Photo Credit: Greg Southam / Postmedia in The Edmonton Journal
Ever since writing on the harm of endless masking, teaching on the limits of Romans 13 (see here, here, and here), and considering how Levitical instructions about quarantine laws might help us think wisely about social distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve received numerous emails expressing deep sorrow for the ways churches have responded to Covid-19. With any such email, I always want to affirm the authority of the local church and her elders, as well as admitting the challenges faced by every church and my inability to speak to the inner workings of another church’s decisions. The problems our church faces are the not the problems that your church faces, and vice versa. Still, across the board, it does seem that one abiding problem that divides many evangelicals is how they understand passages that instruct obedience to governing authorities.
Most recently, a brother asked if our church had preached on 1 Peter 2:13–17. To date, we have not, but going through 1 Peter right now, we will—this weekend, in fact. Thus, leading up to that message, I want to consider again how that passage teaches us to think about the Christian’s obligation to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (see Mark 12:17), or as Peter puts it, to submit to every governing authority (v. 13) and to honor the emperor (v. 17).
Notably, Peter’s instructions are set in a context quite different than Christians in North America, and his words arise from an historical letter, the context of which we must remember in order to get the sense of his instructions regarding the state. So before making five points from the text, let me make a couple preliminary remarks.
Four Notes About the Context of 1 Peter
First, Peter addresses emperors and various governors. Obviously, we do not have emperors, but elected officials. So we must make applications accordingly, including the fact that in a democratic republic the people play a role in governance.
Second, we currently do not have the threat of persecution like the early church did, but neither do we possess the freedoms that we once did to exercise our faith without concern. James Coates’ arrest, the ongoing intimidation tactics of Canada’s health officials (see photo above), the meddling of governors instructing churches how to order their worship, and the need for the Supreme Court to weigh in on churches gathering (see here and here) remind us that religious liberty is on shaky ground.
Third, the command to submit to authorities comes in a letter where the supreme authority of Christ is repeated throughout (see esp., 1 Pet. 4:11; 5:11). Christ’s authority relativizes the commands that Peter gives. Peter doesn’t discount obedience to the state, but his letter does orient the church to Christ’s greater authority. The details of this (re)orientation will be outlined below.
Fourth and last, the persecution of the church in 1 Peter assumes a conflict between church and state. In other words, when the Gentiles slander the church, it will include the Gentiles who lord it over the church and exercise authority in ways that contradict the laws of God. For this reason, it is impossible to read 1 Peter 2:13–17 and draw the unqualified application that doing good is doing whatever the governing authorities say. Rather, as we will see, doing good starts with God. And all obedience to earthly governors must be in keeping with our heavenly citizenship and eternal king. To that end, let’s consider five truths from 1 Peter 2:13–17. Today I will focus on 1 Peter 2:13 and the first and most important truth—Putting God First. Tomorrow I will fill in the details from 1 Peter 2:14–17. Until, let’s consider the main overarching truth.
The Main Truth: Put God First
Notice how 1 Peter 2:13 begins. The command “be subject” is motivated by honoring the Lord. The reason Peter gives us for subjecting ourselves to governors is “for the Lord’s sake.” This means we must obey God’s political servants (Rom. 13:4) when we do not want to, but it also means that we must not obey governors when those governors are misapplying, misusing, or abusing their authorities. To borrow an example from marriage (see 1 Peter 3:1–7; cf. Ephesians 5:22–33), God calls wives to submit to their husbands, even unbelieving husbands. But such submission is not exhaustive. When the husband—Christian or non-Christian—demands or desires a wife to sin, she is obligated to God to *not* submit to her husband. If the husband demands submission based upon one of these verses, he is out of line, because he is directly opposing God.
This analogy also carries over to matters of conscience. Though this is more subjective, it would be inappropriate for a husband to demand his wife to violate her conscience, even if an action did not violate his. In such an instance, for sake of the Lord and for the sake of her conscience before the Lord, the wife should not violate her conscience to obey her husband. At a small scale (i.e., in the marriage), this principle is easily seen. At least, it is more easily seen than when we move to the state. But the principle is applies at the state level too. The state has no right to invoke 1 Peter 2:13ff. to coerce submission to the state, when its governing authorities are leading people to sin or to violate conscience.
Applied historically, many nations have shown no regard for the religious scruples of their citizens. Just think about all those governments who have attempted various forms of Marxism. The result has never been good—God’s people have suffered and hundreds of millions have died. (The Black Book of Communism puts the number around 100 Million in the last 100 years). By contrast, America, which until recently has eschewed socialism (which is the JV team for Communism), has upheld a principle of religious liberty since 1789. Even more, it is a freedom that has been “recognized,” not given. Because the world and its governors live in God’s world, just governments recognize the laws of the universe and its Creator. This is one of the ways America set itself apart from other countries, when it submitted itself to a higher power.
Today, such acknowledgement of God has been lost by our culture; it has been lost by our educators; and it has been lost by our governing authorities. For that reason, it should not come as a surprise when our governing authorities command us to obey them with little to no regard for our religious convictions or principles of conscience. A healthy sense of individualism, especially during a time of endless emergency, has been rescinded in this last year. And thus, Christians are being asked to serve the government in ways unprecedented. And sadly, because many Christian leaders are almost entirely unfamiliar with Christian resistance theory, they go along with the government and use passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 prod Christians along.
The problem with this way of thinking, prodding, and living is that it fails to keep God first. Instead, it takes a facile reading of Scripture and tells anxious Christians that faithfulness means obeying the government and doing all the government says. But this sort of encouragement is of a piece with the insensitive pastor who tells the battered wife, you should submit to your husband because Scripture says so. Of course Scripture says so, but pastors worth their salt will also be able to know when to tell a wife “flee from your abusive husband” and “do not submit to your husband.”
At the level of the state, faithful pastors must do the same. We need pastors who not only read the Scriptures, but know how to apply them today. We need to be faithful exegetes of Scripture and of culture. And if our governing authorities are exercising powers that are not theirs, or if they are concocting a battery of Covid Regulations that result in the church not gathering, not singing, not showing hospitality, etc.—all of which are divine commands—then pastors need to show their people how obedience to God leads them to contend for the faith against their governing authorities. Church history, and the Bible too, are filled with faithful Christians who have put God first, and we must learn to do the same. That’s the first thing we need to see from 1 Peter 2:13, that we are to be a people who put God first and obey governing authorities for his sake.
Tomorrow we will take up the next four points from 1 Peter 2:13–17. But this is a good start. Don’t assume that blind obedience to government is what Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 teach. Instead, put God first, do what is good according to God’s good word, and in a country like America, do your part to hold the governing authorities to do good. This means submitting and being obedient to the good laws of our land, but because there is a greater Governor, it may also mean wise and winsome resistance when doing good conflicts with earthly laws of law givers. We will pick this up tomorrow, but for today, let us vow to put God first.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds