It all comes back to love and how you treat your neighbor. At least, that is what Paul is teaching us in Romans 13. What Paul does that is different than Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40 (but not contrary to Jesus, just an extrapolation of it) is he pushes it out to the logical assumptions about political and social behavior.
The most fitful translation choice for me was in verse 7. There is a remarkable brevity in the way Paul frames these words–literally something like “taxes the taxes, toll the toll, fear the fear, honor the honor.” I’ve added the verbs “due” and “pay” at the beginning and end of the verse for clarity, but those are not present in this part of the sentence. They are borrowed from earlier.
In verse 6 Paul uses the word “leitourgoi” which is connected to the root for our word ‘liturgy’, and it is sometimes used to describe Christian worship or service. Here, however, it is used to denote the secular, civil servant whom Paul also calls a servant of God. It is fascinating that in 12:1, when he talks about worship, he uses another word, “latreo.” Even though there are two different words, I wonder how connected in Paul’s mind is the work of Christian service and civil service?
One more translation issue. Most English renderings add the word “first” in verse 11, when we “first believed.” That is a giant liberty, for the word just is not there. I don’t like it, because it implies a second (or third, or fourth etc…) moment of belief. Paul is chronological here, recalling that time when we believed in Jesus, but the modifier “first” is unnecessary and confusing.
I feel like these verses need a fresh reading in our current cultural context here in the United States. Paul lived in a time when the Roman Empire governed everything, and Rome was anything but moral. Rome was an empire built of power, lust, and greed. Whatever evil someone thinks might be going on in our government today, it pales in comparison to the evil in Rome–all throughout the empire. Yet, Paul can say that the imperium (lictor, likely) is chosen by God for the task. It can only mean that in the larger society (not within the church, mind you, c/f 1 Cor. 5) order, peace, submission, and the public good trumps personal morality. That is a hard pill for many, me included, to swallow but that seems to be the teaching.
1. Every soul must be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and they have been assigned to it by God.
2. So, those opposing authority resist the command of God, and those who resist authority will receive judgement.
3. For those governing are not to be feared by those doing good work, but those doing evil. If you do not want to fear the authorities, do good and you will have praise for it.
4. For he is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, you will fear, for it is not for nothing that he carries a sword as a servant of God—an executor of wrath—to those practicing evil.
5. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject, not only because of wrath, but also because of the conscience.
6. This is why you pay taxes, for those are servants of God, constantly attending to the order of things.
7. Pay everyone what is due. If taxes are due, then taxes, if a toll, then a toll, if fear, then fear, if honor is due, then pay honor.
8. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for the one who loves others has fulfilled the law.
9. For, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not lust,” and whatever other commandments, are summarized in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
10. Love for the neighbors does no evil, therefore it is a fulfillment of the law of love.
11. Especially knowing the time, because the hour is now already here to wake from sleep, for our salvation is nearer than when we believed.
12. The night advances, but daytime is at hand, therefore take off the works of darkness. Put on the weapons of light.
13. Let us walk properly as in the daylight—not in orgies, drunkenness, in bed, in debauchery, rivalries or jealousy.
14. Put on the Lord Jesus, Messiah. Do not satisfy your desires.