“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Romans 13:1–7
The passage starts with a clear-cut command to submit to “the governing authorities” (v1). Immediately following the command is the reason for it: namely, authorities are God-ordained. Therefore, resisting earthly authority is the same as resisting God (v2). Rulers are a deterrent to evil in society (v3); in fact, a ruler is “God’s servant,” bringing retribution to the wrongdoer (v4). Christians should submit to human authority not only to avoid punishment but also to maintain a clear conscience before God (v5). Specifically, Christians should pay their taxes (v6) and pay the proper respect and honor to “God’s servants” (v7).
The commands in Romans 13 are quite broad, aimed at “everyone,” with no exceptions listed. In fact, when Paul wrote these words, Nero was on the throne. If Romans 13 applies to the cruel and capricious Nero, it applies to all kings. The early church followed the principles of Romans 13 even during the wicked and oppressive reigns of Claudius, Caligula, and Tacitus. No qualifications or “outs” are given in the passage. Paul does not say “be subject to the king UNLESS he is oppressive” or “you must obey all rulers EXCEPT usurpers.” The plain teaching of Romans 13 is that all governments in all places are to be honored and obeyed. Every ruler holds power by the sovereign will of God (Psalm 75:7; Daniel 2:21). New Testament examples of believers paying proper obedience and respect towards government authority include Luke 2:1-5; 20:22-25; and Acts 24:10 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-17).
This is not to say that God approves of everything governments do or that kings are always right. On the contrary, Scripture has many examples of kings being held to account by God (e.g., Daniel 4). Furthermore, Romans 13 does not teach that Christians must always obey the governing authorities, no matter what. The one exception to the general rule of obedience is when man’s laws are in direct conflict with the plainly revealed law of God. Examples of God’s people practicing civil disobedience include Peter and John defying the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19; 5:29), the Hebrew midwives refusing to practice infanticide (Exodus 1:15-17), Daniel ignoring the Persian law concerning prayer (Daniel 6:10), and Daniel’s friends refusing to bow to the king’s image (Daniel 3:14-18).
So, as a general rule, we are to obey the government; the lone exception is when obeying man’s law would force us to directly disobey God’s law.