When looking at Romans 13, particularly the part which refers to the “ruler” as God’s servant, there are two common mistakes that I’ve noticed most people fall into.
The first mistake is common among those who consider Romans 13 as more “prescriptive,” that is, they think Romans 13 is talking about the “ideal” government “as God intended.” The second mistake is more common among those that consider Romans 13 as being more “descriptive,” that is, these folks think that Romans 13 is talking about any government as it exists historically and in the real world.
The first mistake is the idea that the phrase “he is God’s servant” in verse 4 refers to the fact that only the ruler that submits to God’s moral standard is His servant and is in view in verses 1 and 2. There are those who think that the ruler who is wicked or tyrannical is not in view in Romans 13 and is, in fact, not God’s servant at all. I see this view more among some theonomists and especially the covenanters.
The second mistake is more common amongst American Christians of the mainstream evangelical, quasi-neocon type. It is the idea that the government as it exists is God’s servant and therefore whatever it does is morally legitimate. Allegedly, since the [American] Government is God’s servant, it can largely do what “needs to be done” in order to fulfill it’s role in society.
My own view (as usual) is distinct from both of these. I believe that Paul in Romans 13 does not have some ideal government in mind here, but the ruling authority as it exists. And therefore the ruling authority as it exists is God’s servant. This part is more similar to the second group above. Where I am different, however, is my stance that just because the de facto ruling authority is God’s servant does not at all mean that what it is currently doing is morally legitimate. What I mean by this is that God uses evil rulers as an ordained means to accomplish his will. That is, the evil deeds of Hitler and Bush and Obama were ordained by God and were part of his plan. While acting evilly and in contradiction to God’s “preceptive will,” these men can be considered God’s servants because they were acting in accordance with God’s “ordaining will.”
The reason why I find this position acceptable is because God refers to Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most evil and depraved rulers in the Bible, as His servant in Jeremiah 43:10. If Nebuchadnezzar can be referred to as God’s servant than so can the real rulers of Rome as in the historical context of the book of Romans.
The Reformed Libertarian does not have to deny the status of “God’s servant” to Obama or any other politician in order to critique them as being systemically in opposition to the universal ethical standard. God chooses to accomplish his ends with evil means all the time. Jesus was murdered on the cross in accordance with God’s ordaining will; and this action was antithetical to God’s ethical commands. Against the common evangelical position, we believe that the state must be compared to the universal standard of ethics that is applicable to all persons (don’t steal, don’t murder, etc.). And against many covenanters or theonomists (among others), we don’t deny that the status of “God’s servant” in Romans 13 is about rulers as the exist in historical and present context.
Of course the present evil rulers are God’s servants. Everyone in existence serves the ordaining plan of God since God ordains and plans all things. This does not mean that the rulers are not acting criminally. They are. They steal, plunder, murder, trespass, threaten violence, and so on on a minute by minute basis as part of what they call “economic policy,” “foreign policy, and “legislation.” They breach the private property rights of their subjects. And this is a moral outrage. And yet God has ordained such a moral outrage as part of his eternal plan.
So let’s criticize and call out the state for all its evil, also remember, as per Romans 13:1, that God has ordained this evil. All we can do is proclaim the ethical standards by which all individuals (even government officials) will be judged, and remember that God ordains even the actions of evil men. In this sense, they are his servants.