Flexible Interpretations of 'The Powers that Be' from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond
61 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2014 Last revised: 9 Jan 2015
Date Written: March 12, 2014
The phrase “the powers that be” (“TPTB”) has long been part of English idiom. William Tyndale, the English biblical scholar and Protestant reformer, apparently introduced this phrase into the English language with his translation of the first sentence of the second verse of the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul the Apostle’s epistle to the Romans: “The powers that be are ordeyned of God.” The phrase was incorporated without change into the King James Bible, arguably the most influential literary work in the history of the English language, and from there it, like many other biblical phrases, became idiomatic in English.
While “the powers that be” probably is the most famous phrase from this passage of Paul’s most famous epistle, the entire passage, consisting of the first seven verses of chapter thirteen, has been highly influential in the course of law and politics in the West for roughly 1,800 years. This New Testament passage has influenced law, political philosophy, public administration, education, politics and many other fields. Romans 13:1–7 arguably is the most famous and most disputed discussion of political authority in the New Testament. Romans 13:1–7 commands submission to “the powers that be,” but says nothing to the powers that be themselves. Nevertheless, many Christians from the Middle Ages forward have sought to use Romans 13 either to justify or to condemn particular governing regimes, and that practice continues to this very day. The kernel of Paul’s teaching in the passage, at least on the surface, appears to be that his readers must submit to “the powers that be” because they are ordained by God. Even opponents of this straightforward interpretation must confess that “Paul seems to declare that all political authority is ordained by God and should not be resisted.” Not surprisingly, however, Christians down through the centuries often have disagreed with the actions of the government of the time. When that happens, Romans 13:1–7 has led Christians to struggle with the following question: How can Paul’s teaching here about the role of rulers as “servants of God” be squared with the practical experience that rulers sometimes are evil? How can an evil ruler be God’s ordained “minister” or servant? Indeed, the question must have been present from the very inception of Paul’s teaching, as noted by Theology Professor Clinton Morrison: “To the critical reader the question arises: How could Paul, when confronted with the actual situation in which the early Church found itself with regard to the State, express such an affirmative opinion concerning the governing authorities with such unshaken conviction and unconditional certitude?” The Church’s attempts to answer that question in varying historical contexts have taken a long and winding road. The range of Christian interpretations of this passage encompass everything from a requiring absolute submission to government to demanding revolution against certain ruling authorities.
The primary goal for this paper is to canvass significant interpretations of Romans 13:1–7 within historical context. A secondary goal is to show that interpretation of Romans 13 has been heavily influenced by historical context, including then-existing political agendas. But this subject is not merely of historical interest. A tertiary hope (I dare not label it a “goal”) is that this paper might spur some re-examination of the historical and ongoing use of Romans 13 as a weapon to be deployed in some political fight, and whether such use is appropriate.
This look at Romans 13 is organized in this way. First, the passage is introduced. Second, significant discussions of Romans 13 will be surveyed up through the time of Samuel Rutherford. Third will be a discussion of the role of Romans 13 in three significant political conflicts: the American Revolution, Nazi Germany, and Apartheid South Africa. Finally, some contemporary Christian views of Romans 13 will be discussed.
Keywords: Religion, Paul, Romans, South Africa, Bonhoeffer, Third Reich
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