Higher Powers

Posted in: 2003
By Tom L. Ballinger
Feb 23, 2008 - 4:22:13 PM

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2).

Perhaps there has not been a more misunderstood and misapplied verse in the Bible than this: “Let every soul be subject unto higher powers” (Romans 13:1). In all of church theology, the “higher powers” are made to be civil authorities, whoever they may be, at any time and in any country.  Of all the preposterous interpretations ever made by theologians, this one takes the cake. It is unworkable and unbelievable. It cannot be followed-out through the additional statements which follow Paul’s admonition.

In the statement quoted above, at first glance, it doesn’t appear to present any difficulty for most law-abiding people. We have been reared to respect those in authority. Most Christians misapply the verse as if God is saying, “You must submit to all governmental authority” (meaning civil governmental authorities). If that were true, the American Revolution against England and George the Third was, indeed, a sinful act. The American colonies rebelled against what they believed to be the rule of a tyrant. They were not submissive to the power (authority) of England. In my early Christian life, I was puzzled by this line of theological reasoning. The next part of verse one created all kinds of difficulties for me: “For there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God.” If the “higher powers” refers to civil authorities, then, it was impossible for me to believe.

If this verse is applied to human civil authorities, then, we must believe that their authority comes from Almighty God. Our Declaration of Independence (U.S.A) so eloquently declares that those who govern derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, not from Almighty God. I refused to reject the revolutionary concept of the governed granting powers of governance to the civil government. However, when the Southern States exercised this Jeffersonian principle, the governed in the South withdrew their consent to be governed by the U.S. Federal Government and formed the Confederate States of America. The Northern States denied the South the just power of self-government. This resulted in the War Between the States. Evidently, the idea that those who govern derive their authority to do so by the consent of the governed was killed when the South was defeated.

Who was it who first applied the words, “higher powers,” to civil authorities? I don’t know. But, could it have been during the time when people were told to believe in the Divine right of kings? Could the civil powers and organized religion (the church) have worked in collusion with one another to maintain the absolute dominion over the lives and thoughts of the people? Whoever began this instituted a sequence of errors which have been a yoke upon the necks of many whose only desire was to believe what was written in the Word of God. The text under consideration cannot be believed unless people shut their minds to the most obvious facts and divorce it from all that follows in Paul’s dissertation. Any sincere believer should know that Paul did not intend to convey any such nonsense since he had already told the Corinthians to ignore civil authorities when one believer has a matter of dispute against another:

“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?”                             (1 Corinthians 6:1-3). The Corinthian believers were identified as subjects of the new nation, the commonwealth of Israel. Caesar was not their king, the governors of the Roman Empire were not their rulers. The seat of their government was not Rome.

Christ Jesus was their King; His Divinely commissioned men [the Apostles]were their rulers. The seat of their Government was in Heaven because that’s where the Lord Jesus Christ was enthroned (Acts 7:49, Isaiah 66:1).

Paul continues in Romans 13:1, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The phrase “the powers that be” has become, by conventional usage, a synonym for civil authorities. This was certainly not what Paul conveyed when he wrote these words. If this is what it means, then, are we to believe that people with governmental authority are ordained by God? Anyone who would resist them is resisting the ordinance of God and, to do so, would result in receiving condemnation.

To believe this is to believe in the Divine right of all who govern. History is filled with the deeds of faithful and heroic men who defied civil powers in order that they might worship and serve God according to the light they have received. Peter said to the rulers in Jerusalem, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to harken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard”        (Acts 4:19-20).

“For 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”(Romans 13:3).

The first two verses presents what seems to be enough problems. But, those who insist that these verses set forth our Christian duty towards civil authorities, the following verses create other major problems, such as, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil …” (Romans 13:3). These words, if applied to civil rulers, are in direct contradiction to those spoken by Christ when He warned  the apostles to “Beware of men: for they shall deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for My sake”     (Matthew 10:17-18).

Throughout human history, civil rulers have terrified those who did good, and they didn’t praise those who did good. To believe the conventional Christian interpretation of the “higher powers” is to make perfect saints out of all who govern. This interpretation is ludicrous. I’ll not even attempt to list rulers who have persecuted those who have done good and rewarded those who have done evil. They are too numerous to mention. The Bible does not teach ridiculous things; therefore, it can be said that the “higher powers” of Romans 13 have nothing to do with civil authorities.

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4).

“For he is a minister of God” needs some clarification. Christians have come to think of the word, “minister,” to mean a man of the cloth, a church official, a preacher, a pastor , or an evangelist. A minister is one who serves under a higher authority but is delegated the responsibility to act in the name of, and with the authority of, the one who designated him. In Romans 13, the “minister” is one who had been chosen, or designated by Jesus Christ to act in His behalf. As we all should know, if you give someone the responsibility to do a job, you must, also, grant him the authority (power) to get it accomplished. Christ did this with His ministers during the Acts period.

During this time frame (Acts 2 to Acts 28), there were men upon the earth who were given not only the responsibility to govern the communities of believers but, also, the authority (power) to do so. They were “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They were so Divinely equipped, they could forgive, or not forgive sins (John 20:23). They could heal the sick (Mark 16:18, Acts 3:6) and raise the dead (Matt. 10:8,           Acts 9:3-43, 20:9-12). Many more verses could be cited. I’m sure you can identify them.

Peter exercised the use of the “sword” when he pronounced the death sentence on Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.  A metaphor for exercising the power of life, or death, is the expression, “beareth not the sword in vain.” The couple lied to the Holy Spirit, and Peter spoke, and they fell down, dead.

Paul suggested to the rulers in Corinth to use the “sword” against a man under their jurisdiction: “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5).

“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake,” (Romans 13:5). What this is saying, in plainer words, is that in order to avoid God’s wrath and escape punishment, they ought to be submissive to the laws imposed upon them by the “higher powers” because it was a matter of principle and for the sake of their conscience. Paul reminded the believers, in Hebrews 2:2-3, that the word spoken by the angels (when the Law was given) “was steadfast and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation …” If the Law God gave Moses, through the message by the angels, proved to be sure, and every violation received a just and adequate penalty, how were the New Testament believers going to escape punishment if they failed to live up to their lawful responsibilities? The answer was, during the Acts period, they wouldn’t escape.    

If anyone has any true spiritual insight into the Dispensation of the Grace of God, they can clearly discern that during the Book of Acts, Law and Grace were operating. Law is associated with government, and the Government of Christ was in effect for believers. They were saved by Grace, but they were required to “walk after the Spirit,” not “after the flesh.” By so doing, there would be “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1).

Truth for today is—we are “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). We are to “walk worthy of our calling” (Ephesians 4:1). If we don’t, the consequences of an unworthy walk will be realized when the Lord Jesus Christ “judges the quick and the dead at His appearing and Kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:1).

Romans 13:6-7 says, “For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” For the same reason, they were to be submissive for conscience sake, and they were to pay taxes (tribute). Taxes are paid by citizens of a government for the use of the nation, or state. The government was the “commonwealth of Israel.”  The taxes in question were not those extracted by human governments but by the ministers of God.

Not a great deal is said about taxation required by the “commonwealth of Israel.” In fact, it appears that they were to be paid voluntarily. Paul refers to them as “gifts” in                2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Notice, 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.”

Another instance of voluntarily paying taxes is found in Romans 15:26-27: “For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things.” It was the Gentiles “duty” to pay this tax, willingly.

The giving of tribute was to be done willingly, not grudgingly, as did Ananias and Sapphira. They were not cheerful givers. “God loveth a cheerful giver.” They could render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and do it, grudgingly, without fear of retribution but not unto God.

The superior authority, during the “Acts of the Apostles,” was not limited to the Apostles. There were gifts of “government” (1 Corinthians 12:28), and some were set in the churches to be rulers, or governors. All of those who possessed this gift qualified as “higher powers” to whom all believers, at the time, were to be subject. “Remember them which rule over you” (Hebrews 13:7).

It is evident that some complained about the power, or authority of these men: “For 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:” (Romans 13:3).

When Romans 13:1-7 is read in light of the truths set forth, all questions and all difficulties vanish. The Lord Jesus Christ appointed the Apostles and other rulers to be the “higher powers.” “Higher” in the sense they had their authority to rule from a Higher authority than that of mere humans. All believers who made up the Israel of God and, even, the alien Gentile believers were to be subject to these authorities. If any resisted their authority, they resisted the Lord’s arrangement and, as such, could result in Divine punishment. Believers were not to be fearful of the ruler’s power. As long as they were submissive, there was nothing to be terrified about. If they did good, they would receive praise, not the sword.

These truths make it abundantly clear that we must subscribe to God’s approved method of Bible study; rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15). When the Acts Period ended, about 64-68 AD, God ushered in a new and unprophesied dispensation, the Dispensation of the Grace of God. With the new administration of God coming into operation, the “higher powers” were no longer operable. The Higher Powers belonged to a past administration and is not part of truth for today.

In resurrection, the “higher powers” of the Pentecostal Dispensation will, again, take their places of authority when the Kingdom comes.

For clarity, I like the way the NIV of Romans13:1-7 reads:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers [such as, the Apostles] hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities [spiritual rulers], not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes [such as tithes], for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”