I am free, no matter what kind of government exists in the country I live in. I am a servant of Christ, no matter how free I am politically. I am a follower of Jesus, who endured injustice, and instigated a kingdom that is not of this world. These things have profound impacts on how I relate to the governments of this world.
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1 PETER #16. 1 PETER 2:13-17
I will take this next section piece by piece, but we should keep in mind the whole section from verses 13 through 25, because we need to keep the context clear to understand it properly. Please read all of those verses (13-25) before continuing.
The ESV says “be subject to…” Other translations might say “submit to.” The thing we are told to submit to is “every human institution.” Just to clarify, Peter names the types of things he means: emperors and governors. In other words: “be subject to the government.” Right away, I would expect most Americans to bristle at this idea. I know I do, and I was not even raised in America. I don’t want to “be subject” to anyone. I want to be free. It gets worse when I find that it is the government to which I should submit.
Let’s start out with the qualifiers, exceptions, and objections – there are legitimate ones. Peter himself, on several different occasions, refused to obey governing authorities. If you want to find a couple of those, please read Acts 4:18-21, and Acts 5:27-29. In those cases, Peter and the other apostles were doing what Jesus told them to do: preaching repentance, forgiveness and salvation, in the name of Jesus. The authorities told them not to do it. Peter responded, in Acts 4:19: “”You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight—to obey you or to obey God.”
This gives us a clear understanding of certain situations. If obeying the governing authorities would lead us to disobey God, we calmly choose to obey God. In addition, we accept the consequences of disobeying the government. Peter and the other apostles were in and out of prison, and sometimes beaten or whipped, for their continual civil disobedience in this way. They never said: “You don’t have the right to imprison us!” They never reacted violently. However, they continued to obey God when there was a conflict between following Jesus and submitting to the governing authorities. You might say this principle in short is: “Obey God, and accept the consequences.”
I want to make sure this is clear, however. This civil disobedience came about only from a direct conflict between following Jesus and obeying the authorities. In other words, they didn’t disobey the government simply because they perceived it to be unfair, or unjust, or even criminal. The only cause for disobedience was when obedience to the government meant disobedience toward God. In other words they disobeyed only if the authorities were telling them to stop doing something that they must do as followers of Jesus, or to do something that God says is wrong (that is, sinful). So, if the government tells you your taxes are going up, or that you aren’t allowed to raise chickens in your neighborhood, or that you can’t park wherever you feel like, you have no Biblical case to disobey.
On the other hand, if the government tells you to stop reading your Bible, or to stop participating in church, or stop telling others about Jesus, you can disobey with a clear conscience – although you should also be ready to accept the consequences of your civil disobedience. In the second category, if the government tells you to do something wrong, like murdering someone, or lying, it is appropriate to disobey the government. Again, however, don’t be surprised if you end up in trouble for it. Peter’s point is that following Jesus is worth the trouble. We do need to understand that following Jesus won’t necessarily keep us out of trouble with the government, or our bosses at work.
There’s another caveat to add. The apostles and early Christians apparently saw nothing wrong with doing what they could to avoid conflict, and even to avoid unjust punishment from the government. When a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many Christians fled from there to other areas, and that, in fact, helped the gospel to spread. In plain terms, they ran away before they could be caught and thrown into prison (Acts 8:1-3). The Bible does not condemn them for that, and in fact, seems to see it positively.
Shortly after Paul became a Christian, he began to preach in the city of Damascus. The authorities came after him, and Paul’s friends helped him escape one night by lowering him over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). So, again, this is an example of someone running away from the governing authorities, and he is not condemned for it.
One of the times Peter was imprisoned is recorded in Acts 12:1-19. The apostle James was executed. The authorities were going to kill Peter, also, but, as the church prayed for him, an angel released him from prison. I want to point out that the church did not lead an insurrection that led to Peter’s release. No, they prayed for him, and trusted God with the result. After going to the house-church and telling them he was safe, Peter hid from the authorities. The Bible never suggests that it was wrong of Peter to hide for a while after escaping from prison.
Also, whenever possible, Christians used the mechanisms of the government to get relief from persecution. Several times Paul used his Roman citizenship to force the authorities to treat him better (Acts 16:37) and give him a fair trial (Acts 21:22-29). So it isn’t wrong to dispute with the government through proper legal mechanisms.
It is important to understand these types of exceptions and qualifications. But the fact remains that, in general, we are supposed to be subject to the governing authorities. Paul too, affirmed that this is normal Christian practice (Romans 13:1-7) In teaching this, Peter and Paul were only passing on the teaching of Jesus himself. When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, he said, in no uncertain terms, that people should pay them. These taxes were manifestly unfair to start with, and were collected by corrupt people who charged extra in order to line their own pockets. But Jesus told his followers to pay them anyway, and focus instead on the kingdom of God:
13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to trap him in his words. 14 When they came, they said to him, “Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? ”(Mark 12:13-17, CSB)
15 But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought a coin. “Whose image and inscription is this? ” he asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
In a way, Jesus was saying, “The government is irrelevant. The corruption is irrelevant. None of that can stop the kingdom of God. None of that matters as much as your citizenship in heaven.”
So, the whole point behind the Christian attitude toward government is that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of God. We need to live like that, and that means that the actions of any particular government are not as important to us as our callings in God’s Kingdom.
The government when Peter wrote these verses was made up of layers of dictatorships upon dictatorships, and corruption upon corruption. The common people had very little freedom or opportunity. In other words, they put up with a lot of – [insert your own adjective] – stuff from the government, and Peter says, “obey the government anyway.”
If it is any comfort, you don’t have to like it. But the truth is, as much as I like to complain, I am still better off under the American government today than I am under any other government in the world at this time. In fact, I am better off under the American government today than I would have been in any other place in the world, at any other time in history, except possibly the American government of forty to fifty-seven years ago. (If you go back to earlier than 1964, you will find that the U.S. government legally allowed the oppression of minorities and women). So, compared to Peter, and compared to most of the population of the world throughout history, and even today, we don’t have much to complain about.
The point is though, even when we do have legitimate complaints about earthly government, our focus as followers of Jesus should be on our citizenship in heaven. Peter writes: “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom to cover up evil. Live as servants of God.” So we are free, no matter what the government does to us. And yet, even if we live in a wonderfully free society, we are bound to the Lord, and are His servants. Peter gives us the key: “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution…” We don’t submit to the government because it’s a good government. We do it for the sake of the Lord. After all, we are followers of Jesus. We should expect to live life as he did. This is the way Jesus lived with regard to the authorities:
21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.(1 Peter 2:21-23)
It is not that we expect the government to always be good and just. It is rather that we entrust ourselves to God. And even when injustice occurs (as it certainly did, in the crucifixion of Jesus) God will bring goodness, glory and grace out of it, sooner or later.
Peter also uses as an example the instance of a Roman slave who is treated unjustly. He says, to such a person, “There is something bigger here than your experience of injustice. God will deal with the injustice, and it will be sorted out in the end. In the meantime, when you suffer unjustly, it is a credit to you, and there is grace for you in following in the way of Jesus.”
We often want to make our submission conditional upon whether or not the authority we submit to is good. We’re willing to submit when we can see why it’s a good idea, or if we can see the position of the government is just. But if we think it is wrong, or unfair, we are inclined to think, “I don’t have to obey, because it isn’t just or fair.”
However, if you only submit to those authorities that you judge are good, you are left with a huge problem. Who, aside from Jesus, is truly good? You could find fault with any authority whatsoever, because all human beings are corrupted by sin. Not only that, but we are human beings, so we could not even claim that individuals should have authority over themselves, because we ourselves are also corrupted by sin, and if we are “in charge of ourselves,” so to speak, that means that we are under a corrupt authority. No, there is no legitimacy in obeying only when we think it’s fair. Again, we submit not because we approve of the government, but because of the Lord.
I say all this with a great deal of trepidation. It seems to me that the rules are rapidly changing, and the American government and institutions are rapidly pursuing a course that will result in a great deal more legal injustice, even though they claim it is in the name of justice. I think it is a very real possibility that before long I will be confronted with whether or not I can follow my own teaching in this matter. Of course, I hope it isn’t my teaching, but that of the Bible. My point is, we live in a generation where this teaching will be severely tested.
Probably within eighteen months of when Peter wrote this, Emperor Nero began a horrific persecution of Christians in Rome, the city where Peter wrote this letter. During the worst part of it, Nero had Christians tied to stakes, and then burned alive, in order to light up the palace gardens at night. This was the emperor at the time when Peter wrote: “obey the governing authorities.”
Legend has it that Peter decided to flee Rome, along with thousands of other Christians. While he was on the way, he was met by a vision of Jesus. Jesus said, “Where are you going, Peter?” Peter took that as Jesus telling him to remain in Rome, and accept the consequences. Whether or not Peter had that vision, he certainly did stay in Rome, and he was killed by the Emperor that he told his readers to obey. He absolutely put his own words into practice.
So, too, we must be prepared to accept the consequences which come, which might involve the loss of a job, or even a career. In some instances, it might involve being fined, taxed unfairly, and possibly even imprisoned. Our own property might be taken from us. We Christians have a history of peaceful resistance that spans millennia, and even today, Christians in various parts of the world are imprisoned, lose their own rightful property, and sometimes are killed, as they follow Jesus, and refuse to return violence for violence.
Again, there are clearly instances where we will have to disobey governing authorities. And again, I say that according to the Bible, this must be a peaceful disobedience, one that accepts the consequences without returning violence for violence
I have occasionally heard American Christians say things like: “If they come to take my guns, they can have them by the end that shoots the bullets.” Or, “They better bring an army when they come for my house.” Believe me, I understand the sentiments. I truly do. I feel those same feelings. It feels like there could be a time when our very freedom is at stake. But Jesus has made us different than that, better than that. Because we belong to Jesus, we are free, no matter what kind of government we live under. We can allow our property to be confiscated because we have “property” in the New Creation that can never be taken from us. Everything we have in this life is only borrowed, anyway.
Certainly, if such a thing happens to me, I will fight it by every legal and peaceful means I can employ. But in the end, the way to achieve freedom is to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. If we taught more and more people in our country to follow Jesus, political freedom would not be an issue. Even secular writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the freedom experienced by Americans was directly connected to the fact that so many Americans were Christians at that time. If you want to “fight for freedom,” live like a follower of Jesus, and encourage others to do the same. If enough people follow Jesus, government won’t be an issue. However, according to Jesus, government isn’t an issue in any case.
In the meantime the point is, I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom before and after I am a citizen of any country on earth. Obeying the government whenever I can, and peacefully disobeying when there is a conflict with following God, becomes a way to follow in the path of Jesus, and to proclaim to the world that we have found something far better than anything this world has to offer.