Rome and surrounding areas could be rather harsh to Christians. The governments were corrupt with leaders who were largely immoral. How did Christians react to this? Paul’s letter to Timothy, an important sentiment is expressed:
“I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior.” (1 Timothy 2)
In view here was the desire for Christians to pray for their leaders, and to be able to live in peace, and to bring peace. Often Christians, especially in America, can feel great anxiety over interactions with the government, which God does tell us to obey. In Paul’s writings to the Romans, he tells them to be subject to their government (linked here so that you can read it as a letter rather than a set of numbered passages), to exercise good conduct, to pay taxes, and to show honor. This passage is sandwiched in between remarks that tell Christians,
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
God does tell us to obey the government, but what if the government tells us to act in a way contrary to Christian principles? First, one must make sure that it’s truly an ungodly thing being commanded, and not just something that you don’t like. Having a tax increase to pay for an unneeded new park is a lot different than being told to go and hunt and kill some ethnic minority in order to “make the world a better place.” Jesus didn’t spend exactly a lot of time in legal disputes or trying to stir up dissension against the rulers that exerted power over the land where he lived. That’s important, because, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6)
However, sometimes governments may encourage flat-out Satanic things. What if your government tells you to renounce Christ? Do you follow them then? “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even unto death.” (Revelation 12)
Do you reveal to the Nazi that yes, you are hiding a Jew under your floor? Philosopher Immanuel Kant held to the belief that you SHOULD give up the innocent because honesty was such an important part of rationality. In contrast, God’s people, and God’s remarks on their decisions, often show that sometimes it’s important to prioritize one value over another. Consider this:
After Rahab hid the Israelite spies on her roof among the stalks of flax (Joshua 2:6), she told the messengers of the King of Jericho (who were pursuing the Israelites) that the men in question had already left, and exactly where they went she did not know (2:4-5). However, (1) the Israelites had not left, and (2) she knew exactly where they were. In fact, after speaking to the king’s men, she went back up to the roof to speak with them and to help them safely escape (2:8-21).
Rahab was disobeying authorities. She was being deceptive. Yet Rahab, a prostitute, is mentioned in the New Testament alongside Moses and Abraham as to be esteemed most highly. While there are other examples, I think that what we see is that Romans 13 shouldn’t be taken in a vacuum. In fact, when considered alongside Paul’s other writings, it is largely the same as God’s instructions regarding children and parents and carries an important caveat. “Children, obey your parents IN THE LORD, for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1; emphasis mine)
In general terms, Christ’s followers realized the important stipulation that, at times, “we should obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5) This means not warring against flesh and blood, but seeking to make one-on-one connections with people. Only by changing individuals can you change the course of a society.
I understand that this is not always a popular message, yet Satan is not harmed by our weapons, but by those which God supplies.