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An Essay on Submission to the Powers That Be.


An Essay on Submission to the Powers That Be.

James Dodson


James M. Willson.





Does the law of God require of Christians a conscientious submission to all existing governments? Or are we at liberty, and required to make preliminary inquiries respecting the moral character of a government previously to our yielding such a submission to its commands? We do not now speak of active support, as by oaths of allegiance, or by taking part in the administration. Our inquiry relates to submission. Nor do we discuss the propriety of obeying laws that contravene God’s law. On this point the Christian has explicit and unmistakable direction. He is to “obey God rather than man.” Nor do we treat of a forced conformity to civil regulations and enactments, in themselves not unlawful. This is certainly allowable. It is submission for “wrath’s sake.” Rom. 13:5. We are considering something different from any of these, viz., whether it is a Christian duty to acknowledge conscientiously, and as God’s ordinance, any existing government, whatever its moral character. To this we will attempt to furnish an answer in the course of the examination of the following passage. It will be found in 1 Pet. 2:13-16: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.”

On this, we remark—

I. That the terms employed here denote civil authorities, whatever the titles of their magistrates, higher and subordinate. From the use, in this passage, and elsewhere in Scripture, of the title “king,” to denote civil powers, we are not to infer, as some have done, that the Scriptures sanction, much less enjoin, monarchical government, as alone agreeable to God’s ordinance of magistracy. And, first [1.], if monarchs alone are meant here, inferior magistrates must be called governors, for so they are styled in the text. 2. The magistrates of ancient Israel were called in different periods by different names, and the government itself was far from having always the same form. For four hundred years after their settlement in the land of Canaan, they had no regular and unbroken succession of chief magistrates. Such as they had, and their administrations embraced the largest part of the four hundred years, they were styled שפטים, or judges. The highest authorities in the various tribes were even less distinctly designated. 3. So far from enjoining monarchical, the Scriptures favour a republican or representative form of government. The example of Israel, just referred to, is exactly in point. Among that people, many of their ordinary magistrates were evidently elective. “Choose ye out from among you,” says Moses to the twelve tribes; and this was certainly the principle of the political arrangements of Moses: a principle but little interfered with upon the introduction of the monarchical form at a subsequent period. Hence, though God had designated the person in whose hands the royal power was to be lodged,—the voice of the people was not disregarded. Witness the election of Saul, and of David, and the supplications presented by the people to Rehoboam when the people came to “Shechem to make him king.” (1 Kings 12:1). The truth is, 4. That the name of the chief magistrate, and even the particular form, as it relates to distribution of powers, and the whole subject of checks and balances, is a matter, in itself, of indifference. The grand requisite, as we shall show presently, is, that in all these matters there be a constant regard in every element and principle to bring them into accordance with the moral law of God. This appears in the passage, for

II. Civil government is here described as an “ordinance of man:” “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man.” The term “ordinance” is not used here in the same sense which we now frequently put upon it. In common parlance a civil “ordinance” is a municipal regulation,—a law ordained by a town council, or some peculiar enactment of the supreme authority. Here, it signifies the system of government set up and in operation. Hence, it follows, “to the king as supreme,” &c. But how is government an “ordinance of man?” Does it mean that civil government is a mere human device, that it has no higher origin than the voice of the nation? That it is a mere voluntary association which men may form or not, or that when formed it may be modelled as men please, irrespective of the claims of the Most High? Certainly not: “the powers that be are ordained of God,”—Rom. 13:1,—a fact which we may gather from the very constitution of man as a social being,—made for society, for co-operation with his fellows. Civil government has a higher origin than mere human ingenuity: God is its author. He has defined its ends, its duties, and the principles of its administration. He has even determined the class of men who should alone be the depositories of civil authority: “able men, men that fear God, men of truth, and hating covetousness.” How, then, is civil government an “ordinance of man?”

1. It is so called from the fact that human instrumentality is concerned in making its arrangements. Observe, not merely in giving it being, but in establishing the specific and peculiar terms of its constitution. This will appear more clearly in a literal rendering of the original words—παση ανθρωπινη κτισει—every human creation.[1] As we have already intimated, civil government is an ordinance of God, but not in such a sense as to preclude the exercise of human wisdom in what relates to its form, its various departments, its checks and balances. And hence, forms of government, in some respects very different, have existed with divine approbation. During the period of the Judges, Israel was a confederated republic. It was afterwards a limited, and, with certain reservations, an hereditary monarchy. In both these periods, however, the nation was in avowed subjection to the Most High, and its affairs were managed with divine approbation—in the spirit of the love of God, and with avowed subjection to its authority; the rights and liberties of all the people and the interest of religion being properly guarded and maintained. In this respect, there is a wide difference between civil and ecclesiastical government. The latter is, in every particular, completely arranged by Jesus Christ: the Bible contains the church’s constitution. Every thing relating to the officers of the church, their duties, and their powers, is fully set forth in the Scriptures. To these nothing can be added; from them nothing taken. Our business—and our only business—is to ascertain and carry out the divine will. Hence, ecclesiastical government is never denominated, as that of the state is, an “ordinance of man.” But this is not all.

2. Government is a human creation, inasmuch as the constituted civil authorities are left to the exercise of a wise discretion in the enactment and rescinding of laws, as demanded by emergent circumstances. For example, in regulating commerce, the currency, taxation, and, to some extent, even what relates to education and police, states are left free to choose that plan which the times and the existing state of things render advisable. True, all civil enactments are to be brought to scriptural test—none of these must run counter to the moral law—and in some departments, as in relation to marriage, to the penalties of gross crimes, to the vindication of the Sabbath, to the support of religion—the state is directly bound by the precepts and directions of the revealed will of God. Still, there remains a wide margin. In this, again, differing from the church—all whose laws, as well as constitutional privileges, are embodied in the Scriptures, our sole business being to discover and apply them.

Hence, in perfect consistency with the principle that civil government is an “ordinance of God,” it is here styled “an ordinance of man;” and we add, that in this title we find no indistinct intimation that lawful civil authority is not—cannot be—founded in the sword, nor in any absolute scheme of hereditary descent, nor in any thing else which stifles the popular will.

III. This passage describes, and requires submission to, a righteous civil government. And,

1. The magistrates here spoken of are “sent” of God: “as unto them that are sent by him.” [2] But what means this term? Are we to apply it to any existing government? Are we to suppose that, irrespective of the origin of their power, or its nature, or the spirit in which it is exercised, all civil rulers that happen to occupy the seat of power are to be honoured with conscientious allegiance? Certainly not. For—(1.) There have been civil rulers, of whom God declared, in the most express terms, that He had not sent them. We refer to the kings of the ten tribes after they became an independent kingdom: “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” Hos. 8:4. Can language be more explicit? “Not by me;” “they have made princes.” Yet this was an existing government; and, still more—and to this we ask particular attention—it was a popular government, having had its origin in a great national revolution, exercised and upheld by the voice of the people. The kings of Israel, in other words, were no usurpers; they swayed no sceptre gained by conquest and blood. Yet even of these God said they were set up “not by Him,” He “knew it not.” The assent of the people they had, but God did not acknowledge nor recognise them. Surely, it would have been no “damnable” sin for a fearer of God to withhold from such kings conscientious submission; to such no allegiance could be due “for the Lord’s sake.” (2.) We have declarations equally explicit in relation to the existing idolatrous, tyrannical authorities of the old world. We refer to the language of prophecy, which denominates them as “beastly” in their origin and character, and blasphemous in their pretensions, and denounces them as doomed of God. “I saw,” says Daniel, (chap. 7), “and, behold, the four winds of heaven strove upon the great sea, and four great beasts came up from the sea.” The last of these—the fourth beast—was “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly, and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet.” And so John: (Rev. 13:7), “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 heads ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” All intelligent Protestants apply these symbolic representations to the divided Roman empire—the existing anti-Christian thrones of Europe. Did God send them? No. For even still more expressly as to their origin, John says—”And the dragon”—the devil—”gave him his power, and seat, and great authority.” Can any thing be clearer? How could this beast—these kings—claim conscientious submission? The devil—not God—gave them their power: a fact written as clear as the sun in the heavens upon their constitution and administration. The former, adverse to the rights of the people—the latter, directed not to the advancement of God’s glory, and the interests of morality and religion, but in diametrical opposition to all these. God sends them! Yes. As he sends tempests and plagues, to scourge the nations for their sins. As he raised up Pharaoh, to show in these last times his power in their utter and signal ruin. [3] (3.) It cannot be that God, in any such way, sends immoral powers, for then the only inquiry would be, Does a government exist? Has it the requisite vigour and resources to compel obedience to its decrees? Behind this, we could not—dare not go. Every usurper, every tyrant, every Nero, Caligula, Heliogabalus, or Borgia, might justly demand conscientious allegiance as God’s minister! Do the advocates of existing powers, as God’s ordinance, admit this? No. They fall back from their own argument—they insist upon some attributes as essential to a right to reign. We live in the age of revolutions. The world will not hear even the enunciation of the doctrine of passive obedience. The nations have risen, and are still rising, to demand, at least some, credentials of these pretended vicegerents of the Almighty. But, are they not powers?—are they not “powers that be?” How, then, except on our principle, can we go behind this fact, and investigate the validity of their commission? We affirm, on no other.

Who, then, are “sent” of God? We answer, those who come bearing the law, and exhibiting, in measure, the image of God. Those who, honouring God, and seeking to accomplish the ends of his moral ordinance of magistracy, do really sustain the character, as they perform the duties of his ministers. To no others are we called upon, in God’s name, and for his sake, to yield a conscientious submission.

2. The passage expressly defines them as righteous—v. 14—”As unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well.” That this language defines a righteous administration of justice between man and man as an indispensable feature of civil government, without which it would have no validity--no claims upon our allegiance, is scarcely disputable. Few will be even disposed to deny this, at least in this land. For, whatever the abettors of a “divine right to rule wrong” may affirm, it is here universally acknowledged, (we go farther, maintained), that tyrants have no claim upon the conscientious submission of their subjects: that, instead, it is even a duty to throw off the yoke the very first opportunity. The contrary doctrine would involve the notion—reproachful to the Almighty—that He not merely recognises the proud and hard-hearted despot as His vicegerent, but obliges the wretched victims of his power to look up to him with reverence as God’s minister to him for good.

But, is this all? Is it enough to characterize a government as “sent” of God “for the punishment of the evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well,” that common justice be dispensed, the lawless and the turbulent restrained, and the rights of the peaceable guarded? Certainly not. Are none, in the sight of God’s law—we speak of it as revealed as the law of society—are none “evil-doers” but rioters and robbers, disturbers of the public peace; and invaders of private rights? And are we to limit the phrase, “such as do well,” to those who pay due regard to the common welfare, and to the rights of their fellow citizens? By no means. Wrong-doing and well-doing are both to be measured by the divine law—not merely its second, but its first table. He does wrong who dishonours God, and blasphemes his name, and profanes his Sabbath,—he does well, in a high sense, who does the opposite of all these. We might rest our argument on this point with a fair interpretation of the phrases themselves—evil and well-doing—but we have additional evidence. God so explained it in the code which he prepared for ancient Israel. The book of Revelation exhibits the same principle in its denunciation of civil government—not as tyrannical merely, but as impious; and finally, we may appeal to the common opinion of all nations—pagan and Christian, ancient and modern. For where is the nation which has taken no account—we except revolutionary France for a very short time—of such crimes as open blasphemy?

If this be granted, our principle is established. The government that claims the conscientious submission of the faithful, must be, in the sense in which we have now explained it, as well as in the former, a restraint upon evil doers, and a praise to them that do well. And why not? We admit, as we have already said, that a government that tramples upon human rights is not to be acknowledged as the minister of God. How, then, we ask, can a government be so acknowledged which puts no restraint upon the open enemies of the Most High, pays no regard to the prerogatives of Christ, and throws open its honours, and thus gives “power” to the avowed despisers of his law? Is this to answer the ends of a divine ordinance? Surely the rights of God and of Christ are not less worthy of recognition than human rights. To permit, and especially to patronize their violation is no less a crime than to refuse to the citizens of the commonwealth protection of life or property.[4]

Now observe, all agree,—with the few exceptions already referred to,—that there are limits to the duty of submission, that at least the rights of man must not be seriously infringed. Some would, however, stop at this point. They would be satisfied with the very narrowest sense that the terms will possibly bear. We make no such restrictions. We interpret them in light of Scripture, and of the entire history of our race, so far as it contains examples worthy of being followed. Without hesitation, we repeat our assertion that the passage enjoins conscientious submission to such a government, and to such a one only, as vindicates not merely human rights, but the rights of God,—of Him who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”[5]

3. The fact that civil government is a divine ordinance demands this interpretation. As we have already said, provision has been made in the very constitution of human nature for the existence of civil institutions among men. And the language of Rom. 13:1, is express to the point that civil government is, not a mere contrivance of men, a matter of expedience or necessity,—but an ordinance of God. “The powers that be are ordained of God.” “He,” the ruler, “is the minister of God to thee for good.” But what does this ordinance comprehend? Does it embrace no more that the affixing of a divine sanction to the exercise of such authority among men as is denominated civil?—leaving every thing relating to its ends, its limits, its exercise, completely independent of God’s will and direction? Certainly not. A divine ordinance is something. God’s minister has something to do in that character. And whatever government is, it must be moral—for God is holy and good. Whatever his servant has to do, he must, in doing it, bear the image of God for whom he acts. It is monstrous even to imagine that the Most High has impressed his sanction upon every kind of human authority, however immoral, profane, blasphemous, requiring of the unhappy and tempted subject of such dominion, not merely a peaceful subjection to irresistible power, but a conscientious reverence of its officers and agents, as his ministers. We are not left to adopt any such revolting conclusion. The scriptures are plain. They define, as we have already remarked, the ends of civil authority,—the good of society, and God’s glory; they fix the character of its officers—able men. Ex. 18:21; just men, “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God,” 2 Kings 23:3. They prescribe many of its laws, and enjoin upon it special duties. Now, we repeat, every ordinance of God, in its institution, is like himself, and only as it bears his image in its constitution and administration, can it possibly be required of us to yield it that high regard, and hearty acquiescence, and conscientious obedience, which is due to those to whom so high and important trusts are committed.

But, it will be said, the government then existing, which claimed the submission of Christians,—the Roman,—certainly did not possess the character of a righteous government, as we have defined it,—did not acknowledge Christ—nor regard his law. The fact is admitted, the conclusion is denied. Because, (1.) This government was one of conquest, so far as related to the provinces in which the Christians resided, whom Peter addresses, and even in Rome itself, was a military and not a popular government, and, hence, on the principles of objectors themselves, could not claim a conscientious allegiance: in other words, it was a government which might lawfully have been thrown off, even by a violent revolution. The advocates of passive obedience, and non-resistance, are constant—no others are, in adducing this objection. It strikes at the fundamental, and, in this country, generally admitted doctrine, that a mere government of force cannot claim to be God’s ordinance,—cannot demand conscientious allegiance, but may be resisted, overturned, and another substituted in its stead. (2.) Intelligent Christians knew, as they know now, that this government had been denounced by the Spirit of God as the enemy of the kingdom of Christ. They understood the prophecies of Daniel, to which we have already referred, and could have had no difficulty in applying them to a government with whose history they were familiar, as one of destruction,—of trampling down and breaking in pieces. Nor, (3.) does our view involve the conclusion that these directions were of no use to the churches. This passage was designed, and would have this effect, to arrest any tendency on the part of Christians to reject entirely the ordinance of civil government; to meet the case of a class of persons which began to make their appearance at this early age, as we learn from Peter’s Second Epistle to these churches, as they have often since, who rejected the ordinance of civil government altogether,—true anti-government men,—holding it to be inconsistent with Christianity, under any circumstances, to have to do with civil power. Moreover, the Scriptures were intended to be a complete rule in every age and such passages as the one before us, would point out to the faithful one grand object at which they should aim—the reformation of national organizations until they should be brought into conformity with the characteristics embodied summarily, but distinctly, in these passages themselves. These admonitions, then, were far from being useless or inapplicable, at the time, and are of immense use now. Indeed, the very fact that such directions were needed at that time, is no inconsiderable argument in favour of our view. For how could the idea have originated that Christians were adverse to civil authority, unless from the perversion of the apostolic teachings in regard to the unholy nature and unchristian character of existing institutions?

Our interpretation must stand. The passage teaches the duty of acknowledging a righteous civil government, and no other. It makes this an essential characteristic. And that, as much when the government is of popular origin, as under any other circumstances. Even of such a government, if it had this attribute, God says, as he said of the popular government of the ten tribes, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.”

4. To a righteous government hearty allegiance is imperatively required. “Submit yourselves therefore.” There are two kinds of submission to civil authority. One is forced—for “wrath’s sake:” the other is that to which we have so often alluded, a sincere, cheerful subjection—for “conscience sake,” for “the Lord’s sake.” As to the former, circumstances may render it expedient, and even dutiful. It may be expedient, from regard to a man’s personal safety,—like the submission of the peaceable inhabitant to the unjust exactions of an invading host, pouring into his country with irresistible might; or, more nearly, like the peaceable subjection of the slave to the unjust and sinful claims of his pretended owner. A subjection based upon no higher principle than the impossibility of successful resistance, and the fear of making things worse by attempting the use of violent means of relief. On these grounds, submission for wrath’s sake may be expedient, and even in a sense, dutiful. Still more, the Christian regards the peace of society—he knows that the reformation of the government is a work of time and of Christian effort—he has, as a willing subject of Christ’s government, a high regard for the welfare of the body politic, and is thankful for every law, and every act of administration that accords with the divine will, and thus tends to promote the object of the ordinance of magistracy—and, besides, is careful that no just reproach shall fall, through any act of his, upon the pure and peaceful character of the gospel of Christ, and cherishes, with habitual concern, the honour of his exalted Prince and Saviour. On these grounds, the intelligent Christian demeans himself quietly and honestly in all godliness, so long as his privileges and those of his fellow-Christians, and the community, are not interfered with, whatever the moral character of the government. And thus, as a matter of duty, and we may even say for “conscience sake,” not as regarding the existing authorities as God’s ministers, but as for other and higher reasons.[6]

God’s ordinance, however, requires more than this. It demands, as we have all along suggested, a hearty and cheerful recognition of its being and its authority, and a ready submission to its enactments, as bearing the stamp and impress of God’s institution. Such a government and such officers, the Christian will honour, support, maintain and defend. This is the submission enjoined in the passage before us: “Submit, for the Lord’s sake,” “for so is the will of God.” Such a submission as the godly Israelites gave to the Mosaic institutions, and the officers by whom they were administered—to the authority of David, and his godly successors. Such a submission as the saints will yield to the governments of the earth at that time when “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.”

Here we might enter upon a more minute examination of the elements which enter into the constitution of a righteous civil government. For these, however, we refer the reader, as well as for the application of the principles which we have vindicated, to the pages of the “[Two] Sons of Oil:” adding, only, that no government can claim to be in accordance with God’s moral ordinance, which does not in Christian lands, honour God in Christ, adopt his law as supreme, regard the rights and privileges of the entire community, particularly of the most needy, which does not deny its bounties to the open enemies of Christ, and direct its operations to the advancement of moral order and the glory of God, in the maintenance of God’s law, the support of religion and the restraint of those who do evil against both tables of the decalogue. These are not “high and ultimate attainments.” They are primary and fundamental principles. We do not demand absolute perfection; but we do demand of any government that asks our conscientious support, that it “kiss the Son,” that it put itself under that law which only needs to be understood and applied to reach every interest of social life, and every element of moral order, that it trample upon none of its subjects or citizens, that it regard with interest the special kingdom of Christ, bought with his blood, and cherished as his peculiar possession. In this way, and in this way alone, can we vindicate with effect God’s ordinance of magistracy, and perpetuate its claims to future generations, and so secure for them the rich heritage of Christian institutions, and the favour of the Most High. Adopting these views, we must withhold, for reasons which are so well stated in the preceding pamphlet, our conscientious allegiance from the government of our land, endeavouring, in the mean time, while we labour for a reformation, to demean ourselves as becomes the subjects, disciples, and witnesses of Jesus Christ—the King of kings, and the Lord of lords—the Saviour of his body the church.



[1] M’Knight translates it “every creature of magistrates.” The supply is undoubtedly correct, as government is the subject spoken of.

[2] We take for granted, that the person sending is here not the “king,” but the “Lord.” Rom. xiii., a parallel passage, confirms this.

[3] We append Dr. Junkin’s exposition of this passage. “The dragon invested him with authority... The Scripture account of absolute despotism, is, that Satan gave it, and the blasphemous slander of God is the argument by which the doctrine of legitimacy is sustained from the Bible... ‘All power is of God; the powers that be are ordained of God,’ therefore ironhanded despotism is a divine institution. This is the conclusion of its friends, but the word of truth proclaims it to be from below. The same kind of logic will prove the devil’s own usurpation to be right and proper...The fallacy here lies in a false assumption. Paul says, ‘The powers that be,’ ἐξουσίαι, that is, the civil government, is an ordinance of God; but the assumption is, that he means arbitrary power, might without right. This is the logic by which Diabolus has blasphemed the Creator for a score of centuries.”

[4] It is implied in the above, and follows as a consequence from it, that a government which itself refuses to own God and Christ, must be invalid. For if the mere refusal to vindicate the honour of Jehovah, invalidates, much more, the practical denial of his supreme dominion.

[5] It is a singular fact that many expositors in explaining Rom. xiii.1-7, introduce, and make essential to the being of a lawful government, what is not in the passage, viz.:that it originates with the people, or has their assent, while they leave out, both in that passage and in the one before us, or at all events, lay little stress upon what is the turning point of both,—the description of the power!

[6] In fact, those who adopt the views which we advocate will be found the most peaceful members of society, better deserving of its protection than a large proportion of those who acknowledge, merely as existing, the powers that be.