As Moo observes; ‘It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.’ (Moo 806) The reason for this observed tension is two-fold. Firstly, a simplistic reading of the text could imply that Christians are to obey the government no matter what. As we have noted, however, the language of submission, and the examples of the Old and New Testament effectively refute this position. Secondly, and more importantly for this paper, there is an apparent tension between the role of government described in this passage, and the life of the Christian described in surrounding passages.
This text comes in the middle of a larger section, chapters 12-15, in which Paul moves to considering the impact that the gospel has on the life of the Christian (Moo744 ff). Verses 1-2 lay the basis for Christian living, and set the tone for the rest of chapters 12-15 (Dunn 706, Schreiner 677). The emphasis that a Christian’s while ‘bodily existence’ (Moo 754) is to be sacrificed to God fits well with our understanding of the position that government holds under Christ.
However, as chapter 12 continues, we see a continuation of the pattern which we have seen throughout the New Testament:
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20 But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.
These instructions are a stark contrast to the role of government that is presented in Rom 13. Where Christians are commanded away from vengeance (μὴ […] ἐκδικοῦντες), government is described as an avenger (ἔκδικος). Where Christians are not to repay evil for evil, governments are to bring wrath on the one who does wrong. Moo describes the logical movement of the text: ‘Forbidding the Christian exercise this right in the last judgment might lead one to think that God was letting evildoers have their way in this world. Not so, says Paul in 13:1-7: for God, through governing authorities, is even now inflicting wrath on evildoers’ (Moo 792). As Bruce observes: ‘The state is thus charged with a function which has been explicitly forbidden to the Christian’ (Bruce 236).