“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether a king … or [those] sent by him…”
It is noteworthy that Nero was emperor at the time 1 Peter was written (circa A.D. 62-69). His letter was intended to be circulated among Christians in congregations located in provinces of the Roman Empire where the imperial yoke was most severe.
Among other things the first-century Christians were accused of being disturbers of the state government. The Roman historian, Suentonius, had written that Nero’s predecessor, Claudius, had expelled the Jews from Rome because a riot instigated by a certain “Chrestos.” Suentonius was speaking about Jewish-Christian conflicts at Rome. Tacitus, another Roman historian, reported that the Christians were blamed for the burning of Rome during the reign of Nero and, in passing, stated that the name of this “insidious superstition” came from “Christus.” It was necessary therefore for the apostle Peter to settle on rules and measures of obedience to the laws and commands of civil magistrate in order to protect the reputation of Christians.
What is required of us is submission which comprises loyalty and reverence to the persons ordained by God to lead our government. These de facto governors have not been made by chance, but by the providence of God [i].
Particularly, we are to obey the king (in our case President Barack Obama). We are to extend dignity and grace to him as our head of state. We are also to honor his representatives who are the secretaries, senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, councilmen, sheriffs, deputies and all other civil authority sent by God to govern us [ii].
The reason Christians are to submit to the emperor, Peter says, is for the Lord’s sake [iii]. The civil authority is ordained by God for the good of mankind [iv]. Our Creator has required of his saints that they not only obey Him, but those earthly men sent by Him as well. Peter reminds us, as Paul did in Romans 13, that we are to honor our magistrates by possessing the best behavior among all the citizens of the land [v]. God’s people should be the best support of civil government, not a hindrance to it. Woe to that man who is rightfully convicted as a bona fide criminal but improperly ascribes his punishment as a result of his Christian affiliation [vi].
The government is ordained by God to punish criminals [vii]. Our civil leaders were appointed for the good and safety of society. When governments fail us, it is not their institution that has gone bad, but in their practice of it. The best way the civil authority can exercise their God-given powers is to punish the criminals and reward the peaceful citizens [viii]. There is no government worthy of the name which does not penalize evildoers and condemn criminals in order to protect those peaceful citizens who are under their care.
Obedience to government is a Christian responsibility for purpose of winning public debate and opinion. Christians should submit to government because it is the will of God, and by doing so, their duty and loyalty is a way to silence the malicious slanders promulgated by our critics [ix]. Peter calls these detractors “ignorant and foolish” men. A Christian must endeavor to behave himself as an effort to silence the unreasonable reproaches of the most badly informed and thoughtless people.
Peter also reminds Christians of the spiritual nature of Christian liberty. To prevent disorder and chaos, the apostle tells Christians that, yes, they are indeed free [x], but from what? – not freedom from civic duty and or obedience to God’s law, which require subjection to the government. We are indeed free from the bondage of sin and Satan[xi] and the ceremonial law [xii], but we must not make our Christian liberty a cloak for wickedness or sin or neglect of our secular civil law [xiii]. Neglect of any duty toward God or toward the Christian’s earthly superiors is rebellion against God Himself [xiv].
We must remember that we are servants, that is to say we are servants of God[xv]. All servants of Christ are the truly free men [xvi]. We are free from Satan’s dominion, the law’s condemnation, the wrath of God, and the terrors of death [xvii].
The servants of Christ ought to be very careful not to abuse their Christian liberty. They must not make it a cover for any wickedness against God or disobedience to earthly superiors. No doubt many, under the guise of Christianity, had adopted antinomian principles; it was true then, just as it is true now.
Next, Peter tells us that we should “honor all men [xviii].” We should give due respect to everyone we meet.
We should also love the brotherhood. All Christians are a fraternity, united together in Christ, alike disposed and qualified to serve God in one way or another. Christians are connected in our pursuits, having communion with one another, and ultimately going to the same home to be with our Lord and Savior. We should therefore love one another with special affection.
We should fear God with the highest reverence, duty, and submission. If this be wanting, none of the other duties can be performed as they ought.
Normally our duty to God and Caesar do not conflict, and the Christian can obey both. But the state must not be thought of as perfect in its decisions. When justice breaks down, the Christian community is obliged to voice criticism of the state’s failure and departure from its divinely ordained responsibilities. The only justifiable exception is in cases where obedience to an earthly king plainly involves disobedience to the express command of the King of kings [xix]. In these special cases a higher loyalty exists: “We must obey God rather than men!” [xx]. Governments and rulers are not to be obeyed as priests or as parents, but as civil rulers.
This does not entitle Christians to disobey the state’s authority when decisions are not to their liking either. However corrupt a government may be, God has never told us to behave indignantly toward it so as to create anarchy.
We must honor our President and his representatives with the highest respect due them.
Do not forget to pay your taxes [xxi].
[i] Romans 13:1-2
[ii] 1 Peter 2:14
[iii] 1 Peter 2:13
[iv] Romans 13:1
[v] 1 Peter 2:14
[vi] 1 Peter 4:14-15
[vii] 1 Peter 2:14; Romans 13:3-4
[viii] Romans 13:4; 1 Peter 2:14
[ix] 1 Peter 2:15
[x] 1 Peter 2:16
[xi] Romans 6:18-22
[xii] Galatians 5:1
[xiii] 1 Peter 2:16; Galatians 5:13
[xiv] Romans 13:2
[xv] Acts 16:17; 1 Peter 2:16
[xvi] John 8:36
[xvii] Eph. 2
[xviii] 1 Peter 2:17
[xix] Matt. 22:15-21
[xx] Acts 5:29
[xxi] Romans 13:7