"Let's talk about "render unto Caesar" and "respect the authorities."
These are some of those verses that can be misused to justify a number of truly horrible things. A lot of Christian nationalism can be traced back to interpretations of these verses that prop up whatever government or system someone wants to justify. In the early 1930s, a group of the world's then most prominent theologians used (partially) this logic to justify the rise of Nazi Germany as a form of providence.
I lump these two together because I think that they are very thematically similar, and thus any misconceptions of them fall together as well.
Let's examine the first of them.
"Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away."
Theologian John Howard Yoder makes a pertinent point here in his book The Politics of Jesus:
"It is hard to see how the denarius question could have been thought by those who put it to be a serious trap, unless Jesus’ repudiation of the Roman occupation were taken for granted, so that he could be expected to give an answer which would enable them to denounce him."
In other words, the assumption from Jesus' reputation must have been that Jesus would oppose the occupation so vehemently that his answer would set him up as a state dissenter.
Instead, Jesus deftly turns the issue around. Jesus asks to see the coin used for the tax, and naturally, it is a Roman denarius. This draws attention to the fact that the state has already set the terms of the discussion. If we value Caesar's denarius, then we are bound to Caesar. In a sense, the question of tax evasion is moot—by participating in the whole system that the occupying Romans have set up, tax evasion has become an empty gesture.
Says Dale Glass-Hess*:
"It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide. When the Jews produce a denarius at Jesus’ request, they demonstrate that they are already doing business with Caesar on Caesar’s terms. I read Jesus’ statement, "Give to Caesar…" as meaning “Have you incurred a debt in regard to Caesar! Then you better pay it off.” The Jews had already compromised themselves. Likewise for us: we may refuse to serve Caesar as soldiers and even try to resist paying for Caesar’s army. But the fact is that by our lifestyles we’ve run up a debt with Caesar, who has felt constrained to defend the interests that support our lifestyles. Now he wants paid back, and it’s a little late to say that we don’t owe anything. We’ve already compromised ourselves. If we’re going to play Caesar’s games, then we should expect to have to pay for the pleasure of their enjoyment. But if we are determined to avoid those games, then we should be able to avoid paying for them."
This leads into the second of the two passages:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due."
I'll hand the floor back to Yoder on this one:
It is not by accident that the imperative of [Romans] 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based on the same root as the ordering of the powers by God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, ... is being subordinate even though he is not obeying... ...We subject ourselves to government because it was in so doing that Jesus revealed and achieved God’s victory.”
The end of Yoder's point there refers to the cross—where Jesus submitted himself to the point of death, and where the powers of this world, such as they are, are understood to have been exposed for what they are. Paul is writing at a time when, in the midst of Jewish revolts and a Christian self-conception as an persecuted minority—a people of martyrs, a call to uprising would be extremely understandable and perhaps popular. Paul's recollection of Jesus' words here (it's likely no accident that the appeal about taxes recalls Jesus' traditional response in the earlier verse) call for a nonviolent, radical submission, one that exposes injustice for injustice and points towards another possible world."