What Does the Bible Say about the "Powers that Be?"

us congress building, the powers that be

What Does the Bible Say about the "Powers that Be?"

There will be times for everyone when it is hard to fathom how a given person could hold governing power. But Romans 13:1 shows us how Christians should understand this.

 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. – Romans 13:1 (KJV)

We live in divisive times. If you are in the United States, you are aware of the stark division that exists within the nation, politically, religiously, etc. Regardless of particular views or affiliations, most people have been disappointed or frustrated with those who have come into authority over the last few years, or those who will be in authority for the next few years. Maybe you are frustrated with both.

Fortunately for Christians, the Bible speaks specifically about how God’s people are to respond to leaders coming into authority, especially those who are not liked or respected. It is in Romans 13 that we hear the well known phrase "the powers that be are ordained by God." Let's take a deeper look at the meaning and origin of this phrase so we can understand how it applies to our living today.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Muni Yogeshwaran

Biblical Context: Perpetual Foreign Rulers

The people of Israel understood what it is like to live under the authority of someone they do not like. From being oppressed by Egypt, to exile in Babylon, to being ruled by the Roman Empire in the New Testament, the people of Israel have a long legacy of living under the authority of another nation.

Given this long history of oppression and foreign rule, the Bible speaks quite a bit on how God’s people are to deal with authority figures, especially those who are unwelcome. The most prominent of such texts is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  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. (Romans 13:1). Paul’s teaching is clear. There is no one who comes into governing authority without God allowing it to happen.

There will be times for everyone when it is hard to fathom how a given person could get into office. Paul and his Jewish brethren lived under the oppressive Roman Empire. It is certain that they wondered why God would allow Augustus Caesar to be in power over Israel. Paul’s faith, despite Roman persecution, is remarkable. Paul understands that God is sovereign over all things, and that God can use governing authorities for His greater purpose.

God’s People Oppressed in Egypt

The Bible contains several examples of God using foreign leaders for His plans for Israel. The first example is with Pharaoh in Egypt. The nation of Israel struggled under Egyptian oppression for hundreds of years. At the time, the people of Israel would certainly have questioned how they can be under Egyptian slavery. However, God redeemed this situation by rescuing the people from Israel and guiding them through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan.

If God had not used Pharaoh and Egypt to oppress Israel, then God would not have had the opportunity to rescue His people and deliver them from oppression. Throughout the remainder of the Old Testament, God reminds the people of Israel of their deliverance from Egypt as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and devotion.

Egyptian oppression was by no means a pleasant experience for Israel, and they would never have chosen to endure it. However, God was able to use Pharoah as a means for God to reveal Himself to His people.

God’s People Oppressed in Babylon

A second example of God using foreign leaders for His sovereign purpose is Babylon. Throughout the prophets, especially in Jeremiah, God pronounced His just judgment on the nation of Israel, and detailed which nations he would use to punish the nation of Israel for their infidelity and idolatry.

Here are a few examples of God announcing that He will judge Judah via Babylon:

QUOTE “I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.” (Jeremiah 21:10)

QUOTE “I will deliver you into the hands of those who want to kill you, those you fear—Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the Babylonians.” (Jeremiah 22:25)

QUOTE “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (Habakkuk 1:6)

For the people of Israel at this time in history, surely they did not understand why God was allowing the kingdom of Babylon to plunder Judah and bring God’s people into exile. There were some who told the people of Israel that God will overthrow Babylon soon, and that they can count on going home without much time away.

However, Jeremiah dispels these false rumors, saying, “Do not listen to the prophets who say, ‘Very soon now the articles from the Lord’s house will be brought back from Babylon.’ They are prophesying lies to you. 17 Do not listen to them. Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live. Why should this city become a ruin?” (Jeremiah 27:16-17).

Jeremiah does not promise that God’s people will go home. Rather, he commands them to serve the king of Babylon.

The people of Judah got into this position through their unfaithful and rebellion against God. Now in exile, they must be obedient or else Nebuchadnezzar will have them destroyed and the oppression will only get worse. In order to make it out of exile alive, the people of Israel must be faithful servants to a foreign king.

Jeremiah’s prophecies make clear to God’s people that their exile in Babylon is entirely their own doing. They received a just judgment for their actions and for their unfaithfulness.

However, their exile then became the context for God’s display of faithfulness to His people. Only a few chapters later, God promised through Jeremiah, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34b).

God’s judgment via Babylon becomes the setting for God to display His unwavering faithfulness to His people. While it seems counterintuitive that God would demand that His people serve another king, it is through this faithfulness to a foreign power that will allow God’s people to survive and return to their own land. God uses unwanted powers to shape and teach His people, and it is His will that we faithfully serve under those whom God allows to be in power.

When Obeying Authority Is Sinful

There are a select few examples in Scripture in which God commands His people to rebel against those in authority. However, this is only when obedience to the authority would entail idolatry, or another blatant sin against God Himself. Some examples of this include the midwives in Exodus (Exodus 1:17), Obadiah and Elijah (1 Kings 18), Esther (Esther 4:16), and Daniel (Daniel 3, 6).

In these cases, to obey those in authority would be to directly sin against the Lord either by committing idolatry or rejecting a command of God. In these exceptions, God is pleased by the rejection of the powers that be.

For those in the United States, there is much talk about the current president and the president-elect. Many speculate how a good and faithful Christian could possibly vote for or serve under (fill in the blank). However, neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are demanding that Christians renounce faith in Jesus Christ. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are shutting down churches permanently. Neither candidate is demanding idolatry from Christians. Unless this changes, Christians in the United States are called to faithfully serve whomever is in authority in the White House, trusting that God appointed him to be in that position.

It is not important if you like or dislike who is in authority. Remember the words of Jesus, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's (Matthew 22:21). Jesus did not say to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s unless you do not like him. Or, unless you do not agree with him. Nobody in Israel liked Caesar! He was a foreign political entity who oppressed the people of Israel and imposed devastating taxes on them. However, Jesus explicitly commanded His followers to serve him and honor him as is necessary.

There will never be a political leader in any capacity who will be fully just and righteous. There will never be any authority figure who is perfectly blameless. No leader will ever be liked or respected by everyone. They are not meant to be. God’s people are called to serve and honor leaders in authority, trusting that God has allowed them to be in such a position. It is not our role to judge leaders. That is God’s role. Our responsibility is to glorify God in all things, and show grace in all things. Regardless of your opinion of the powers that be, seek first the Kingdom of God, and trust in His sovereignty over all things.

Photo Credit: © iStock/Getty Images Plus/Yurii Kifor

headshot of author Lucas HagenLucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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