Guest post by Rev. Dr. David Smith, Covenant Fellowship ARP Church, Summerfield, NC; Adjunct Professor of Church History, Erskine Seminary
The Origin of Civil Authority
The origin of civil authority is the origin of all earthly authority—God. Thus, to resist or not be subject to the governing authorities in that realm or sphere in which they have authority is to resist God. Now, noticed how I put that. It is vital that we see that this is what Paul affirms. The very truth that God, and God alone, is the supreme and absolute authority over all things and is the origin for the civil magistrates’ authority automatically means that there are limits on all the God-established human authorities. It could not be otherwise. God, and God alone, is the authority over all authorities. This is part of our understanding what it means that he is God.
In turn, this also means that all human authorities and the various relationships we have to them have accountability as an unavoidable part of them. This is part of Calvin’s point when he comments on these verses: “God has so bound us to each other, that no man ought to avoid subjection.” And so, Paul specifically mentions a part of what this means in the latter half of verse 2: “those who oppose them will receive judgment.” By itself it is not immediately clear what Paul means by “receive judgment” but as we proceed in the passage it does become clear that Paul is referring to both judgment from God and judgment from the civil authority. This is specifically stated in verse 4. For he is a servant of God to you for [the] good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword without cause; for he is God’s servant an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the one who does evil.
To put it simply, the civil authorities are to uphold what is good and punish evil. Good and evil are used by Paul in relation to God, and so the civil authorities are, according to Paul, meant to serve God’s purpose in upholding what is good. An unavoidable implication of this is that all civil authorities have limitations placed upon their power and authority. This is because God is the Origin of All Authority. All this places an obligation or duty upon us with respects to the various authorities that is limited to their sphere, and places accountability within this authority relationship. This accountability automatically has a dual nature to it—the authorities are accountable for their exercising of that authority because they are “God’s servant,” and those who are to be submissive to them are accountable for their submission. This all follows from the truth that God is the Origin of All Authority.
All legitimate authorities on earth are accountable to God for how they exercise the exact authority God gave them. It is important to note that Paul calls the civil authorities God’s servants or ministers, and he uses two different terms both of which are also used of OT priests and NT ministers of the gospel. Just as the OT priests and NT ministers of the gospel have a particular sphere in which they have authority and that limits their authority, so also, do civil authorities have a limited sphere in which they have authority. This is vital for us to understand as we consider what it means to submit to these civil authorities and what Paul affirms about the civil authorities through the rest of the passage.