Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
This is a good example of a passage in which it’s important to consider context. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in ancient Rome, to people who lived in a particular time under a particular set of circumstances. When I read this section it sounds to me like there are persons in the Roman church who are considering some act of rebellion.
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
Paul is trying to keep some Roman believers from defying local authority and compromising the safety of the entire Christian community. Given Paul’s wisdom and discernment revealed in his many writings it’s logical to believe this was good council – for that particular people living in that particular time. However, where a modern reader can get in trouble is by taking a teaching about a specific time and place and applying it as a general principle for all times and situations.
As one example, consider the 20th century. If Christian people were to have taken this teaching to heart in the 1940s the United States would never have entered WW2 to defeat Hitler. Good Christians would have assumed it was God who placed Hitler in power, which would have meant fighting Hitler was akin to fighting God himself (see v.2 above). Mass murder and tyranny would have spread across the globe! It would have been unthinkable.
This is why Christians must continually balance the desire to be faithful to scripture in the present with the occasional need to leave the past in the past. Holy Spirit give us wisdom to know the difference, for this is very tricky business indeed. Amen.