From Joe Calabello: We can often read Romans 13:1-7 and conclude that it is a stand alone text, when in fact, it is part of Paul’s greater argument on what it means to live with a renewed mind in light of God’s mercies. Though the passage seems to primarily center on the theme of governing authorities and our submission to them, which it does, I see a greater implication of full Christian Responsibilities within this text in its full context of chapters 12 and 13.
The greater implication is that God intended that governing authorities be a means of his preserving common grace in the earth so that social order would be maintained. But social order is not God’s ultimate goal, nor is it intended so that you and I can simply lead a peaceful existence. No, a peaceful existence serves as an opportunity to extend God’s love to our neighbors and communities.
What I think Paul wants us to see is that when we submit to the governing authorities, we are acknowledging God’s active common grace in the earth. We can then posture ourselves to be conduits of his greater ‘saving grace’ that comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ, all the while knowing that He is restraining evil through earthly governing authorities.
It is interesting to note that Paul, a Christian, a Jew and a natural born Roman citizen, often received help from local Roman officials and soldiers who were deployed throughout the Mediterranean region to maintain order for the Roman Empire. In Acts 21-23 we read how the Roman tribune in Jerusalem came to Paul’s rescue after first mistakenly setting out to flog him:
So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him (Acts 22: 27-29).
In Acts 23, some 270 soldiers and horsemen were involved in getting Paul safely to Caesarea. Rome would often go to great lengths to protect its citizens and to maintain civil order. Perhaps this informed Paul’s understanding that it is God who institutes all governing authorities. Yet Paul’s own safety under Roman law was not an end in itself. Parts of Roman law, as God’s common grace, protected Paul so that he may continue to proclaim the gospel.
Paul’s teaching on civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) is sandwiched in between, ‘love your enemies,’ and ‘love your neighbors’ (Rom. 12:17 to 13:10). So let’s not allow ourselves to believe that to live in peace and safety in the land is an end in itself. God preserves us, as he did Paul, for the greater purpose of loving our enemies, overcoming evil with good, loving our neighbors and seeking their welfare. By loving our neighbors, the law of God is fulfilled. The ultimate expression of this love is found in sharing the gospel. This is true Christian responsibility.