Does the Bible support the belief that the people who hold important positions in government are chosen by God to serve in those positions? The scripture that probably is most often cited in this regard is Romans 13:1, so we will focus on this scripture.
[Note: The words that we highlight in each of the following translations state who or what God appoints, choses, establishes, institutes, or ordains.]
Translations of Romans 13:1
American Standard Version (ASV): Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God.
New American Standard Bible (NASB): Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
King James Version (KJV): 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.
New King James Version (NKJV): Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
International Standard Version (ISV): Every person must be subject to the governing authorities, for no authority exists except by God’s permission. The existing authorities have been established by God.
New International Version (NIV): Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Living Bible (TLB): Every person must be subject to the governing authorities, for no authority exists except by God’s permission. The existing authorities have been established by God.
New Living Translation (NLT): Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.
Revised Standard Version (RSV): Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
Summary: Of the preceding ten translations, only one – the NLT – refers to people (“those in positions of authority”), rather than to government in general (“authorities” or “powers that be”).
Bible Commentaries Regarding Romans 13:1
The following are excerpts of what we believe to be the most relevant comments by several Bible commentaries that address the meaning of Romans 13:1.
In reference to this scripture, John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible is one of four Bible commentaries that indicate God does not choose who will hold positions of authority. Calvin says that powers (i.e., not the specific people who have those powers) are from God. Calvin’s explanation is as follows:
Paul was induced to establish . . . the authority of magistrates. . . .
[I]t 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.
For there is no power, etc. 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, . . . because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. . . . [T]he right of government is ordained by God for the wellbeing of mankind. . . .
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible has a similar point of view. Gill states that Paul spoke specifically of powers, rather than persons, in expressing the belief that government is an order of God. According to Gill,
for there is no power but of God; God is the fountain of all power and authority; . . . he is the King of kings, from whom they derive their power and authority, from whom they have the right of government, and all the qualifications for it; it is by him that kings reign, and princes decree justice.
The powers that be are ordained of God. The order of magistracy is of God; it is of his ordination and appointment, and of his ordering, disposing, and fixing in its proper bounds and limits. The several forms of government are of human will and pleasure; but government itself is an order of God. There may be men in power who assume it of themselves, and are of themselves, and not of God; and others that abuse the power that is lodged in them; who, though they are by divine permission, yet not of God’s approbation and good will. And it is observable, that the apostle speaks of powers, and not persons, at least, not of persons, but under the name of powers, to show that he means not this, or the other particular prince or magistrate, but the thing itself, the office and dignity of magistracy itself; for there may be some persons, who may of themselves usurp this office, or exercise it in a very illegal way, who are not of God, nor to be subject to by men.
Likewise, with regard to Romans 13:1, Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible expresses the belief that this scripture indicates that governing power is an ordinance of God. Thus, his belief is similar to those of Calvin and Gill. Henry declares,
There is no power but of God. God as the ruler and governor of the world hath appointed the ordinance of magistracy, so that all civil power is derived from him . . . and he hath by his providence put the administration into those hands. . . . The most unjust and oppressive princes in the world have no power but what is given them from above (John 19:11). . . . The powers that be: whatever the particular form and method of government are–whether by monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy–wherever the governing power is lodged, it is an ordinance of God, and it is to be received and submitted to accordingly though immediately an ordinance of man (1 Peter 2:13). . . .
And, Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible indicates that Paul is referring not to the person in the position of power, but instead to the thing itself (i.e., the office or power and authority), so his thinking is essentially the same as that of the three previously mentioned Bible commentaries. In reference to Romans 13:1, Poole states,
[M]agistracy hath God for its author: ergo. He [Paul] speaketh not here of the person, nor of the abuse, nor of the manner of getting into power, but of the thing itself, viz. magistracy and authority: and he says, it is of God; he instituted the office, and he appointeth or permitteth the person that executes it. This clause is attested and illustrated by Proverbs 8:15 Daniel 4:32 John 19:11.
The powers that be are ordained of God: The emphasis of this sentence seems to lie in the word ordained; power and civil authority is not simply from God, as all other things are, but it is ordained by him.
In contrast with the four preceding Bible commentaries, Adam Clarke Commentary alleges that God delegates authority to whomsoever He will, which indicates that Clarke thinks God determines the specific people who will hold positions of government authority. With regard to Romans 13:1, Clarke asserts,
As God is the origin of power, and the supreme Governor of the universe, he delegates authority to whomsoever he will; and though in many cases the governor himself may not be of God, yet civil government is of him; for without this there could be no society, no security, no private property; all would be confusion and anarchy, and the habitable world would soon be depopulated. In ancient times, God, in an especial manner, on many occasions appointed the individual who was to govern; and he accordingly governed by a Divine right, as in the case of Moses, Joshua, the Hebrew judges, and several of the Israelitish kings. In after times, and to the present day, he does that by a general superintending providence which he did before by especial designation.
Similarly, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible states, in reference to the same scripture, that God “directs’ and “controls” the appointment of rulers. Therefore, it is evident that, like Clarke, Barnes believes that God chooses the specific people who will hold positions of authority. According to Barnes,
For – The apostle gives a “reason” why Christians should be subject [to government authority]; and that reason is, that magistrates have received their appointment from God. As Christians, therefore, are to be subject to God, so they are to honor “God” by honoring the arrangement which he has instituted for the government of mankind.
No power – No office; no magistracy; no civil rule.
But of God – By God‘s permission, or appointment; by the arrangements of his providence, by which those in office had obtained their power.
The powers that be – That is, all the civil magistracies that exist; those who have the “rule” over nations, by whatever means they may have obtained it. This is equally true at all times, that the powers that exist, exist by the permission and providence of God.
Are ordained of God – This word “ordained” denotes the “ordering” or “arrangement” which subsists in a “military” company, or army. God sets them “in order,” assigns them their location, changes and directs them as he pleases. This does not mean that he “originates” or causes the evil dispositions of rulers, but that he “directs” and “controls” their appointment.
The position of Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible on this matter is somewhat uncertain. Pett asserts that those who come to power are to be seen as ordained of God, but he also says they cannot come to power unless God allows it. Saying that God allows people to come to positions of power is quite different than saying that God chooses who will have positions of power. With regard to Romans 13:1, Pett says,
[M]en cannot come to power except God allows it, and thus those who do come to power are to be seen as ordained of God. This view is in accord with Scripture, for in Daniel 4:17; Daniel 4:25; Daniel 4:32 we read, ‘the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whoever He will.’
Summary: Of the seven Bible commentaries that we have cited, four indicate that God does not choose the specific people who will hold positions of authority in government. Two of the other Bible commentaries express the belief that God does choose the specific people who will hold positions of authority in government. And, one Bible commentary is not clear as to its belief about whether or not God chooses the specific people who will hold positions of authority in government.
The fact that nine of the ten Bible translations that we have cited refer to government in general, rather than to people, indicates that the vast majority of Bible translators have determined that Romans 13:1 declares that God is responsible for establishing government, not for choosing the specific people who will be in government. In other words, this scripture does not indicate that God chooses specific people to serve in important positions in government. Certainly, God did choose several of the government leaders of the Israelites during the Old Testament period, but there is no biblical indication that He ever chose any of the government leaders of any other nation.
The Bible commentaries that we have quoted are less supportive of our conclusion, since only four of the seven Bible commentaries clearly express the belief that God is responsible for establishing government, rather than for choosing the specific people who will govern.
In any case, it is one thing to say that God ordains government authority, but it is a very different thing to say that God chooses the specific people who will have that authority. We believe that God does not generally choose specific people to serve in positions of government authority. However, there may be some exceptions, particularly when there is someone whom God wants to accomplish an important objective, as He did through certain men who governed the Israelites during Old Testament times.
As previously inferred, there is no credible reason to believe that God chooses the specific people to serve in every government position of authority. Furthermore, because God is omniscient, as well as righteous, there is no credible reason to believe that He would choose extremely evil people to serve in positions of authority, knowing that they will commit heinous crimes. Believing otherwise would infer that God chooses extremely evil men, such as Hitler and Stalin, to serve in important government positions. Although God apparently has divine reasons for allowing extremely evil people to assume positions of authority that result in pain, suffering, and death for many others, surely He would not choose them to be in such positions.
[Note: For a discussion regarding obeying government authority, click on “Uncertainties Regarding Obeying Government Authority.” And, for a discussion of God’s omniscience, click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?”]