Here is the last lesson in the series. I enjoyed teaching this at Levy over the last month.
Our last text to consider in this study is 1 Peter 2:13-17. This is an interesting text and context out of an interesting letter. Peter’s audience was not a single church. Instead he addressed his letter to…
God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:10)
As addressed, the original recipients of this letter were Christians living in various parts of the Roman Empire. The purpose of the writing was to offer encouragement and fortification for the trials they all faced, which Peter acknowledged first in 1:6. That Peter would address them as “strangers” set the agenda for the letter. He would pick up this idea again in 2:11-12 (immediately before the text of our study). Overall his teaching focused on their calling as God’s chosen people. This calling led to an understanding that the world offered no lasting home. Here Christians are just “aliens and strangers”. Peter would detail what that looked like lived out within a hostile world. One point of emphasis within this involved living in such a way to counter criticism. One way to do that would be to submit to governing authorities.
Submission to all governing authorities—specifically to kings and governors—is called upon “for the Lord’s sake.” This qualifier is significant. Remember the type of government under which these Christians lived. It was not at all favorable to Christian faith. It was often oppressive, unjust and cruel. Why submit to such an immoral governmental system? That is what God asks of his people. He asks because even such evil governments are used to “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” He asks because it is his will for his people—these strangers—to demonstrate their heavenly citizenship by “doing good” everywhere they happened to live and not to become involved in civil disobedience. Compare this text to both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-5 and there is remarkable consistency of message.
Each of these contexts (and in ours) it is taught that Christians becoming involved in rebellion against those in governmental authority would be counterproductive to the spread of the gospel of Christ. Peter further explains why it is vital for Christians to submit to their rulers—to counter criticism or as he states, “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Christians were subjects of incredible rumors and misinformation—blamed for incidents not their doing. So it was crucial for Christians to not add any fuel to the false flames. “Peaceful and quiet” lives were the apostle’s mandates.
This could be accomplished four ways:
- Showing proper respect to everyone
- Loving each other—the brotherhood of believers
- Fearing God
- Honoring the king
But what if everyone was not worthy of respect? Even in the church? What if the king was corrupt? It does not matter. This approach is coming out of a respect first of God and his will. This is all done first “for the Lord’s sake.” It is a kingdom first perspective, which takes maturity to understand and practice. Just consider the next section of teaching—to Christian slaves. They were instructed to submit, obey and respect their masters—even the “harsh” ones. Why? Because it was “commendable before God.” Why? Because “to this you were called.”
It is the same principle. Christians are not to rebel but to respect and submit to those in authority even if that authority is unjust—because in so doing the principles and message of God’s kingdom are furthered. It is exactly why Christ endured the insults and sufferings without retaliation. We benefit from his submission. Others will benefit from ours. Ultimately the kingdom of God will triumph. We have to think more broadly than just the here and now. So we honor the king (even if he is Nero), we pray for him, we do our best to live at peace with everyone by living out the kingdom values as aliens and strangers in our world. This is God’s calling and will for us.
21st CENTURY APPLICATION
So how does all of this connect to us living in a democratic form of government in the 21st century USA? To answer this—again we must remember that the NT texts were not written specifically to us or to directly answer our questions. Understanding that and doing our best to apply the teachings of these texts to our situation, here are some consistent principles to consider:
- Do our best—regardless of the type of government under which we live to submit and live at peace. Do not engage in civil disobedience or unrest. Our kingdom citizenship supersedes any earthly citizenship and living that out is paramount.
- Pay our taxes and our debts. Give no one the chance to slander Christ in this regard.
- If forced obey God rather than man—just like the apostles in Acts 5:29. But remember this still does not give permission to engage in anarchy. Persecuted Christians in the first century died not fighting but praising. Eventually their example won the world.
- We are called to “honor the king” with no qualifications—even if we do not like his politics.
- Christians can participate in the governmental process and use their rights of citizenship in peaceful and lawful ways (as Paul did—Acts 22-29) and in ways lawfully beneficial to the spread of the kingdom. Christians should not however partner with politics in any unequal way (2 Corinthians 6:14) nor should we expect the government to be “about the Father’s business.”
- The latter is our call and that is why the NT so emphasizes living as strangers and aliens; living peaceful lives that are in submission to those who govern us. It not through ballots or bullets that the kingdom of God will spread. It is through quiet and determined faith lived out—consistently upholding the values of God’s kingdom.
God’s call is unchanged regardless of the type of governmental system under which we live. Live first the kingdom of God. Be the best citizen possible in demonstrating what it means to be first a citizen of heaven.