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Lesson 11: Christian Citizenship (1 Peter 2:13-17)

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We Americans live in a country that was founded on a revolution and in which defiance of government authority is viewed as a basic constitutional right. Benjamin Franklin proposed the following design for the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States:

Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the Divine presence and command, beaming on Moses, who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overflow Pharaoh. Motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” (Cited by Vernon Grounds, Revolution and the Christian Faith [Lippincott, 1971], p. 9.)

Franklin was a deist, not an evangelical Christian. But his sentiment--rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God--is shared by many committed Christians. Most evangelicals accept the American Revolution as being a proper resistance to corrupt authority. There is a difference of opinion among Christians over whether the civil disobedience of groups such as Operation Rescue is proper or not. But the presence of the issue shows the relevance of our topic: What is the proper relationship of Christian citizens toward their government?

Those to whom Peter wrote lived with a government and society that was not favorable toward the Christian faith. Both Peter and Paul were executed at the hands of the Roman tyrant Nero. It was not until the fourth century, under Constantine, that Christianity was afforded official legitimacy and protection by the government.

Peter has just stated the general principle that Christians are to live holy lives as aliens and strangers on this earth (2:11-12). We are not permanent residents here, but are pilgrims journeying toward heaven. It would have been easy for his readers to conclude that we therefore have no civic responsibility here on earth. Perhaps they would have concluded that they could disregard and disobey human government, since they were citizens of heaven, not of this earth. So Peter anticipates and counters this wrong conclusion by showing how Christian citizens must live:

Christians must live as good citizens by submitting to human government.

“Submit” (2:13) is a dirty word to Americans, but it is a favorite with Peter. In fact, it dominates much of the rest of this epistle (it occurs in 2:13, 18; 3:1, 5, 22; 5:5; the concept is implicit in 4:12-19). It is a military word, meaning to put oneself under another in rank. We will look more at the meaning of submission later in this message, but for now I will briefly say that submission is an attitude of respect that results in obedience to authority and positive good deeds. While there are exceptions, we need to be careful not to run to the exceptions, but to make sure that our normal posture toward government is that of submission.

Confining myself as much as possible to our text, I want to look first at the purpose of human government; then at the meaning of submission to government; at the reason for submission to government; and, finally, at the limits of submission to government.

1. The purpose of human government: To promote justice and peace in society.

The government should promote justice and peace by upholding law and order and by maintaining reasonable national defense. Peter writes (2:14) that kings and governors are “for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” Paul talks about the government “bearing the sword” as an avenger who brings God’s wrath upon the one who practices evil (Rom. 13:4). This points to the power of the state to use capital punishment, as well as lesser punishment, to bring about justice for all. The Old Testament often talks about the role of the king in promoting justice and righteousness in society.

The government does this (in part) by legislating morality. Don’t let anybody sell you the idea that we shouldn’t legislate morality. That is precisely what the government does, and rightly so. Laws against murder and theft are moral and biblical. Laws against racial discrimination reflect the biblical teaching that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Deut. 10:17). Laws should protect citizens from sin (for example, pornography and prostitution laws, drug laws, etc.). The fact that something is illegal will restrain many who otherwise may be tempted to engage in the particular activity.

The real debate is, which morality should we legislate? Some Christians believe that we should institute the Old Testament law in our society (stoning adulterers, homosexuals, rebellious children, etc.)! I cannot deal at length with this question but, briefly, my view is that in a democratic, pluralistic society, if the value of a law would only be accepted by those who have already accepted Christ and God’s Word (for example, laws against adultery, blasphemy, or sabbath-breaking), we should not push to legislate it, even if it is biblical.

But we can work to legislate many biblical standards which have broad social value and can be argued for apart from an appeal to the Bible. Laws against abortion, laws protecting the handicapped and the elderly, laws against pornography and child abuse, and many other such issues, can be argued for on the grounds of basic human rights, apart from Christianity. Most unbelievers recognize the inherent “rightness” of the Golden Rule. We can use this biblical ethical standard as the basis for legislating proper morality in our democratic, pluralistic country.

Thus Peter and other biblical texts show that the government is ordained of God to promote justice. Although Peter doesn’t touch on it specifically, a result of promoting justice will be promoting peace and order in society. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 states that we should pray for kings and those in authority “in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” For us to live a quiet and tranquil life, the government must maintain adequate national defense so that we are not overrun by some totalitarian power that would rob us of our peace and liberty. And internally the government should not interfere with religious liberty, within the bounds of human safety and rights. Thus government should promote justice and peace in society.

What does it mean to submit to human government? Peter includes three elements:

2. The meaning of submission to government: Obedience, respect, and good deeds.

A. Submission means obedience to the laws of the state.

The basic meaning of the word “submit” is “obey.” Christians must obey the laws of their government unless those laws force them to disobey God. “Kings” we can apply to federal laws; “governors” we can apply to state and local laws. To give practical examples, we need to pay our taxes and comply with traffic laws (Ouch! Ouch!).

With regard to taxes, this means properly reporting your income and following the rules to compute what you owe. There’s nothing wrong with taking legitimate deductions. In fact, it’s poor stewardship not to do so! With regard to traffic laws, some Christians take a strict constructionist view and never exceed the speed limit. I take a loose constructionist view--I get in the fast lane and go with the flow! If you’re regularly getting traffic citations, it probably shows that you need to amend your ways.

I heard of one minister who got stopped for speeding. He told the officer that he was on the Lord’s business. The officer replied, “I read the same Bible. It says to go out into the highways and bring them in--and that’s what I’m doing.”

Another minister, pressed for time and not finding a parking space, parked in a no parking zone and put a note on his windshield: “I have circled the block 10 times. I have an appointment to keep. Forgive us our trespasses.” When he returned, he found a citation along with this note: “I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket, I lose my job. Lead us not into temptation.” Submission means obeying the law.

B. Submission means showing respect to governmental authorities.

You can obey with a rotten attitude. But Peter says that we are to “honor all men,” and specifies, “Honor the king” (2:17). But what if he’s a scoundrel? Even if we can’t respect a leader because he is corrupt or immoral, we should respect his office. Again, this isn’t an American tradition. We make jokes about our political leaders, portraying them as buffoons or idiots. Political satire is accepted fare. I confess that some of the things politicians do invite satire! Jesus called Herod a fox, so there may be some basis for taking a swipe at certain political leaders. But we need to be careful to promote respect for government authorities. Since God ordained government authority, to despise such authority is to despise God Himself.

C. Submission means positive good deeds.

“That by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). Peter is not referring to the government leaders as “foolish men,” but rather to the willfully ignorant who slander Christians as evildoers (2:12). “To silence” means, literally, to muzzle. The idea is that by our active good deeds, we take away the basis for criticism of Christianity from those who oppose it.

Paul wrote to Titus (3:1-2), “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” When Christians live like that in the midst of a pagan culture, it is a powerful testimony. On the other hand, when professing Christians disrespect authority, when they disobey the law, or when they just withdraw from society and live unto themselves without doing good deeds, it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who are prone to criticize Christianity.

When Israel was sent into exile in Babylon, their situation was parallel to that of Christians today, in that they were strangers and aliens in a foreign land, looking to be restored to their promised land. God told Jeremiah (29:5-6) to tell the exiles to build houses there, plant gardens, take wives and raise children. Then He added, “And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (lit., “peace”).

That’s good counsel for Christians who are exiled as strangers and aliens in this wicked world: Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, raise families, seek and pray for the welfare of the cities where we live. Buy property, work to improve the schools, help out in community projects, be good citizens. Submitting to government means that we obey the law, respect authorities, and do good deeds in our communities.

Thus the purpose of government is to promote justice and peace in society. The meaning of submission to government includes obedience, submission, and good deeds.

3. The reason for submission to government: For the Lord’s sake.

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake” (2:13). There are at least two ideas inherent in this phrase:

A. Since God ordains civil government, by submitting to it, we submit to Him.

Paul plainly states, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:1-2a). He even states that rulers are ministers of God (13:4, 6). Daniel 2:21 states that God “removes kings and establishes kings” (see also Dan. 2:37; 4:17; 5:18-19, 26; Jer. 27:5-8; Ezek. 29:19-20; John 19:11). He directs even pagan kings according to His sovereign purposes (Prov. 21:1; Isa. 45:1-7; 46:10-11).

Remember, both Paul and Peter wrote when the debauched, godless Nero was on the throne. Daniel lived under the ruthless Nebuchadnezzar. Since both rulers obviously fell far short of the ideal, we must conclude that we cannot make exceptions to the biblical principle of obedience to government authority based on how bad the ruler may be.

Peter knew that his readers (including us!) would not inherently gravitate toward the idea of being submissive to pagan rulers (let alone, to good Christian rulers!). He could hear us object, “But we’re free in Christ! We don’t have to obey a pagan tyrant!” Thus Peter wrote (2:16), “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”

Just as a train is only truly free when it runs on the tracks, so human beings are only free when they obey God. True freedom is living righteously in submission to God. Anything less means that we’re enslaved to sin. Thus for the Lord’s sake, because He ordained and established government for the benefit of the human race, we submit to Him when we submit to civil government.

B. Since Christians are identified with God, our submission to government bears witness for God.

The theme of our witness as aliens in this hostile world runs from 2:12 through chapter 3. It is implicit in this section dealing with our responsibility as Christian citizens. When it comes to politics, we need to remember that while God uses civil government to accomplish His purposes (thus it is proper for Christians to serve in political leadership and be involved in the political process), evangelism is His primary means of dealing with world problems and bringing lasting change. If we get sidetracked into winning political victories for our cause, but do not win men and women to Christ, we ultimately fail.

I struggled with why, in the context of our relationship to government, Peter adds the command, “Love the brotherhood” (2:17). It seems to me that it relates to the underlying theme of our public witness. We are to love even our enemies, of course. But Peter singles out our love for the Christian brotherhood because if Christians fight among themselves, the watching world shrugs its shoulders and says, “Why become a Christian? They’re no different than anyone else.” The same is true if we do not show proper honor to all men, including those in civil authority.

The black radical, Stokely Carmichael, was once asked, “When the world is the way you want it, what will it be like?” After brief reflection, he answered, “Men will love one another” (Grounds, p. 89). That can’t happen apart from the gospel. Our love for fellow Christians and our submission and honor toward government officials is a powerful witness. Thus we submit “for the Lord’s sake.”

Thus the purpose of government is to promote justice and peace in society. Submitting to government means obedience, respect, and good deeds. The reason we submit is for the Lord’s sake. Finally,

4. The limits of submission to government: When honoring the government violates the fear of God.

Peter differentiates between God and the king: “Fear God, honor the king.” The emperor deserves appropriate honor, but he is not on the same level with God. If he violates his responsibility which has been given to him by God, then the believer is responsible to confront that violation (Dan. 5:18-28) and, if it comes down to it, to obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).

Commentators struggle with the words translated “human institution” or “ordinance of man” (2:13). They literally read, “human creature” or “creation.” Each of the other 17 uses of the word “creation” in the New Testament refers to God’s creation, not to something man creates. Thus many scholars translate it, “Be subject to every human creature.” But this doesn’t fit with the following context and it is difficult to understand how we are to submit to everyone. I would suggest that Peter uses this phrase to accomplish two things. He demotes the emperor and his government from being absolutely sovereign, in that he (and it) are creations, not the Creator. But he also gives dignity to each ruler and government, in that he is created by God, and thus worthy of our honor.

Thus there is a fine balance that Christians must maintain, between respecting the man and his office, but not respecting him more than God. If it comes to a tug of war between God and government, we must follow God. If the government forces us to disobey God, we first appeal to the government, if possible. If we have opportunity, we confront the government with its wrong. But if all that fails, we disobey the government and submit to our punishment.

What do we do if the government merely allows evil, rather than mandates it (such as killing babies through abortion)? I think that we then confront the government with its evil, we appeal to individuals not to do the legalized evil, and we work through legal channels to overthrow the evil. Abortion is more complicated than rescuing slaves during the Civil War or Jews during World War II, since the baby is still inside the mother and can’t be rescued apart from the mother. I appreciate the courage and convictions of those who participate in Operation Rescue, but I cannot argue biblically that it is the moral responsibility of every Christian to violate the law as they do.

Is it ever right for Christians to participate in a revolution to overthrow a government? Obviously, God sets up and takes down rulers, and He does it through people. But should Christians be a part of such, for example, when the government is evil, such as Nazi Germany or Communist China? I tend to agree with John Calvin, who states that the only command given to Christians is to obey and suffer, so we should be hesitant to think that God has entrusted the revolutionary task to us (Institutes [Westminster Press], IV:XX:31). And yet at the same time, we are responsible to speak out against evil, whether it be practiced by rulers or other citizens (Matt.


J. I. Packer wrote, “It is a paradox of the Christian life that the more profoundly one is concerned about heaven, the more deeply one cares about God’s will being done on Earth” (Christianity Today [4/19/85], I-4). Sir Frederick Catherwood, a Christian member of the European Parliament, put it: “To try to improve society is not worldliness, but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness” (ibid., I-4, 5). Christian citizens should be good citizens. The main way we do that is by submitting to our human government.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where should the government limit religious freedom? (Polygamy? Satan worship? Drug use? etc.)
  2. Does the Bible support a particular theory of economics (e.g., free enterprise vs. socialism)?
  3. Is it ever right for a Christian to withhold taxes in protest?
  4. Do Christians ever have the right to be involved in revolution or the use of violence to further their aims? (American Revolution? Assassinate Hitler? Overthrow Communist government?)

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Spiritual Life, Worldview

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