Subject to the Powers that Be

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“Subject to the Powers that Be”

The Signs of the Times 14, 49. December 21, 1888

E. J. Waggoner

“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.” Rom. 13:1, 2.

This text of Scripture has been the cause of a great deal of controversy concerning the scope of civil governments, and the relations which Christians should sustain to them.

There are a great many people who take the extreme view that whatever civil governments enact should be scrupulously obeyed, no matter how much it may conflict with the will of God, as revealed in the Bible.

They seem to imagine that God has delegated all power to men, and that He waives to the claims of men His right to govern in matters of morals. They virtually say that the inspired command to be subject to the higher powers absolves people from direct allegiance to their Creator.

The very statement of the case should be enough to show anybody the absurdity of such a view.

The thirteenth chapter of Romans affords, in itself, ample proof that the powers that be are ordained of God only in matters that pertain to the outward peace of society. But we wish to bring a few other scriptures to bear, to show just how we are to be subject to earthly powers, and at the same time be subject to the highest power of all.

The seventh verse of the same chapter says:

Powers that Be“Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

Render “honor to whom honor” is due, is a part of this command.

Now it is beyond question that honor is due to God, for the Lord himself says that He will honor only those who honor Him. 1 Sam. 2:30. And that this tribute and honor which are due to God are entirely different from those which are due to earthly governments, is evident from the words of Christ to the Pharisees, which are exactly parallel with those of Paul to the Romans:

“Render therefore unto CÊsar the things which are CÊsar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s.” Matt. 22:21.

Thus we see that while we are to be subject to the earthly powers, that subjection must in nowise conflict with our subjection to God.

That inspiration does not teach that men are in duty bound to obey every edict of earthly powers, but that they are to disobey every enactment which conflicts with the law of God, is very plain.

Take the case of the three Hebrew children at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. They were as truly bound to be subject to him as ever any men were to an earthly ruler, for Nebuchadnezzar was king by God’s own appointment (Jer. 27:4-7), and they had by the same power been placed under him. Yet when the king commanded them to worship an image which he had set up, they absolutely refused to do anything of the kind.

For their stubbornness, as the king doubtless thought it, they were cast into a fiery furnace; yet God, who commands us to be subject to the powers that be, showed His approval of their course in the most marked manner.

Take the case of Daniel in the court of Darius.

That king made a decree that for thirty days no man should make a request of any god or man except himself, under penalty of being cast into a den of lions.

But Daniel paid no manner of attention to the decree.

When he knew that the writing was signed,

“he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.” Dan. 6:10.

Like his three fellows, he made no secret of his disobedience to the king’s order.

Yet the same God who commands us to be subject to the powers that be, showed His approval of Daniel’s course, by delivering him from the lions, and honoring him before the whole empire.

The apostles afford another case in point.

An express injunction was laid upon them by the Jewish Sanhedrim “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” Acts 4:17-18.

The apostles, however, refused to keep silence, saying, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (verse 20), and they went right on teaching as though the rulers had said nothing.

When they were again brought before the council, and reminded of the injunction which had been laid upon them, they boldly replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29.

All these cases, and especially this last, show that the command to be subject to the powers that be does not mean that we should obey them when obedience to them involves disobedience to God.

Now the question arises,

Were these men subject to the Governments under which they lived?

Can men be subject to the powers that be, and yet not obey them in every particular, no matter what they command?

We answer that men can be subject to the powers that be, and still disobey them when their decrees conflict with the laws of God; and the record shows most clearly that Daniel and his fellows, and the apostles, were subject to the powers that existed in their time.

A passage from the writings of one of the men who refused to obey men when to do so involved disloyalty to God, will make this matter clear.

We quote from 1 Peter 2:17-29:-

“Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”

The command to “honor the king” shows this to be a parallel passage to Rom. 13:1-2.

Here, as there, we are exhorted to be subject to rulers, even though they be not good. But that this does not mean that we should in so doing disobey God, is evident from verse 19: “For this is thank-worthy if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.”

The fact that he is called upon to suffer wrongfully, and that he is buffeted because he does well, shows that his doing right has been in direct opposition to the commands of his master. He suffers “for conscience toward God.”

That is, his conscience will not allow him to disobey God’s commandment in obedience to the powers that be, and so he patiently suffers for it.

And although he cannot obey the master’s command, his patient acceptance of the threatened punishment shows his subjection to the power. So we see that being subject to the powers that be means simply that we are to obey them when their commands are right, and to disobey them when they conflict with those of God, and meekly to take the consequences.

This is just what Daniel and his fellows and the apostles did.

They did not resist, but they did not obey an unrighteous commandment. Now turn again to Romans 13, verse 2 and 5, and you will see that is just what is taught. We quote:-

“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.”

The Bible everywhere teaches respect for authority.

Anarchists can find no warrant in the Bible for any of their contempt for authority. Rebellion against authority is not countenanced under any circumstances. Every soul must be subject to the powers that be, and that subjection consists in willing, prompt obedience to all their laws when they do not require disregard of God’s law, and as willing an acceptance of the penalty for disobeying laws that do contravene the laws of God.

An example of this is found in the early Christians, who took joyfully the spoiling of their goods. Heb. 10:34.

Where there cannot be obedience, there must not be resistance.

David would not lift his hand against the king of Israel, even though that king was most unjustly seeking his life; Paul would not knowingly speak ill of the high priest, although that priest was a wicked hypocrite. He counseled the Christians to be subject to the powers that were, even while he was daily violating the laws of the most wicked ruler; and he showed his subjection to a power which was despicable because of its moral rottenness, by willingly yielding up his life as the price of his necessary disobedience. W.


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