In obedience to God, we gather and sing and testify to the risen Lord.
Yesterday, I began a two-part series on 1 Peter 2:13–17. I am trying to answer the question, What does submitting to governing authorities looks like? Especially, what does submitting to governing authorities look like when they are ruling in ways that oppose God and God’s Word? Previously, I have tackled this subject in Romans 13 (see here, here, and here),, but now I am considering the text of 1 Peter 2.
Yesterday, I began by parsing out the fact that submitting to governors means putting God first and obeying earthly rulers as an application of obeying God. Conversely, we do not define doing good as obedience to our governors (full stop). Rather, we are called to consider what the good is from the unchanging and ever-authoritative Word of God. Then, in obedience to God, we promote the good by obeying good laws. And lest it go unsaid, the goodness of the law is decided by God’s standards, not my personal preferences. I am not advocating a hedonistic approach to ethics: “Just do what feels good.” No, we must obey laws that pinch our desires. That being said, to do the good we will at times need to resist tyrants when they enforce laws, rules, and regulations that directly defy the commands of Scripture or lead us to violate our conscience in following God.
That’s where this argument started yesterday. We must put God first. Today, I will flesh out the idea of God’s preeminence by looking in more detail at 1 Peter 2:13–17. In his letter to the elect exiles of Asia Minor, Peter has much to say about obeying the emperor and governors. And when we read his words in the context of his whole letter, and apply them to our own situations, we will gain much wisdom for walking well with the Lord. To that end, let’s look at five truths about obeying God and obeying God’s servants.
1. Put God First
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, . . .
2. Learn Your Branches of Government
. . . whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. . . .
In Peter’s letter, he addresses the governing structures of his first century, Roman world. Accordingly, he identifies two levels of government in verses 13–14—the emperor and the governors. This division of government reflects his world, not ours. In our day, in America, we have elected officials, arranged in a multitude of directions. First, there are federal, state, and local officers and entities. Second, there are executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal and state levels. And third, there are various organizations and individuals who are deputized by the state to carry out various functions. We could go further, but you get the point.
What does this all mean for Christians who are seeking to obey their authorities? It means learning the various functions and boundaries of these authorities. In practice, it means recognizing your right as a citizen to ask health officials to leave when they don’t have a warrant. It also means recognizing how executive orders relate to state and federal laws. Only in a state of emergency, does the executive have the power to institute binding regulations. But when a state of emergency moves from “15 days to flatten the curve” to masks ad infinitum, and those regulations infringe upon constitutional rights (like the right to peaceably assemble), we must ask, “By what authority does the governor speak and act?”
Asking such questions is not civil disobedience; it is our civil duty in a constitutional republic. Unlike Rome, our governors are not masters over the people; they are servants of the people. If we lived in an empire like modern day China or Europe in the middle ages, when the divine right of kings ruled, we would have to approach this differently. Yet, because we live in a country informed by Christian resistance theory, i.e., resistance to tyrants, we have a different starting place for religious liberty. But this depends upon knowing something of how our government works, and then, like Paul making use of our citizenship for the sake of the gospel (see Acts 16:37ff.).
In decades past, when pastors and churches were well-received in public spaces, knowledge of the laws was helpful, but not as necessary. Today, however, Christians and especially pastors need to know their rights and the rights of their governors. If governing authorities, who are “ministers of God” (Rom. 13:4), are acting in ways that overreach their office, who is going to tell them? Only those who have the Word of God can rightly discern what is good and evil, and thus if the governing authorities are enforcing policies that are not good, as God defines it, then Christians must with wisdom and winsomeness speak to the error of those policies, but this depends upon having a growing sense of what is good, as defined by the Lord—which is the next truth to consider.
3. Know the Good and Do It
15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
If we must know the “branches” of our government in order to apply God’s Word, we have a greater need to know what God’s Word defines as good. In 1 Peter 2:15, we find such a command to do good, and we need to think carefully about what Peter is saying.
In the text itself, there is no grammatical imperative in v. 15. Nevertheless, the mention of God’s will raises the verse to the level of a command: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put people to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” The implicit command is that God’s people would do good. This follows verse 14 which describes the role of governors to punish evil and praise good. As I have written elsewhere, governors are the defenders of good and the punishers of evil. Still, they are not permitted to define good and evil as they desire. Only God is able to define good and evil. And rulers are good or evil to the degree that their rule corresponds to God’s standards of good and evil.
At the same time, Christians living in any nation should not be ultimately motivated by doing the good prescribed by their governors. Because they serve a greater king, goodness is motivated by what God and his holy Word. When a governor esteems what is truly good, the Christian will find himself in a happy state. Taught by God to love the good, and empowered by the Spirit to do the good, the Christian’s life of goodness will be praised by a good governor. At the same time, in a good governor will take pains to eliminate the threat of evil (see Psalm 101). Because human governors are finite and fallible, he will not perfectly succeed in this endeavor, nor act without some measure of inconsistency. But a blameless governor will promote the good and punish the bad, in a way that corresponds to the standards justice that come down from God himself.
But what happens when a Christian, discipled by Christ himself in the things of God, is deemed evil by the state? Today, Christians are being deemed hateful for their views on sexuality and marriage and hurtful because of the way they have thrown in their lot with political enterprises that challenge the rise of wokeness. In short, whereas American values once afforded a place for Christians, that place seems to slipping. And this is where 1 Peter 2:15 comes in. Our goodness is not defined by what our governing authorities say; it is defined by God. And when our governors contradict God, our goodness will be perceived as evil and a threat. Such a contrast in goodness will feel disorienting, but it is not novel, nor should it be unexpected.
Disapproval for doing good should be expected. But this also means we should learn to seek God’s goodness not by looking to our governors, but by looking to God. We can be thankful for the many faithful judges, congressman, and executives we have in America. But not all governing officials, states, or judges are equal in their justice. Hence, we should learn to good based upon God’s Word. And we should trust that God himself will defend us, and put to silence his enemies, when they stand against us and the good we seek to carry out.
In fact, one of the greatest ways God silences his opponents is through the public suffering of his people. That is to say, when the court of public opinion sees God’s people suffering unjustly for doing good, they will often side with the goodness of the Lord. Even more, when the world defines good as evil and evil as good, sometimes it is only in the suffering of God’s good saints that the world will take notice. This is not universally true, but countless are the times when awakenings have come through the suffering of God’s people. But such suffering cannot and will not occur if Christians always and only do what the governing authorities say.
Even more, when Christian leaders attempt to win the culture by playing by all the rules of the culture, instead of resolutely standing for Christ, come what may, they actually fail to stand for Christ. Sometimes the only way to stand for Christ is to publicly disagree with those in power. This is what 1 Peter is all about, and thus it cannot be that in 1 Peter 2:13–17 the posture of the good citizen is unquestioned obedience to the state. Instead, as Peter says later in 1 Peter 4:15–16, suffering as a Christian is a call to avoid all evil—things like murder, theft, and meddling. Even Peter’s living testimony is one that calls Christians to stand up and stand out against tyrants, for Peter himself was arrested for disobeying the governors of Jerusalem. Thus, it is unlikely his instructions give us permission to just go along to get along. Rather, Peter is saying we must know the good and do it.
Today, we live at a time when Christians are having to think hard about how to obey God. For generations in America, obeying God meant obeying the laws of our country. But now, as laws change with respect to marriage, sexual orientation, and transgenderism, we are finding ourselves out of step with the laws. More immediately, the Covid Regulations have trained Christians “for the sake of the public good” to discontinue gathering, singing, or greeting one another with a holy kiss. Since we never took that last one seriously anyways, or the doctrine of enfacement (i.e., a subset of the doctrine of the body), few have balked at these regulations. But this only sets us up for failing to stand for Christ when the pressures deepen. Today, we must learn from God what good and evil are, and we must be willing to be good, even when the world says we are not.
In recent months, few examples have been more faithful than James Coates, the Canadian pastor arrested for gathering his church to worship. Sadly, this pastor has also been questioned and maligned by Christians who have advocated a policy of sheltering at home and waiting for government to communicate the all clear. The problem with this is that such a policy of following the government actually commits Christians to a halfway house between Christ and Caesar. And what 1 Peter 2:13ff. is clearly not saying is to do good if the government permits it. Reading it that way overturns the whole Christian life. Instead, we must learn to do good from God; we must pray for God to grant us peace to carry out good in our world (see 1 Tim. 2:1–4); and when God doesn’t grant peace with our governors, then we must follow Christ knowing that he said, “I did not come to bring peace but division” (Luke 12:51 paraphrase). Peace with the government is not our top priority, proclaiming the Prince of Peace is. When we get that right, we will be in the best place to serve God, our neighbors, and live freely.
4. Live Free, Truly Free
16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
After telling Christians that doing good is God’s will, Peter next commands, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Once again, we must eschew a facile reading of this verse, assuming that the freedom Peter describes here means avoiding government censure, cultural disapproval, or even jail time.
To return to James Coates, the pastor arrested for preaching during the “pandemic,” his church is currently encircled by not one, but two, sets of metal fences. Clearly, his call to gather God’s people to worship God is not”good” in the eyes of his governors and many of his neighbors. Yet, this is exactly the point. The call to live freely is not a call to live such that there are no consequences or run-ins with the government. The call to live freely has to do with living in the freedom that comes from God’s redemption.
In the context of 1 Peter 1–2, the command to live freely comes after Peter defines freedom in 1 Peter 1:18. Consider both texts together.
1 Peter 1:18. . . . knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,
1 Peter 2:16. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
The call to live freely in 1 Peter 2:16 relates to doing good and not being enslaved to the futile ways that fathers (or mothers) passed down to their children (1 Peter 1:18). As Peter puts it, we must not use our freedom from sin to sin; we must use our freedom in Christ to serve God. This is the message of holiness that Peter began to unfold in 1:13–17 and has continued in 1 Peter 2:1–3, 11–12. Importantly, this call to serve God in holiness goes beyond anything legislated by earthly rulers. In other words, if a servant of God lives in a country where the governors are just, the governing authorities will recognize that the goodness of the disciple is a blessing to the nation and not a curse. This is why verse 14 says those good governors will praise and not punish God’s servants. But the object of the disciple is God and his standard, not the earthly rulers and their standards.
And the reason why this matters so much is that human rulers err in their judgments, especially when they begin overstepping their God-given authority or contravening the commandments of God. The point to be made here is that freedom is not something that governors grant; freedom is what God grants. And this freedom stems from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In America, the freedoms we have historically enjoyed come downstream from a Christian view of the world. No, the Founders were not confessional Christians, but they did affirm the providence of a Creator God and the wickedness of man which needed to be checked. Even in times and places where slavery was enacted into law, it stood against the principles upon which this country was founded, principles that go back to God and the image of God. In fact, it was those principles of freedom that ultimately gave strength to the Abolition and Civil Rights movements.
Today, such principles of freedom are being abandoned. And in their place come an eager set of rulers and rule-makers who promise to keep their citizens safe and secure, as long as the citizens relinquish their freedoms to the state. The problem with such an approach, if it is possible to narrow it to just one, is that governors do not have absolute power to grant life and protection; only God does (Ps. 118:8–9). Likewise, the only tool God has given the state is the sword (Rom. 13:). This tool does really well to eliminate evildoers and protect the innocent. But it does little good to cultivate good or enact mercy. Thus, when states attempt to be the all-powerful benefactor, it will have to steal from others in order to have materials to bless others. (On this point, see The Law by Frederic Bastiat).
An example of this is the current state of affairs is Alberta, where in the name of public safety Grace Life Church is cut off by the government. In an effort to protect the people from the pandemic, Alberta officials have destroyed the freedoms of their citizens and hindered this church’s ability to worship. At the same time, whether the citizens of Alberta recognize it or not, this action taken against this church results in a society that is neither free nor good. Sadly, too many Christian leaders miss this and remain silent. Or worse, they keep championing vaccines, masks, and social distance, without acknowledging the overreach of the government.
Thankfully, Grace Life Church has not missed this, and in their public statement, dated February 7 (updated on February 16), they write,
“By the time the so-called “pandemic” is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent,” said church leaders. “As such, we believe love for our neighbor demands that we exercise our civil liberties.”
This is a critical truth bold Christians need to reclaim. The Covid-19 regulations are not just rules attempting to keep the world safe, they are also rules systematically eliminating societal freedoms and personal liberties—not to mention the way that they are training Christians to be anxious and to seek shelter in modern medicine more than Christ. Yes, modern medicine is a gift of common grace. But such gifts are the best idols. And the effects masks, to take one example, is far more negative than positive.
Following a cocktail of safety measures, many have become beholden to Big Brothers’ promises of protection, instead of resting securely in providence of God and the resurrection life of Christ. Have we forgotten that sin leads to death, that all die, and that the leaders of our world—the ones offering safety in medicine—are looking for ways to manufacture eternal life? We live in a divinely cursed, disease-ridden world, and Christians should be the ones who proclaim a distinct message of salvation and life.
But it seems in these strange days, many are content to follow the state without hesitation. Yet, what kind of freedom is the state offering? Is it worth shelving your assembly with God’s people at church for a year or more? Will there ever be a “normal,” now that the state has learned it owns your face and can shut down all sectors of life for a disease that is real, but far less deadly than first projected? This are questions we need to consider and to consider in comparison to the freedom that Christ offers and gives to those who are redeemed from the futile ways of their fathers. (Again, I still maintain an approach like that outline in the Great Barrington Declaration is far wiser and compassionate).
Concluding this point on living truly free, our brethren in Canada remind us that the greatest way we can love our neighbors is not going along with everything the government requires. Instead, by exercising civil liberties (as long as we have them) and calling the lost to gather and hear the only message of safety (read: salvation) and life, we are loving our neighbors as Christ has commanded us. Grace Life Church has done this well. May we who are not being threatened with jail and fences follow their lead. And may we live freely, not as servants of the state, but servants of God.
5. Be Wise As Serpents, Innocent as Doves
17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
The last thing Peter says is to honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the emperor (v. 17). I don’t know if this last verse is meant to be chiastic, but if it is, we find the great commandment (love God and love others), encircled by the commandment to honor everyone, even the governor. A full exposition of this passage would engage each of these imperatives, but for now I will take them together and offer three few points of application.
First, the command to fear God stands as the source and center of this section. As I have noted, we must put God first. And thus our love of the brotherhood and our honoring others, including the emperor must be carried out in light of this greater command—to fear, obey, and worship God. While the best of us live inconsistently, if we were to fear God perfectly, it would result in loving the brotherhood and honoring others as they deserve. For now, we can simply say that we must fear God and not man, for if we fear man we will not be able to serve God. Moreover, we must fear doing anything that would pull us away from God. Thus, if the government calls us to avoid the means of grace in corporate worship, we must resist such tyranny, and find ways—however creative (see the picture above)—to gather God’s people.
Second, just as we must learn the branches of our government, we must also learn how to treat others in whatever condition we find them (1 Thess. 5:14). This begins by loving those who are in Christ in a way that is distinct from the world. While Scripture calls us to love our enemies, that love does not obligate us to our opponents, like Christ’s redemption obligates us to those in Christ. Thus, as we consider how engage the world, we should prioritize the church and love the brotherhood. This means that to fulfill our calling as Christians we cannot give up meeting together (Heb. 10:24–25), nor give up the one another commands.
As George Lawson has observed, the disbanding of the church eliminates over forty “one another” commands. These commands are not restricted to the church, but the church is the place where they thrive. And thus to obey the command to love the brotherhood, we must continue to gather with one another. And this regular gathering of God’s people, as I have argued, makes endless masking impossible for those who are called to face to face fellowship, personal hospitality, encouragement, and all the other love commands in Romans 12. Put all this together, and when governing agencies who are controlled by political narratives tell us—for more than a year!!—not to gather, to not greet one another with a holy [hug], to see one another’s faces, we must obey God not man.
Third, we are to honor the emperor and everyone else. But such honor must be genuine and not contrived. In other words, we are not called to flatter the dishonorable or call an evil ruler good. We are to respect his office and to look for ways to commend those who serve in office. But as Paul tells us, we are to give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7) And this means we are to give honor in due proportion. Thus, when a ruler serves well, we should acknowledge it and give honor. Yet, notice the difference in language. We are not called to fear the ruler—at least, not in the way we fear God. Rather, with a heart that fears God we are to give honor. This means that we should actually fear giving honor to the dishonorable, because one day we will give an account to God for whom we honor on earth. And applied again to our current day, one way we fear God is by calling out those rulers who refuse to fear God. We don’t have to do this with ugliness, but we must do it with boldness. And this calls for wisdom.
Because we live in a complicated world, how we engage our governors, neighbors, and church members will require a variegated approach that is regulated by God’s Word. Scripture is sufficient for this complexity, but we must be wholly devoted to Scripture and saturated with its wisdom. When we do that, we will find ourselves becoming more like our Lord and less like our world. And the more our world rejects God, the more opposition we will face for fearing God and not man. Yet, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10), and thus we begin and end with this truth: Put God first! Wisdom is found in seeking first Christ’s kingdom and his righteousness. And the only way we will love our neighbor and obey our rulers righteously is by obeying God first, most, and forever.
Seek First the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness
To that end, may we continue to saturate ourselves with Scripture and learn how to read and apply passages like 1 Peter 2:13–17. It certainly calls us to obey those whom God has put in authority, but this obedience is always and only obeyed for the Lord’s sake. And for the Lord’s sake, let us grow up and learn how to understand and apply 1 Peter 2. Only infants or the deceived will do whatever the governor says, no matter what. Yet, those who have been trained by God’s Word to discern good and evil will know when to obey Caesar and when to resist. Both imperatives are present in this passage.
May God help us in that endeavor and may God give us boldness to stand for the good in a world chasing evil.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds