Romans 13 is placed in the flow of Paul’s letter as a whole and can not be divorced from its context without doing violence to it. Paul is speaking to Roman Christians about how they should live the Christian life. He has just been talking about the fact that the Christian should not take vengeance. He then show that government is instituted to deal with this very problem, we must realise that Paul here is dealing with a specific pastoral problem, he is not writing a treatise on the state but rather dealing with some aspects of our relationship to those who govern us. But this teaching applies to us today as part of God’s word to us and we must take it seriously.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Ro 13:1–7)
We are confronted here with a problem because we don’t want to think of the Roman Empire and its governmental structures as being ordained by God but Paul says that they were.We tend to read back our democratic society into scripture but of course democracy would not exist for many centuries. It is therefore important that we wrestle with the fact the Roman Christians were called to submit to the state. Now of course we must remember that Paul at times disobeyed the state when it required him to disobey God’s law, Paul is not calling to blind obedience but rather submission to the state in all that coheres with God’s law. Paul would have agreed with Samuel Rutherford that the law is king, that is God’s law of course. We are not to rebel against the state but rather work for change in a peaceful manner. Government is ordained of God to be the agent of justice and of course this raises the knotty problem of totalitarian governments, should the Christian seek the overthrow by violent means of such a government. I believe that violent revolution can never be justified by this or any other passage of the Bible. Rather we are to seek to work for change within the societies we live in, as Paul and the early church demonstrated the best way to do that is to proclaim the gospel.
Christians live under the Lordship of Christ and his word, iot is to him we are accountable and we must proclaim that Christ is Lord of everything but this does not mean that we can treat others with contempt, This passage and other parts of Scripture call us to honour and respect those in authority over us. There is no legitimate way to sidestep this command, some people have suggested that in a democracy the people are king but that is to read an Enlightenment concept back into the Bible. The idea that that the people are king owes more to Rousseau’s idea of a social contract than it it does to the Bible. We also need to see the the consequences of man being king has, if one looks in the book of Judges everyone was doing what he thought was right in his own eyes. The book of Judges in many ways reflects the consequences of abandoning God’s standards as the Western world has done. (For evidence of this read the works of Francis Schaeffer)
Looking at these words seriously from a Christian worldview means that I have to realise that even bad government is better than anarchy. We live in a fallen world and have to wrestle with the problems that brings but wherever God’s law is maintained we must support it even if we don’t like the form of government, when unjust governments require us to do something that is against God’s law we must resist them non-violently. We have the example of Daniel and the Apostles in how this can be done. As Christians we are called to work for the implementation of Biblical standards for some examples of this see my https://pneumaandlogos.com/2013/09/13/what-does-it-mean-to-be-pro-life-2/
In summary we should seek to be good citizen, showing the glory of the risen Christ in all we say and do, declaring to a lost and needy world that true life is found in Christ alone. Whatever type of society we are called to live in we will model the respect that god demands of us from those he has placed in authority over us, and yet resisting these same authorities when they command us to do things contrary to the word of God. But even our resistance must be a gracious but firm resistance, we will not dishonour those in authority even when standing against their evil deeds.