This observation allows us to make an alternative interpretation of Romans 13, one which has already been advanced by scholars such as Witherington and Volf. Paul has just instructed his readers to renounce revenge and to respond to evil with good. As Moo argues; ‘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).
Thus, Paul is not stating an alternative context where violence is to be considered differently. Rather, he is talking about one of the ways that God is maintaining his justice. The result is that Christians can continue to meet evil with good, in certain faith that God is dealing with the greater issue of judgment.
Volf considers this concept in some detail in his Exclusion and Embrace; ‘the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance’ (Volf 304). He understands Romans 12-13 to be in a similar way: ‘Whatever relation may exist between God’s and the state’s monopoly on violence […] Christians are not to take up their swords and gather under the banner of the Rider on the white horse, but to take up their crosses and follow the crucified Messiah.’ (Volf 302). Or, as Witherington concludes, ‘Paul is saying that the state is charged with doing what Christians have just been prohibited from doing.’ (Witherington 314)
We have previously noted that the imperatives are the key to understanding Romans 13. This alternative understanding of Romans 12-13 makes very good sense of Paul’s instructions; The point that he is making is that this mechanism for God’s justice is to be recognised and submitted to. The intention of this passage is not to describe what the state is supposed to be, but how a Christian is to live out the gospel under the state – regardless of what the state does.