In a previous post I discussed the difference in interpretation between person and office in Romans 13, noting that the distinction went back at least to Chrysostom (347 – 407 AD see this timeline). Here he is:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.”
Of this subject he makes much account in other epistles also, setting subjects under their rulers as household servants are under their masters. And this he does to show that it was not for the subversion of the commonwealth that Christ introduced His laws, but for the better ordering of it, and to teach men not to be taking up unnecessary and unprofitable wars. For the plots that are formed against us for the truth’s sake are sufficient and we have no need to be adding temptations superfluous and unprofitable. And observe too how well-timed his entering upon this subject is. For when he had demanded that great spirit of heroism, and made men fit to deal either with friends or foes, and rendered them serviceable alike to the prosperous and those in adversity and need, and in fact to all, and had planted a conversation worthy of angels, and had discharged anger, and taken down recklessness, and had in every way made their mind even, he then introduces his exhortation upon these matters also. For if it be right to requite those that injure us with the opposite, much more is it our duty to obey those that are benefactors to us. But this he states toward the end of his exhortation, and hitherto does not enter on these reasonings which I mention, but those only that enjoin one to do this as a matter of debt. And to show that these regulations are for all, even for priests, and monks, and not for men of secular occupations only, he hath made this plan at the outset, by saying as follows: “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” if thou be an Apostle even, or an Evangelist, or a Prophet, or anything whatsoever, inasmuch as this subjection is not subversive of religion. And he does not say merely “obey,” but “be subject.” And the first claim such an enactment has upon us, and the reasoning that suiteth the faithful, is, that all this is of God’s appointment.
“For there is no power,” he says, “but of God.” What say you? it may be said; is every ruler then elected by God? This I do not say, he answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be carried on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that; this, I say, is the work of God’s wisdom. Hence he does not say, “for there is no ruler but of God;” but it is the thing he speaks of, and says, “there is no power but of God. And the powers that be, are ordained of God.” Thus when a certain wise man saith, “It is by the Lord that a man is matched with a woman” (Proverbs 19:14, LXX.), he means this, God made marriage, and not that it is He that joineth together every man that cometh to be with a woman. For we see many that come to be with one another for evil, even by the law of marriage, and this we should not ascribe to God. But as He said Himself, “He which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh.” (Matthew 19:4, 5; Genesis 2:24.) And this is what that wise man meant to explain. For since equality of honor does many times lead to fightings, He hath made many governments and forms of subjection; as that, for instance, of man and wife, that of son and father, that of old men and young, that of bond and free, that of ruler and ruled, that of master and disciple. And why are you surprised in the case of mankind, when even in the body He hath done the same thing? For even here He hath not made all parts of equal honor, but He hath made one less and another greater, and some of the limbs hath He made to rule and some to be ruled. And among the unreasoning creatures one may notice this same principle, as amongst bees, amongst cranes, amongst herds of wild cattle. And even the sea itself is not without this goodly subordination; for there too many of the clans are ranged under one among the fishes, and are led thus as an army, and make long expeditions from home. For anarchy, be where it may, is an evil, and a cause of confusion. After having said then whence governments come, he proceeds, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” See what he has led the subject on to, and how fearful he makes it, and how he shows this to be a matter of debt. For lest the believers should say, You are making us very cheap and despicable, when you put us, who are to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven, under subjection to rulers, he shows that it is not to rulers, but to God again that he makes them subject in doing this. For it is to Him, that he who subjects himself to authorities is obedient. Yet he does not say this–for instance that it is God to Whom a man who listens to authorities is obedient–but he uses the opposite case to awe them, and gives it a more precise form by saying, that he who listeneth not thereto is fighting with God, Who framed these laws. And this he is in all cases at pains to show, that it is not by way of favor that we obey them, but by way of debt. For in this way he was more likely to draw the governors who were unbelievers to religion, and the believers to obedience. For there was quite a common report in those days (Tert. Revelation 1, 31, 32), which maligned the Apostles, as guilty of a sedition and revolutionary scheme, and as aiming in all they did and said at the subversion of the received institutions. When then you show our common Master giving this in charge to all His, you will at once stop the mouths of those that malign us as revolutionists, and with great boldness will speak for the doctrines of truth. Be not then ashamed, he says, at such subjection. For God hath laid down this law, and is a strong Avenger of them if they be despised. For it is no common punishment that He will exact of thee, if thou disobey, but the very greatest; and nothing will exempt thee, that thou canst say to the contrary, but both of men thou shalt undergo the most severe vengeance, and there shall be no one to defend thee, and thou wilt also provoke God the more. And all this he intimates when he says, “And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
I argue here that it may actually be better interpreted as referring to specific rulers and not to an office.