Q & R: Romans 13?

Here’s the Q:

I am a pastor in San Diego who has used “We Make the Road by Walking” and “Naked Spirituality” for sermon series and small group discussions and am very grateful for the work you do and the voice you give to new and better ways to understand to interpret our Scriptures and live out our faith. So at your convenience I would love to hear your take on Romans 13:1-7. In light of this politically charged season and also in light some of the oppressive governments that have exploited their citizens (and even in light of the Roman government that Paul struggled against at times), what do you make of this admonition in Romans 13?

Here’s the R:
First, I’m so glad you have found those books helpful in your sermons and small groups. I’m glad they have been useful to your congregation.
This is a great question to ask a week before our US elections. The text in question has been seen by some as a Pauline betrayal of Jesus’ anti-Imperial message, i.e. Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God/Heaven as a challenge and alternative to the Kingdom of Caesar/Rome, but Paul here allows himself to be co-opted by Caesar and Rome.
Here are the verses in question:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

I think Shane Claiborne gives a good reading of this text here. Quotable:

This word is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers. Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance. Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite: he must convince Christians, who are not conforming to the patterns of this world, not to overthrow the government!

Shane is right: many Christians quote this text to justify Christian accommodation to a violent or unjust status quo (a strange irony for Americans who staged a revolution to overthrow their “divinely appointed” king!).
But if we take what comes before this passage, it’s clear that Paul is not calling for accommodation to violence, but creative resistance to it:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What does it mean to “not be conformed to the pattern of this world?” Here’s Paul’s answer:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The ultimate nonconformity for Paul is love: “Love must be sincere.” And that is exactly the theme to which he returns immediately after Romans 13:1-7:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

It’s quite ironic that many people are willing to quote Romans 13:1-7 to legitimize violence by the state while disregarding the context in which it is placed, which is a call for us as followers of Christ to be nonconformists to the violence that is so common in “the world,” and instead, to conform to the image of Christ, which is the image of nonviolent and revolutionary love.
As you may know, this priority of love is the starting point for my new book, The Great Spiritual Migration. The first third of the book is largely a commentary on Jesus’ great commandment, and on Paul’s words … “I will show you the most excellent way … follow the way of love.” Thanks again for this timely question!