Three times in this passage Paul calls rulers by the title of servant of God. Rulers, therefore, are a provision of God’s common grace and we can expect them to do certain things, which are summarised as by giving approval or by administering punishment.
Paul does not mean that all governments are conscious that they are serving the true God. Some of them may be atheistic and others may be of various religious persuasions. Yet there is something that each of them cannot get rid off, and that is the law of God written on their hearts. Unless they are totally corrupt, most people, including rulers, know that it is wrong to murder, to steal, to lie, to be unfaithful and to take what belongs to someone else. They also realise the benefits of stability in homes. Whenever we see a government of any persuasion enacting laws that come into those categories, we see the evidences that these individuals are made in the image of God and are being controlled by his common grace.
Paul mentions a serious aspect of government responsibilities when he says in verse 4 that a ruler is ‘an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’. We read about various crimes and of how people are taken to court over them. Often we don’t ask what God thinks about the person on trial. Paul tells us here that God is angry with them and has arranged for them to be dealt with. In the previous chapter, Paul told Christians not to avenge themselves, but to let God take care of it. Here he says that one of the ways by which God avenges is through human rulers punishing those who engage in wicked acts. When we see a guilty person being punished by the state we see God at work through the agency of government that he set up.
Writing to Timothy a few years later Paul urged him to teach about the responsibilities of Christians with regard to those in authority: ‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Tim. 3:1-2). While no doubt it is appropriate to pray for them in private, the context of Paul’s exhortation is a public prayer meeting.
There are two ways by which we can go along with what the government does. One response is that of reluctant agreement because we have no real choice but to obey their decisions. The other response is to do it for the sake of conscience. This means that God’s Word governs our responses to everything that a human government will enact. If a government enacts unjust or sinful laws, it is the responsibility of a Christian to disobey the government, but to disobey in a manner that reveals he respects the fact that human government is instituted by God. When the government passes laws that are in line with what the Bible allows, then the Christian is to agree with them.