Romans 13 and Unjust Government
For a while I’ve been struggling to understand Romans 13:
13 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.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
A casual reading of it seems to say that we simply submit to the authorities above us, and indeed verse 2 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God” and verse 4 even says, “… for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason”.
I’ve struggled with this because governments have so often been unjust. I’ll even ignore what I perceive to be injustices in our own government for the moment, and instead focus on a far more dramatic example: Nazi Germany.
Nazi Germany was clearly an unjust government in nearly every fashion. The atrocities committed need not be detailed here, as I’m sure that we are all aware. But, according to the passage in question, Hitler was established by God, whoever rebelled against him was rebelling against God, and that he didn’t bear the sword for no reason. Naturally, I find this concept rather hard to accept. I suppose it could be argued that the unjust government must be submitted to so long as it isn’t requiring you to renounce or go against your faith, as this passage is usually interpreted. However, what should be do about verse 2? Are evil rulers really established by God? Were the evil rulers of Nazi Germany “…God’s servant for [our] good?”
When Romans was written, Nero was emperor of Rome, and he persecuted Christians ruthlessly. So was he bearing the sword justly in persecuting Christians? Surely not.
What about a Christian that unwittingly finds themselves in the midst of a revolution? Which government do they submit to, the old or the new?
Now, I am by no means a biblical scholar, and I have no formal training in this area at all. I’m merely sharing my thoughts on the subject, so please feel free to disagree, but I can’t help but think that the principle here is not blind submission. Instead, it seems to me that Paul could be making a more general statement, not an absolutist one. Could Paul be saying that we should submit to government as long as it doesn’t violate our conscience (v. 5)?
I don’t have answers to these questions. I bring them up to provoke deeper thought. Feel free to share any thoughts you may have.