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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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.
(Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
One of the problems with the way most Christians interpret the Scriptures is that we want every statement made in the Bible to cover all situations of that type. We really do tend to look at the material as if it were the law covering all matters that fall into a particular category. And that’s where we can get in trouble.
The Bible is not the legal code of an angry divine Emperor who will swat us from here to Kingdom Come if we don’t obey his law. Parts of the Bible are God’s direct revelation of his nature and character, and parts of it are the stories of God’s people interacting with a holy God as he revealed himself to them. Still other parts (Romans, for example) are commentary on the direct revelation and/or the stories. And yes, parts of the Scriptures are a written code which, prior to the fullest revelation of God in Christ, was the best way God had to explain the relationship between him and people.
I am in no way here seeking to weaken the authority of the Word of God. To be clear: in every single word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, spoken into the world. Nothing is there that God didn’t put there, and nothing has been left out that would have shed new light on the character of God if we had access to it. However, to treat all Scripture the same way, as if it were all direct revelation, is both spiritual and intellectual suicide.
Way back at the beginning of Romans 12, Paul had said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
What follows is a discussion on what it looks like to present our bodies as living sacrifices. He talks about humility, even in the face of persecution. What transforms us is that in Christ we look at the world we are interacting with differently, not that we have adopted a new law and stuck to it fervently.
If Romans 13:1-7 were intended as a new law, then our marching orders would be clear. If you live in a utopian society where the authorities are the greatest workers of good who ever lived and who work only your best and the best of every other citizen (ie: if you work for Apple, Inc.), you are to obey the authorities. If, on the other hand, you live in a modern Sodom, where the leaders are all corrupt, abusive, murderous and evil (ie: if you work for Microsoft), you are compelled to obey the authorities just the same.
But that isn’t what Paul is saying. Nor are we to obey every wicked thing a government does. Our attitude toward government is to be one of peaceable humility; doing good and expecting good in return. Paul makes the general statement that that is the reason you pay taxes. However, he most certainly isn’t saying that every tax is just or that the way every government spends the money it raises through taxation is moral or good. His commentary here is based on Jesus’ own words, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
Paul is setting a pattern for the humble of heart, not a policy to be strictly adhered to.
Now comes the really difficult question. What do I do when the governing authorities become truly evil? The answer is the same. Exercise quiet humility. Our resistance must be the resistance of reasoned love and not reactionary violence. I have always loved what Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “That to secure these rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Jefferson goes on to say that disgruntled citizens should be very slow in abolishing or changing the governments over them. The devil you know may indeed be better than the devil you don’t know. That’s where humility is so important. That’s where having a non-violent response is absolutely vital. That’s where, with respect to the governments over us, it is so completely important that our first and only allegiance is to Christ himself. We must not pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to anyone but him, or we will be truly disappointed in the end.