government is by divine decree
For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. (13:1b)
First, Paul says, human government is ordained by God for the benefit of society. In whatever of the many forms it exists, civil authority derives directly from God. Like marriage, it is a universal institution of God, and, like marriage, it is valid regardless of place, circumstance, or any other consideration.
There is no civil authority, Paul says, except from God. No matter what form it takes, no human government at any time in history, at any place on earth, among any people on earth, at any level of society, has ever existed or will ever exist apart from the sovereign authority of God, because all “power belongs to God” (Ps. 62:11). The entire world, everything in heaven and earth, including Satan and his hosts, are subject to their Creator. God sovereignly created and absolutely controls the universe, with no exceptions or limitations. Also without exception, the power that any person, group, or society may possess is divinely delegated and circumscribed. How well or how poorly that power is used is another matter. Paul’s point here is that this power has only one source—God.
Yet, in His sovereign wisdom, God has permitted Satan to have vast but limited power over the world and the affairs of men. Although Satan was not directly responsible for man’s sin at the Fall, it was his seductive enticement that led Adam and Eve to disobey God and thereby commit the first sin, a sin which they bequeathed to all their posterity. Satan does not have power to make men sin, but since that tragic day in the Garden of Eden, he has used every means at his disposal to entice men to indulge their sinful impulses and thereby express their defiance of God. Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that “you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1–2). In other words, man’s natural propensity to sin is exploited by Satan’s evil wiles.
Consequently, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), who is “now the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11; 14:30). At His temptation, Jesus did not question Satan’s claim to “all the kingdoms of the world” or his ability to give Jesus “all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Luke 4:6).
From Daniel 10 it is evident that some, if not all, nations are under the charge of a specific demon, or perhaps a group of demons. The context makes clear that “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (v. 13), who withstood the holy angel (vv. 5–6, 11–12) “for twenty-one days,” was himself supernatural, not human. He was not defeated until “Michael, one of the chief princes” of the holy angels, came to help (v. 13). After predicting the death of the proud and blasphemous king of Babylon (Isa. 14:4), Isaiah addresses one who has “fallen from heaven,” and calls him “star of the morning [Lucifer]” and “son of the dawn” (v. 12). The close association of the human king and the supernatural agent seems to indicate that Satan himself took special charge of that pagan nation.
Although addressed as “the king of Tyre,” the being that Isaiah refers to as having “had the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” as being in “Eden, the garden of God,” and whom he calls “the anointed cherub” (Ezek. 28:12–14) is clearly supernatural and could only be Satan.
In both the Isaiah and Ezekiel accounts, Satan is closely identified with the kings of the nations involved. It becomes clear that, although human government was instituted by God and fulfills, to some extent, His plan for maintaining order on earth, many governments, if not most, are under the influence of Satan and are a means of promoting and perpetuating satanic activity.
The autocratic, ruthless, and demonic regimes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung were no exceptions to God’s command to be subject to civil authority. The equally ruthless empires of ancient Assyria and Babylon were no exceptions. The Roman empire, sometimes ruled by caesars who proclaimed themselves to be gods, was no exception. The apostate and heretical “Christian” kingdoms of the Middle Ages were no exceptions. Shaman ruled primitive and animistic tribes of South America are no exceptions. There are no exceptions.
That is part of the truth Paul declared before the pagan philosophers in Athens: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:24–26).
That is the primary reason we are to submit to human government: it is instituted by the decree of God and is an integral part of His divine plan for fallen mankind.
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.
In the fall of 1561 an important conversation took place in Scotland between Queen Mary and the Calvinistic Protestant preacher John Knox.
Mary was a Catholic. She had been educated in Catholic France, and she believed that sovereigns—she herself was one—had absolute power over the consciences of their subjects. Knox was a reformer. For his uncompromising preaching he had been sentenced to serve as a galley slave for nineteen months. After his release, he had studied in Geneva under John Calvin from 1553 to 1559. Then, in the summer of 1560, he had participated in the drafting of the Scottish Confession of Faith that stated that Jesus Christ “is the only Head of His Kirk” (sections 11 and 18). Knox had returned just two years before his celebrated conversation with Queen Mary.
In the interview Mary accused Knox of having wrongly taught the people to receive another religion than their princes allow. “And how can that doctrine be of God, seeing that God commands subjects to obey their princes?” she asked. She was referring to Romans 13:1 and other texts.
Knox answered, “Madam, as right religion took neither [its] origin nor authority from worldly princes, but from the Eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the appetites of their princes.”
He admonished Mary, “God commands queens to be nurses unto his people.”
“Yes, but you are not the church that I will nourish,” she retorted.
Knox replied, “Your will, Madam, is no reason.” In this way the issues of church and state and the proper role and function of the state were framed in Scotland in the sixteenth century. There was no relief in Scotland until Mary’s forced abdication in 1567.
Christians and the State
What is the role of the state in human affairs? How is the state to relate to the church of Jesus Christ? How are Christian people to relate to the government’s authority? It is these questions that Paul raises and answers in the first seven verses of Romans 13.
What a source of controversy they have been! J. C. O’Neill in Paul’s Letter to The Romans wrote, “These seven verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament.” That is probably not true. But they have certainly puzzled many and caused unhappiness among some scholars. Some of them, like the one I just quoted, have attempted to eliminate the verses from the letter, reasoning that they are un-Pauline and come rather from a Stoic source. Such persons think the verses have been interpolated, arguing that verse 8 would follow nicely after 12:21, and that there is nothing quite like this section anywhere else in Paul’s writing.
This is true, but that does not mean that Paul did not write it. Furthermore, it can be argued equally well that his discussion of the legitimate authority and proper function of the state is a natural follow-up to the immediately preceding section in which he presented the duty of the Christian to return good for evil, since to do that does not mean that a Christian always has to be victimized by evil persons. It is the state’s duty to restrain and punish evil.
Again, a discussion of the role of the state is natural in a letter to Christians living at the center of the Roman world. Jews were notoriously resistant to all outside authority. They had fomented numerous rebellions, and the greatest one of all, the rebellion that was to be crushed by the Roman general Titus in 70 a.d., was only a decade away from the time Paul wrote this letter. In the sixties Christians were shielded under a law originally promulgated by Julius Caesar, but turmoil was coming. Were the followers of Christ to align themselves with the coming revolution, or were they to be loyal citizens of the all-encompassing Roman empire? If so, what about the lordship of Jesus Christ? Was he King, or was he not? If they were not to be loyal citizens, what was their position regarding Rome to be?
The Starting Point: God is Sovereign
The starting point of Paul’s argument is found in the reason he gives for his categorical opening statement that “everyone,” not only Christians, “must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Why? The answer is not that you will get into trouble if you don’t, or even that obedience is necessary for maintaining social order. Those are excellent pragmatic reasons that Paul understands and will bring into the discussion in due time, but they are not the reasons he gives at the beginning. What he says in verse 1 is that we must obey the authorities because “there is no authority except that which God has established” and “the authorities that exist have been established by God.”
In other words, the starting point for Paul’s argument is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, in this case in regard to human rulers. God is sovereign. Therefore, those who exercise authority do so because God has established them in their positions.
We have to take this sovereignty seriously, because it is easy for us to accept God’s being sovereign when we are given Christian rulers or when people of high moral character are elevated to positions of responsibility. But what about evil rulers? What about Nero, the corrupt emperor who was reigning in Rome at the very time Paul was writing this letter? What about rulers who persecuted the church? Or, for that matter, what about such evil leaders as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Idi Amin, or even elected officials like Richard Nixon, who betrayed our trust and disappointed us?
Romans 13:1 tells us that even these authorities have been established by God, and that we have a legitimate (though not unlimited) responsibility to obey even them.
We have already come across one example of an evil but nevertheless God-established ruler in Romans, though Paul was not specifically thinking about the role of the state when he brought him into his discussion. This example is Pharaoh, the oppressor of the Jews. He worked them as slaves and arrogantly resisted Moses’ demand that he let God’s people go. God judged this arrogance. Egypt was ruined by a series of ten plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborn children of the country. In the end Pharaoh and his armies were destroyed by drowning in the Red Sea. But evil as this man was, he had nevertheless been put into his position by God, which Paul clearly says.
That is the teaching of Romans 9:17, where Paul quotes God as telling Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (quoting Exod. 9:16). God raised Pharaoh up so that he might display his wrath in judging him. It was not a desirable appointment, but still it was God who had raised him up simply because God is sovereign in all things.
A second example is Nebuchadnezzar, another arrogant ruler. He thought he was superior to Jehovah because he had been able to conquer Jerusalem, raze the temple, and carry off to Babylon the gold and silver objects that had been used by the Jewish priests in their worship. The first four chapters of Daniel are a record of the struggle that took place as Nebuchadnezzar contended for sovereignty and God worked to humble him and show him that God alone, not Nebuchadnezzar, is the Most High God and ruler of all.
Three times in Daniel 4 the text says that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (vv. 17, 25, 32): (1) Nebuchadnezzar heard these words in his dream; (2) Daniel recited them to him as the words of God; (3) Nebuchadnezzar heard them from heaven when God uttered his important, symbolic judgment of insanity upon the stiff-necked ruler. This is an important truth, and in the end Nebuchadnezzar seems to have gotten the message, for he confessed:
I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”…
Everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Daniel 4:34–35, 37
Another example is Cyrus the Persian, who is also mentioned in Daniel (1:21, 6:28, 10:1). He was an unusually humane ruler, whom God used to bring the Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylon. In Isaiah 45:1 this pagan king is even called the Lord’s “anointed,” which means messiah, the very title given to Jesus as the Messiah of God.
These rulers—Nero, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus—and all others have been set in their places by God, simply because God is sovereign and, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (III, 1). There is no ruler anywhere or from any time in history who was not set in his exalted position by God.
Obeying the Sovereign
Of course, the problem for us is not so much that God has established whatever rulers there may be. We can believe that abstractly and either like and approve of our rulers, or not like them and disapprove of them, or perhaps even reject them. The problem is that we are told that it is the duty of Christians to obey those who exercise such authority, and that includes all authorities, not just kings and presidents but also policemen, judges, schoolteachers, bosses, and other such “governing authorities.” We do not want to do that.
Paul is writing about the civil government in Romans 13, but these other authorities come into the picture tangentially because they have governing roles and have been set in place by God.
There are many obvious problems at this point. First, Paul does not answer a lot of our questions. For example, when is a government a legitimate government, and when isn’t it? When is it right to rebel against an unjust or tyrannical government, or isn’t it permitted at all? What about our own American War of Independence? If we had been living then, what side should we have been on, with England or with the colonists? What are we to do when there are rival claimants to the throne? Which one should we obey? Again, at what point does an unjust ruler become legitimate?
Or what about limits? Paul says we are to obey the governing authorities. But does this mean that we are to obey everything they command? What about unjust acts commanded by an evil government? Killing civilians? Lying? Clandestine operations even for such an important branch of government as the CIA? Are there no limits to what must be obeyed?
We are going to explore the limits to the obedience Christians can give a civil government in the next study. But the point I am making here is that the matter of obedience to those in authority cannot be taken lightly, as we are so often inclined to do.
As far as Romans 13:1 is concerned, it would be difficult, probably impossible, for anyone to write a more all-encompassing, absolute, or utterly unqualified statement than the one Paul has given: “Everyone [literally, ‘every soul’] must submit himself to the governing authorities.”
This is written so strongly that Robert Haldane thinks that it requires an obedience to secular rulers that is almost absolute: “Everyone, without exception, is, by the command of God, to be subject to the existing powers, whatever were the means by which they became possessed of the situation in which they stand. … If God has appointed every government that exists in the world, his people are bound to submit to every government under which their lot has been cast.”
Power or Authority?
There are limits, of course, but the place to begin is not with the limits, but by trying to understand the nature of the authority that has been given to civil rulers. The key word is authority, which occurs six times in these verses.
Two Greek words are used of political power that are closely connected but need to be distinguished. The first is kratos, which refers to what we might call “the naked power of rule.” It can be legitimate or illegitimate, as in the case of the devil, who, we are told, has “the power of death” (Heb. 2:14) but who will lose it when Jesus returns. His power will be taken away, and he will be cast into the lake of fire. This word has proved useful in describing the various types of government. For example, we speak of democracy. Dêmos means people, crowd, or public assembly. Kratos means rule. So democracy means rule by the people (or by many people). A plutocracy is a system in which the rich (or aristocrats) rule, because ploutos means wealth.
So when we speak of power (kratos) we recognize that there can be both legitimate and illegitimate power. And, of course, Christians are under no obligation to obey a power that is illegitimate. Just because a man with a gun orders us to do something does not mean that we should do it necessarily. The man has power, but it is illegitimate. What we need is a legitimate power—a policeman—to subdue him.
The other word that is used of political as well as other kinds of power is exousia, which is the word Paul uses in Romans 13. Exousia is a delegated power, power that is given to a person or group of persons by another. Paul uses it in Romans 13 because he wants to make explicit that the authority of the governing powers is from God.
Nevertheless, they are responsible for how they exercise it. That is the important thing. They are responsible to God, precisely because God has given them the power. So here in one word is both the legitimacy and the necessary accountability of human government.
Jesus Before Pilate
An important example is Jesus Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus was tried for treason because, as his accusers put it, he “claim[ed] to be a king” (John 19:12). It did not take Pilate long to discover that the kind of kingdom Jesus was talking about was no direct threat to Rome, because it was a kingdom of truth. Jesus told him, “I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). After he had heard that, Pilate knew that this was a religious matter and was of no concern to him.
Yet the leaders of the people were still clamoring for Jesus’ death, and it became clear that Pilate was soon going to bow to their wishes. He wanted to help Jesus, but Jesus was not speaking to him. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10).
At this point Jesus replied with one of two classic texts for helping us understand the God-given role of civil government and the right relationship of the church to the state. He answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (John 19:11).
The word that is translated power in this verse is the same word that Paul uses in Romans 13, and it is used in exactly the same way. The authority that was given to Pilate was a delegated authority, because it had been given to him by God. It was a true authority. Pilate had the right to try Jesus and render judgment as he thought right. But he was responsible to God for what he did and for how he did it. That is why Jesus was able to remind him, “Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” The sin of the Jewish leaders was greater than the sin of Pilate, because they were sinning against the Scriptures, which pointed to Jesus and were fulfilled by Jesus, and against their consciences, as even Pilate recognized (“It was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him,” Matt. 27:18). Nevertheless, Pilate was also sinning by condemning an innocent man, and he would have to answer to God for it.
Pilate had authority in Christ’s trial. He could decide as he wished. He decided wrongly, but he had authority to make that decision even if it was wrong. This is because his authority was from God, and Jesus did not suggest that it be wrested from him even because he had made so great an error as condemning the Son of God. If nothing else, the example of Jesus before Pilate shows us that for Christians revolution for the sake of revolution alone (“I would rather be king than you”) is wrong.
Indeed, instead of being revolutionaries, Christians are obligated to be the very best citizens possible. We should obey speed limits, pay our taxes honestly, vote in elections, and in all other respects respond with respect and compliance to those who are over us.
To Tell the Truth
Yet this does not mean that Christians are merely to be pliant, lying down in the face of evil and doing nothing to oppose it. Again, we have the example of Jesus. Jesus did not show disrespect to Pilate. He did not warn him that if he failed to rule justly, Jesus’ followers would rise up and do their best to unseat him and the Roman government. Jesus knew what the governor would do, and he accepted it as from God, which it surely was. But Jesus was not silent. He spoke of the truth, which he had been sent to make known, and he reminded Pilate that Pilate was sinning and would therefore one day himself have to answer for it.
That is our role. We speak often today of the separation of church and state, and we should be thankful for that separation. It is a dearly won liberty to have a church free from government interference or control and to have a state free from clerical domination. But the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of God and state. And though we do not rule the state, nor should we, it is nevertheless our duty as Christians to speak out against the civil ruler’s sins and remind the governing authorities that they are ultimately accountable to him from whom their authority comes.
So we are accountable too! We are accountable to speak up. We do not have the power of the sword. That is reserved for the civil authorities, as Paul will show in Romans 13:4. Our weapon is truth, for we are a kingdom of the truth. The truth is stronger than the sword. But woe to us if we do not wield the sword of truth powerfully.
1. Let every soul, &c. Inasmuch as he so carefully handles this subject, in connection with what forms the Christian life, it appears that he was constrained to do so by some great necessity which existed especially in that age, though the preaching of the gospel at all times renders this necessary. There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection. This error, however, possessed the minds of the Jews above all others; for it seemed to them disgraceful that the offspring of Abraham, whose kingdom flourished before the Redeemer’s coming, should now, after his appearance, continue in submission to another power. There was also another thing which alienated the Jews no less than the Gentiles from their rulers, because they all not only hated piety, but also persecuted religion with the most hostile feelings. Hence it seemed unreasonable to acknowledge them for legitimate princes and rulers, who were attempting to take away the kingdom from Christ, the only Lord of heaven and earth.
By these reasons, as it is probable, Paul was induced to establish, with greater care than usual, the authority of magistrates, and first he lays down a general precept, which briefly includes what he afterwards says: secondly, he subjoins an exposition and a proof of his precept.
He calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men. Magistrates are then thus called with regard to their subjects, and not as compared with each other. And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.
For there is no power, &c. The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination. For since it pleases God thus to govern the world, he who attempts to invert the order of God, and thus to resist God himself, despises his power; since to despise the providence of him who is the founder of civil power, is to carry on war with him. Understand further, that powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from him; but because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, (ἀταξίας,) are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the wellbeing of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honour the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men: for the punishment which God inflicts on men for their sins, we cannot properly call ordinations, but they are the means which he designedly appoints for the preservation of legitimate order.
1 The teaching that follows is addressed to “everyone” (pasa psychē), i.e., every believer rather than everyone in general, even though government is necessary for society as a whole. Paul could admonish only Christians. What he requires is “submission,” a term that calls for placing oneself under someone else. Here and in v. 5 he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey” (hypotassō, GK 5718), and the reason is that believers may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government. A circumstance may arise in which they must choose between obeying God and obeying human authority (Ac 5:29). But even then they must be submissive to the extent that if their Christian convictions do not permit compliance, they will accept the consequences of their refusal.
Those to whom submission must be rendered are called “the governing authorities.” Two different words are used for “authority” in this passage. In v. 1, the word exousiai (GK 2026) is not a specific or technical term; it simply means those who are over others. With respect to the second word, archōn (GK 807; v. 3), we find Josephus using it, as Paul does, with reference to Roman rulers, but specifically to those who ruled in the name of Rome over the Jews in Palestine (J.W. 2.350).
Paul makes a sweeping statement when he says, “There is no authority except that which God has established.” It is true even of Satan that what authority he exercises has been given to him (cf. Lk 4:6). God has ordained this tension between authority and submission: “God has so arranged the world from the beginning—at the creation, by all means, if you like—as to make it possible to render him service within it, and this is why he created superiors and subordinates” (E. Käsemann, “Principles of the Interpretation of Romans 13,” in New Testament Questions of Today [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961], 208).
It is probably significant that the name of Christ does not appear anywhere in the passage. The thought does not move in the sphere of redemption or the life of the church as such, but in the relationship to the state that God in his wisdom has set up. While Christians have their citizenship in heaven (Php 3:20), they are not on that account excused from responsibility to acknowledge the state as possessing authority from God to govern them. They hold a dual citizenship.
13:1. When it came to presenting oneself as a living sacrifice to God, Paul “urged” the Christians to do so (Rom. 12:1). But when it came to submitting oneself to the governing authorities of the land, urging was replaced by commanding: Everyone must submit himself (hupotasso; present passive imperative) to the governing authorities. Why the imperative, the command? Because, in principle (though not always in specifics), to submit to the civil authority is to submit to God. The statement in this command which unlocks its meaning, and which gives Christians ground to accept it and apply it, is this: There is no authority except that which God has established. This is a statement of the overarching sovereignty and rule of God in the affairs of this world. If God has appointed every civil ruler, every governing authority, then why should any Christian fear submitting to that which God has appointed?
Daniel said that God “sets up kings and deposes them” when he praised God in prayer for revealing to him the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:21). When Daniel conveyed the dream and its meaning to the king, he said plainly, “The God of heaven has given you [Nebuchadnezzar] dominion and power and might and glory … he has made you ruler” (Dan. 2:37–38). Daniel continued illustrating Paul’s point: “After you [Nebuchadnezzar], another kingdom will rise.… Next, a third kingdom … will rule.… Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom” (Dan. 2:39–40). Then, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44).
Daniel’s point is conclusive: from Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom to God’s final kingdom, God is in control, setting up and taking down kings to accomplish his perfect will. Later, Nebuchadnezzar recounted another dream he had in which he was told by “holy ones” (angels) that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17). Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar was to become a living illustration of his own dream as he was driven from his throne for seven years (Dan. 4:24–27).
What Paul wanted the believers in Rome to understand was that, in the Roman Empire (or any other), “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:6–7). And even after he is in office, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1). Therefore, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (those Roman emperors spanning the lifetime of the Roman church up until Paul’s writing) had ascended to power with God’s permission—actually, by his direction (have been established by God)—as have the rulers of today.
As an aside, it should be noted in the name of thoroughness that Paul does not contradict himself between what he says here and in 1 Corinthians 6:1–8. In the latter passage, where Paul commands believers not to air their dirty laundry in front of civil magistrates, he is not encouraging them to bypass the duly constituted legal process for redress of grievance. Rather, he is asking the Corinthian believers, “Why do you have any grievance at all?” This is not a matter of being unwilling to obey the governing authorities. It is a matter of the shameful condition the church was in when they could not find among themselves enough wisdom to settle differences without having to ask for the help of unspiritual, civil judges.
To admit that, with God’s help, in the body of Christ we cannot solve our differences, is to admit defeat. It would be better to suffer the wrong than to admit to the world the inability to solve the dispute (1 Cor. 6:7–8). A private defeat with a believer’s name shamed is better than a public defeat with God’s name shamed.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 477–479). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.