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Living as Citizens: Be Subject to Government Authorities, For the Lord's Sake

1 Peter 2.13-17
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.
How should Christians respond to the social structures of our day? Should Christians ignore the governmental authorities and human institutions of our time? Since the COVID-19 shutdown, these types of questions and more have been brought to the forefront of people’s minds. Peter’s point is clear, believers should submit to the emperor and those governing authorities appointed by God for the Lord’s sake. Therefore, to obey the governing authorities, they are ultimately submitting to God and carrying out God’s will.

The central theme found in this section is found in the first word, submit. The idea for believers to submit to governing authorities is a standard ethical exhortation found in the New Testament (Rom. 13.1, 5; Titus 3.1). But submit also comes with the caveat that as a believer our ultimate submission is unto God. That means that submission to the authority of rulers is not absolute especially if the governing authorities would put Christians in a position of disobeying God’s will in their lives.

For Peter, the purpose of ruling authorities is for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do what is good. Doing good here represents that Christians behave as good citizens and model a submissive attitude toward governmental authorities. Obviously Peter was not living in some bubble thinking that all governmental authorities were model governments for good. He was way more aware than that. In fact, Peter himself will fall fate to an oppressive government that will crucify Peter upside down on a cross. Yet Peter knew that even the most oppressive governmental authorities hold evil at bay to some extent, preventing societies from falling into complete and utter chaos and collapse.

So whether a believer lives in a land that is more oppressive or less oppressive Peter’s main point is clear. By submitting to one’s governmental authorities, Christians demonstrate that they are good citizens to the people of a particular country who may not be believers. For Peter, this helps silence the ignorance of unbelievers. His point is more to the fact that the good behavior of believers will help potentially minimize slanderous attacks on them by the way they conduct themselves which could lead to people glorifying God and believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Peter is not just concerned about the outward sign of actually submitting, but more to the heart’s motivation for submitting.

First, Peter calls to the minds of believers to submit because they are free first and foremost and because they have been rescued by the blood of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross of Calvary. As believers we are no longer subject to the lifestyle characteristics of this world. That’s why our submission unto governmental authorities is never done out of a place of weakness but rather out of a place of strength in  knowing that we are free in Christ now and throughout eternity. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand up for the truth and allow evil to just go unchecked within our society and government. Since we are free and know the truth found in the Bible, we are called to be the salt of the earth which means that we preserve the earth. As believers we have been called to declare the truth even if it is not the most popular opinion, even if it could potentially go against the governments rule. Our ultimate allegiance is not to a government but to Christ first and foremost.

Secondly, Peter brings attention to the fact that because we are free people, we should not use our freedom to indulge in evil. True freedom in Christ liberates us from doing evil and to now do what is good. As theologian Thomas Schreiner points out, “Those who use freedom as license for evil reveal that they are not truly free since a life of wickedness is the very definition of slavery.”[1] As we look at our society and see wickedness on display at every level, let us as believers, not find ourselves wrapped up in the same type of wickedness that is abounding within our country. Let us show the people, who find themselves gripped by sin, what true freedom actually looks like.

Lastly, Peter points out that believers should live as servants of God. The word servant used here could also be rendered as “slave” in the Greek. Christ followers do not enjoy an unrestricted freedom. For Christ-like freedom to be exercised, it must be exercised under God’s rule and authority. Freedom in our society speaks of something quite different. Freedom in our society today desires no boundaries but that is not real freedom for someone ultimately loses in the end. While this thought on freedom may seem gray, it’s really quite simple; either an individual is a slave to sin or a slave to God. There is no middle ground on this argument. True liberty found throughout the New Testament means that one has the ability to do what is right. Therefore, that is why those who are slaves to God are genuinely free.
Thus, believers are called upon by God to live under God’s lordship, by showing honor and respect to one’s government because our ultimate allegiance is unto God. May we live our lives as Christians honoring our Lord in all that we do and say.

In Christ Service,

Cody Ragland

  [1] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 131.
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