Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:11-17)
I’m really excited to write about this passage. For those of you that know me well, I love exploring the topics of Christianity and Politics and how they affect one another. It’s something I constantly think about. I know that when I mention a sensitive subject like this, there’s going to be many different attitudes and views, and like me, some of you are going to be very passionate about those views. Whatever political perspective you are coming from, I want to challenge you to think about a few things today. How is your witness as a Christian affected by your attitude towards government or towards authority in general? How are your interactions with those authorities reflecting the identity which Christ gives to us? Are they an outworking of Christ’s calling on us to be holy?
Specifically, when it comes to attitudes towards government, there are 3 attitudes I want to challenge: Passivity, Cynicism, and Rebellion. Passivity is the attitude which says, “I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me.” Cynicism is the “what I do doesn’t matter” or “everything is corrupt, so why bother” attitude. Rebellion is the “I won’t be subject to anyone” or “I will not submit” attitude. These attitudes are very common today, especially among my generation (Millennials), but, as I will demonstrate, none of these attitudes are in keeping with our identity as Christians.
As a side note, I also want to assure those of you who are already skeptical of my motives: my goal is not to promote a political agenda. I want to faithfully teach this passage as Peter wrote it. Peter did not write this to promote a political agenda but to promote holy living in a darkened world. That is going to be my focus as well. Naturally, due to the nature of the subject, there are going to be political themes and topics that come up. That can’t be avoided, nor do I think they should be avoided. But I want to maintain the same message which Peter is trying to put forth. That message, which you are going to hear me repeat, is this: Let your identity in Christ dictate your conduct.
Peter was writing this so that we would lead holy, honorable lives in a corrupt world, and that by doing so, we would be salt and light to the world so that the gospel can be proclaimed by our actions and that God would be glorified through our conduct in how we interact with the governing authorities.
Knowing our Identity and Calling
With that being said, turn to 1 Peter 2:11. First, let’s review the context of this passage. Peter begins this book by declaring the greatness of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation they brought to us, causing us to be born again to a living hope (1:3). He then links our salvation with God’s calling for us to be holy and obedient because we were ransomed from the futility of our former ways (1:18). He then roots this call to holiness in our identity in Christ, calling us a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession so that we may proclaim God’s excellencies (2:9). And then in chapter 2, verses 11-12, we come to a pivot point where Peter shifts from establishing our identity and calling in Christ to addressing examples of how those things play out practically, specifically in situations where a Christian should submit to authority. He gives 3 different examples in which a Christian should submit to authority, even if they were to suffer unjustly under that authority: a Christian under government, a slave under a master, and a wife under a husband. In each case, Peter’s command is the same: Be subject for Lord’s sake.
Now getting into the passage itself, we start with verse 11. Verses 11-12 serve as topic sentences for why we are called to be subject. Peter again starts by addressing our identity in Christ.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
Verse 11 refers to us as sojourners and exiles. The words sojourner and exile in the Greek simply are referring to someone who is either staying or living in a foreign country. Now why would Peter refer to us in this way? It is because as Christians, our true home and identity is in heaven with God. Our citizenship is not here on earth but with our King in heaven. This is clearly stated in Philippians 3:20-21.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)
How does this concept work itself out practically? By letting your identity in Christ dictate your conduct. Having this knowledge of our heavenly citizenship should cause our behavior to change. Having a heavenly citizenship means that we look upward and set our minds on heavenly things, and we also look forward to the future return of our King. When we do this, this leads us to abstain from the passions of our flesh which wage war against our souls. Do you realize that we are in a battlefield every day as a Christian? That Satan wants to destroy you? That the very world we live in, even the flesh in which we dwell, fight against us and set themselves against us? We live in a hostile environment on earth because, as Christians, we are no longer of this world, but of heaven, where our citizenship lies. But our calling, while we are in this hostile environment, is to be holy because our identity is in Christ, who is himself holy. This is not simply for our own sake, but also for the sake of others and for the world, like we see in verse 12.
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)
You’re going to hear that word ‘honor’ mentioned a lot in this passage. What does it mean to have honorable conduct? Honor is defined by Webster’s (1828) as, “The esteem due or paid to worth.” Worth meaning, that of which they are worthy. (The word “worthy” comes from the word “worth”). In other words, according to that person’s value, title, or authority, we are to give them the appropriate and corresponding esteem, reverence, submission, love, or fear.
Now why do we do this? As Peter writes, “So that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Acting honorably towards those in authority is a critical component of conducting ourselves in a holy manner. Remember from 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are ambassadors for Christ. (This also points to the theme of our heavenly citizenship because an ambassador is a country’s representative to a foreign land.) As ambassadors for Christ, the world will judge Christ according to our conduct. As unfair to God as that is, that’s the way it works. This makes it all the more important to keep our conduct both holy and honorable, so that nonbelievers who see us will see Jesus through our conduct and perhaps come to have salvation through Jesus, glorifying God in that process. Even those who would stand opposed to us and throw false accusations against us will be put to shame because our conduct will not match their accusations, and as such those accusations will fall on deaf ears. But if we act dishonorably towards those in authority, what will the world think of that? Let’s not forget that God is the greatest authority of all. If we cannot show honor towards lesser authorities here on earth, or show honor even to one another, will the world believe us when we talk of honoring God?
This is the core message of this passage: Let your identity in Christ dictate your conduct. Your conduct, therefore, ought to be holy and honorable towards those in authority because your conduct will reflect not only your attitude towards the authority of God, but, as God’s representatives, your conduct will also be judged by the world as being reflective of God’s character. We are called to represent him faithfully.
Submission to Government
Now that we’ve established the core message of the passage, let’s move on to verses 13-14.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Without a doubt, the most common objection I’m going to hear to what I am teaching is on the subject of submission to bad or evil authority. How are we to give honor and be subject to those who do not deserve it or do not act honorably themselves? Would God really call us to submit to a tyrannical government or some other malicious authority?
To answer this, we need to establish what authority is. Webster’s defines it as, “Legal power, or a right to command or to act.” In other words, authority is the right to tell others what to do, or the right to do something yourself. If you have authority to do something, you have the justification to do something.
Now, I’m going to read a passage from a book 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxis in which he talks about the decline of the concept of authority in our culture today. He sets this up in his introduction by describing how, historically, heroes have been very important to a culture. Heroes give the upcoming generation something to emulate and aim for. But our culture today lacks heroes. He attributes this, in part, to events like the Vietnam War and Watergate, in which trusted institutions like the government and the President acted in an untrustworthy manner and came under intense scrutiny as a result. Since that time, all our leaders have been held in a deep suspicion, and we’ve tended to focus more on a person’s faults and failures rather than the good they have accomplished. With historical figures like George Washington and Christopher Columbus, instead of focusing on the good they accomplished, we now focus on their personal faults and failures. Even today, every negative soundbite of a TV preacher will be heard far more often than the good things he’s said over the years. In a climate like that, it’s difficult to have heroes. He continues,
“So the very idea of legitimate authority has been damaged. Since I was a kid in the seventies, we have had bumper stickers that said ‘Question Authority.’ But this didn’t just mean we should question whether authority is legitimate, which would be a good idea. No, it seemed to me to go beyond that. It seemed to say that we should question the very idea of authority itself. So you could say that we’ve gone all the way from foolishly accepting all authority to foolishly rejecting all authority. We’ve gone from the extreme of being naïve to the other extreme of being cynical. The golden mean, where we would question authority in order to determine whether it is legitimate, was passed by entirely. We have fled from one icy pole to the other, missing the equator altogether. We are like the person who was so wounded by a betrayal of the opposite sex that he no longer trusts anyone of that sex. Instead of looking for someone who is trustworthy, we’ve entirely dispensed with the idea of trustworthiness. No one is trustworthy.”
This idea of legitimate authority is very important, and it has been lost in my generation. Too many of us today have become so cynical to the idea of authority, that we no longer believe that legitimate authorities exist. Those in authority today unfortunately are subject to the 24 hour news cycle, in which every wrong thing a person ever says or does is highlighted on a repetitive loop until it virtually becomes all that the public ever hears or talks about. I’m not saying we should be uninformed of those negative things that do happen, but our culture has fixated on them to the point where it has changed our views on authority in a way that is unbiblical.
To explore this idea of legitimate authority more thoroughly, let’s turn to Romans, chapter 13. In verses 1-2, it states,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
Now what do we immediately learn from these verses about authority? We learn that there is no authority except from God (also see Psalms 62:11) and as a result, those authorities that do exist have been instituted by God. So it follows that government, as an institution, has been established by God, but it can also include authorities such as your employer, church leaders, and your parents.
So what about governments which are evil and act against God? Does God institute those? The short answer is that God does establish government in general and gives it authority to act; however it does not mean that God condones all actions they take with that authority.
To answer that question properly, we have to distinguish between the concept of government in general and particular cases of government. Simply having many particular cases of bad government does not necessarily make government itself an inherently bad institution. In fact, government as a general concept, according to Scripture, is an authority which God has established for our good. This is attested to in Romans and 1 Peter.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)
… or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:14)
These two verses together form the Biblical purpose for government: Government is established by God for the purpose of praising good and punishing evil. As such, it is very important that government understands what good and evil really are. When government establishes laws that are in accordance with God’s law, then they fulfill their purpose. When government establishes laws that are contrary to God’s law, they deviate from their established purpose. So, if government is acting according to that purpose, we are called to be subject to them, for they are established by God for our good. And we see this attested to in verses 5-7 of Romans 13 as well.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:5-7)
So what of the particular cases of government that does not fulfill its purpose? Are we still called to be subject to them? The answer is this: So long as they do not cause you to be disobedient to God, we are called to be subject to them. We, as Christians, are ultimately subject to God before anything else, so in the case that we receive two conflicting commands from God and government, God takes precedence. There are few notable examples of this occurring in the Bible.
One example is Daniel. In the book of Daniel, chapter 6, Daniel is living as one of three high government officials under King Darius. Daniel did very well in that position, serving Darius and remaining faithful to God. As such, his competitors grew jealous and plotted against him. They knew the only way they could depose him would be to make his worship of God conflict with the king or the law. They devised a plan to make the king pass an irrevocable law that prohibited worship of anything other than the king for thirty days. Daniel was in the habit of praying and worshipping God three times a day; so you could see how these would conflict. But when the law was passed and decreed by the king, what was Daniel’s response? He disregarded the law and continued to pray three times a day to God as he had always done. As a consequence, he was thrown into the lion’s den, where God shuts the mouths of the lions and delivers Daniel. There we see a perfect example of an occasion where obedience to God took precedence over obedience to the governing authorities because obeying the governing authorities would mean disobeying God.
One other example comes from the book of Acts. In chapter 5, Peter and other apostles were arrested for preaching the gospel and thrown in jail. An angel of the Lord unlocks the jail and tells them to go to the temple and continue preaching. They were again brought before the religious authorities, who ordered them not to preach the gospel. Their response in verse 30 was, “We must obey God rather than men.” Here, God again took precedence over obedience to the established human institutions. There is a time to disobey the governing authorities for sake of obedience to God, but ultimately, God still calls us to be subject to the governing authorities in all other situations. Now I admit this leaves a lot of gray area. What really constitutes a true conflict between God’s law and the laws of the land? It could be very tempting to stretch that exception farther than it should. It can also go the opposite direction as well, where we cower to government authority for fear of the consequences when God has called us to take a stand. Each situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis through prayer and searching the Scriptures.
When we talk about this, it’s important to note the context of 1 Peter and Romans. Peter and Paul both wrote to a completely different political situation today than we live in. They wrote to Jewish and Gentile Christians who were in the minority and had very little influence or impact on the governings of the Roman Empire. 1 Peter and Romans were written during the reign of Nero, who was well known for his torture and persecution of Christians. Yet we still see Peter and Paul calling the church to be subject to that governing authority for the Lord’s sake. So while the basic truths are the same, how these principles would apply back then would be different than how we apply them today to our situation.
So how do they apply to our context today in the United States of America? We are very lucky to live in the United States. For all its faults that we complain about, we have it good here when we compare it to governments that have existed both today and throughout history. History is replete with examples of tyrannical and corrupt governments. The kind of government we have today is bar none an exception to the rule both in its structure and its practice. For the most part, we have freedoms and rights that the majority of people on this earth are not afforded. We, the people, have the right to vote to elect representatives that govern on our behalf. We have rights guaranteed under the Constitution that no law is supposed to violate. Our government is structured in such a way where power is divided to help prevent one group of people from becoming too powerful over the others. These freedoms and many others have led to great prosperity in this country.
How are we today as Americans and as Christians supposed to interact with our own government? If you remember, I mentioned 3 attitudes toward government that I wished to challenge. They were passivity, cynicism, and rebellion.
Passivity is the attitude which says, “I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me.” That is a bold faced lie. The actions of the government directly affect you on a day to day basis, even if you don’t realize it. It determines how much money you pay in taxes, how fast you can drive on the roads, what kinds of foods and medicines you can consume, the size of your toilet bowls, whether you need a permit to have a bible study in your own home, or even whether you can sell lemonade from your front lawn. It is involved in matters of morality, being able to determine the legal definition of marriage, whether prostitution is illegal or not, or whether certain drugs are illegal or not. It is involved in matters of life and death, like whether an unborn baby has a right to life or not, whether a criminal can be given the death penalty, whether we go to war with a foreign nation and put the lives of our soldiers in jeopardy. In short, we could say that the government is one of the greatest, if not the greatest influence on our culture. And guess what? We, the people, are in charge of electing the people who make these decisions. To say it doesn’t affect you is simply untrue.
As Christians, I believe that since we have the ability to affect these kinds of crucial decisions, even in a small way, we have a responsibility to affect these decisions. In our country, we do this through voting and participating in the political process. We need Christian voices in politics, especially when the government is making such critical decisions about morality or life and death. We need Christians to hold government accountable to its biblically mandated purpose to promote good and punish evil. So if you aren’t registered to vote and you are 18 or older, you need to get registered and make sure that your voice is heard as a Christian. If the entire body of Christ in this country were to do this, how great an impact could we have on our culture? Seriously, it’s usually only one hour of one day every two years. That isn’t a huge commitment. And if you have difficulty understanding these kinds of issues or don’t have the time to invest in order to understand them, then find someone you trust who does understand and whose values line up with Scripture. There are plenty of voting guides online and sent in the mail in the weeks prior to the election to help you understand the issues and vote responsibly. As Christians, we need to replace our passivity with responsibility (James 4:17).
The next attitude I want to address is cynicism. Cynicism is the “everything is corrupt, so why bother” or the “I can’t make a difference” attitude. I spoke somewhat about this earlier when I talked about legitimate authority. Part of cynicism is skepticism. The fact is, politicians do lie, misstate, and “misremember” the truth quite often; so skepticism is actually a good thing. Scripture tells us to test all things and hold on to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). But where cynicism becomes dangerous is when it goes beyond simple skepticism and leads to passivity. And for the same reasons above, passivity is not congruent with the responsibility we have as Christians. We need to actively pursue the truth in these matters so we can be well informed when we cast our vote. Cynicism needs to be replaced with healthy skepticism and a feverish pursuit for the Truth.
The final attitude I want to address is rebellion, which simply says, “I will not be subject to anyone.” This one actually hits home a little bit for me personally. The libertarian streak in me many times just wants to stick it to the government and say no. But as I’ve come to learn by studying this, that shouldn’t be the default attitude we have when it comes to government. If we say that we are subject to God, then we must also be subject to those authorities that he has established for our good, whether it be the government or church leaders or our parents. Like I mentioned before, we are subject to God first before government. But so long as government does not cause you to be disobedient to God, then you are to be subject to them as an authority established by God. We need to replace rebellion with godly submission.
Let me be clear about one more thing – godly submission does not mean that you become a doormat for the government to walk on. If government deviates from its Biblical purpose and mandate, then being subject to the governing authorities does not mean that we should do nothing about it. The laws of this country allow us to go to court and see that our rights are protected. They also allow us to petition the government to make good laws or repeal bad ones. Don’t mistake subjection to the governing authorities for passivity. Even if the laws didn’t allow for this, there are times when civil disobedience is an appropriate response for a Christian. (This will have to be discussed in more detail at a later time.)
Honorable and Holy Living
Ultimately, at the end of the day, what does this all boil down to? Letting your identity in Christ dictate your conduct. Turn back to 1 Peter 2.
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:15-17)
Having honorable and holy conduct is a crucial part of our witness of Christ on earth. What is one of the most common charges laid against Christians today? They claim that we are hypocrites. We extol virtues such as love, but how often do we act unloving? How awesome it would be if we who claimed the name of Christ actually lived out our true identity and calling in its fullest capacity. Then, as the passage says, by doing good, it would put to silence the ignorance of foolish people who would claim otherwise. So when we talk about having honorable and holy conduct, how do we apply this to our interactions with the governing authorities?
First, let’s review again what it means to be honorable. Honor is, “The esteem due or paid to worth.” Applying that to the governing authorities, it means that we esteem and show respect to our government officials in accordance with their office, regardless of whether they are a good or bad authority. When king Darius realized he had wrongfully thrown Daniel to the lions and sought to free him, what was Daniel’s response? It’s recorded in Daniel 6:19-22.
Then, at break of day, the king arose and went in haste to the den of lions. As he came near to the den where Daniel was, he cried out in a tone of anguish. The king declared to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” (Daniel 6:19-22)
Daniel still honored the king even through the king did not deserve it. The phrase “live forever” was a phrase meant to indicate honor towards the king and humility from Daniel. That also needs to be our attitude as well. Whether it is a police officer who pulls you over for speeding, or even up to the very highest offices of our country like the President who does something you don’t like, we are called to have an honorable attitude towards them. One way we can practically do this is to not slander the character of those in authority (not say that we shouldn’t criticize, but just to say that we shouldn’t attribute false motives and attack them personally because we disagree with the policy they are promoting). Instead, we need to pray for our leaders. Paul encourages us to do this in 1 Timothy 2:1-3.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior. (1 Timothy 2:1-3)
We are called not only to honor those in authority, but as it says in I Peter, we are to honor everyone.
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17)
All human beings, whether in a position of authority or not, are created in the image of God, and that means that everyone is to be treated with dignity and respect. The same admonition applies to those in authority. If you are in a position of authority, then all the people whom you have authority over are to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve for being created in the image of God. Bottom line– the best way to say this is said all over Scripture: Love one another. How do we love those in authority? We are able to love them by giving them the honor they deserve.
Second, we are called to have holy conduct in our interactions with the governing authorities. Remember, the Biblical mandate of government is to praise good and punish evil. Theoretically, so long as we live in accordance with God’s law and the government is abiding by its ordained purpose, we shouldn’t come into conflict with the government. Of course, that’s not the case in real life because the government is not perfect. But one practical way our calling to be holy works itself out is to obey the laws of this land so long as they do not conflict with the law of God. That includes big things like being honest in paying your taxes and obeying established drug laws, or little things like buckling your seatbelt.
Peter, in this passage, encourages us to, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Paul says nearly the exact same thing in Galatians 5:13.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
As Christians, we are called to freedom. True freedom, that is, freedom in Christ, doesn’t mean freedom to do whatever you want, including sin. We have been set free from sin in order to serve God and serve one another, thus fulfilling the greater law of Christ.
Martin Luther puts it this way:
“Christ’s truth maketh us free, not civilly, nor carnally, but divinely. We are made free in such sort, that our conscience is free and quiet, not fearing the wrath of God to come. This is the true and inestimable liberty, to the excellency and majesty of which, if we compare the other, they are but as one drop of water in respect of the ocean. For who is able to express what a thing it is, when a man is assured in his heart that God neither is, nor ever will be angry with him, but will be forever a merciful and loving Father to him, for Christ’s sake! This is, indeed, a marvellous and incomprehensible liberty, to have the Most High Sovereign Majesty so favourable to us that He doth not only defend, maintain and succour us in this life, but also, as touching our bodies, will so deliver us as that, though sown in corruption, dishonour and infirmity, they shall rise again in incorruption, and glory, and power. This is an inestimable liberty, that we are made free from the wrath of God forever, and is greatly more valuable than heaven and earth and the created universe. “Blessed is the man who is in such a case; yea, blessed is the man whose God is the Lord.”
Let your identity in Christ dictate your conduct. Our identity in Christ calls us to act in such a way that is both holy and honorable, especially to those whom God has placed in authority over us. As Christians, we are citizens of heaven first, and as Christians, we are ambassadors for Christ here on earth. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Let your identity in Christ dictate your conduct in such a way that is loving, holy, honorable, and glorifying to him so that it advances the gospel and the kingdom of God.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Fronmüller, G. F. C., & Mombert, J. I. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Peter (p. 43). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.