Romans 13:3-4—The ruler is God’s servant.
4 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.
We have seen that at the time Paul wrote these words, the Roman government fit this description as “God’s servant for your good.” Soon, though, Nero became a terror to Christians despite their good conduct, contrary to the opening phrase of verse 3. We can account for the discrepancy by understanding that Paul is writing about secular authority in its ideal, divinely appointed role. Just as many people do not honor and give thanks to God (1:21), so quite a few rulers then and now ignore the divine standards of right and wrong, good and evil.
Nero had his own nefarious reasons for terrorizing Christians. Subsequent emperors persecuted Christians for refusing to honor them as gods, and it was Christians’ opposition to idol worship that got them into trouble.
Doing good to counteract a bad reputation
In general, secular authorities do commend good behavior. Kruse points to inscriptions and literary evidence from early Rome showing that rulers did honor citizens whose works benefited the city, and some inscriptions promise public recognition for future benefactors.
Not many Christians were accorded that kind of recognition apparently. Swindoll points to a writer at the time saying both Jews and Christians had gained a reputation for “their hate and enmity to human kind.” As for Jews, Charles Swindoll suggests their reputation may have resulted from their first-century policy to remain separate and distinct from public life. Because isolation invites fear and slander, he says Paul was wise to urge “believers to be meaningfully engaged in public life and to support their pagan government as God’s unwitting instrument.”
Because some people in our society today are close to saying the same thing about Christians as that early writer did, Swindoll makes a very good point:
Avenger of wrong behavior
Almost all governments unwittingly carry out God’s wrath on those who commit crimes—murder, thievery, etc. This criminal behavior likely wasn’t the kind of wrongdoing Paul in these verses was warning the church to avoid, however. Everett Harrison points out that because the Roman Empire was alert to the threat of revolution or subversive behavior, Paul wanted the church to avoid any activity that would give the impression of imperiling the state.
Douglas Moo explains the ideal sense in which government can serve as God’s servant in bearing the sword:
The “sword” in this text is the small Roman sword used in capital punishment (it’s how James the brother of John was killed by Herod, Acts 12:2). If the state wanted to add shame to death, it resorted to crucifixion.
On a wall under the dome of the Oregon state capitol building are found these words etched in stone:
Especially in a democracy, righteous rulers are the product of a righteous citizenry. John Adams, our second President, said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The truth of that statement is why so many believers today, watching their fellow citizens and the rulers they elect flee from the moral principles taught in the word of God, have begun to doubt that our system of government can much longer prevail. Unless, of course, a revival sweeps across this land as happened so providentially prior to the nation’s founding.