Several times recently I’ve written to highlight some of Peter’s counsel on how a Christian must respond to a culture in moral decay. As I had noted, Peter and Emperor Nero were contemporaries, and Nero hated Christians, so Peter and his friends lived under a government that was mistreating people because of their beliefs–religious discrimination. Because of their beliefs, Christians lost their jobs and businesses. They were arrested, imprisoned and killed, not for crimes like theft or murder, but for the crime of following Jesus and telling the truth from the Word of God.
Imagine typical responses to such discrimination (actually outright oppression). A lot of people would be fearful. They would be discouraged about their government. Anger is probably the most common response to injustice; unfair treatment is the flip of a switch to anger. Where does anger lead? Disrespect and disdain, expressed in criticism, sarcasm, disparaging jokes, demonstrations, even riots.
None of this exalts Christ. So to encourage and guide his beloved friends toward godly responses, Peter wrote them a letter. He taught them what God-honoring attitudes and behavior look like, some of which I mentioned here and here, with a related rabbit trail here. Now I want to consider what he said about relating to an oppressive government. The passage is 1 Peter 2:13-17.
Submit for the Lord’s sake.
Peter didn’t stir people to riot. He didn’t advise demonstrations. He didn’t commend civil disobedience or urge those who were citizens to demand civil rights as Roman citizens. He wrote,
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
Surely he jests! To authorities who, in religious discrimination, were confiscating property and killing Christians, those Christians were to…to…submit? Why?!
“For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
Unbelievers are looking for excuses to reject the rule of Christ. The fearful or angry believer provides those excuses. Compromise in fear communicates that God is not so important after all. Complaining against civil authorities contradicts a profession of faith in Christ because it rejects God’s sovereignty in His choice of civil authorities “sent by Him.” Disobedience to laws demonstrates a willingness to disobey God. Seeing that, why should an unbeliever take the Christian’s profession of faith seriously?
A Christian who for the Lord’s sake submits to unjust authorities testifies that it is God who is sovereign. It models trust in God. Right-doing in the face of the oppressor’s injustice confronts that oppressor with his own moral culpability.
Freely be the slave of God.
Does “submit” mean that we should disobey God if the government commands it? No.
“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”
Because Christians are free from sin’s power and punishment, they can obey God. Rather than compromise in fear, they can do what is right even when Caesar (or legislators, president, and courts) commands otherwise. They can speak truth about evil. John the Baptist and Jesus both boldly confronted sins of leaders. And, Christians can appeal to authorities for justice on the basis of existing laws.
Simultaneously, Christians who suffer for doing right can do so without resentment at unjust leaders because, like John and Jesus, they do it for the glory of God and to open the eyes of those leaders to their danger. That attitude, too, is obedience to God. They seek the spiritual salvation of those authorities.
“Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”
What enabled those Christians to resist fear and refuse to compromise to save their skins? “Fear God.” What enabled them to show proper respect to the very government officials who were oppressing them? “Fear God.” “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Fear of the Lord produces obedience to God.
Honor the king.
This command comes full circle to the opening command, “submit for the Lord’s sake.” If God places leaders in their positions, then to speak disparagingly against them is to complain against God. Peter wanted his readers, for the Lord’s sake, in the fear of the Lord, to obey Him by showing respect to their civil authorities.
And so today…
Christians today are under the same orders as those in Peter’s day. In the fear of the Lord, Christians use their freedom in Christ to obey Him. So, we submit for the Lord’s sake. Do what is right. Obey the law. Honor authorities. When we must obey God rather than a particular human law, we realize that the cost may be high. Still, we do so with respect and a desire to be submissive in every way we can without disobeying the Lord. Above our own interests, we seek the glory of God and the salvation of those leaders.