Romans 13:1 gets abused in one of two directions. On the one hand, some use it to legitimate whatever political power structure happens to be in force. This can be as blunt as the notion of “the divine right of kings” to the subtler (and more insidious) notion that one’s own nation’s constitution or whatever is an embodiment of “God-given universal principles.” In this version, the sinfulness of the ruler(s) is passed over in favour of the idea that they have been appointed by God. On the other hand, some use this verse to argue that the church ought to try to seize and wield political power in the service of God’s reign. This approach will acknowledge that existing power structures are imperfect and tainted by sin, but sees that as providing legitimation and motivation for one’s own political agenda (whatever that may be), on the grounds that what is really needed is some good, God-fearing ruler to set things right. Both of these approaches get it wrong, because both confuse God’s intentions with concrete reality.
The best way to consider the meaning and import of Romans 13:1 is to step back and consider the political implications of the concept of (drum roll, please)… the kingdom of God.
God made us to be social beings, and to have him as the actual, literal ruler of our universal social structure. So governance is good, as an inherent aspect of being social beings, which is good. But more specifically it is God’s governance that is the proper form. That appears to be the intention in Eden (although with only two humans it wasn’t yet very complex, and thus more resembles a parent-child relationship than a king-people one yet), God’s revealed will in Deuteronomy or again in 1 Samuel, and the way things are described in the eschatological and proto-eschatological promises, imagery, and visions in both OT and NT.
Human self-governance (i.e. humans governing humans and claiming sovereignty for themselves), on the other hand, arises as a deformation of God’s intention. We have rebelled against God as our Lord and King. Nevertheless, we remain social creatures, and so we find ourselves needing to set up our own governments to fill in that role so that we can live and function as people groups. But our governments are created as part of and as a result of our rebellion against him, and so they are founded in sin. In their concrete reality, they are manifestations of our sin and rebellion. This is why Deuteronomy both says that God’s will is that he alone be their king and also does “damage control” by laying out rules for when the Israelites decide to have a human king while still making it clear that God does not think a human king is a good plan. Like all things human, our ways of existing as social beings together are good but fallen and sinful. To use a Calvinist term, total depravity really is “total” in its proper, intended sense of “all-encompassing” (as opposed to “utter,” as it is so commonly misunderstood) and includes our social existence within its compass. Thus, while social structure—and therefore governance—is good and intended by God, all social structures and governments we have made are malformed and shot through with sin. We therefore need our social structures to be redeemed and set right by the reassertion of God’s own rule—which will mean the end of our self-rule.
One thing I find interesting is how it seems that every government in history has claimed to be founded on divine sanction—whether via deifying the emperor, or via claiming a “divine right of kings,” or via “inalienable rights” with which human beings are endowed, or via whatever else functions in a given culture as legitimation for its claims to sovereignty and power. Each one seeks to arrogate sovereign authority to itself by claiming that the Power(s) That Be (however conceived) have given the stamp of approval to said government. But every claim to sovereignty by humans is rebellion against God’s rule over all. And every government will face judgment when Christ returns. No claim to possess sovereign authority by any human leader, then, is legitimate. That God has decreed that there should be government of human social structures does not in any way mean that any human government that exists can claim divine approval, as though God was on their side. King David did better than King Saul only as long as and only insofar as he retained his sense of being merely the servant of Yahweh, obeying his commands. Whenever David stopped seeking God’s own commands and began to think of his kingdom and power as his own, he fell into trouble. For the same reason, when Rome occasionally threw the Christians to the lions, it wasn’t because Rome wildly misunderstood the Christian gospel’s sociopolitical implications. The early Christians and their Roman persecutors both understood this better than we modern Western Christians who over-spiritualize God’s kingdom—if Jesus is King, then Caesar is nothing more than a mere man holding a temporary position who is subject to being judged (and dethroned) according to his obedience to the will of Christ. And if we stop and think about it, that is precisely what the real import of Rom 13:1 is.
In light of the inevitably sinful and fallen nature of our actually existing governments, it is incoherent to claim that they, in their concrete reality, enjoy any sort of divine endorsement or that they can be the instruments of God in any straightforward manner. It certainly is not possible for a Christian to coherently think that political victory within our sinful governmental systems could ever bring about God’s goals for the world. And it most certainly is not possible for a Christian to coherently believe that any actually existing government will enact God’s justice or even protect it. At best, it will enact and protect a warped and distorted version of it. This is, true enough, still better than for a government not even to try to do so. But woe to those who imagine that Caesar is a good and faithful servant of God, or that he will carry out properly the job his position entails, or that winning influence in his court will allow one to make the policies of the empire mirror the policies of God. Christians working in the political sphere can do some good, in a piecemeal fashion, when they chose qua politicians to act as obedient servants of God subject to his sovereignty. But when Christians allow themselves qua Christians to become a power block in the political machinery of the state, the only appropriate words are those of Rev. 18:4. (Don’t forget, after all, that Rom. 13 is not the only sort of statement about human governments that the Bible makes. The threat of judgement and wrath against them for their failures to follow God’s will and for the blasphemy of claiming their own sovereignty hangs over them.) When we become a political power bloc, we are then doing the opposite of what Jesus modelled in John 18:36, where he insisted that his royal authority had a fundamentally different source than any worldly power’s and therefore refused to let his kingdom become another vying faction within the political system.