Romans 13 - The Church and Society
Let every person be subject to the powers [exousias]. For there is no authority [exousia] except by God’s appointment, and those which exist have been instituted by God. 13:2 So the person who resists such authority [exousia] resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will receive condemnation 13:3 for rulers [archon] cause no fear for good conduct, but only for bad. Do you want not to fear authority? Then, do good and you will receive its commendation, 13:4 for it is God’s minister [diakonos] for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s minister to avenge wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:1-4).
Inside the Body - In ch. 12, Paul explains how the body “faces” inward. We are “living sacrifices” being transformed by spiritual renewal.
Therefore I exhort you, brethren, by the great mercy of God, to present yourselves (pl.) [as a person (soma)] as a living sacrifice [sing. offering], set apart and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual (temple) service. 12:2 And do not be conformed (syschematizo) to this present age (aion), but be transformed (metamorphoo) by renewing your mind, so that you discern what is the will of God—that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
We are part of the “body” (new humanity). A body member is “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (12:3). We are prone, in the Reformed world to exalt certain gifts and to be a “respecter of persons” in the worst sense and to think much more highly of our kinds of Christians than others, we demean serving gifts and exalt knowledge/leadership gifts. The body example refutes this. Which part of your body would you like chopped off? Jesus said “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:44). In history such grace eroded and subverted “natural ties” so that the “West was won” for Christendom. The meek shall inherit the earth, after all.
Outside the Body - In ch. 13, Paul explains how the body “faces” outward toward Roman society. Paul is a Roman citizen and knows history of Israel relating to pagan society. Remember Joseph (in Egypt), Daniel (Babylon), and Nehemiah (Persia). They submitted themselves to pagan rulers under God and served their world emperor (like the eagle face of the cherubim). Paul is able to say “submit” with straight face to those in even Caesar Nero’s household (Phil. 4:22). Submit to the exousia - “powers that be” in general and trust in God’s sovereign power (1 Tim. 2).
Thus Christians should be better citizens than most pagans. The “powers” exercise the sword (mache) to punish evil doers - not to rehabilitate them, but to deter them with death if need be. Christians should not be trouble makers nor seek revolution to bring about change which was exactly why the Jews were banished from Rome under Claudius (49 A.D. cf Acts 18:2).
Rom. 13 does not contemplate righteous and necessary occasions for civil disobedience (such as in the case of Shadrack et al, Dan. 3:12), it only shows one bowing gesture of the outward facing body. There are exceptions and desperate times call for desperate self-sacrificial measures (“for such a time is this” Esther). Thus, Romans 13 cannot be used to prop up Nazi-ism or Stalinism or a future totalitarianism instituted by an American President or a U.N. Czar. We can do our duties by rendering what is due (tax, custom, honor). Love is right motivation in fulfilling law. And in acting out of love, we remember the “the time.” There is a temporal aspect of this. In the original setting judgment was near (70 AD) and the upheavals of the Roman world are coming (68 AD). “We know the time, that it is already the hour...” (13:11). Therefore don’t “eat, drink and be merry” but get ready and be alert. Make no provision for the flesh.
13:13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.