Human Authorities and the Present Moment4
We are living in some unusual days. Many Christians are growing tired of government restrictions and churches are antsy to begin meeting. Some have begun to wonder if they should ignore restrictions, they deem foolish or unconstitutional. Whenever we are faced with complicated and emotionally charged questions, our selfish bias can easily distort our view of reality or even our interpretation and application of Scripture. Therefore, it is essential that we go back to Scripture and read it honestly for what it has to say.
Last week, as I was wrestling with my own questions, I decided to reread 1 Peter 2:13–25. In a foggy time, I found a lot of clarity in simply hearing what God has said; therefore, I want to help you do the same. I acknowledge that there are other biblical factors that weigh into the present discussions; therefore, my purpose is not to answer every issue in the present debates. However, 1 Peter 2:13–25 should play a key role in our thinking; therefore, consider reading it before continuing with this post.
If anything is clear in this passage, it is that obedience to God-ordained authorities ranks very high in the priorities of a biblical ethic; therefore, the threshold for disobeying authorities is also very high. I believe it is much higher than many Christians in our individualistic, anti-authoritarian society want to admit. Why do I say this?
- God commands us to obey authorities.
Peter begins by saying, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (vv. 13–14). Verse 18 adds, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear.” And 3:1 states, “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands.” God is clear that submission to authority is vital to the biblical ethic. This is because God has built authority structures into the fabric of creation for our good (1 Tim 2:9–15), and every human authority exists according to his sovereign purpose (Rom 13:1–4). Therefore, Romans 13:2 states, “Whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” Think about the weight of that statement. To disobey a God-ordained authority is to resist God and invite his judgment. Most of us don’t take authority that seriously.
Granted, these authorities are not absolute. They only have authority, because God grants it to them (Rom 13:1), and ultimately, we obey them, “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet 2:13). Christians are “free” in Christ; therefore, we don’t obey as slaves to men, but as “bondservants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). As a result, if a human authority demands that we disobey God, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Because of this, many are arguing that we must obey the command to assemble no matter what human authorities say. I’m sympathetic to the argument, because the Bible teaches that gathering with the church is essential to discipleship. However, we all acknowledge that there are exceptions to the command to assemble, unlike, for example, the command not to worship other gods (Ex 20:3). We encourage people who are sick and shut-ins to stay home from church all the time, because we recognize that providence and other biblical priorities occasionally take precedence. Furthermore, Hebrews 10:25 is not the absolute mandate some assume that it is (This article corrects some wrong assumptions that are currently feeding bad applications.). Finally, I have a hard time believing that cruel slave masters (1 Pet 2:18) or unbelieving husbands, who had a similar absolute authority over their wives (1 Pet 3:1), were always sympathetic to church attendance. I have to believe that part of obeying these authorities meant at times not attending the assembly. Again, Peter gives obedience to authority a premium position within the biblical ethic. Therefore, while church gatherings are very important, the biblical evidence doesn’t justify the claim that we should never suspend services because of competing ethical concerns.
- The character and justice of the authority do not determine our submission.
1 Peter 2:13 and Romans 13:1–2 are especially impactful when you consider the fact that Peter and Paul command their readers to obey the very man, Nero, who would eventually execute them for preaching the gospel. Yes, Peter and Paul wrote before Nero totally fell off his rocker, but neither he nor his predecessors had done Christianity any favors. Yet Peter and Paul command believers to obey them. 1 Peter 2:18 is even more shocking, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.” The word for harshmeans “moral perversity” and can refer to all sorts of sins. Based on v. 20, these masters probably beat their slaves unjustly and were dishonest with them. They probably didn’t provide fair compensate, care for their needs, or provide safe working and living conditions. It’s hard to imagine living in those conditions, especially if you are supporting a family. But God still commanded slaves to submit.
These commands are significant to the present moment, because some are justifying disobedience to the current mandates on the grounds that they are based on corrupt motives and contrary to human flourishing. Peter answers this objection pretty clearly. The fact that an authority is evil or his laws are harsh does not justify disobedience.
Others are arguing that our loyalty is to the Constitution; therefore, if a leader acts unconstitutionally, we have the right to disobey. The problem with this argument is that the Bible never makes this distinction. Furthermore, Romans 13:1 states that every authority is placed in power by the sovereign hand of God. You can’t legitimately claim that God placed us under Constitution, but his sovereignty does not extend to those who are elected by constitutional processes. As well, our Constitution includes mechanisms for challenging unconstitutional acts of oppression. If we are committed to the Constitution, we must exhaust our legal options before even considering disobedience.
- Faith must drive all our actions.
During the last few weeks, I’ve heard various pragmatic arguments as to why disobedience is justified. There’s no question that the current mandates have made life challenging. However, Peter’s readers were enduring far worse suffering, but Peter still urges them to obey, even when it didn’t make earthly sense. The reason is that our faith and hope is in God, not material things or human schemes. Therefore, rather than fighting for our temporal rights, we must endure patiently, because, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Pet 2:21; cf. 3:9). No one wants to suffer like Christ did, but we must trust that God’s purpose is always good. Peter also calls us follow Christ’s example in the sense that, “When He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We may never get justice in this world, but we can continue to obey by faith, because we know that justice is coming. Specifically, we know that God’s reward will be worth our suffering. Peter encourages slaves who are suffering unjustly, “But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.” God will more than compensate in eternity for the cost of obeying his will.
Finally, as difficult as our circumstances may be, we trust that God will give grace to endure. Peter concludes his discussion of suffering in 1 Peter 3:17–22 with one of the most confusing arguments in all of Scripture. But the basic point is clear. Christ emerged victoriously from suffering, and we can be confident that he will give us grace to endure as well and that we will emerge victoriously.
These promises are so comforting when God calls us to sacrificial obedience. When we are suffering, it is easy to let fear and frustration drive us to take matters into our own hands at the cost of obedience and faith. That didn’t work out well for several of Israel’s kings, and it won’t work for us either. It is essential that we continue to trust and obey the Lord and that we are more committed to prayer than to human schemes. And if God calls us to suffer great loss, we must believe that he will give grace to endure and make it all worth it in eternity. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20)!
- Our testimony is more important than our individual rights (v. 15; 3:1–2, 15).
One of the fundamental concerns in 1 Peter 2–3 is our gospel witness. Peter repeatedly calls believers to submit to authorities in order to eliminate roadblocks to evangelism and to manifest true gospel grace. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear” (3:1–2). “‘And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (3:14b–15). God is clear. The advance of the gospel is always more important than my personal rights.
I recognize that many Christians are suffering loneliness, grief, and financial loss under the current orders. I hurt for all affected, but I would also urge us to remember that no matter how much we win in this life, we ultimately lose, if we push people away from Christ. Our fundamental concern must be to magnify our Savior by manifesting gospel grace in our walk and our talk. The glory of God and eternal souls are at stake. Don’t lose sight of these priorities and give anyone a justifiable reason for dismissing our message. Rather, determine to suffer in such a way that the grace of the gospel will shine clearly for all to see.
In conclusion, I recognize that we must factor other biblical principles into our decisions. But hopefully you are convinced that obedience to God-ordained authorities ranks high in the priorities of a biblical ethic; therefore, our threshold for disobeying authorities must also be very high. May God give us all wisdom to discern his will and patience to walk in unity with those with whom we disagree.