Submit to your governing authorities! If any representative of the government enacts a mandate or law, you must submit. It doesn't matter who the governing authority is or what their role in the government is. It doesn't matter if the law contradicts God's law. You must submit! If you don't submit to the governing authorities, you are being disobedient to God. This is a common interpretation of Romans 13 for many Americans - believers and unbelievers alike. But is it accurate?
It is our responsibility to disobey immoral laws
During the Nuremburg Trials of 1945, many of the defendants claimed they were not responsible for the crimes they were accused of because they were following orders from a higher authority. Generally speaking, they acknowledged they committed the crimes, but they denied responsibility because they weren't in positions of authority. 161 of 199 defendants were convicted of various crimes despite their claims that they were just following orders.
Not every example is as extreme as the Holocaust, but the lesson remains the same. There are instances in which we must obey orders and there are instances in which we must disobey orders. There may be serious consequences for disobeying immoral laws or ungodly orders. You might lose your job. You might be ostracized. You might be taken to prison. You might even be killed. But those consequences do not compare to the rewards you would receive for suffering in obedience to Christ, instead of obeying immoral laws. The Church must begin seeking to submit to God first, or else we might be in danger of repeating history, at least to some degree.
For a Biblical example, we should be reminded of the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1). We should also consider the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Daniel 3). The Apostle Paul and Peter disobeyed authorities when confronted for preaching, throughout the book of Acts. And there are many more Biblical examples of followers of God who chose to disobey their governing authorities rather than disobey God. The idea that we must submit to governing authorities without considering who/what the authority is and what God's Word says about it, is unbiblical. When given a law, an order, or a mandate that commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, we must "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). We must remember that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven, but also on the earth, and He commanded us to obey Him (Matthew 28:18-20).
To be clear, we must not refuse to submit to laws just because we don't like them. According to Romans 13:1, we must submit to governing authorities, in a general sense. We must obey traffic laws, pay our taxes, etc. Generally speaking, we must not resist the governing authorities. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus spoke about the importance of our heart being made right through Him. Our attitudes must be respectful and humble before governing authorities. There is no honor in acting disrespectful or prideful towards the government. We ought not act arrogantly! While it is absolutely vital that we disobey immoral laws, it is equally important that we obey laws, as long as they don't contradict God's commands.
God's Word limits the government's authority
Romans 13 doesn't mention God putting any limits on the government, right? Well, we know that the existing authorities "have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1). What other institutions has God established? He established marriage and He established the Church. In marriage, the husband has limits to his authority. We would all agree that the husband does not have the authority to abuse his wife. Pastors (and Elders) have limits to their authority in the Church. We would all agree that Pastors do not have the authority to require everyone in the congregation to give 50% of their income. So why is it that we believe the government has no limits to its authority? Of course, they do.
In Romans 13:3, the Apostle Paul states, "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad." What did Paul mean by this? Was he trying to communicate that everything rulers do is good? We know the Roman empire was full of corruption, so surely Paul recognized this. If we slow down and consider the full context of this verse, we'll quickly realize that Paul is communicating what the role of governing authorities is. God is limiting the government's authority here. Rulers are not supposed to be a terror towards our good behavior. They are supposed to be a terror towards bad behavior. Who decides what is good behavior and bad behavior? God does in His Word! This demonstrates the fact that governing authorities are also commanded to obey God. They do not have a free-pass to rule harshly because they are in a position of authority.
Continuing on in Romans 13:3-4, Paul states, "Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 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." The governing authorities are God's servants, which means it is their responsibility to honor God with their work. They are not supposed to punish good behavior. They are only supposed to punish bad behavior. These are clear limitations God has placed on all governing authorities. God warns the rulers of the earth that they must serve Him.
"Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him."
- Psalm 2:10-12