Romans 13 has long been a controversial and frequently misunderstood passage. It is also a text often referred to in the last few years in light of mandates, church lockdowns and coercion in Western nations – usually invoked to require an almost unquestioning subservience and submission to the state.
The non-Christian, secular-pagan worldview offers no reason to obey the state except that the state has a monopoly on the means of force and deep financial resources through coercive taxation. There is no basis in a chance-originating world without God to obey civil authority except the force, guns and patronage belonging to the state.
That is not the case for the Christian. St. Paul says every person is to be subject to governing authorities. This is a general term that can denote various authorities (parents, church leaders etc.), but in Romans 13 it has special reference to civil power. This authority is empowered to govern by enacting and administering law.
In this first instance, government is referred to in the abstract. It is not a reference to particular people or magistrates but to the institution of civil rule itself.
Paul therefore calls every person to be subject to God’s institution of civil government, in the same way that he calls everyone to be subject to family instituted authority exercised through parents (Eph. 6:1-3) and institutional church authority through elders (Heb. 13:17). We are likewise to be subject to God’s laws and norms for the state. That there are cruel and unjust parents, apostate and wicked church leaders, or evil and lawless civil governments – the reality of which necessarily puts limits around our obedience in all these institutions – is obvious, but not Paul’s peculiar concern here. He does not digress to address the rights of the oppressed or abused in this passage, for we can consult God’s law on such matters. He is dealing solely with the character and duties of civil government and our responsibility to this God-ordained sphere of authority.