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Who Are The “Powers That Be” Of Romans 13?



ROMANS 13:1-2

Rom. 13:1) “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.  2) Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation”.

I must admit that for decades I have had a great deal of difficulty with Romans 13:1-2. The reason for the difficulty is that it seems to say that no matter how evil the ruler and how evil their laws may be, we as Christians, are obligated to obey them because these rulers had been appointed by God. So for example, during the Nazi regime those who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis were wrong to do so because they were acting contrary to the laws of those who were assumed to be “ordained of God”. I trust the reader will see the difficulty. I believe that the Lord has given me new insights into this passage in Romans 13 and I would like to share those insights.


 Let us begin our study of this passage with a consideration of the widely held assumption that it refers to leaders of the entire world.  There is nothing in this passage to substantiate that assumption. In point of fact, the entire Bible is extremely limited geographically.  That is to say, apart from God’s plan of salvation, everything that is recorded in the Word of God after the call of Abram has to do with Israel and the nations surrounding Her.  Even the tribulation, which is widely taught to be world wide is not world wide. (The paper on the geographic limits of the tribulation will prove that point.  This paper also presents a study of all the Greek words translated “earth” which will further prove the point of that paper). My point is that to understand the passage in Romans 13 to refer to the rulers of the whole world is to take that passage out of the context of the entire Bible. That is to say, if the entire Bible is written about a limited geographic area, with, of course, a limited number of nations, we may not, in my opinion, disregard that fact and simply assume that the “powers that be” of Romans 13 are all the rulers of the entire world. It simply defies logic.


So to whom does the phrase “powers that be” refer?  In point of fact, I see nothing in the immediate context that answers that question. As mentioned above, most assume that the phrase refers to leaders of the entire world. But if the phrase does not refer to leaders of the entire world, and I believe it does not, to whom then can Romans 13 refer?  I believe that the “powers” of Romans 13 refers to the rulers of the temple. That is to say, if the “powers that be” of Rom. 13 are not world rulers, who, in the context of the entire Bible could they be other than the rulers of the temple? This conclusion is based on the fact that the Bible simply never speaks of the rulers of the entire world, but it has much to say about the rulers of the temple. That means that God has not appointed any “powers that be” since 70 A. D. when the temple was destroyed. So Hitler was not appointed by God, Mussolini was not appointed by God, and so on. So every person who has fought against unrighteousness in their leaders were right to do so (that comment will be discussed further below).


Assuming for the moment that this suggestion is correct, it still presents a problem of course, because it was the rulers of the temple who had Christ crucified.  It was the rulers of the temple who persecuted the disciples in the Acts period. How are we to understand this seeming difficulty? That is to say, are to understand Rom. 13 to say that those who, in obedience to the “powers that be”, crucified our Lord and persecuted the apostles were right to do so because they were in obedience to those who were “ordained of God”?  One of the keys to answering that question lies in the Greek preposition translated “of” in the phrase “ordained of God”.

The Greek word translated “of” in the phrase “ordained of God” is “hupo”.  It is generally defined as “by” or “under”. So the phrase “ordained of God” could mean “ordained by God”, or “ordained under God. Which is the correct definition in the phrase under consideration? I believe both definitions are correct. That is to say, “the powers that be” were ordained by God and were under God. The meaning of the phrase “ordained by God” is clear, but what does it mean to be ordained under God? I believe the best way to answer that question is to use an example. In the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States the phrase “one nation under God” is used.  What does that mean? It means that as Americans we see our nation as being under God’s authority. It certainly does not mean that we see the United States as a Theocracy in which God’s rule is supreme. But the phrase “under God” does imply that Americans see the nation as being under God’s authority.

With that said let us consider an example from Scripture in order to have a better understanding of the Greek preposition “hupo”. We read in Matt. 1:22, “Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of (Gr. “hupo”) the Lord by (Gr. “dia”) the prophet…”.  Note that there are two very different prepositions used in this verse, i.e. “hupo” and “dia”.  “Dia” is defined by Dr. E. W. Bullinger in the Companion Bible as, “…denotes any cause by means of which any action passes to its accomplishment…”. So in Matt. 1:22 “dia” means that God spoke by or through the prophet. Given that the Holy Spirit used two very different prepositions, I believe each preposition was used to express a different truth. The truth expressed with the word “hupo” is that the prophet spoke under the Lord, i.e. under His authority. Let us consider this truth (i.e. the prophet spoke under God’s authority”) further.

We read in Jer. 5:31, “The prophets prophecy falsely….”. And in Mic. 3:5 we read, “Thus saith the Lord concerning the prophets that make My People err….”.  These passages concern God’s prophets who lied and led the people to error. My point is that the prophets having authority to prophecy does not guarantee the truthfulness or accuracy of the prophecy itself.  That is to say, one can be given authority to act on the behalf of another, but that does not guarantee that that authority will be used as intended. And that is why it was essential that Matthew recorded the fact that the prophecy was given “by” or “through” (Gr. “dia”) the prophet. That is to say, the preposition “dia”, i.e. “through” tells us that it was God Who spoke the prophecy through Isaiah the prophet which, of course allows for no inaccuracy or untruthfulness.

What can we learn from the word “hupo” as it is used in Rom. 13?  If we were to understand that God ruled through the powers that be in the same way that He spoke through the prophets, the Holy Spirit would have used the Greek word “dia” or, as He did other passages “en”. But He did not use either of those words, He used instead the word “hupo”; why that word?  Because God wanted us to understand that just as He certainly did not speak through the prophets spoken of in Jer. 5 and Mic. 3 quoted above, so too, He did not rule through the appointed rulers.

So God did not speak through the “powers that be” but He allowed them to do and say what they did. But everything that happens is allowed by God, so how were the actions taken by these “powers that be” different from ordinary events? They were different in that the events were ordered by those whom God had appointed. We might think of it as God putting the pieces in place and then allowing man to act according to their Adamic natures in order to fulfill His eternal purposes.

So we learn from these two preposition that God did not speak through “the powers that be” to, for example, crucify His only begotten Son (even though Christ was sent for that purpose). But that He allowed it for His own eternal purposes. The same could be said of the persecutions suffered by Paul and the other apostles.

In short, the “powers that be” spoken of in Rom. 13 were the rulers of the temple who determined, for example, that Christ would be crucified.  But God had not spoken through them in the way He had spoken through His prophet Isaiah for example. Rather for His own purposes, God allowed “the powers that be” whom He had ordained to be under His authority to accomplish that for which Christ had been sent.


We read in Rom. 13:1, “…let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”. Does that mean that those who actually, for example, arrested Christ, were right to do so because they were subject to the powers that determined that Christ would be crucified? In other words, was man obligated to obey the ordained powers of the temple no matter what those powers had determined should be done? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no”!  Let me explain that answer.

Let us consider Acts chapter 5 which records the incident wherein the chief priests instructed Peter and others that they should not preach Christ (Acts 5:28).  In verse 29 of that chapter we read, “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than man’”.

As always, we must consider this statement in context.  God had commanded Peter to preach the gospel, but the appointed rulers of the temple commanded them to not preach (see Acts 5:28). So Peter had been confronted with a choice between God’s authority and man’s, and he chose God’s authority. Note that he used the phrase, “rather than”, (i.e. “obey God rather than man”). That phrase is very important in that it tells us that when confronted with a contradiction, as in this case, between God’s authority and man’s, one should obey God rather than man.  It is clear that Peter’s statement recorded in verse 29 included the leaders of the temple (see vs. 27).  In point of fact, it was about the very ones referred to in Rom. 13 as “the higher powers”, i.e. the rulers of the temple, to whom Peter said that they should not be obeyed. May I respectfully remind the reader that God did not speak through or by the powers that be of the temple as He did through the prophet Isaiah. He only allowed them to rule under Him in order to accomplish His eternal purposes. 

Let us also consider I Peter 2:13 which reads, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…”. Note that it is for the Lord’s sake that one should submit themselves to the ordinance of man.  Obviously, if the ordinance of man goes against the teachings or the will of God, to submit to that ordinance would not be for the Lord’s sake and therefore should not be submitted unto.

In point of fact, Paul wrote in Rom. 13:2 of the same truth expressed in I Peter 2:13. We read in Rom. 13:2 “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God”. First we must determine what is meant by the “ordinance of God” referred to in this phrase (it is not the same Greek word used in I Peter).  The Greek word translated “ordinance” in Rom. 13:2 is “diatage”.  The only other use of the word is found in Acts 7:53 where we read, “Who have received the law by the disposition of angels…”. In this verse the word “diatage” is translated “disposition”. So this verse says that the angels disposed, or gave the law. Strong’s Greek Dictionary explains that “diatage” comes from the word “diatasso” which is defined as “to come from, to arrange”.  With those definitions in mind, I will suggest a paraphrase of this verse for a clearer understanding of it. “Whosoever resists the powers that be, resist that which was given by God”.

 In short, I believe that Rom. 13:2 may be understood to say that one should not resist that which was given by God.

So we are, in my opinion, to understand this statement the same way we understand I Peter 2:13 as discussed above.  That is to say, in I Peter 2:13 we read that one should submit “for the “Lord’s sake”, but if something goes against the will of the Lord, it is not something that is “for the Lord’s sake”, and should not be obeyed.  So also Rom. 13:2 we may understand Paul to say that if an action contradicts God’s will or authority, it is clear that it was not “given by God”. So just as in I Peter, if something is not “for the Lord’s sake”, it did not come from the Lord and should not be obeyed, so too in Rom. 13:2 if something is contrary to God’s will or authority, it was obviously not “given by God” and therefore should not be obeyed.

Now let us return to Rom. 13:1-2 where Paul exhorts the Romans to be “subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God”. The powers to which Israel were to be subject were men who had been “ordained of (Gr. “hupo”, “under”) God”. But I believe that what we should learn from Peter’s statement recorded in Acts 5, and Paul’s statement recorded in Rom. 13:2, is that if it is a matter of choice, i.e. when an action is required by “the powers that be” that goes against God’s will, one should “obey God rather than man”.

I would like to come back briefly to the prepositions discussed above, i.e. “dia” and “hupo”. I believe that the obedience to God rather than to man shows the extreme importance of the two Greek prepositions discussed above. That is to say, when a decision, such as crucifying Christ came from those whom God had ordained, that decision was not from (“dia”) God, but rather allowed under (“hupo”) God’s authority. As we combine that fact with Peter’s statement recorded in Acts 5 I believe it is clear that to be “subject to the powers that be” does not mean that one should obey those powers if what they determine is against the will or authority of God.

To be thorough in this matter let us consider I Tim. 2:1-2 which was written after Israel had been set aside as God’s chosen nations, and would therefore not include the rulers of the temple.  That passage reads, “I exhort therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty”.

I believe that what is not said is crucial. That is to say, this passage does not say that those in authority are “ordained of God”. Yes, we are to pray for those in authority but they are not appointed by God, and Peter’s statement in Acts 5 (“obey God rather than man”) is just as true today as it was in the Acts period, i.e. it is a universal truth.


The basic conclusions that I have drawn from this study are:

The term “powers that be” of Rom. 13 refers to the rulers of the temple. The temple is no longer standing thus there are no rulers in the world that God has ordained.

Those acts that were accomplished by the “powers that be” were not from God in the same sense that prophecies were from God. Those acts were allowed by God in order to accomplish His eternal purposes.

Any edict or command that comes from man is not to be obeyed if it contradicts God’s authority.

This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail me at: