Given the existence of so much corrupt power in the world, and during the reign of the cruel emperor Nero, how is it that Paul could write so favorably about government in Romans 13?
On the surface, the first seven verses of Romans 13 appear to give generic instructions on submitting to authorities because they are good, and God has set them up to be deterrents against those who do evil. Yet we all know that throughout history many governments have themselves been the main perpetrators of evil.
Did God specifically ordain all the bloodthirsty dictators? Many have been confused by the first verse: “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.” Misunderstanding this, some have interpreted this as saying that God is the One who appoints the leaders who take office. They then come up with wrong conclusions and say things like, “I don’t understand it, but there must have been some reason that God willed Hitler to come to power,” or “ultimately it doesn’t matter who we vote for, God determines who gets into office.”
Such conclusions miss the point. The first point is that there is “no power but of God.” That places all other powers underneath Him. Then, “the powers ordained of God” refer to the positions of authority. Government was meant to be an institution for the good of the people, and Paul wants us to respect the office- not the beast who abuses it.
But that is not even the main point of this passage. The Roman government was idolatrous and evil. The emperors gained office by deceit and violence, and referred to themselves as sons of God. They persecuted the Jews and the Christians. Thus, chapter 13 and the call to subjection is a continuation of what Paul was saying at the end of chapter 12: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). He then goes on, “Be subject unto the higher powers…” In other words, do not fight back or revolt! Respect their authority and give them no legitimate reason to come against you.
Romans 13:3 says, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same” (NKJV). Though they persecute you, you will not be afraid if you respond in God’s way. Show them your love and good works. There are many stories of guards who ended up turning to Jesus because they saw the faith and love of their prisoners. Recently a brother was blessed by the police in China because they saw that he did not oppose them when they took him in for questioning. In the process they discovered in their records many good works he had done for the Chinese. Had he defied the authorities and demanded his rights he would have probably been deported.
Romans 13:4: “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Was Paul saying that the madman Nero was a minister of God, and for our good? No! I believe there are two reasons Paul used this language.
First, he knew that his letter could possibly get into the wrong hands. He wanted to play it safe and show that he respected the authority of Caesar. He would not call him a “son of God,” but he could truthfully acknowledge his authority as an office divinely instituted. Paul showed his respect and made it clear that he would never advocate insurrection.
The other reason is that in spite of corruption, Paul saw a divine purpose for government authorities. Man has mostly messed it up, but it was intended for good. It is in place for a reason, and it does do some good along the way, so Paul advocates submitting to taxes and customs etc.
Submitting to the authorities does not contradict what Peter said in Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” It is possible to disobey in a civil manner. One can refrain from doing anything against God or conscience and yet still submit to the authorities by taking the consequences. That may mean getting arrested. That’s what happened to Peter, and he rejoiced (Acts 5:41). He didn’t oppose the leaders or call for a revolt, though he could have succeeded if he tried- the officers who came to arrest him feared the people (Acts 5:26).