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Subjection to the Civil Power

Subjection to the Civil Power

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Fourth Sunday after Epiphany — Epistle.

" Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers^
Rom. xiii. 1-7.


Fourth Sunday after Epiphany — Epistle.

" Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers^
Rom. xiii. 1-7.

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Published by: GLENN DALE PEASE on Aug 11, 2014
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Fourth Sunday after Epiphany — Epistle.
" Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers^
Rom. xiii. 1-7.
THIS is a passage of Scripture of very grave and
serious practical importance. And the force of the
principles here laid down is very greatly increased by
the consideration that the Apostle is addressing a body
of persons resident in the city of Eome, and among
whom were many Jews.
Rome was, at that time, the seat and centre of that
great imperial system, the advance of which had cost
the Jews the loss of their own national independence.
Under its yoke they chafed with the most undisguised
and often rebellious hostility. Yet St. Paul, himself a
warm-hearted and patriotic Jew, recognised it as pro-
videntially ordained of God. He insists on its religious
claim to be recognised and submitted to, within its own
proper sphere, by all who were providentially placed in
subjection to it. In thus teaching he does but echo the
principle of his Master's saying, " Render under Caesar
the things that are Caesar's."
The sphere of the Civil Government may be briefly
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defined to be the maintenance of peace and good order,
and the careful attention to everything that tends to
promote the highest temporal well-being of all. Wise
legislation, equal administration of law and justice,
security to life, health, and property, development of
material resources, promotion of education, are all means
towards the great object of Civil Government. That
object is to secure for all the most favourable oppor-
tunity possible in this present world for living that
life, and attaining that growth and development in all
the elements of our human nature, in body and mind,
in heart, and soul, and spirit, for which our Creator sent
us into the world.
This is the idea of Civil Government. It has, as
yet, been only imperfectly and partially realized, even
by those nations whose rulers have most clearly and
consciously set it before them. Civil Government has to
do, in the first instance, and chiefly, with what we may
call the material setting of our human life. It aims
at securing to all the means and opportunity of pro-
viding themselves with those necessaries without which
our life cannot be sustained, and which are therefore
the first indispensable conditions of the progress of any
in the higher walks of culture and development.
And to these useful and necessary ends St. Paul
teaches us that Civil Government is a divinely ordained
means, and has, as such, a claim on our loyal and dutiful
submission as a matter of conscience. He begins by
laying down the principle that there is no power but
of God ; and it is to be observed that the word which
he uses in the original for 'power ^ throughout this whole
passage, is one that means authority ^ and especially
delegated authority, as opposed to mere force or strength.
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The distinction is one that is very accurately marked,
and very consistently observed, in the Greek language.
God, the Supreme Author and Governor of all
things, is the one sole source of all lawful authority.
All lawful authority comes by delegation from Him,
and (within its special and appropriate sphere, what-
ever that may be) speaks as in His ame. The first
and simplest illustration of this is the parental autho-
rity, as the family is the first unit in the formation of
human society; and the claim of submission to all other
lawful authority in human affairs, whether merely civil,
or spiritual and religious, is but the outgrowth of the
principle of the "First Commandment with promise."
In its natural subjection to father and mother, the child
learns the first lessons of obedience to lawful authority.
They are to it the earliest representatives of that
supreme, and underived, and naturally inherent autho-
rity of the great Father of all our spirits.
And, in the wider sphere of the State, the Civil
Authority, with respect to matters belonging to our
natural and earthly life, stands, to the families and
individuals within it, in the position of a parent exer-
cising a delegated authority ordained of God.
For it the Apostle claims subjection on the part of
all without exception. " Let every soul be subject unto
the higher powers." " Whosoever resisteth the power,
resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist
shall receive to themselves damnation." Within its
own domain (that is, in all that belongs to our life in
this present world, in merely secular affairs) the State
is supreme over all. It claims from all a loyal and
dutiful submission as part really of their duty to God.
All, without exception, must needs be subject, "not
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only for wrath " (i.«. from a fear of the consequences of
resistance to a power which is able to punish), ''but
also for conscience* sake."
There are two forms which the Apostle thinks it
worth while specially to tell us this loyal subjection
should take. The firsi, is that of the cheerful payment
of the taxes and tribute levied by lawful authority as
necessary for the maintenance of that secular govern-
ment whose officers are "6od*s ministers, iittending
continually upon that very thing" as their divinely-
ordained duty and vocation. The condition and temper
of tjie Jewish nation generally at this particular epoch
(to which allusion has already been made) gives special
point and meaning to this Apostolic injunction. Tax-
ation is, of course, a mark of subjection ; and to it, as
such, the Jews of our Lord's and His Apostles' time
submitted, as we know from both sacred and profane
historians, with a very ill grace and most reluctantly.
The irritable temper of the Jewish people on the
subject is witnessed to by the treacherous question put
to our Lord, " Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or
no?" and rebellious resistance had more than once to
be put down by the Romans with a strong hand.
But, secondly, the Apostle insists also on the rendering
to the State and its officers and representatives " their
due," in the way of ready courtesy and respect and
willing adhesion. This is not an unimportant matter,
nor a mere thing of course. There is very much in the
tone and temper of the present time, among ourselves,
which shows only too plainly that due respect to " the
powers that be" is very far indeed from being a thing
of course. And there are only too many indications
that the want of it is by no means an unimportant
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matter, but draws after it serious inconveniences, not
to say dangers. The welfare of all is endangered when
liberty shows a tendency to degenerate into licence, and
when equal laws, made in the common interests of all,
are deliberately and repeatedly defied and broken.
The Apostolic precepts on this behalf may never
safely be overlooked or omitted to be enforced by the
great Christian society, which is in the world, if not of
it, and which (in more senses than one) is " the salt of
the earth," the only influence which can effectually
preserve human society from moral and political cor-
ruption and disintegration.
And the duty of the Church, in this respect, as the
chief support of and security for order, is especially
marked and important in the older countries, where
political development is reaching its later phases, where
the simpler instinctive, and, as people call them, some-
times in praise, sometimes in blame, the " old-fashioned '*
notions of duty and loyalty are dying out, where the
painful contrasts of extreme poverty side by side with
extreme wealth are daily more marked, and the chasms
which separate class from class grow daily wider and
deeper. Through evil report and through good report,
the Church, in fulfilment of her solemn charge, must,
in this respect also, as well as in the maintenance of
"the faith once delivered to the saints," steadfastly
and unflinchingly do her duty. She may thus provoke
the still more bitter hostility of the various disintegrating
forces which are actively at work beneath the surface
of modem society, just as her steadfast maintenance of
the Faith, of its truth and of its necessity, provokes the
hostility of avowed or secret unbelief. Yet necessity is
laid upon her, and the inculcation of reverence to " the
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powers that be " is part of her message to mankind. It
must, however, be remembered that, while the great
Christian Society thus may, and must, lend its support,
in the fullest and most loyal measure, to the Civil
Authority, which is also " ordained of God," and must
be forward to set an example of ready obedience, there
is another and higher department of her duty wherein,
in the unhappy event of a plain collision between the
two, she must follow Apostolic example, and "obey
God rather than man." He who said, "Eender imto
Caesar the things that are Caesar's," said also, " Eender
unto God the things that are God's." In purely re-
ligious matters ; in all that higher department of our
human life which belongs to man's immortal spirit ; in
all that is matter of conscience between the individual
soul and God ; in all that concerns the public action of
the Christian society in dealing with spiritual things;
in maintaining, for instance, and propagating the Faith,
and in guarding the spiritual interests of her members ;
the Civil Government, as such, has simply no functions
whatever. Here is a sphere — "the things of God" —
in which it has no jurisdiction, and in which its direct
interference has generally been productive only of com-
plication and disaster; as has been also, on the other
hand, the Church's claim of direct supremacy in secular
There have been periods in the earlier history of
some Christian nations when the Church and State con-
sisted so exactly of the same persons, were so exactly
co-extensive and identical, as to be in effect only the
same society under different aspects. So long as this
condition of things lasted, a common and united action,
in matters, whether religious or secular, of common
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interest to all, was not only natural but inevitable, and
involved no evil consequences. But this could not last
long. With the growth of diverse rival elements, with
the growth especially of diversity of opinion and belief
in religious matters, this intermixture of the functions
of civil and religious authority hgus become both difficult
and dangerous. The action of the State in the spiritual
sphere cannot, in these altered circumstances, command
the ready assent of all, when once pronounced religious
difference has shown itself. or can the Church with
safety tolerate the action of the Civil Authority in
purely spiritual things, when once religious difference
has ceased to be a disqualification for a share in the
secular government, and when, consequently, the action
of that government (if it should undertake to deal
directly, or in more than a merely general enabling and
protective way, with religious matters) may possibly be
influenced by a spirit alien, if not adverse, to her own.
The Church can never entrust the decision of any
question of doctrine to the civil power, nor permit it to
hinder her maintenance and propagation, by all methods
not involving civil disturbance, of the Christian Faith,
without disloyalty at once to herself and to her Lord.
Should the State be non-Christian, as was that Imperial
Eome to which St. Paul enjoined on his high-spirited
countrymen entire submission in all departments of civil
life, then the Church must run the risk, as the Church
of the first three centuries did, of even cruel persecution
rather than be untrue to her solemn trust. She must
adopt this course in the highest interests of, and out of
the largest charity towards, that very power at whose
hands she suffers.
Yet even in these trying circumstances it would be
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her solemn duty to pray for them that despitefully used
her, as the primitive Church did ; and, recognising their
God-ordaine* authority in their proper sphere, to lend
them, within that sphere, her strongest and most forward
support, and thus in the end, with God's blessing, to
"overcome evil with good." The path of truest wis-
dom (especially amid the complicated entanglements of
modern political and religious life) lies in the direction
of a large and generous forbearance on all sides towards
each other. For while, in many, and those the higher
and more important matters, the respective departments
of civil and of religious life are clearly and sharply dis-
tinguished, and in these no confusion nor trespassing
can be tolerated without damage to both, in other things
tiie two are, from old custom, and the long associations
of our ancient and varied history, so inextricably in-
tertwined, that there is need of the highest practical
sagacity, and of that sensible spirit of compromise in
things that are not matters of principle, which (we may
be thankful) has not hitherto been seriously wanting in
the history of our own beloved country and Church.

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