The scripture reads clearly; but it is further clarified by the confessions and creeds of our church fathers. First I will cite the section in question:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
The fact that some people today use this to justify being a passive and subservient fool is so far removed from common sense that it would have been unfathomable for the apostles to perpetuate the view that we should submit to an unholy civil institution. Verse four clearly reads: “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Given we know good and evil are determined by the eternal law of God; it is clear that the scripture says we should be submissive to civil institutions that execute wrath upon those who break the law of God; ie – the Civil Government implicitly must be an institution of God; fighting for the case of God. The Scots Confession of Faith reads: We further confess and acknowledge, that such persons as are placed in authority are to be loved, honoured, feared, and held in most reverent estimation[ Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:17.] because they are the lieutenants of God, in whose sessions God himself does sit and judge[ Ps. 82:1.] (yea even the judges and princes themselves), to whom by God is given the sword, to the praise and defense of good men, and to revenge and punish all open malefactors.[ 1 Pet. 2:14] Moreover, to kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates, we affirm that chiefly and most principally the conservation and purgation of the religion appertains; so that not only they are appointed for civil policy, but also for maintenance of the true religion, and for suppressing of idolatry and superstition whatsoever: as in David,[1 Chron. 22-26.] Jehoshaphat,[2 Chron. 17:6, etc.; 19:8, etc.;] Hezekiah,[2 Chron. 29-31.] Josiah,[ 2 Chron. 34-35.] and others, highly commended for their zeal in that case, may be espied.
Conclusively we see again; the reformed position is clear; we are to be subject to the higher powers; as they are the instrument of God’s law in our world. Should the civil magistrate fall into apostasy, ie: cease to follow the law of God – we have no obligation to submit to it.