4 Keys to Understanding Romans 13

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  (ESV)

Romans 13 has been used by the "Romans 13 Absolutists" to mean anything a government official tells you to do must be obeyed (sometimes with the sheepishly uttered caveat of Acts 5:29). This is what Dr. MacPherson refers to as "Reading Romans 13 Like a Nazi."

I would like to offer four considerations as to how we should understand Romans 13 in our American context.

1. Let scripture interpret scripture

We rarely can pull a verse or a chunk of verses from the Bible and have them stand on their own two feet. There are some beautiful examples such as John 3:16. But in many sections of the Bible, particularly the epistles which are not encapsulated historical events but are flowing documents from a man to the Church, generally orally dictated, context is useful.

In the section immediately preceding Romans 13 (Romans 12:14-21), Paul tells the Romans not to repay evil for evil and quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." And to the contrary we are to love our enemies with good works. Verse 21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

With that context we enter Romans 13. We are not to repay evil for evil, we are not to take vengeance - it's the governments job:

For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer [Rom 13:4]

Letting scripture interpret scripture, we see the natural reason for this section of Scripture existing is to explain to the Romans how vengeance is carried out through God's hand by means of His servant, the state.

2. Subjection is not synonymous with obedience

In verse 1 Paul instructs us to be subject to the governing authorities. The greek word for subjection is ὑποτάσσω, with ὑπο being the preposition "under" and τάσσω meaning to rightly order or put in its place. Subject - being put under authority, being subordinate to authority - is a correct translation. What does it mean to be subject? It means to obey or accept the consequences, that is, work within the system. Failing to be subject would be working outside of the system, for instance breaking other laws to avoid obeying that law. Armed resistance to a police officer for a routine traffic stop, for instance. (Note: Our Lutheran forefathers would say there is a point where armed resistance is required. But so long as you can accept the consequence without sin, we remain subject.)

As a practical example if you are an employee and your boss asks you to do something unethical you have two options: comply or tell your boss you will not comply and willingly accept the consequences. You are subject to your boss' authority, and if you do not comply you are subject to his decision in the matter. While you did not obey, you remain subject.

3. Constitutional government

The third point we need to take into consideration is our particular form of government. The highest governing authority in the United States of America is the Constitution - a piece of paper. If government officials are acting out of order relative to our founding documents, we should appeal to those founding documents and ask the government to act in order to them, and resist obedience while still being subject. The simplest example of this is the visible head of power - the President - signing an executive order that is to be enforced by unelected bureaucrats. This runs counter to our Constitution and the conception of checks and balances in government where Congress votes on a law and sends it to the President. 

4. What is Good Government? 

Another legitimate question is what is good government? Verse 3 says that "rulers are not a terror to good conduct" and "do what is good, and you will receive his approval." Does the government define good or evil? No, God defines good and evil and those definitions are objective truth. The remainder of the chapter of Romans 13 defines what good Law looks like and closes out with an exhortation to Christian living: 

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 

11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

We can summarize Romans 12:9-13:14 quite simply by saying "Live peaceably with others, God will take vengeance. The government is God's tool to enact vengeance in this life. Live your faith as Christians."