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. Continue reading