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Letter on “The Higher Powers.”


Letter on “The Higher Powers.”

James Dodson







The following Letter was written at the request of an individual not a member of our church, presented by another who is a member. It was at first designed to write merely a private letter, but at the suggestion of some friends, I was induced to publish it. The expenses of publication are defrayed by the Female Missionary Society of the Congregation of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, and the proceeds of the sale of this tract will go into their treasury.






With your request, I would give you an exposition of Romans 13:1-5, I cheerfully comply. And I am fully aware, that my views of the passage differ widely from those found in the commentaries generally used. Our faith, however, must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

            The principal point to be determined is, what is meant by “the higher powers,” to which every soul is commanded to be subject? In answering this inquiry I shall endeavor to show,


       I. That the phrase, “the higher powers,” does not mean the Roman Government, when this Epistle was written.

    II. That it does mean Civil Government at any time, and in any place, constituted and administered according to the will of God.


            In proof of the first proposition, I offer the following arguments:

1. The Roman Government is characterized in Scripture as a beastly government. All respectable expounders of prophecy agree, that the fourth beast of Daniel’s vision, Dan. 7:7, is a representation of the Roman Empire. For your satisfaction on this point read Scott’s exposition of the whole vision. The symbol employed by the Spirit of God, is a fierce and monstrous wild beast such as never had a real existence. Now, can we suppose that God would represent his own ordinance of civil rule, to which he has commanded his people to render conscientious subjection, by a ferocious beast of prey, which nature itself teaches every man to resist and destroy? This same government, in its various forms, is in a similar manner symbolized, Rev. 13:1. In the minute description which John there gives of the beast that rose up out of the sea, he says that “upon its heads was the name of blasphemy.” By the seven heads of this monster are meant the seven forms of government by which the Roman Empire was successively administered. Rev. 17:9, 10. “The seven heads are seven mountains—and there are seven kings.” (Read Scott on the passage.) One of these heads was the imperial form of government which existed when Paul wrote this epistle. On that head was written the name of blasphemy. And was that blasphemous head—Nero Caesar the reigning emperor—was he meant by “the higher powers” to which Christians are commanded to be subject; and was his tyrannical and impious administration the ordinance of God which it would incur damnation to resist? But farther, in Rev. 13:2, it is said of the same beast with all its heads and horns that “the dragon gave him his power, his seat and great authority.” The dragon is the devil, Rev. 20:2. And does God command his people to render conscientious obedience to a government that receives its power from the devil? Surely a government described as beastly, blasphemous, and originating from the devil, is not the higher power to which subjection is enjoined in the Bible.

            2. The Roman Government did not accord with the description of “the higher powers” contained in this passage. Verse 3. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” It is evident, on the slightest inspection, that this clause is introduced as an argument, enforcing the injunction of the first verse, and justifying the threatening of the second. “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers,”—“they that resist shall receive damnation.” “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” It is plain, then, that the “higher powers” and “the rulers” mean the same thing. And now the inquiry is, Was the Roman Government under Nero a terror to evil works? Let the history of his administration answer. Under him the church suffered a sore persecution. It was during his reign that Paul was imprisoned, and, as is generally believed, beheaded. Nero was a terror not to evil works but to good. Moreover, of the government to which subjection is enjoined it is said, verse 4, “do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same”—“his is a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Now, as none of these reasons enforcing the command in the first verse will at all apply to the Roman Government at the time this epistle was written, it necessarily follows that “the higher powers” did not mean that government.

            3. If by “the higher powers” Paul meant the Roman Government, then he is chargeable with acting contrary to his own principles. Will anyone say that Paul rendered conscientious obedience to the government of Nero as the ordinance of God? It will behoove him to explain how God’s moral ordinance of civil rule, could imprison and put to death one who was rendering to it circumspect subjection. This I apprehend will be no easy task—a task, however, that must be undertaken by all the advocates of Nero’s claims. To this same functionary Paul refers when he says, 2 Tim. 4:17, “I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” He alludes here to some occasion when he was brought before the emperor or his deputy, in circumstances of sore trial and great danger. But how was he delivered? Not by the just decision of a righteous judge, but by the immediate hand of God as from the jaws of a devouring lion. Would a conscientious subject have employed such language about a lawful ruler?

            This appears to be the proper place to notice an objection to the views presented, which is thought to be unanswerable. Paul appealed to Caesar, and from this it is inferred that he recognized the Roman Government as the ordinance of God. I reply, that if the principle of this objection be sound, a slave could not appeal from his overseer to his master, without admitting the righteousness of the relation by which he is held in bondage. An appeal does not imply that the tribunal appealed to has by divine right cognizance of the matter, but merely that the appellant expects that the removal of his cause will be to his advantage. Paul had good reason to appeal to Caesar, apart altogether from any consciousness of duty to, or expectation of justice from him. He was aware of the fact, that there were Jews lying in wait to kill him, who for that purpose had requested the Roman Governor to have him brought from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Acts 25:1-3. When Festus afterwards “willing to do the Jews a pleasure,” proposed to Paul to go up to Jerusalem, he knew that to comply would expose him to the danger of assassination by the way. He had now the choice, either to run the risk of being murdered on his way to Jerusalem, or to escape the danger by asking to be sent to Rome, a privilege that was allowed him by law. Before the judgment—seat of either Festus at Jerusalem—or of Caesar at Rome, he was required to stand, and all the circumstances warranted the choice of the latter. Of two physical evils, he chose the least. This view of the matter fully justifies Paul for appealing to Caesar, without any reference whatever to the moral character of his government.

            But I proceed to the second proposition, namely,—that the phrase, “the higher powers” means civil government at any time, and in any place, constituted and administered according to the will of God.

            By the will of God, I mean his preceptive will made known to man as the rule of his duty. This was revealed before the fall in the law of nature; and since, by direct communications adapted to our changed condition. It is now found only in the Bible. To the point respecting the divine ordination of governments, established and administered according to the law of nature, where the Scriptures are not, I do not now advert, because in relation to such governments, either in past or future time, both history and prophecy are silent. The directions under consideration are an integral part of the Bible, and wherever they are found, whether in Rome, Britain, or the United States, there is the Bible, with its high and indispensable claims on individuals and communities. And it is by making the law of God thus revealed, the foundation of its constitution, and the rule of its administration, that a nation becomes the higher power to which every soul is commanded to be subject. This will appear from a farther examination of the passage under consideration.

            1. The higher powers are ordained of God. Verse 1. “For there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God.” This is assigned as a reason why subjection should be rendered. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; for there is no power but of God,” &c. Try this according to the sentiment, that by “the higher powers” is meant the Roman Government. If that power were the ordinance of God, then to resist it according to verse second, would be to receive damnation. Had then the whole Roman people, with the exception of the emperor and his deputies, been converted to Christianity, they dared not, under pain of damnation, resist Nero and revolutionize the government. From every such attempt they must have shrunk back, as though a voice from heaven had proclaimed in their ears, “Touch not Nero mine anointed, nor do his deputies any harm.” On the same principle, the British nation did wrong in joining the Prince of Orange, and effecting the revolution of 1688. And to bring the matter nearer home, the Colonies of North America sinned, when in 1776, they resisted the government of England and declared themselves independent. These conclusions flow inevitably from the premises, but as none will advocate the sentiment which they present, let the premises be abandoned.

            That there can be no power however wicked, not even the devil himself, without the divine knowledge, permission, and providential designation is readily conceded, as a very comfortable truth. But that this is what the apostle means when he says, “the powers that be are ordained of God” is confidently denied. What are we to understand by powers being ordained of God? Is it not that such powers act by divine appointment? But how may we know that the claims to act by divine appointment set up by rulers are valid? We know of no conceivable way but by examining the foundation of these claims in the light of the divine law. But if the government honors those that are no gods as the source of its power, as was the case with the Roman government; or if it does not acknowledge the authority of God or the obligations of his law, but gives legal countenance and support to the violators of it, we ask, if in this and similar cases, it is still to be viewed as a power ordained of God? Both reason and revelation answer this inquiry in the negative. God says of the establishers of such governments, “they have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes and I knew it not.” Hosea 8:4. “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law.” Psalm 94:20. The powers ordained of God, are governments established and administered according to his revealed will.

            2. “The higher powers” apply the divine law in their administrations. Verses 3, 4. “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 is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” I have already observed, that “the higher powers” of verse 1 and rulers of verse 3 are identical. And it will, I presume, be admitted, that by “good” and “evil” in this passage are meant moral good, and moral evil, or right and wrong as these are distinguished and defined by the divine law. From these premises it necessarily follows, that the rulers whose official character is here exhibited take the divine law as their rule, and acknowledge the authority of the Lawgiver. All this so clearly demonstrates the proposition which I have engaged to prove, that farther exposition of these verses is unnecessary.

            3. To “the higher powers” subjection for conscience’ sake is enjoined. Verse 5. “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Subjection for wrath’s sake is submission in things not wrong, merely because there is power to enforce it. Such subjection a slave renders to his master, and such subjection may be yielded to the worst government on earth. But subjection for conscience’ sake is quite a different thing. “God alone is the Lord of the conscience,” and that human authority whose claims an enlightened conscience will recognize must be derived from him. Now it is subjection for conscience’ sake that is enjoined in this passage. This is clear from the conclusion in the fifth verse, “wherefore ye must needs be subject—for conscience’ sake.” The expression “not only for wrath,” comes in as referring to a point not controverted, and the apostle employs it to show that the duty enjoined goes beyond this. Subjection conscience’ sake to lawful rulers, is what was to be demonstrated, and of this he treats throughout the argument. He does not change the terms in passing from the premises to the conclusion. He is too good a logician to infer the duty of conscientious subjection to legitimate authority, from premises that treat of mere submission to what cannot be hindered, or remedied. This is, I conceive, a refutation of the opinion, that it is mere submission and not conscientious obedience that is enjoined in these verses. And from the fact that it is obedience for conscience’ sake that is enjoined, the conclusion is clear and unequivocal that the power to which it is due must be established and administered according to the will of God.

            The following inferences are fairly deducible from the preceding observations:

1.      That to teach that the Bible requires Christians to render conscientious obedience to governments without any respect to their moral qualities, is to exhibit it as hostile to the rights and liberties of men.

2.      That the government that does not recognize the authority of God and the obligations of his law, has no claims to the subjection of Christians for conscience’ sake.

3.      That Christians must refrain from incorporation and political identity with all such governments.

4.      That the government of the United States, inasmuch as it does not acknowledge the authority of God, and render obedience to his law, is not a power ordained of God in the Scriptural meaning of that expression.


                                                                                                Respectfully yours,

                                                                                                            THOMAS SPROULL.


ALLEGHENY, Nov. 10, 1845.