13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities 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. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 (ESV)
For the authorities are ministers of God. As Luther points out in his small catechism, when we pray for our daily bread we thank God for good government. The claim that Paul makes here is that these men, and in his day they hardly recognized God, are ministers of God. That is they serve God by doing their job. This is actually true with any job a person might have. You serve God by doing that job and doing it well. Of course there are exceptions to this, a drug dealer, or hitman for the mob is not serving God in his vocation. Though I hesitate to say that God can’t also use them. God uses the devil himself for his purposes.
This is one of the things that always bothers me about the rhetoric of the Christian Right in American politics. They don’t seem to understand that a person doesn’t actually need to be Christian for God to use them. Paul writes this concerning the most pagan of pagan and Rome reached the zenith of it’s power, wealth and whatever else might mark good governments. I marvel at times that people can’t recognize the good government of Japan and South Korea, places where Christianity is not in any way a prevailing religion. That isn’t to say there aren’t advantages to a government based upon Christian principles, but perhaps we shouldn’t sell it with the misguided notion that God will take all our Ferraris from us if we don’t display the Ten Commandments at the court house.
But because the government officials are ministers of God, we are supposed to subject ourselves to them, in so far as they do not command us to deny God in some way shape or form. The word means to subordinate yourself, or place yourself within, under the order that God has instituted in this world. But to place yourself within the good order that God has created for his world also means to work within it responsibly as a Christian with love for the others that inhabit the same order. It is out of love that we put ourselves in this order, and that means love for the society in which we live. In doing this we work to better society, to better the governing authorities.
In all this I’m reminded of Christ’s words to Pilate that he would have no authority if it had not been given to him from above. Jesus subjected himself to the governing authorities and in doing so fulfilled the law with his death that we might be saved.