,” which gives to God no such honor as he claims —nor that ruler “the minister of God,” who distribute his favors alike, in his political regimen, to the faithful disciples of Christ, and the votaries of the “Mother of harlots.” And still more plainly, how can that government be God’s, which makes no reference to His law, as of paramount authority, but claims for itself absolute supremacy?
We must take the character of the government into the account —its character as here described— in making up our judgment upon this matter of subjection, its limits and restrictions. Gross injustice has been done the inspired writer by such authors as Haldane, in neglecting this plain canon of interpretation. And here it may be asked, How can we account for it that the class of expositors with whom we have now to do, leave out, or give little weight to the very circumstance which Paul himself adduces as a main proof of the duty of subjection, the equity, industry, and discriminating character of the magistracy, and introduce another —the will of the people— which is not referred to here in words, at all? The only account we can give of this most flagrant inconsistency is,
that advocacy of free government is now popular, while the law of God, and the supremacy of Christ, are as much hated as ever. In an age when human rights were little heard of, none of this class of interpreters said anything about such a limitation. In this age, when the language of men and nations is, “We will not have Christ to reign over us,” the true point of the passage is slurred over, or misinterpreted. We cannot so “handle” the Word of God. It would look too much like that “deceitful handling” of divine revelation which Paul repudiates and condemns, (II Corinthians 4: 2) That the consent of the people is necessary to render a government legitimate, we strenuously maintain; but this passage makes no reference to this aspect of the question. It deals with the duty of subjection, and by a very clear and comprehensive exhibition of the true nature, functions and character of government, both enforces and limits the duty.
3. It is objected that even governments, in the main bad, still do some good, and are better than none, and that, hence, they are to be respected and obeyed. We have already admitted that absolute perfection is not to be looked for in any government framed and administered by human hands, and that, of course, the want of it is not enough
to invalidate the authority of a magistracy. Nor do we attempt to draw a theoretical line of distinction, so distinct and definite, as to rid the settlement of the question regarding the validity of any particular government of all practical difficulty. It is here as it is in reference to the Church. Her constitution, as it lies in the Word of God, is perfect; but defects still exist in the best churches. And it is far from easy —is it possible? —to prepare a minute statement of the marks of a true church, which will render easy the task of deciding in every case, absolutely and at once, whether a society can be reckoned a true church or not. And yet every intelligent Christian admits that a church, once genuine in its character, may become completely apostate. To draw the line and say, just here, it ought to be abandoned, is not easy. The truth is, all questions of this sort must, as they occur, be left for decision, under the guidance of general principles, such as those to which reference has already been made frequently in these pages, to the enlightened judgment, pure hearts, and honest purposes of the faithful in Christ.
But, to come to the objection, we remark: —(1.) That the objection proves much more than the objector would himself be willing to admit,* for no
*We make no reference here to such expositors as Haldane. He would carry out the objection to the farthest extreme. We have in our eye the great mass of the upholders of existing governments, and particularly that portion of those with whom we are in closer contact.
government ever has, or could exist, that did no good to any portion of the community. The most rampant tyranny must have its instruments. These will have their affairs guarded, and their disputes and controversies settled, and, perhaps, fairly. Even a band of pirates cannot dispense altogether with justice. If the doing of some good constitutes a valid claim to allegiance, then resistance to tyrants is not according to the current maxim, “obedience to God,” but, in every case, arrant and damnable rebellion. The objection proves too much. Every friend of liberty rejects it. (2.) It takes for granted, which is not true, that the removal of a bad government must be succeeded by anarchy. This is impossible —for any appreciable length of time any how. In every revolution provisional authorities are at once established, and their character will be determined, and their policy controlled, by the character and the object of the revolutionists. They must organize, and one of their first aims will always be to remove the causes which gave rise to a desire for a change of the government. Abuses may follow, as did in the French revolution of 1789; but these will find their correction; for
society cannot long remain unsettled, nor will it long, when it has the power in its own hands, tolerate gross evil against its own order and quiet. But still more. That class of citizens, who can alone be regarded as wishing to remodel a godless government, must be guided by a regard for God and his rights. If they should withdraw from an active cooperation with existing institutions, it will be mainly for the purpose of introducing Bible elements into the affairs of state. They will not tolerate anarchy.
Nor can it be said, that after all, so long as the government exists, it evils are compensated by its good; that it still furnishes such a degree of protection to the citizen as to warrant and require him to own its claims. True, the state of things may be such that the immediate duty of the faithful may be to do no more than withhold allegiance —laboring in the mean time to establish in the minds of all, governors and governed, sound principles on the subject of social and political arrangements. This may even be acknowledged to be the course generally marked out for them by God’s word and providence. But, surely, if the community can be rightly taught, and have been taught to understand their duty, and admit it, no reason can be given why the requisite steps should not at
once be taken for making the desired change. A new order of things may and ought to arise.
Hoadly was pressed by the same objection in his controversy with the advocates of “passive obedience and non-resistance.” He thus replies: —“There would be some color in this objection, were there no middle condition between tyranny and anarchy, or were it impossible to oppose princes without running into a lawless and ungoverned condition. But I see no necessity of any such thing. And supposing that sometimes a people had, (through the bad designs and evil dispositions of some men,) thrown off tyranny, and run into confusion, or to a tyranny as bad as the former, this is no reason why any people should endure a present tyranny. For this unhappiness doth not necessarily follow, in the nature of the thing, but is purely accidental, and may, with prudence, be prevented —and they must answer for it who are the causes of it. This is just as the church of Rome would affrighten Christians from the most just separations, by telling them that any church tyranny is better than infinite confusion and numberless separations, which are seen to follow without stop, when separation on any account is allowed of. If it be said here, as it may be by some, that any church tyranny is indeed better than separation, which brings
confusion with it, —but we are not here left at liberty, for sinful terms are imposed upon us, and we cannot enjoy the means of public worship without complying actually in sin, and therefore there is a necessity of separating, which cannot be said in the case of resistance. If this, I say, be replied, I answer, first, that we see from hence that a practice may be lawful, notwithstanding that the consequence of it be confusion and anarchy: and then what doth this objection, taken by itself, signify towards proving my doctrine false? And in the next place our separation, or reformation, with all its consequences, is better than a passive submission to the exorbitant power and tyranny of the Church of Rome, even supposing no terms of external communion absolutely sinful imposed upon us. For as it is exercised in manifold, notorious and scandalous instances, who can prove submission to it to be so much as lawful? And therefore, thirdly, who can prove it so much as lawful to pay such a submission to any mortal upon earth, as helps to ruin and destroy the rights of others, which we cannot honorably give up? Though we may surrender our own, we cannot surrender the rights and happiness of our neighbors, of all our countrymen, and of all posterity to come. This must be proved by other arguments. But the making this objection is only just, as if one should
say to a man dying of a fever, you may indeed be cured of this disease by some particular remedies, but you had better let it take its course, for sometimes it hath been seen that when they have removed that distemper they may have thrown the patient into another as bad, or worse, by pure accident, and through want of due care and prudence. In fine, it doth not in the least follow that because the guarding against one evil hath sometimes accidentally, and without any necessity, brought on another, therefore we may not, in prudence, defend ourselves against it, when we may likewise, if we be not wanting to ourselves, keep off the other also. But were the doctrine I have taught universally and publicly embraced, I am persuaded the ground of all such objections would be removed, because the whole foundation of tyranny would be destroyed, unless where there is supposed a force sufficient to bear it out.”*
(3.) If this objection be true, no revolution could ever occur, for surely, before any can attempt a radical change of government, and this is the case supposed —they must have previously become convinced that the existing authorities have no claim upon their conscientious support. Take, the English Revolution of 1688. Before
*Hoadly, pp. 75, 76, 77.
adopting measures for the expulsion of James II, the leaders
in that transaction must first have seen it to be their duty to refuse him their
allegiance. Had they still regarded him as God’s “minister,” they could not
have laid their plans —with a good conscience— to remove him from the throne.
And, yet, even then, who can question that James’ government yielded much good
to the British nation, in the way of preserving peace, and in guarding the
private interests of the people of
The illustration is precisely in point. Other governments may not be liable to just the same objections as was the British administration; but to others equally valid. Their oppression may be different in form —their relations to religion, and treatment of the church different, and, moreover,
the mass of the people may go along with them in these things. But what then? The question is, Do they oppress knowingly and obstinately? Do they slight and dishonor religion? Do they bestow their favors upon any kind of false religion? Do they disregard God and repudiate the paramount authority of His Bible? Are they guilty of any or of all of these sins? If so, then, whether they be few or many, the friends of liberty, of religion, and of God, should withhold from them their conscientious obedience; for they are not “a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well.” This cannot be denied, we repeat, except upon grounds that would entirely destroy the right of civil revolution.
4. It is affirmed that the tenor of scriptural example, and some of the teachings of Christ, are against our doctrine. (1.) The principle examples are those of Joseph and Daniel in accepting and exercising authority in heathen kingdoms. On these we remark, that in their cases there is every reason to believe that there was no obligation incurred by either of them to conform to any immoral law, and that in their administration, the law of God was in fact made, so far as their own particular functions were concerned, the rule of their administration. They had nothing to do with any
thing but the duties of their own office. Neither directly or indirectly were they required to concur in the idolatries of those nations or to sanction any acts of oppression. These and similar cases are thus disposed of by a late writer.*
“Any office may be held, or service engaged in, upon the three following conditions:
1st That the duties belonging to it be right in themselves.
2nd That they be regulated by a just law.
3rd That there be no other oath of office required, but faithfully to execute official duties.”
“Let these be the stipulations, and an office may be held under any power, however immorally constituted, without a homologation of its immorality.”
I were in Algiers, residing there at pleasure; would my accepting an office
from the Dey, under the regulations now specified,
say a professorship in a university instituted by him, for the instruction of
youth, be a homologation of his immoral regency —naval piracy—or the blood and
murder upon which his throne is erected? If there as a slave, would not the
appointment be still more eligible? This corresponds with the situation of the
*From “Sons of Oil,” by Samuel B. Wylie, late of
therefore, follow, that holding an office necessarily supposes, either that the government be lawful. or if not, that the person holding the office is implicated in the immorality.”
“If it be pleaded that the monarch’s will was the constitution, this, even if admitted, makes no difference. The office was either such as required allegiance to this constitution, or it did not. If the latter, it is the thing contended for, viz., that there was no immoral obligation connected with his office. If the former, he was perjured, not only by breaking it in several instances, but in taking it also, for he swore to a blank, i.e., to perform he knew not what. But there is no account of Daniel’s coming under any such obligation. Indeed, it would have been inconsistent with the smiles of Heaven, which he, and others in office, evidently enjoyed.”
(2.) Reference is made to the language and conduct of Christ, Matthew 17: 24 – 27; and Matthew 22: 21. In the former we have an account of the paying of a certain tribute, and in the latter we have the reply of Christ to an inquiry put by the Pharisees, when he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” To these we reply in the words of the writer just quoted
“The allegation brought from Matthew , is
evidently unfounded. The best commentators consider the tribute here mentioned to be temple money, the ransom of the soul spoken of, Exodus 30: 12, 13. That this was the case will appear evident, first, because the piece of money found in the fish’s mouth is allowed, by the best critics, to be equal in value to two half shekels, one for Christ, and the other for Peter. And, secondly, from the argument by which our Lord pleads exemption, namely, from the example of the kings of the earth. ‘What thinkest thou, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.” Here we find, by the example of earthly kings, Christ was free. How was he free? By being the Son to the King to whom the tribute belonged. Who was this King? It could not be Caesar. Was Christ Caesar’s son? No. For had he been Caesar’s son, it must have been by natural generation, adoption or citizenship. None of all these was the case. And even though the last had taken place, which is the only plausible supposition, (though false,) it would not have procured this immunity, because citizenship did not exempt from tribute. But Jesus was the Son of God
of heaven, that King to whom this tribute belonged; hence he says, ‘notwithstanding,’ that is though I am free, by the relation of Sonship,” &c.
“The other allegation brought from Matthew 22: 21, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’ &c., is equally unfounded. It is abundantly evident, from the passage, that the question was intended to ensnare the Lord Jesus Christ, answer as he would. It was proposed by the Herodians and Pharisees; those, votaries for Roman domination, and these, the sticklers for Jewish immunities. Had he said, ‘Give it to Caesar,’ the Pharisees, ever ready to accuse him, would have represented him to the people as an enemy of their ancient privileges. Had he said, ‘Don’t give it,’ the Herodians would have represented him to Herod as an enemy to the government of Caesar. In the fifteenth verse, we are expressly told they came to him with a view to ‘entangle him in his talk.’ But he, ‘knowing their craftiness,’ split their dilemma, and left their question undecided. He, on several other occasions, thus baffled his adversaries; as in John 8: 4, 12, in the case of the ‘woman taken in adultery;’ and in Luke , when application was made to him concerning the settlement of the earthly inheritance.
It is objected here, by some, ‘that this explanation of our Savior’s answer represents the Lord as shunning to declare the whole counsel of God —giving no answer in a case respecting sin and duty.’ The inference is false. They were not without information on this very subject. They had the law and the prophets. The Lord Jesus Christ had given specific directions concerning the character of lawful rulers, Deuteronomy , to whom it was lawful to pay tribute for conscience’ sake. But it was not information they wanted, but to ensnare him, let him answer as he would, as has already been shown. If silence, or refusing to answer in every case, even in matters respecting sin and duty, let the design of the querist be what it will, be accounted criminal, in what point of light will the objector view the Lord Jesus Christ, when he finds him actually refusing to answer a question respecting sin and duty, in the case of his on authority? Mark , 33. ‘Neither will I tell you (says he) by what authority I do these things.’ It would be well if men would consider the awful consequences of some of their objections before they make them. But, supposing that Christ, in both the instances alluded to, had commanded tribute to be paid to Caesar, what does it prove? Unless he commanded
it to be paid as a tessera of loyalty, it proves no more the morality of Caesar’s right, than a minister of the gospel’s advising one of his hearers to give the robber part of his property, to secure the remainder, would, that the minister consider the robber morally entitled to it.”*
Hoadly says, “But it is manifest that it was not his design to tell his adversaries, (whose ensnaring question was the occasion of this precept,) what his opinion was concerning the rights of the emperor, but only to evade the danger of such an answer as they hoped to have extorted from him.”†
(3.) Paul’s appeal to Caesar has also been adduced as importing an acknowledgment of his right to rule. On this we use again the words of the Sons of Oil.
I answer, an appeal to their tribunals no more involves in it a homologation of
their lawful dominion, than an appeal from a murderer to a thief, who would be
disposed to save one’s life, would be a homologation of his living habitually
in the breach of the eighth commandment. Suppose, for example, that the
*Sons of Oil, pp. 82-84. †Hoadly, p. 120.
establish a law that no poor man should be robbed of more than ten dollars —you happen to be crossing the mountain —five of the gang approach you, and rob you of one hundred, which is nearly your all —you meet with the master of the fraternity —you know the law —and believe that he still has as much humanity remaining as will induce him to execute it. Will you appeal to him to cause your ninety dollars to be refunded, which are due to you by his law? If you do, will this implicate you in the immorality of the banditti, or be saying Amen to their unlawful practice? Certainly not. If this hold in the greater, it will surely hold in the less. If an appeal may be made to the captain of a band of robbers, without implication in his criminality, much more to these institutions, which, though wrong in some fundamentals, are yet aiming at the good of civil society.”*
5. 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.)
*Sons of Oil, pp. 81, 82.
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 and doings of Nero Caesar —that he was
a human monster; a bloody persecutor; a tyrant so remorseless that even pagan
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.”*
scriptures clearly describe the Roman government as despotic, ungodly and
bestial. “After this I saw, in the night visions, and, behold, a fourth 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; and
it was diverse from all beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.”
(Daniel 7: 7.) “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up
out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns; and upon his horns ten
crowns; and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” (Revelation 13: 1) All sound
Protestant expositors unite in applying these prophecies to the
*Hoadly, p. 48.
fountain send forth, at the same hole, sweet water and bitter?”
is the inquiry of an inspired writer. Does the blessed Spirit send forth
teachings so diametrically opposite? We cannot believe it. He gives the true
character of this huge and destroying power in the book of Daniel, as it rages
among the nations —trampling and rending them, and gorging itself with their
blood. Such a power He never claims as His. The passage before us cannot apply
(3.) It cannot, because one part of the mission of the gospel was and is to overthrow and utterly demolish it. For this purpose, among others, Christ reigns. This, also, was long before revealed. “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms.” (Daniel 2: 44) “These,” —the ten horns— “shall make war with the Lamb, and he shall overcome them.” (Revelation 17: 14) But why quote? Throughout the whole prophetic scriptures —both Old Testament and New— this great, ungodly, tyrannical, persecuting and blasphemous power, is presented as the object of divine wrath, to be consumed, together
See Appendix D
with the “little horn,” (Daniel 8) —or the “two-horned beast,” (Revelation 13) —by the word and by the judgment of God —to be consumed for its iniquities committed against God and his gospel. Did the Spirit of Christ enjoin upon the Christians a conscientious “fear,” “honor,” and obedience, to a system against which the Bible teems with the weightiest denunciations?
inquiries assume a deeper meaning and importance, if we remember that the
passage before us enjoins not mere “submission,” but a true support and
cooperation —that it is not left optional to withhold from these “powers” designated
in the text. Now, is it credible that Paul intended to teach that Christians
should incorporate with the
(4.) We are not without very express testimony
that the primitive Christians were not countenanced in
doing —were even forbidden to do certain acts which might be regarded as
importing an acknowledgment of the claims of
the Roman magistrates “the unjust.” Did he, then, at one time, so speak of them, and, shortly after, urge upon Christians a conscientious subjection to their authority and maintenance of their government, inasmuch as they were a “terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well?” Assuredly not. In a word, Paul enjoins upon the Corinthians to withhold from the tribunals of the Roman Empire a part of that “honor” which certainly belongs to all recognized governments; and, in so doing, establishes a principle that would operate, with no little power, in keeping them and the Christians separate from the community in which they lived —that would remind them that while in, they were not of, the Roman State.
Now, much of all this that we have adduced in the last few pages, was before the minds of the Romans. They knew that Daniel had described that government as bestial —they had heard, no doubt, of the directions given to the Christians of Corinth —they understood, and to this we particularly refer, that the Roman Emperor and government were idolatrous and oppressive —that the gospel was preached, often at the hazard of life, and that its profession even was extensively discountenanced. How would they, then, understand
this chapter? We put, in reply, another interrogatory. How would the inhabitants of Papal Rome —the city itself— now understand the very same teachings? We address them: “Brethren —be subject to the higher powers. They are the ministers of God to thee for good. They are a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well. Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” What would they say? We can easily imagine their countenances, at first marked with some astonishment. “Can this be our government? No! it cannot. Are not our friends —the friends of the Bible— banished or executed? Are we not deprived of our liberties? Have we not seen deeds —do we not witness them almost daily —of the grossest oppression? Are not evil doers in high places? Are not the God-fearing regarded with jealousy? Is not the Bible —God’s own book —a forbidden volume? Is not the gospel hated and opposed, and idolatry publicly practiced and protected? No. It cannot be that Pius IX and his ghostly government are here described, and that we are commanded, on pain of damnation, to support, fear and honor them.”
To what conclusions would intelligent minds come? Why, certainly, to this, that, whatever
the import of the passage, it could not apply to their
governors. So would a godly Austrian —so a Hungarian —so a Spaniard —so a slave
(5.) To apply this to the Roman government is to dishonor religion. It is time that religion —the true religion— was rid of this reproach. It is doing no little evil. Convince men that any government that happens to exist, whatever its character, is to be obeyed, honored and reverenced; we mean that the Bible enjoins this, and you have struck a very heavy blow at the Bible itself. Men —if they believe in God at all— cannot believe He is the patron of iniquity and wrong. And, hence, they will refuse to recognize the claims of any book that professes to come from God, and yet so represents him.
But of what use, then, was this passage? Why did it find a place in this epistle? Why in the volume of inspiration at all? We answer: [1.] That it was designed to show that civil government is not, as an institution, abolished by the advent of the Messiah and the setting up of his kingdom among the Gentile nations. In other words, that the ecclesiastical was not the only social power— that civil society was not to be absorbed by the church. It was important to state this distinctly;
for there has ever been a tendency developed, in
connection with every great religious movement, to depreciate the institution
of magistracy —to regard it as beneath the Christian to pay any respect to
political regimen, or, in any circumstances, to take a part in managing civil
affairs, except so far as they may be connected with the government of the
church. This spirit was, unquestionably, developed in the church at a very
early period. It made its appearance during the Reformation in
Every disposition of this sort is rebuked by this passage. It stands with a few parallel passages; and has stood ever, as an impregnable bulwark against such delusive notions.
[2.] It furnished then, as now, a standard by which to try existing governments. That it was not intended to induce them to “honor” —and reverence and sustain, the imperial authority of Nero, we have already endeavored to show. They could not so understand it. At first, they might
be somewhat surprised —but soon— upon a little reflection, they would see that in these verses the Apostle had really furnished a very clear mirror in which they could see, by contrast, the hideous features of the “beastly” power of Rome. It is of use in this way still. The lineal descendants of the ancient Italians, who cannot discern in their own rulers, as we have seen, any traces of the beneficent power here described, may learn most important lessons. They may find that governments, whatever claim of divine right they may set up, are not above the examination of the Christian citizen —and, more than this, here are the very tests to apply.
[3.] It presented then, and does now, the specific ends which the godly should seek to attain in their reforming efforts. It has already been hinted that the word of God, the gospel of Christ, is intended to overthrow immoral and despotic power. It will do more: it will accomplish a complete reformation; and this by the instrumentality of well instructed and faithful men, who labor with an intelligent eye to a fixed and definite end. This end they find here. Not only here, for it appears elsewhere in the inspired record; but here stated with singular definiteness, distinctness and brevity. Setting this before them, the friends of Christ and
of the welfare of man are engaged in no aimless work. Their toils in this department of their efforts have this as their object —the ultimate establishment of governmental authority that shall honor God and religion, shall enact just laws, protecting the poor, and restraining all wrong, and that shall seek as their highest aim to advance the name and glory of Christ.
Hence, it may be added, the wise student of Romans 13: 1 – 7, will rise from his investigations deeply impressed on the one hand with the wide departures from its high standard which have
characterized and yet do characterize, the kingdoms of this world, and, of course, with a confirmed determination to refuse them his active support, but, on the other hand, with a profound and salutary conviction of the excellence of the institution of government, and the weighty responsibilities that rest upon the Christian as he sustains many relations to society around him. He will thus be guarded against a spirit of sedition or lawlessness, and imbued with a disposition to attend to the requirements of duty in his own particular sphere, so that while he may exemplify the faithfulness of the witness for Christ, he may still “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (I Timothy 2: 2)
[5.] There is not wanting evidence that the primitive Christians did gather at least much of this sort of instruction from these teachings of Paul. We once more quote Hoadly: “It is very remarkable that Origen, (the same person who challenges Celsus, that great enemy to Christians, to name any sedition, or tumult in which the Christians were concerned,) is by some alleged for this in defense of passive obedience; that he, (I say,) should mention that celebrated passage of Paul, (Romans 13: 1,) upon which some have built so much, with such a remark as would incline one
to think that all the primitive Christians did not see any such unlimited non-resistance in it as many have done since. The passage I mean is towards the end of his eighth book against Celsus, where he takes occasion to cite this place of Paul, to show the adversaries of Christianity what notions Christians had concerning princes, and the subjection due to them. But he immediately adds that there were many questions and disputations about the meaning of this place of Scripture, arising from the consideration of the cruelty and tyranny of many princes; and that upon that account he would not at present undertake to give an exact account of it. From whence I think it manifest, not only that many of the first Christians doubted whether the subjection preached by Paul was due, in point of conscience, to tyrants and oppressors; but also that Origen himself, when he wrote this, did not believe it to be so. For if he did, he had now the fairest occasion for declaring it; and he could not more effectually have defended the Christians from the objections now before him, than by saying so.”*
This passage was far from useless to the Romans, though it did not teach them conscientious obedience to a rampant savage power. It taught them
*Hoadly, p. 139
better things, more becoming Christians. To us it brings the same lessons.
6. It may be objected that to withhold allegiance from ungodly governments is not practicable —that lands must be held —taxes paid —the laws appealed to for redress. We reply, (1.) That property is not held of the state. The state —the nation— does not give the title. Or if it be in any case original proprietor, the purchase of land from the state no more implies a recognition of its other claims than the purchase of property from an individual recognizes all his acts, and endorses his character. (2.) Taxes may be paid, either on business principles merely, for work done, or for the reason that if they be not paid, they will be taken. Circumstances may occur making it an imperative duty to refuse the payment of taxes at all hazards, but ordinarily this would be unwise because ineffectual, and would answer no end that cannot, at least as well, be otherwise obtained. (3.) The courts may be appealed to on principles already stated and vindicated.* (4.) We reply, in general, to every objection of this sort, that we must distinguish between things that belong merely to matters of social neighborhood and arrangement, and things governmental; that there is a vast difference
*See p. 131
between men’s availing themselves merely of natural rights, and taking an active and, of course, voluntary part in affairs of state. And, finally, that all these acts, which are comprehended in this class of objections, are acts which aliens may do, and privileges used such as aliens enjoy, and yet no one imagines that the alien becomes, by such acts as buying lands, &c., a corporate member of the body politic.
Our principle will stand the most rigid investigation —it demands the closest examination. For it is a matter of no small moment to ascertain well that we do not so identify ourselves with institutions that dishonor God and oppress man, as to involve ourselves in their guilt and punishment, or weaken our own hands in the efforts we may be disposed to make for their reformation.