To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

Obedience to Higher Powers

Excerpted From

Discourses Concerning Government,

By Algernon Sidney,

Son to Robert Earl of Leicester, and Ambassador

from the Commonwealth of England to Charles

Gustavus King of Sweden.

Published from an Original Manuscript of the Author. Editor’s Introduction.

The following is Chapter 3, Section 10, from the Discourses of Algernon Sydney, a statesmen and writer of the late 1600s who opposed the theories and philosophies of advocates of the Divine Right of Kings, such as Robert Filmer. (As Sydney replies with refutations, Filmer is sometimes referred to herein as “our author.”)  Sydney opposed the execution of Charles I under Oliver Cromwell, but was no advocate for Tyranny or Tyrants.  Later he was arrested during the reign of Charles II, and his papers (such as this Discourse) were confiscated and used as one of the “witnesses” required by law for his conviction.  He was sentenced to death by “Lord Chief Justice” George Jeffreys, and was beheaded December 7th, 1683.

Sydney’s Discourses are quoted by Covenanter authors of the following generations, especially in reference to the proper interpretation of Romans 13.  He leaves no room for confusing a Minister of the Devil for a Minister of God, and makes clear from the facts of history that the tyrannical Neros and Caligulas of the Roman empire were not the “Powers” to whom Christians were required to give conscientious obedience in the writings of the New Testament.  Every Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter will find the following discourse of encouragement to his beliefs in our own time, when our Scripture faith is often opposed by churches and church leaders who have dedicated themselves to upholding anti-Christian constitutions of government.  Indeed, the revival of a sound understanding of these matters is of great importance in our time, when apostate societies drift further and further into a belief that all their laws, and all their rulers, are entitled to submission by virtue of rights and privileges that have no dependence on the laws and institutions of Almighty God.

The text which follows is taken from the original 1698 publication of Sydney’s Discourses.  Later editions were consulted for making a few corrections and updates to spelling, etc.



The words of St. Paul enjoining obedience to higher Powers, favour all sorts of Governments no less than Monarchy.

OUR Author’s next quarrel is with St. Paul, who did not, as he says, in enjoining subjection to the higher Powers, signify the Laws of the Land, or mean the highest Powers, as well Aristocratical and Democratical as Regal, but a Monarch that carries the Sword, &c.  But what if there be no Monarch in the place? or what if he do not carry the Sword?  Had the Apostle spoken in vain, if the liberty of the Romans had not been overthrown by the fraud and violence Cæsar?  Was no obedience to be exacted whilst that people enjoyed the benefit of their own Laws, and Virtue flourished under the moderate Government of a legal and just Magistracy, established for the common good, by the common consent all?  Had God no Minister amongst them till Law and Justice was overthrown, the best part of the people destroyed by the fury of a corrupt mercenary Soldiery, and the world subdued under the Tyranny of the worst Monsters that it had ever produced?  Are these the ways of establishing God’s Vicegerents? and will he patronize no Governors or Governments but such as these?  Does God uphold evil, and that only?  If the world has been hitherto mistaken, in giving the name of evil to that which is good, and calling that good which is evil; I desire to know what can be called good amongst men, if the Government of the Romans, till they entered Greece and Asia, and were corrupted by the Luxury of both, do not deserve that name? or what is to be esteemed evil, if the establishment and exercise of the Cæsars’ Power were not so?  But says he, Wilt thou not be afraid of the Power?  And was there no Power in the Governments that had no Monarchs?  Were the Carthaginians, Romans, Grecians, Gauls, Germans, and Spaniards without Power?  Was there no Sword in that Nation and their Magistrates, who overthrew the kingdoms of Armenia, Egypt, Numidia, Macedon, and many others, whom none of the Monarchs were able to resist?  Are the Venetians, Switzers, Grisons, and Hollanders now left in the same weakness, and no obedience at all due to their Magistrates?  If this be so, how comes it to pass that justice is so well administered amongst them?  Who is it that defends the Hollanders in such a manner, that the greatest Monarchs with all their Swords have had no great reason to boast of any advantages gained against them? at least till we (whom they could not resist when we had no Monarch, though {293} we have been disgracefully beaten by them since we had one) by making Leagues against them, and sowing divisions amongst them, instigated and assisted the greatest Power now in the world to their destruction and our own.  But our Author is so accustomed to fraud that he never cites a passage of Scripture which he does not abuse or vitiate; and that he may do the same in this place, he leaves out the following words, For there is no power but of God, that he might intitle one sort only to his protection.  If therefore the People and popular Magistrates of Athens; the two Kings Ephori and Senate of Sparta the Sanhedrims amongst the Hebrews; the Consuls, Tribunes, Pretors, and Senate of Rome; the Magistrates of Holland, Switzerland, and Venice, have or had power, we may conclude that they also were ordained by God; and that according to the precept of the Apostle, the same obedience for the same reason is due to them as to any Monarch.

The Apostle farther explaining himself, and showing who may be accounted a Magistrate, and what the duty of such an one is, informs us when we should fear, and on what account.  Rulers, says he, are not a terror to good works, but to the evil: Wilt thou then not be afraid of the Power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same; for he is the Minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  He only therefore is the minister of God, who is not a terror to good works, but to the evil; who executes wrath upon those that do evil, and is a praise to those that do well.  And he who doth well, ought not to be afraid of the power, for he shall receive praise.  Now if our Author were alive, though he was a man of a hard forehead, I would ask him, whether in his Conscience he believed, that Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and the rabble of succeeding monsters, were a praise to those who did well, and a terror to those who did ill; and not the contrary, a praise to the worst, and a terror to the best men of the world?  or for what reason Tacitus[1] could say, that virtue brought men who lived under them to certain destruction, and recite so many Examples of the brave and good, who were murdered by them for being so, unless they had endeavoured to extinguish all that was good, and to tear up virtue, by the roots?[2]  Why did he call Domitian an Enemy to virtue[3] if he was a terror only to those that did evil?  If the world has hitherto been misled in these things, and given the name of Virtue to Vice, and of Vice to Virtue, then Germanicus, Valerius Asiaticus, Corbulo, Helvidius, Priscus, Thraseas, Soranus, and others that resembled them, who fell under the rage of those Beasts, nay Paul himself and his Disciples were evil doers; and Macro, Narcissus, Pallas, Vinnius, Laco, and Tigellinus were virtuous and good men.  If this be so, we are beholden to Filmer for admonishing mankind of the error in which they had so long continued.  If not, those who persecuted and murdered them for their Virtues, were not a terror to such as did evil, and a praise to those who did well.  The worst men had no need to fear them; {294} but the best had, because they were the best.  All princes therefore that have power are not to be esteemed equally the Ministers of God.  They that are so, must receive their dignity from a title that is not common to all, even from a just employment of their power to the encouragement of Virtue, and to the discouragement of Vice.  He that pretends to the veneration and obedience due to the Ministers of God, must by his actions manifest that he is so.  And though I am unwilling to advance a proposition that may sound harshly to tender ears, I am inclined to believe that the same rule, which obliges us to yield obedience to the good Magistrate who is the Minister of God, and assures us that in obeying him we obey God, does equally oblige us not to obey those who make themselves the Ministers of the Devil, lest in obeying them we obey the Devil, whose works they do .

That none but such as are wilfully ignorant may mistake Paul’s meaning, Peter who was directed by the same Spirit, says distinctly, Submit your selves to every Ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.  If therefore there be several Ordinances of men tending to the same end, that is, the obtaining of justice, by being a terror to the evil and a praise to the good, the like obedience is for conscience sake enjoined to all, and upon the same condition.  But as no man dares to say that Athens and Persia, Carthage and Egypt, Switzerland and France, Venice and Turkey were and are under the same Government; the same obedience is due to the Magistrate in every one of those places, and all others on the same account, whilst they continue to be the Ministers of God.

If our Author say, that Peter cannot comprehend Kings under the name of human Ordinances, since Paul says they are the Ordinances of God, I may as well say that Paul cannot call that the Ordinance of God which Peter calls the ordinance of man.  But as it was said of Moses and Samuel, that they who spoke by the same spirit could not contradict each other, Peter and Paul being full of Wisdom and Sanctity, and inspired by the same Spirit, must needs say the same thing; and Grotius shows that they perfectly agree, though the one calls Kings, Rulers, and Governors the Ordinance of Man, and the other the Ordinance of God; inasmuch as God having from the beginning ordained that men should not live like Wolves in the woods, every man by himself, but together in Civil Societies, left to every one a liberty of joining with that Society which best pleased him, and to every Society to create such Magistrates, and frame such Laws as should seem most conducing to their own good, according to the measure of light and reason they might have.  And every Magistracy so instituted might rightly be called the Ordinance of man, who was the Instituter and the Ordinance of God, according to which it was instituted; because, says he, God approved and ratified the salutary Constitutions of Government made by men.[4]

But, says our Author, Peter expounds his own words of the human Ordinance to be the King, who is the Lex loquens [i.e. the law speaking,] but he say no such thing, and I do not find that any such thought ever entered into the Apostle’s mind.  The words are often found in the works of Plato and Aristotle, but applied only to such a man as is a King {295} by nature, who is endowed with all the virtues that tend to the good of human Societies in a greater measure than any or all those that compose them; which Character I think, will be ill applied to all Kings.  And that this may appear to be true, I desire to know whether it would well have agreed with Nero, Caligula, Domitian, or others like to them; and if not with them, then not with all, but only with those who are endowed with such Virtues.  But if the King be made by man, he must be such as man makes him to be; and if the power of a Law had been given by any human Sanction to the word of a foolish, mad, or wicked man (which I hardly believe) it would be destroyed by its own iniquity and turpitude, and the People left under the obligation of rendering obedience to those, who so use the Sword that the Nations under them may live soberly, peaceably, and honestly.

This obliges me a little to examine what is meant by the Sword.  The Pope says there are two Swords, the one temporal, the other spiritual, and that, both of them were given to Peter and to his Successors.  Others more rightly understand the two Swords to be that of War and that of Justice, which according to several Constitutions of Governments have been committed to several hands, under several conditions and limitations.  The Sword of Justice comprehends the legislative and executive Power: the one is exercised in making Laws, the other in judging Controversies according to such as are made.  The military Sword is used by those Magistrates who have it, in making War or Peace with whom they think fit, and sometimes by others who have it not, in pursuing such Wars as are resolved upon by another Power.  The Jewish Doctors generally agree that the Kings of Judah could make no Law, because there was a curse denounced against those who should add to, or detract from that which God had given by the hand of Moses; that they might sit in Judgment with the High Priest and Sanhedrin, but could not judge by themselves unless the Sanhedrin did plainly fail of performing their duty.  Upon this account Maimonides excuses David for commanding Solomon not to suffer the grey hairs of Joab to go down to the grave in peace, and Solomon for appointing him to be killed at the foot of the Altar: for he having killed Abner and Amasa, and by those actions shed the blood of war in time of peace, the Sanhedrin should have punished him; but being protected by favour or power and even David himself fearing him, Solomon was put in mind of his duty, which he performed, though Joab laid hold upon the horns of the Altar, which by the express words of the Law gave no protection to wilful Murderers.

The use of the military Sword amongst them was also moderated.  Their Kings might make War upon the seven accursed Nations that they were commanded to destroy, and so might any other man; for no peace was to be made with them: but not against any other Nation, without the assent of the Sanhedrin.  And when Amaziah contrary to that Law had foolishly made war upon Joash King of Israel, and thereby brought a great slaughter upon Judah the Princes, that is the Sanhedrin, combined against him, pursued him to Lachish, and killed him there. {296}

The Legislative Power of Sparta was evidently in the People.  The Laws that go under the name of Lycurgus were proposed by him to the general Assembly of the People, and from them received their Authority [Plut. vit. Lycur.]: But the discipline they contained was of such efficacy for framing the minds of men to virtue, and by banishing Silver and Gold they so far banished all manner of Crimes, that from the institution of those Laws to the times of their Corruption, which was more than eight hundred years, we hardly find that three men were put to death, of whom two were Kings; so that it seems difficult to determine where the power of judging did reside, though ’tis most probable, considering the nature of their Government, that it was in the Senate, and in Cases extraordinary in the Ephori, with a right of appealing to the People.  Their Kings therefore could have little to do with the Sword of Justice, neither the Legislative nor the Judicial Power any ways in them.

The military Sword was not much more in their Power, unless the excellency of their Virtues gave them the credit of persuading, when the Law denied the right of commanding.  They were obliged to make war against those, and those only, who were declared Enemies by the Senate and Ephori, and in the manner, place, and time they directed: so that Agesilaus, though carrying on a glorious War in Persia, no sooner received the Parchment Roll, wherein he was commanded by the Ephori to come home for the defence of his own Country, than he immediately returned, and is on that account called by no less a than Xenophon a good and faithful King rendering obedience to the Laws of his Country. [De Reg. Agesil.]

By this it appears that there are Kings who may be feared by those that do ill, and not by such as do well; for having no more power than what the Law gives, and being obliged to execute it as the Law directs, they cannot depart from the precept of the Apostle.  My own actions therefore, or the sense of my own guilt arising from them, is to be the measure of my fear of that Magistrate who is the minister of God, and not his Power.

The like may be said of almost all the Nations of the world, that have had any thing of Civil Order amongst them.  The supreme Magistrate, under what name soever he was known, whether King, Emperor, Asymnetes, Suffetes, Consul, Dictator, or Archon, has usually a part assigned to him in the administration of Justice and making War; but that he may know it to be assigned and not inherent, and so assigned as to be employed for the publick good, not to his own profit or pleasure, it is circumscribed by such rules as he cannot safely transgress.  This is above all seen in the German Nations, from whom we draw our Original and Government, and is so well described by Tacitus in his treatise of their Customs and Manners, [De morib. Germ.] that I shall content myself to refer to it, and to what I have cited from him in the former part of this Work.  The Saxons coming into our Country retained to themselves the same rights.  They had no Kings but such as were set up by themselves, and they abrogated their Power when they pleased.  Offa[5] acknowledged that he was chosen for the defence {297} of their Liberty, not from his own merit, but by their favour; and in the Conventus Pananglicus, at which all the chief men as well Secular as Ecclesiastical were present, it was decreed by the King, Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Dukes and Senators, that the Kings should be chosen by the Priests, and by the Elders of the People.  In pursuance of which, Egbert who had no right to the succession, was made King.  Ethelwerd was chosen in the same manner, [Omnium consensu,] by the consent of all.  Ethelwolf a Monk, for want of a better, was advanced to the same Honour.  His Son Alfred, though crowned by the Pope, and marrying without the consent of the Nobility and Kingdom, [Contra morem & statuta,] against their Customs and Statutes, acknowledged that he had received the Crown from the bounty of the Princes, Elders, and People; and in his Will declared, that he left the People as he had found them, free as the inward thoughts of Man.  His son Edward, [Successor Monarchræ electus,] was elected to be his Successor.  Ethelſtan, though a Bastard, and without all Title, was elected by the consent of the Nobility and People.  Eadred by the same Authority was elected and preferred before the Sons of Edmond his Predecessor.  Edwin, though rightly chosen, was deposed for his ill life, and Edgar[6] elected King by the will of God, and consent of the People.  But he also was deprived of the Crown for the Rape of a Nun, and after seven years restored by the whole People, coram omni multitudine populi AnglorumEthelred who is said to have been cruel in the beginning,[7] wretched in the course, and infamous in the end of his Reign, was deposed by the same power that had advanced him.  Canutus made a Contract[8] with the Princes and the whole People, and thereupon was by general consent crowned King over all England.  After him Harold was chosen in the usual manner.  He being dead, a Message was sent to Hardi Canute with an offer of the Crown, which he accepted, and accordingly was received.  Edward the Confessor was elected[9] King with the consent of the Clergy and People at London; and Harold excused himself for not performing his Oath to William the Norman, because he said he had made it unduly and presumptuously,[10] without consulting the Nobility and People, and without their Authority.  William was received with great joy by the Clergy and People, and saluted King by all, swearing to observe the ancient good and approved Laws of England: and though he did but ill perform his Oath, yet before his death he seemed to repent of the ways he had taken, and only wishing his Son might be King of England, he confessed in his last Will made at Caen in Normandy,[11] that he neither found nor left the Kingdom as an Inheritance.  If he possessed no right except what was conferred upon him, no more was conferred than had been enjoyed by the ancient {298} Kings, according to approved Laws which he swore to observe.  Those Laws gave no power to any, till he was elected; and that which they did then give was so limited, that the Nobility and People reserved to themselves the disposition of the greatest Affairs, even to deposition and expulsion of such as should not well perform the duty of their Oaths and Office.  And I leave it to our Author to prove, how can be said to have had the Sword and the Power so as to be feared, otherwise than, as the Apostle says, by those that do evil; which we acknowledge to be not only in the King, but in the lowest Officer of Justice in the world.

If it be pretended that our later Kings are more to be feared than William the Norman, or his Predecessors, it must not be as has been proved, either from the general right of Kings, or from the Doctrine of the Apostle, but from something else that is peculiar and subsequent, which I leave our Author’s Disciples to prove, and an answer may be found in due time.  But to show that our Ancestors did not mistake the words of the Apostle, ’tis good to consider when, to whom, and upon what occasion he spoke.  The Christian Religion was then in its infancy: his discourses were addressed to the Professors of it, who tho they soon grew to be considerable in number, were for the most part of the meanest sort of People, Servants or Inhabitants of the Cities, rather than Citizens and Freemen; joined in no civil Body or Society, nor such as had or could have any part in the Government.  The occasion was to suppress the dangerous mistake of many converted Jews and others, who knowing themselves to be freed from the power of Sin and the Devil, presumed they were also freed from the obligation of human Laws.  And if this Error had not been crop’d in the bud, it would have given occasion to their Enemies, (who desired nothing more) to destroy them all; and who knowing that such Notions were stirring among them, would have been glad, that they who were not easily to be discovered, had by that mean discovered themselves.

This induced a necessity of diverting a poor, mean, scattered People from such thoughts concerning the State; to convince them of the Error into which they were fallen, that Christians did not owe the same obedience to Civil Laws and Magistrates as other men, and to keep them from drawing destruction upon themselves by such ways, as not being warranted by God, had no promise of his Protection.  St. Paul’s work was to preserve the Professors of Christianity, as appears by his own words, I exhort 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 live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. [1 Tim. 2.]  Put them in mind to be subject to Principalities and Powers, to obey Magistrates, to be ready for every good work. [Titus 3]  St. Peter agrees with him fully in describing the Magistrate and his Duty; shewing the reasons why obedience should be pay’d to him, and teaching Christians to be humble and contented with their condition, as free, yet not using their liberty for a cover to malice; and not only to fear God and honor the King (of which conjunction of words such as Filmer are very proud) but to honor all men, as is said in the same verse. [1 Pet. 2.17.]  This was in a peculiar manner the {299} work of that time, in which those who were to preach and propagate the Gospel, were not to be diverted from that Duty, by entangling themselves in the care of State-affairs; but it does in some sense agree with all times: for it can never be the duty of a good man to oppose such a Magistrate as is the Minister of God, in the exercise of his Office, nor to deny to any that which is his due.

But as the Christian Law exempts no man from the Duty he owes to his Father, Master, or the Magistrate, it does not make him more a Slave than he was before, nor deprive him of any natural or civil Right; and if we are obliged to pay Tribute, Honour, or any other thing where it is not due, it must be by some Precept very different from that which commands us to give to Cæsar that which is Cæsar’s.  If he define the Magistrate to be the Minister of God doing Justice, and from thence draws the Reasons he gives for rendering Obedience to him, we are to inquire whose Minister he is who overthrows it, and look for some other reason for rendering obedience to him than the words of the Apostles.  If David, who was willing to lay down his life for the people, who hated iniquity and would not suffer a liar to come into his presence, was the Minister of God, [Psalm 101,] I desire to know whose Minister Caligula was who set up himself to be worshipped for a god, and would at once have destroyed all the people that he ought to have protected?  Whose Minister was Nero, who, besides the abominable impurities of his life, and hatred to all virtue, as contrary to his Person and Government, set fire to the great City?  If it be true that contrariorum contraria est ratio, [opposites to opposites is reason,] these questions are easily decided; and if the reasons of things are eternal, the same distinction grounded upon truth will be good for ever.  Every Magistrate, and every man by his works, will for ever declare whose Minister he is, in what spirit he lives, and consequently what obedience is due to him according to the Precept of the Apostle.  If any man ask what I mean by Justice, I answer, That the Law of the Land, as far as it is Sanctio recta, jubens honesta, prohibens contraria, [Cicero — A just decree, commanding what is honorable, and forbidding the contrary,], declares what it is.  But there have been and are Laws that are neither just nor commendable.  There was a Law in Rome, that no god should be worshipped without the consent of the Senate: Upon which Tertullian says scoffingly, That God shall not be God unless he please Man;[12] and by virtue of this Law the first Christians were exposed to all manner of cruelties; and some of the Emperors (in other respects excellent Men) most foully polluted themselves and their Government with innocent Blood.  Antoninus Pius was taken in this snare; and Tertullian bitterly derides Trajan for glorying in his Clemency, when he had commanded Pliny who was Proconsul in Asia not to make any search for Christians, but only to punish them according to Law when they should be brought before him.  No Municipal Law can be more firmly established by human Authority, than that of the Inquisition in Spain, and other places: And those accursed Tribunals, which have shed more Christian blood than all the Pagans that ever were in the world, is commonly called The Holy Office.  If a Gentleman in Poland kill a Peasant, he is by a Law now in use free from {300} punishment, if he lay a Ducat upon the dead Body.  Evenus the third, King of Scotland, caused a Law to pass, by which the Wives and Daughters of Noblemen were exposed to his Lust, and those of the Commons to the Lust of the Nobility.  These, and an infinite number of others like to them, were not right Sanctions, but such as have produced unspeakable mischiefs and calamities.  They were not therefore Laws: The name of Justice is abusively attributed to them: Those that govern by them cannot be the Ministers of God: and the Apostle commanding our obedience to the Minister of God for our good, commands us not to be obedient to the Minister of the Devil to our hurt; for we cannot serve two Masters.


1. Ob virtutes certissimum exitium.

2. Ipsam excindere virtutem.

3. Virtutibus infestum.

4. Quia salubrem hominum Constitutionem Deus probavit & sanxit.  De jur. bel. & pac.

5. Ad Libertatis vestræ tuitionem non meis meritis, sed sola liberalitate vestra.

6. Et eligerunt Deo distante Edgarum in Regem annuente populo.

7. Sævus in principio, miser in medio, turpis in exitu.

8. Canutus fœdus cum principibus & omni populo, & illi cum ipso percusserunt.

9. Annuente Clero & populo Londini in regem eligitur.

10. Absq; generali Senatus & Populi conventu & edicto. Matth Paris. Gul. Gemit. &c.

11. Neminem Anglici regni constituo hæredem, non enim tantum decus hæreditario jure possedi.  Ibid.

12. Nisi homini Deus placuerit Deus non erit. (Apology.)