Romans 13: Person (Decretive), Office (Preceptive), or Both?

Louis W. Hensler III, JD, professor at Regent University’s School of Law, wrote a tremendously helpful paper for the Regent University Law Review titled “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond.” He outlines two different understandings of “the powers that be” in Romans 13:1-7 and traces the interpretations over the last 2,000 years, showing how Christians have tried to answer “How can Paul’s teaching here about the role of rulers as “servants of God” be squared with the practical experience that rulers sometimes are and/or do evil?”

The first view, labeled the positivistic interpretation says the meaning of

“the powers that be are ordained of God” is that “God is sovereign, and this [sovereignty] seemingly extends to the placement of particular governing authorities over their subjects.”63 In this process, God sovereignly superintends so that the ruling of even evil rulers ends up redounding to good in some ultimate sense: “Paul means that consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, in one way or another, the power will praise the good work and punish the evil.” (50)

The second view, labeled the legitimistic interpretation sees it as

Paul’s normative teaching concerning what rulers ought to do rather than as a description of what rulers in fact do,67 although the context pushes against this reading… Romans 13 serves as a sort of yardstick against which the legitimacy of rulers can be measured.72 Yoder identified this legitimistic interpretation of Romans 13—the passage includes “certain basic outlines of the prescriptions which God has divinely established for the state to fulfill.”73 The “state” that fails to fulfill those God-ordained functions is no state, and no submission is owed to that state.74

Hensler observes

What is unique about Paul’s instruction in Romans 13 regarding the relationship between ruler and ruled is that, unlike Paul’s other teachings concerning relationships of power, in which he addresses both sides of the power relationship, the position of ruler fulfills no rhetorical role in Romans 13:1–7.92 While first century rulers might have had an interest in Paul’s writing, the ruler could not respond to the purpose of Paul’s writing.93 Paul addresses only the ruled, not the ruler.94 (53)

What follows is both a selective summary and my own application and commentary on Hensler’s paper. Rather than positivistic and legitimistic, I prefer to sort the logical options according to God’s two wills. God either “ordains” the powers that be providentially (He empowers specific men to rule over others by His decree) or preceptively (He establishes an office/institution of ruler/civil government that every society must fill and must submit to).

A. The Context of Paul’s Writing: “the Powers That Be” Persecute the Church Pre-312 A.D.

Irenaeus (positivistic/decretal):

[E]arly church leaders accepted the idea that even though rulers tended to be hostile to the church, those particular hostile rulers had been personally selected by God himself. In his major work railing against gnostic dualism, Irenaeus quoted Romans 13 to show God’s direct control over the selection of human rulers.101… Irenaeus resolved the tension between the character of the rulers that Christians knew and the role for rulers that Paul proclaimed (ministers of God) in another way. According to Irenaeus, God imposed the fear of the sword wielded by these human rulers to bring to mankind “some degree of justice” and “mutual forbearance through dread of the sword.”103 In this limited way, human rulers are “God’s ministers.”104 But Irenaeus taught that all human rulers, not only the good ones, perform the role of God’s minister.105 Accordingly, God appoints kings

suited to those who are at the time placed under their government. Some of these rulers are given for the correction and the benefit of their subjects, and for the preservation of justice; but others for the purposes of fear and punishment and rebuke; others, as the subjects deserve it, are for mockery, insolence and pride; while the just judgment of God . . . passes equally upon all.106

Thus, all people receive from God rulers suited to their needs. Good people may get good rulers who make them better. Bad people may receive bad rulers as a punishment. But all rulers, good and bad, are God’s ministers for good.

Origen (legitimistic/preceptive)

Origen then addresses in more detail a question that had been discussed briefly by Irenaeus: “What then? Is even that authority that persecutes God’s servants, attacks the faith, and subverts religion, from God?”113 Origen responds to this rhetorical question by drawing a perhaps imperfect analogy between rulers as given as a gift from God and sight as a gift from God.114 Origen’s text reasons that even though vision is a gift from God, people have the power to use the gift of sight for good or for evil.115 So God has given human rulers for good purposes even though they may be put to a bad use.116 Nevertheless, according to Origen, worldly judges are God’s ministers because they punish many of “the crimes that God wants to be punished.”

Here we see the beginnings of the legitimistic interpretation that understands God’s “ordination” as a reference to his preceptive will, though not fully worked out. God ordains the institution of civil government, which may be used properly or improperly by men.

B. The “Conversion” of Constantine: The Church Becomes “the Powers That Be”

Constantine converted to Christianity and it eventually became the official religion of Rome. “This shift in perspective presented a new possibility for the interpretation of Romans 13. Now, for the first time, Romans 13 might be applied to rulers as well as to ruled.137”

C. The Middle Ages Begin: The Church over “the Powers That Be”


Ambrosiaster saw Paul’s injunction to obedience to human law as a sort of stepping stone toward righteousness: “The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness.”149 This view would have been unthinkable in the context of Church/state hostility in which Paul wrote.150… “In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities.”153 Ambrosiaster’s significant shift from “God sovereignly uses even bad rulers to do good” to “God delegates the divine law to human authorities” was part of a larger work that became quite influential.


Chrysostom continued to struggle with the question that had plagued the church in the pre- Constantinian era—how can an evil ruler be called “God’s minister”?160 Chrysostom’s solution to this difficulty has become one of the most widely- adopted by Christians seeking to avoid the apparent sweep of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13.161 Chrysostom did not agree with Irenaeus that God appoints all rulers—rather, Chrysostom taught that Paul was talking about God’s ordaining the institution of government, not appointing particular rulers.162 Thus, according to Chrysostom, while the institution of government is “ordained” by God, individual rulers may not be so ordained.163 Under this interpretation, Paul is commanding merely respect for the office of the ruler, not necessarily submission to the particular ruler’s commands.

Chrysostom buttressed his interpretation by pointing out the openness of the terminology used by Paul in Romans 13—the text says “ ‘there is no authority except from God,’ ” not “ ‘there is no ruler except from God.’ ”164 Chrysostom thought the word used by Paul exousia was more likely to refer to the institution of government than to individual rulers.165 But Chrysostom’s interpretation seems doubtful because he fails to take account of Paul’s next sentence. As Chrysostom notes, Paul writes that “there is no authority [exousia (singular)] except from God.”166 Chrysostom fails to account for Paul’s next clause: “the powers [exousiai (plural)] that be are ordained of God.”167 Even if the clause quoted by Chrysostom could be interpreted to apply to the concept of government generally, and not to individual rulers, that interpretation is difficult to maintain through the next phrase, which speaks of the powers using the plural, thus suggesting that Paul has multiple individual powers in mind, and not merely one concept of institutional power.

Chrysostom’s interpretation may have been foreshadowed in Origen’s idea that evil human rulers are God’s good gift put to a bad use.168 Origen’s idea moves toward abstracting from particular rulers, who may be evil, to the general concept of rulers, which is good.169


By Augustine’s time, the original gap between the Church and the political “powers that be,” which resulted in Paul’s addressing Romans 13 exclusively to subjects and not to government, was gone: “government was deeply involved with religion” and “Christians were deeply involved with the government.”176… The Donatists whom Augustine was persecuting apparently complained that the Christian authorities who were persecuting them should follow the example of the Apostles, who “did not seek [laws against impieties] from the kings of the earth.”190 Augustine’s response was direct: “Then there was no emperor who had believed in Christ, no emperor who would serve Him by passing laws in favor of religion and against impiety . . . .”191 Of course, earlier emperors had passed laws in favor of religion and against impiety, but Christians, including Jesus and Paul themselves, had been at the receiving, not at the giving, end of that earlier persecution.192 Augustine defended physical persecution by citing the positive examples of the “[m]any” cases of “bad slaves” who were “called back to the Lord by the lash of temporal scourges.”193 By “embracing in principle the use of coercion against schismatics and heretics, [Augustine] lays a general foundation for religious persecution,”194 making him, in essence, “the first theorist of the Inquisition.”195


Some of Theodoret’s commentary seems to agree with Chrysostom, at least to the extent that although God ordains the concept of rule, He does not appoint particular wicked authorities: “the divine apostle made ruling and being ruled dependent on the providence of God, not the appointment of this one or that: the authority of unjust people is not by God’s mandate—only the provision for government.”204 But then Theodoret takes a page out of Irenaeus’ book, teaching that “in his wish to correct the fallen,” God “even allows them to be ruled by wicked rulers.”205 Theodoret finally returns to Chrysostom’s argument: “For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself.”206

Theodoret’s attempt to combine Chrysostom (office) and Irenaeus (person) is important to note. The two interpretations are mutually exclusive. As Chrysostom said, if God’s ordination refers to the office or institution of civil government, then it does not refer to the ordination of any particular person to that office. Conversely, if God’s ordination refers to every particular ruler then it does not refer to the office or institution in general. If it refers to the office then it has nothing to do with wicked rulers. Theodoret’s self-contradictory interpretation will be taken up by others later.

Glossa Ordinaria

The commentary in the Glossa adopted Irenaeus’ position that both good and evil authorities were ordained by God: “Concerning a good authority, it is clear that God has appointed it. It can be seen that he has also reasonably appointed evil authority, since the good are themselves purified by it and the evil condemned, while the authority itself sinks lower.”212 All “power” comes from God, including the wicked ruler’s power to harm: “The power of harming is given to wicked and unworthy rulers so that the patience of the good may be proved and the iniquity of the evil may be punished.”213 Even an evil ruler “does not harm the good person but purifies him.”214 The commentary clearly recognizes that rulers do not always praise good and punish evil, but notes that those who do good always will be praised or benefitted, even by evil rulers: “you will have praise from it—even if it is an evil authority, since you have occasion for a greater crown.”215


Aquinas apparently understood Paul to be requiring submission to all higher powers, good and bad: “he says indefinitely higher powers so that we may subject ourselves to them by reason of the sublimity of their office, even if they are wicked.”221 Aquinas makes this universal obligation of submission abundantly clear in his comments on verse three, in which Paul states that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”222 Aquinas comments that “[t]his can also refer to evil rulers, who are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. For even though they sometimes unjustly persecute those who do good, the latter have no reason to fear; because if they endure it patiently, it turns out for their good . . . .”223… Further, echoing the earlier line of teaching beginning with Irenaeus and citing the Old Testament example of Assyria sent to punish Israel, Aquinas argues that “even wicked rulers are God’s ministers for inflicting punishments according to God’s plan; although this is not their intention.”226

Note Aquinas’ continuation of Theodoret’s contradictory combination of Chrysostom and Irenaeus. We owe obedience to all rulers out of respect for the office, which has been ordained by God. This would imply that we do not have to be subject to wicked rulers since they are acting contrary to their office. Therefore he switches to Irenaeus’ interpretation that refers to God’s providential ordination of individuals, not the office.

D. Seeds of Separation of Church and State Sown in the Reformation

Martin Luther

Luther clearly concluded that Paul’s teaching concerning submission to rulers applied, not only to good rulers, but also to “evil and unbelieving rulers.”234 As discussed above, some taught that Romans 13 could be used as a yardstick, not only for the conduct of the believing ruled, but also for the ruler by interpreting Paul’s phrase “the powers that are are ordained by God” to mean that “the powers that are of God are ordered.”235 Luther definitively rejected such reinterpretation. Luther’s conclusion from Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1 was that “whatever powers exist and flourish, exist and flourish because God has ordered them.”236…

This survey of the teachings of Martin Luther on Romans 13 is a good place to revisit the distinction, introduced by Chrysostom, between the abstract concept of government and the more concrete specific individual governors. Word choice becomes important here. Modern English translations of Romans 13 translate the original Greek exousia into the rather abstract English word “authority.” Older English translations used the somewhat more concrete word “power.” It is worth noting here that the Vulgate, Luther’s “Bible” before he translated the Bible into German, translated exousia as potestas [power] instead of auctoritas [authority].239 Luther’s translation came down firmly on the side of the more concrete rather than the more conceptual term. “The principal organizing idea in Luther’s political thought is Oberkeit.”240 Oberkeit does not connote an abstract concept as the word “authority” does.241 Oberkeit “cannot fail to call to mind the persons who are in authority, ‘superiors’ . . . . And this property of the term sits well with the character of Luther’s thought, for he tends to personalize political authority.”242 This word choice facilitates Luther’s acceptance of the idea that God chooses individual rulers.

Luther moved readily from the abstract Oberkeit to the personal die Oberen (‘superiors’), signifying persons of superior political status. This translation of Oberkeit as ‘authority’ is far from felicitous. It not only implies a distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘power’ which Luther precisely did not make. It also suggests an abstract quality to Luther’s thought which it lacks: when speaking of Oberkeit he thought in terms of persons (and more often than not one person, a prince or lord), equipped with power. He alternated freely between ‘authority’ (Oberkeit) and ‘those in authority’ (die Oberen).243…

In interpreting Romans 13, Luther focused on the Christian’s obligation to submit to government force, not on the need to cooperate with some abstract concept of orderly government:

The crucial term here is Gewalt, which, according to the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, means any or all of: power, strength, might, efficacy . . . empire, rule, dominion, mastery, sway, jurisdiction, government, protection . . . potestas, facultas, imperium, dictio, arbitrium, ius . . . potentia, vis, violentia, iniuria, indignitas. Its most prominent meaning, however, is force, power or might. . . . Gewalt can mean—and often in the text does mean—mere coercion, force, or violence.246

The mere existence of the power, not its “legitimacy,” was the crucial fact for Luther… Thus, for Luther, the point of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 was that God had given the power of coercion, or force, to rulers, and Christians must submit to that power, not that God had given good government and that Christians ought to submit to the government as long as it is good.248

The Anabaptists:


The left wing of the Reformation would sweep away the Constantinian influence on the church’s view of its relationship with the state: “With believers’ baptism, nonresistance, and the rejection of the oaths binding Christians politically to Christendom, the Anabaptists sought to establish a faithful church separated from Christendom.”256 Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 is not inconsistent with this non-resistant wing of the Anabaptist movement.257


Müntzer and his followers destroyed the Mallerbach chapel near Allstedt in the spring of 1524, and Müntzer followed up that summer with his Sermon to the Princes, in which he turned Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 on its head: “Saint Paul . . . says that the sword of rulers is given for the punishment of evildoers and to protect the pious.”263 This is the first step in Müntzer’s radical interpretation of Romans 13—the passage is a command to the powers that be themselves, not merely to those who are to submit to the powers that be.264 Luther “saw the sense of the passage as an injunction for Christians to be obedient to secular authority since it is ordained by God,” but Müntzer “uses the passage to enjoin positive action by rulers to promote a Christian society.”265 Thus, the approach of the radical Anabaptists fit well with the post-Constantinian ideas of Chrysostom and his followers, that Romans 13 could be put to a use that Paul could not have imagined—as an injunction to temporal rulers.266


Luther’s position is similar to the pre-Constantinian position taken by Irenaeus and to that ultimately taken by the moderate Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier… In discussing Romans 13, Hubmaier analogized human rulers to natural forces controlled by a sovereign God:

Now, God always punishes the wicked, sometimes with hail, rain, and sickness, and sometimes through special people, who have been ordained and elected for this. Therefore Paul calls the authorities handmaidens of God. For what God can do himself he often prefers to do through his creatures as his tools.273


Calvin tended to see ordained government as more of an unqualified blessing. Government “powers are of God, not as the pestilence, hunger, war and such like punishments of sin, are said to be of him; but because he hath appointed them for the lawful and right administration of the world.”278 Calvin distinguished between good government, which is the ordinance of God, and bad government: “tyrannies and unjust dominations, inasmuch as they are full of deformity, are not of the ordinary government.”279…

In thus seeing bad government as God’s blessing that man has put to bad use rather than as God’s punishment of man’s evil, Calvin tended to align his view a little more closely with those of Origen and Chrysostom and their followers.282 Calvin reads Paul’s teaching as going beyond merely commanding Christian citizens to submit—Calvin thought Paul also was writing to rulers about how they ought to view their own role.283 Calvin saw Paul as commanding magistrates to use the sword to punish evil men.284 Thus, there emerged from the Protestant Reformation two strains of thought concerning “the powers that be.” Luther and the more moderate/pacifist wings of the Anabaptists tended to focus on the Christian’s obligation to submit to all rulers, good and bad, as instruments sovereignly ordained by God.285 Calvin and the more radical Anabaptists tended to see Romans 13 as teaching further that rulers are to be self-conscious instruments of God.286

Hensler does not draw this out (perhaps because he is not aware that Calvin actually taught non-resistance to tyrants – Waldron demonstrates this very clearly in his unpublished master’s thesis), but Calvin clearly followed Aquinas and Theodoret’s self-contradictory combination of Irenaeus and Chrysostom. Romans 13 refers to God’s ordination of the institution of civil government. However, when rulers step beyond the bounds of their office, we must still submit to them because God is providentially using them for His purposes (to punish a people for their sin). In his commentary on Genesis 14, Calvin says

[T]hough Chedorlaomer had rendered so many people tributary to him by tyranny rather than by lawful authority, and on that account his ambition is to be condemned; yet his subjects are justly punished for having rashly rebelled. For although liberty is by no means to be despised, yet the subjection which is once imposed upon us cannot, without implied rebellion against God, be shaken off; because ‘every power is ordained by God,’ notwithstanding, in its commencement, it may have flowed from the lust of dominion, (Romans 13:1.)

And in his Institutes:

But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power… even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. (Institutes 4.20.25-26)


Hensler does not mention Vermigli, but he is worth commenting on as he agreed with Calvin and quotes Chrysostom in support.

This place of the Apostle partaineth to that commandment of the law, Honor thy father and thy mother. For in the olde time, as Aristotle also wryteth, in his Politiques, fathers gave laws to their famely, and to them were as kings. And amongst the Romanes the Senators were called Patres conscripti, that is, appointed Fathers. For a magistrate is nothing els but the father of the country…

A magistrate is a person elected, and that of God, to defend the lawes and peace, and with punishments, and the sword to represse vices and evils, and by all manner of means to advaunce vertues. The efficient cause is God, the end is the preservation of the lawes and of peace, the banishing away of vices and discommodities, and the increase of vertues…

But for that we see that in kingdoms many things are done overthwarly and unjustly, lawes are perverted, and the commandments of God are violated, many thinke that it can not be, that such powers should be of God. But as Chrysostome very well admonisheth, the thing itself, that is, the principall function, must be distinguished from the person. For it is not to be doubted but that the person, for as much as he is a man, may abuse a good thing, but the thing it self considered apart, forasmache as it is good, cannot come from any els where but from God…

Howbeit God observeth this order, to use wicked and ungodly Princes to punish the wicked doinges of the people… And after that men being in this sort chastised doo returne unto God, eh comforteth them, and provideth for them gentler princes, and more just governers… Wherefore not only good and just princes doo raigne by the wil of the lord, but also ungodly and wicked tiranns…

I would to God they which beare dominion, would always have this in theyr mind, that that office which they execute is the ordinance of God, doubtles they would not then in such sort abuse it. (Commentary on Romans)

Virmigli distinguishes clearly between the two wills of God:

[F]or that evill princes, and such which after that by wicked means have obteyned the kingdome, doo by worse meanes governe it, these I say in that they thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures. For by that will of God theyr doinges and endevors are most manifestly reproved. And in this manner they are sayd not to raigne by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God. Howbeit it can not be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to raigne to that end which we have now declared.

He distinguishes yet moves fluidly between ordination by God’s preceptive will and God’s providential use of rulers as instruments, blending the two together when it is convenient to explain why we are to submit to rulers (because of their office) even when they are wicked and disregard the office (because God is providentially using them to chastise us). The result is self-contradiction. (See more here.)

The Magdeburg Confession

The Confession took the position that Paul was requiring submission only to those authorities who are “ministers” or “servants” of God.291 Governments that persecute the good are not God’s “ministers,” are not “ordained of God,” and, therefore, do not fall under the obligation of submission taught in Romans 13.292 The idea here is that in describing powers as “ministers of God,” Paul was delimiting the obligation of submission.293 As long as the power acts as God’s minister, then the power is owed an obligation of submission.294 But when the power exceeds its authority by acting contrary to God’s will, then the power loses its delegated authority and with it the obligation of submission.295

Note that this is the necessary logical consequence of the belief that Romans 13 refers to the ordination of an office or institution.


Beza had previously approved the Magdeburg Confession, which laid the groundwork for an interpretation of Romans 13 that permitted Christian resistance to evil rulers.299 Beza admitted that the tyrant “is most often an evil or scourge sent by God for the chastisement of nations.”300 Yet, he accepted the right of the “oppressed” to use “remedies in addition to repentance and prayers.”301 Beza did not, however, extend to the private citizen the right of resistance of a tyrannical sovereign—that right was reserved for lower magistrates.302

E. Samuel Rutherford and the Popularization of Resistance Theology


Rutherford’s approach is consonant with that taken in the Magdeburg Confession. Also, like Chrysostom, Rutherford grounded his understanding of the distinction between the person of the king and the office of the ruler on Romans 13.307 Rutherford affirmed that Paul was writing of the office, not the particular person.308 By thus bringing Chrysostom and the Magdeburg Confession fully together, Rutherford made it possible for the follower of Paul to resist a tyrannical ruler while obeying Paul’s command to submit to the office.309 Thus, Rutherford concluded that Romans 13 commands “subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto.”310 According to Rutherford’s reading, Paul’s text would not require subjection “to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”311

To spell out Rutherford’s logic in greater detail, he believed that Paul commanded subjection to “higher powers.”312 “But no powers commanding things unlawful, and killing the innocent people of God, can be . . . higher powers . . . .”313 When tyrants command the unlawful and kill the innocent, they do so “not by virtue of any office.”314 Thus, rulers “commanding unjust things and killing the innocent” are not the “powers ordained of God” of which Paul writes in Romans 13.315 The office is ordained of God, but such personal tyrannies are not.316…

“But the man who is king, commanding unjust things . . . is not the minister of God . . . ; therefore the man may be resisted, by this text, when the office and power cannot be resisted.”320 Rutherford repeatedly emphasizes Chrysostom’s distinction between the abstract “office” and the concrete “officer”: “Paul . . . forbiddeth us to resist the power, in abstracto; therefore, it must be the man, in concreto, that we must resist.”321 Rutherford forcefully rejected the interpretation that whatever “powers that be” are therefore “ordained of God” and therefore owed submission: “nor dream we that the naked accident of royal authority is to be feared and honoured as the Lord’s anointed.”322 Rutherford addressed the example of the specific power that was in place at the time of Paul’s writing, the Roman emperor Nero, and argued consistent with all else Rutherford had said that Nero, the bloodthirsty “persecutor of Christians,” was owed no subjection.323

The American Revolution

Buzzard and Campbell likewise observed that “[t]he New England clergy generally taught that as long as the king enforced God’s commands, he was owed obedience and assistance. If, however, he violated God’s commands, the people had the authority to resist him.”338… [Elisha] thought a proper understanding of Romans 13 required an appreciation of the distinction “between the powers which are, and the powers which are not.”346 Subjection is owed only to the powers that be.347 “On the other hand—the powers that are not, are not . . . the powers that are of GOD, not his ordinance, and so no subjection to them [is] required in this text.”348 Legal powers are “the powers that be” and “arbitrary” powers are the powers which are not.349…

To avoid what [Samuel] West labeled “the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience,”356 he employed what will by now be a familiar interpretation of Paul’s letter. He assumed that Paul was teaching that the “magistracy” rather than that particular “magistrates” are ordained by God.357 Once he determined that magistrates are ordained of God only in the sense that the institution of magistracy is necessary “for the preservation and safety of mankind,” then he succinctly concluded that “resistance must be criminal only so far forth as they . . . act up to the end of their institution, and ceases being criminal when they cease being the ministers of God.”358… Good rulers are ordained by God, but wicked rulers are ordained by Satan.362

To his credit, West did not entirely ignore the context in which Paul had written his letter: “I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome . . . .”363 After suggesting that Paul may have written toward the beginning of Nero’s reign, when the emperor might have been characterized as a “minister of God for good,” West maintained that, to the extent that Nero was a tyrant, the plain meaning of Paul’s text is that Nero was not ordained by God and therefore not due submission.364…

Like Samuel West, [Zabdiel] Adams interpreted Paul’s phrase “the powers that be are ordained of God,” not to mean that particular “rulers are elevated to their places by the immediate agency of heaven,”371 but rather that government in general “is of divine appointment.”372 Thus, the ministers of Colonial America were able to reconcile the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13 with the American Revolution.

Modern Context

The Third Reich

Bonhoeffer noted again (as Luther, Bonhoeffer himself, and others also already had) that Paul’s command was “addressed to the Christians, not to the powers.”411 Bonhoeffer understood Paul’s command to demand submission to whatever powers “exist,” be they good or bad, both sorts of powers God will use to work for the good of Christians.412 But Bonhoeffer also saw that Romans 13’s failure to address any command to “the powers that be” cuts the other way as well: “No State is entitled to read into St. Paul’s words a justification of its own existence.”413…

So Bonhoeffer saw the State as ordained by God in a limited way, much as Luther did415—it is a (sometimes passive or even resistant) tool that God uses to accomplish His purposes on earth.

This view of the state is confirmed in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Paul’s assurance that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, Paul noted that the Christian need not fear the State, not because the State is the self-conscious “minister of God,” but because God sovereignly controls the State, even in its mistakes, to accomplish His divine purposes.416 This is so even if the State punishes the one who does well—in that case, such punishment is the humble calling of the follower of Jesus, who likewise was punished for doing good.417…

This interpretation of Romans 13 might be characterized as a theology of the State, but it is not a theology for the State.


Hensler does not include Murray, but I mention him here because of his comments regarding the two wills of God.

The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will but he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.

For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)


Henser himself concludes

I tend to think that Paul’s statement in this paraenetic section of Romans is primarily about the believer’s life in light of the sovereignty of God… While hostile rulers might naturally engender fear, the believer who does good need not fear, for the ruler’s hostility always will be filtered through God’s sovereign control. God will see that the believer who does good receives praise, either now or hereafter.

He surveys more sources than I have included here and offers extended comments beyond what I have shown here. His paper should be read in full.

Further Remarks

Translation of “The Powers that Be”

An important question is how exousiae should be translated.

Paul commands this submission to exousiae, translated in the King James Bible as “powers.”55 The term exousiae is “remarkably open” and “unmarked,” i.e., the reader could interpret the term “in a wide variety of ways.”56

55 Romans 13:1 (King James) (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.”). Most modern English translations translate exousia as “authorities” instead of “powers.” See infra notes 326–27 and accompanying text; see also NOONAN, supra note 26, at 8 (“Paul refers to the government as the ‘exousia,’ ‘the powers,’ not ‘the authorities’ or ‘the state,’ as some translations put it.”)...

A significant shift in the interpretation of Romans 13 among English- speaking scholars can be discerned at about the turn of the twentieth century. With the publication of The Twentieth-Century New Testament, the familiar phraseology of Romans 13 that had been quite consistent in English translations for five hundred years underwent a significant change, and this change helped to solidify the interpretation of Romans 13 expounded most forcefully by Samuel Rutherford.324 The Greek word exousiais had been consistently translated “powers” as in “the powers that be are ordained of God.”325 But with the dawning of the new century, English translators began to translate exousiais as “authorities.”326 The producers of this shift tended not to be “language or textual experts,” but rather “ministers and laypersons” who were focusing on “ease of reading.”327 This shift in translations facilitated a particular approach to Romans 13.3 28 Describing civil magistrates as among the “powers” to which believers should submit carries a sense of something that is, without regard to its legitimacy.329 Ernst Kasemann made this point forcefully:

Paul is not . . . reflecting on the process by which those powers that be of which he speaks . . . came into existence. For him the man who has asserted himself politically has a God-bestowed function and authority simply as the possessor of power de facto. This is why I translate the Greek word exousia and its derivatives by power [German Gewalt], powers, holders of power: I want to include tyranny and despotism, which in any event reigned supreme over wide stretches of the Roman Empire.330

Switching the language used by Paul to refer to political officials from “powers” to “authorities” fits better with the idea that such “authority” might be either legitimate or illegitimate. Power, by contrast, either is or is not.

As I showed in a previous post, the proper way to understand God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar is that he was granted the power to kill anyone who opposed him – not a lawful office.

Meaning of “Be Subject”

The context of Romans 13 is Jewish zealotry against Rome, not a question about obeying various laws of Rome. Christians were in danger of getting swept into a Jewish rebellion at a time when the full, final curse of the Old Covenant was about to be poured out upon Jerusalem by Rome in AD70. Hensler notes

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying. 54 (48-49)

Samuel Waldron agrees.

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority this high court possessed.” (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Romans 13 does not command us to obey the edicts of our rulers. It commands us to not violently resist and overthrow them.

However, the question arises: If the powers that be refer to God’s decretive will, not His preceptive will, why are we commanded to be subject? As Rutherford noted it is “his revealed will which must rule us.” Hubmaier compared “the powers that be” to natural disasters and sickness. Yet we are not commanded to submit to storms or illness, but may work to overcome them. Thomas Watson said

God’s providence is greatly to be observed, but we are not to make it the rule of our actions. ‘Whoso is wise will observe these things.’ Psa cvii 43. It is good to observe providence, but we must not make it our rule to walk by. Providence is a Christian’s diary, but not his Bible. Sometimes a bad cause prevails and gets ground; but it is not to be liked because it prevails. We must not think the better of what is sinful, because it is successful. This is no rule for our actions to be directed by.” (A Body of Divinity)

I believe the answer is to be found in God’s command to Judah that they submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. This was not simply a natural law duty that all image bearers must submit to anyone who invades their country. God led Israel many times to resist oppressors and to rebel successfully against them. Rather, this was a positive law given to Judah and was specially revealed by prophets. It was an Old Covenant curse for their disobedience to Mosaic law. It ushered in “the times of the Gentiles” to rule over Judah (Israel was no more). Waldron notes

The period of the Gentile kingdoms is, then, the period of the Theocratic disruption. The special thing about these kingdoms is not their geographical extent, but the fact that they bear rule over the people of God in the interim between the disruption and restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. They replace the Theocratic government during this interim… The Apostle Paul utters what is only the logical conclusion of all this in Rom. 13:1 when he says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” The statement is often understood (and is certainly true [in light of the above, I disagree -BA]) in the abstract or general sense, but it is nonetheless the fruit of a rich historical movement. For it was of the Roman Empire, the fourth and iron kingdom of Daniel 2, of which Paul was speaking. The four Gentile kingdoms of Dan. 2 include ultimately all non-Theocratic civil authority ruling over the people of God till the end of the age and the dawning of the Theocratic kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar’s authority becomes that of his sons, and their authority devolves to Cyrus and his successors, and thence to Greece and Rome. Rome’s authority unfolds to include all human, civil authority during this age until its eschatological consummation in the kingdom of Antichrist. (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Christ came to establish the kingdom of heaven, but in an “already/not yet” tension. It exists spiritually but not yet physically on earth. While we wait for his return we are to remain subject to “the powers that be” – the Gentiles whom God has given the strength to be “king of the hill,” whether justly or unjustly. They are rulers de facto regardless of whether they are rulers de jure. We are to endure unjust violence following the example of our Lord while we wait for his return when he will have vengeance on wicked rulers who rule without lawful authority, though by the providence of God (just as Nebuchadnezzar was judged by God for doing exactly what God ordained him to do).


Here is a paraphrase I’d like to offer for consideration:

Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good. But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes [see Hodge, Haldane, Stuart for translation], for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

If Romans 13 refers to God’s providential ordaining of powerful rulers (mighty men) whether they be good or evil, then it does not refer to God’s preceptive ordaining of an office. Conversely, if Romans 13 refers to the institution of civil government then the command to be subject is limited to rulers who properly fulfill their duty of punishing evildoers. If they punish those who do go good, they do not have to be submitted to: rebellion is permissible. That is the logically necessary conclusion as Rutherford ably showed. Calvin, following Theodoret and Aquinas, attempted to avoid this necessary conclusion by conflating the two concepts. We owe obedience to the office because it has been instituted by God, but when a person in that office oversteps his office he must still be submitted to because God is providentially using him for His purpose. But Calvin cannot have his cake and eat it too. He must pick one or the other. The majority of his followers saw the contradiction and chose the ordination of office interpretation, thus advocating resistance. I think perhaps it is time to return to Irenaeus’ ordination of persons interpretation. That is the only interpretation consistent with God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar and it makes much more sense of the context of Romans 13 as well as the principle of lex talionis and the avenger of blood. These powers are still accountable to the moral law that binds all people, especially the 6th and 8th commandments. They don’t get special exceptions. We may remind them of that, but we are not to take up arms against them.

Related Reading:

4 thoughts on “Romans 13: Person (Decretive), Office (Preceptive), or Both?

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