Romans 13:1-7, which insists that the rulers are to be obeyed by their [Christian] subjects, has been used and abused by many different countries over a long period of time. The early colonies used the passage to support slavery and oppression. South Africa used the passage to support Apartheid. America, in the wake of September 11, used this passage to provoke support of military action against other countries. The so-called “Just War” theory likewise uses this passage as its main weapon (pun intended).
However, if Paul had desired to create, in seven little verses, a Christian theology of Church and State, how would he have responded to the exceptions to such belief? Suppose the Egyptian midwives had not ignored Pharaoh’s edict to kill Israelite males, which allowed Moses to live (Exod. 1:17-21)? They clearly ignored the laws of the land, and God blessed them for it!
Or how about the three Jewish boys who were commanded to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3? They refused to obey that edict, and God vindicated them because of their fidelity (Dan. 3:18).
The Book of Acts often has the early Apostles refusing to quiet down their personal evangelistic efforts, choosing rather to obey God rather than humans (Acts 4:19; 5:29; 16:21).
The Apocalypse of John envisages the faithful martyrs, who refused to take upon themselves the mark of the beast, vindicated with resurrection and given positions of rulership with Christ (Rev. 20:4).
As we can see, if Rom. 13:1-7 is used to force unquestionable obedience to the governing bodies, then how come so many within the people of God acted contrary to such a theology?
When we look closer at Rom. 13:1-7 we see that Paul has other things in mind than a Christian theology of Church and State. Three things stand out to me which are worthy of comment. First of all, Paul states that the emperor Nero was in authority because of God (13:1). Nero, who thought he was God and who was regularly praised with such divine titles, was, according to Paul, working for the true God. Romans 13:6 even says that the Roman authorities (including Nero) are servants of God. I doubt Nero would have agreed. People served Nero. Paul argues that Nero serves the true God. We can see that Paul is undercutting the claims of the Roman empire by saying that the true God is really in power, despite the exaggerated claims of the Pax Romana.
The second point which comes out in Paul’s theology is his continuation of the typical Jewish understanding that pagan governments are used by the one true God for the furtherance of his divine purposes. This is true of the Assyrians (Isa. 10:5-11), of Cyrus the Persian (Isa. 44:28-45:3), of king Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:6-7; Dan. 1:2, 2:21, 37-38), and others. The returning Jewish exiles were to even pray on behalf of pagan kings and their families (Ezra 6:10). God uses pagan empires to bring order and stability to the territories.
Thirdly, the Christians in Rome, to whom Paul was writing, were certainly aware that the former emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome for riots, likely involving Christ (cf. Acts 18:1-2; Suetonius, Claudius 25:4). Upon the ascension of Nero to the throne, the edict of Claudius was cancelled, allowing the Jews (including Jewish Christians) to return to their respected places of residence and work. The citizens of Rome were upset at the number of additional taxes which they were forced to pay. Tacitus (Annals 13.50-51) remarks that the Roman citizens responded unfavorably to this additional burden of taxation, moving Nero to consider abolishing them. The Senate, however, convinced Nero otherwise. Add in the fact that Jews were exempted from paying some of these taxes and you have a social situation in the Roman churches which could potentially be explosive and divisive (if it wasn’t already). Paul writes that the believers residing therein should keep their heads down, show respect (13:7), pay their taxes (13:6), refuse to revolt (12:19), bless those who curse them (12:14), and let God take vengeance upon their oppressors (12:19).
In short, it seems best to regard Rom. 13:1-7 as a passage directly applicable to the pan-ethnic congregations in Rome in the middle of the first century CE. Paul needed to write to their situation and give them advice on how to live at peace with a thoroughly pagan regime while they await the return of Jesus to consummate the eschatological empire of God. It is therefore unlikely that Paul intended every government for the last two thousand years to take the message given to the Roman churches and to apply it to their own situations (which have entirely different social, political, and religious factors involved). Paul told the Philippian congregation that their true citizenship resided in heaven, from which the true lord and savior was to return to subject creation unto himself (Phil. 3:20-21).