IT is a self-evident truth that all men have been “endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that “to protect these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This self-evident truth is in harmony with the truth stated by the Apostle Paul, in Romans 13:1, that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” Truth cannot conflict with itself. That which is ordained of God is the power for the protection of the unalienable rights with which he has endowed each member of the human family.
This is altogether different from ordaining any particular person to exercise power over his fellow creatures. The person in civil office is simply entrusted with the exercise of a portion of this power. This power entrusted to him is not arbitrary power, but only such power as may be necessary for the proper discharge of the duties of his office.
It used to be a common idea that God had ordained certain persons, or a certain line of persons, to be rulers over the rest of the people in the State or nation, and that these persons were privileged to exercise their power in any way that they might choose. This idea gave right to such expressions as “the divine right of kings,” “The king can do no wrong,” etc.
But God did not ordain any person to exercise arbitrary power. He himself does not exercise such power.
The power that is in the persons, and not the persons that are in power, is “ordained of God.”
It is natural for an individual when in office to take to himself more power than belongs to him; and it is also very common for an individual to get into some seat of power who has no scruples about the manner in which he shall use it. In this way it frequently happens that injustice is done to men by those in positions of power, and their rights, instead of being preserved, are violated.
This is the way it has been in the cases of those who have suffered persecution for conscience’ sake. Those in power have exercised the power entrusted to them, for an altogether different purpose than the protection of human rights. They have used it to invade the right of freedom of conscience.
The Bible tells us that we are to be in subjection to the “powers that be,” and that whoever “resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” Romans 13:1, 2. But, as we have seen, there is a vast difference between resisting the power which God has ordained, and resisting a decree which represents a perversion of that power.
Yet the Bible does not authorize us to resist even an unjust decree, in the sense of employing force against it. As John Bunyan stated in his reply to the clerk who had been sent to admonish him to submit himself to the king. “The law provides two ways of obeying: the one, to do that which in my conscience I do believe that I am to do, actively; and where I cannot obey actively, then I am willing to lie down and suffer what they may do to me.” And Bunyan was even then giving an illustration, in Bedford jail, of this second way of being in submission to the powers that be.
The Lord permits men to exercise power here in this world, but he has not resigned his own power, as the Sovereign who is over and above all things. He intervenes in the affairs of men and overrules their counsels and thwarts their purposes, in whatever way his omniscient wisdom may dictate. The word of the Lord carries with it an authority superior to that of any man or set of men on earth.
The very fact that the power that men exercise is derived from God, is sufficient proof that it cannot be rightfully exercised to compel people to act contrary to God’s will.
A good illustration of the truth on this point is furnished us in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. God had himself set Nebuchadnezzar upon the throne of earthly dominion, and commanded all people to be it subjection to him, even the chosen people of Israel. The Lord had even declared that he would punish the nation that would not submit to Nebuchadnezzar. See Jeremiah 27:4-8.
Yet when Nebuchadnezzar made a decree that the people should bow down and worship the golden image which he had set up in the plains of Dura, the three Hebrew captives, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, flatly refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, and the Lord by a wonderful miracle upheld them in their refusal and justified their course; so that Nebuchadnezzar himself bowed before the Lord and acknowledged that his own word had been righteously changed in the matter concerning which he had made his decree.
God had raised up Nebuchadnezzar and entrusted him with power for a purpose: not such a purpose as the king might conceive in his own heart and wish to carry out, but for the purpose which God had in his on mind. God did not do this for the sake of exalting Nebuchadnezzar, but he did it in order that he might through Nebuchadnezzar proclaim the knowledge of himself.
The power that is ordained of God is not to be used to thwart the purposes of God. It was so in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, and it is so to-day. When this power is exercised, as it should be, to preserve human rights, it cannot interfere with God’s plans. But when this power is perverted, and used for a purpose for which it  was not ordained, its decrees are not binding upon any person.
But the only way to know what is right, is to be instructed by the Lord, through his Word and Spirit, which are given to guide believers into all truth.