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Section V.-The Principles of Obedience to Civil Rule.


Section V.-The Principles of Obedience to Civil Rule.

James Dodson

This topic has been incidentally noticed in commenting upon the duty itself; but it is made the subject of a distinct statement.

"Wherefore, ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake." V. 5.

1. Obedience is to be rendered partly to avoid penal inflictions—"for wrath’s sake." It is not very material to determine whether the Apostle here refers to the "wrath of the magistrate, or of God, or of both." If to the first—and the connection in which the term occurs seems to warrant this view—it still implies that the displeasure of God, also, rests upon him who withholds due subjection from the authorities previously described. It is more important to remark that this phrase has been frequently applied to express that sort of submission which the slave gives to his master, or the oppressed to the power of the despot—a submission altogether forced, in which there is no heartfelt recognition. There is such a subjection to lawless authority, and such a submission may be given on this principle. Moreover, this term is appropriate enough as thus applied. But it has not this meaning here. As has been frequently stated already, Paul refers, in this passage, to no usurped, tyrannical or godless power. He speaks of but one kind of government—one sort of rulers: a government worthy of obedience—rulers who are "ministers of God."

This phrase, as we find it in the passage before us, may be regarded as referring to that class whom we have styled "bad citizens;" for they are kept under only by fear of punishment. But this is not all. The Apostle is addressing Christians—urges upon them a subjection of a different and contrasted character—"not for wrath’s sake," but for higher considerations; as much as to say, whatever others may do: they may be prompted to conduct themselves peaceably and according to law, only from selfish reasons—but let it not be so with you; you should have another and a better spirit. Still this cannot be the leading object in the introduction of this clause, for this interpretation leaves out of view a very important word. Paul does not barely say "not for wrath’s sake"—but "not only for wrath’s sake"—intimating that this may be exhibited as a principle of obedience even in addressing the upright citizen. And the subsequent clause confirms this; for, he adds, "but also for conscience’ sake." Nor does this represent the passage as urging a principle unworthy of the Christian. Subjection to lawful authority merely for fear is, indeed, radically defective; but such a fear is, collaterally, a lawful principle of action. Hence, in covenanting with Adam, the Most High appeals to this principle: "The day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." In fact, the penalty is essential to the law in the case of all fallible creatures. It is "law" from the very fact that it is armed with such a sanction. And, besides, it must be remembered that even the best are here imperfect—that they are, in fact, under the influence of corrupt emotions and appetites, and, consequently, require the restraining influence of such considerations as those to which the inspired writer here appeals. God deals with even the faithful as subjects of discipline. He warns them of paternal displeasure in case they sin, and when they do sin, visits them with his chastisements. And, finally, the Apostle here brings to view the majesty and terror of civil government, not as belonging to itself alone, but as a transcript, however faint, of the ineffable dignity and eminence of Him in whose name "the sword" is borne and used. In short, there is here presented one—though an inferior one—of the principles which move the citizen, or the subject, to a whole-souled obedience to the lawful commands of a lawful power. There is another; for, it is added,

2. "But also for conscience’ sake." All know something from their own experience of the nature and workings of conscience. Philosophers may debate the question, whether it is a distinct faculty, or the result of the operation of certain faculties; but all, learned and unlearned, agree that it is through the action of conscience that man is made to feel his accountability to the Invisible and Supreme. It implies, if it does not essentially consist in, the possession of a moral sense; a sense which judges of right and wrong, not by any humanly enacted law, or with reference to the judgment of an earthly tribunal, but in view of a law of divine obligation and the presence of an unseen Judge. "We believe it," says McCosh, "to be an original, a divinely appointed, a fundamental law. Still, though persons could succeed in analyzing it, it would not be the less a law. Suppose there is nothing else in the mind, when contemplating moral actions, but the springing up of emotions, still there must be a Heaven-appointed law, otherwise the emotions would no be so invariable."

Conscience then has ever an eye, in all its judgments and dictates, to the tribunal of God. But to what particular duty, or aspect of duty, are its judgments directed as it is here introduced by the apostle? An attempt has been made to connect it with the preceding clause; as if Paul designed to enforce a bare heartless submission, for "wrath’s sake," to an unjust or a hard governmental authority, out of conscience towards God.

Now, it is not denied that in case such submission is properly yielded, and we have admitted that in certain instances it may be, it should be yielded with a good conscience. The slave who plies his labour at the bidding of even a tyrannical master, may do this conscientiously—in part, as he regards his condition in the light of an affliction befalling him in the providence of God, and in part, as he may be influenced by a respect to certain other considerations, such as his own comfort, which every man is bound to promote, so far as he an, without sin, in the exemplification of a meek and quiet spirit, even under the infliction of wrong. But to this the apostle makes no reference here. Unless we have mistaken altogether the drift of the passage, that it relates to good governors, it is impossible that he could. And, moreover, Paul does not say, "Submit for fear of punishment, out of conscience towards God:" giving, in the last clause, a reason for the injunction of the first, or a rule to guide in fulfilling it: "but we must needs be subject," that is under obedience, "not only for wrath’s, but also for conscience’ sake;" thus assigning not one reason, but two distinct ones. And, finally, this verse is clearly a conclusion from the whole of the preceding exhibition of the nature and functions of civil power. "Therefore," inasmuch as the "higher powers" are "ordained of God"—inasmuch as "rulers are a terror to the evil, but a praise to them that do well"—inasmuch as government is a divine and a beneficent institution, "ye must needs be subject for conscience’ sake."

The last paragraph embodies the substance of the meaning of this clause. To obey for "conscience’ sake" is to obey because God requires it—because the lawful magistrate is invested with a legitimate authority to administer an ordinance of God’s appointment—because the judgment is "the Lord’s."[1] And, finally, because a good government is conducive to the peace, the morality, the religious interests of society.

This is the true, as it is a high principle of obedience to civil rule. And, in fact, in the case of good citizens, it is the main reason why wholesome laws are conformed to. Such have respect, not to any mere human arrangements, but to an institution which bears the impress and sanction of God’s name, law, wisdom, supremacy, and majesty. Wherever these are seen, the homage and allegiance of the godly are sincere and genuine. They yield no mere outward and constrained service. What they do as members of the commonwealth, they do "as to the Lord, and not unto men."


1. It is not left optional with men whether they support righteous civil institutions or not. We mean as before God. That the citizen may—that he must—"prove" civil institutions and laws, has already been inferred from the preceding statements and reasonings of this passage. But having proved these and found them endowed with the attributes of God’s moral ordinance of magistracy—having proved the magistrates themselves, and the design and tendencies of their administration, and approved them, he is not at liberty to withhold the outward tokens of his approval. "Conscience" has to do with it. It has to do with Him who is "Lord of the conscience."

2. All obedience to civil authority is limited by the higher allegiance due to God its author. To imagine otherwise is to annihilate, by the law of God, its own authority and sanctions. All right subjection to civil rule regards it as the creature of God, but no more. It surely does not give it God’s place. Indeed nothing can be more absurd than the notion that "conscience," which always sees God as supreme in His claims and power, should, for a moment, substitute any "lower law" for His. This would be to deny its own nature—to act in direct opposition to the very law of its being. And, hence,

3. Every attempt to establish a paramount claim for any mere human enactment is really, under the pretence of doing honour to government, to imperil the stability and efficiency of all authority. What could any government do—unless one of mere force—without the aid and co-operation of the principle of conscience? And what do they seek to accomplish, who deride "The Higher Law," but to sap the very foundations of the social state? Instead of being friends, such men are the very worst enemies of civil government. Could they absorb the conscience of the individual, and deprive him of the right and the disposition to judge for himself, in the light of God’s law, and supremacy, and word, they would but make a community of the very lowest order of slaves, and thus sow the seeds of inevitable disorders and revolutions. They, and they alone, are the friends of civil law and social order, who vindicate the paramount claims of the supreme Potentate, and maintain the rights of an enlightened conscience. Hence,

4. May be ascertained the reason why the nations are so generally dissatisfied, and that the more as knowledge increases, with existing governments. It is because they find in them so little that bears the stamp of rectitude of aim; so little that bears the impress of the divine majesty. True, there are the lawless—the vicious—who, under any administration, would require the exercise of a restraining hand. The discontent we refer to is not only of such. It is that of the thoughtful, the intelligent, the benevolent, the devout. Their dissatisfaction may not always make itself manifest, but it is not the less real. It appears in the withdrawing of many good men from all active concern in politics, and in the longing of the pious for the coming of a time when iniquity shall no longer find refuge under the wings of power—when the legislators and executive officers of the nations shall be trustworthy men—when the entire workings of the social fabric shall be eminently conducive to the promotion of individual and national weal. It will be well for the world when civil government shall be avowedly restored to the domain of conscience—conscience toward God, His law, His Christ, and His gospel. [next SECTION]


[1] 2 Chron. 19:8.  Of course it is not meant that the magistrate is infallible, but he acts with God's sanction in so far as he acts rightly.