The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations. Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God. Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.
But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government? Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands. I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens. What if the government restricts my personal freedom? What if the government wants to take my guns away? What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana? What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us? Should we rebel and against the government then?
I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone. No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party. Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice! The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protesters did not burn Rome, Nero did!
Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone. Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed). Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!
I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government. Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective. He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.