God’s Word is our guide in all matters. The Lord has been gracious to give us guidelines and principles that are both timeless and timely. Peter, writing to a group of exiles under the throes of fierce persecution, is addressing those disenfranchised with the world. He writes about how to live honorably and missionally in a culture that can be hostile, dishonorable, and unfair. Peter doesn’t tell Christians to retreat from the pagan world, nor does he tell them to rage against the pagan world. Rather, he tells them to live honorably in their world, doing good deeds. This conduct is the outworking of the gospel; and it gives credibility to presentation of the gospel.
“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.” (I Peter 2:13-17)
The command is clear and governs the entire paragraph: submit (“be subject to”) all governing authorities. He is calling us to follow those in leadership and recognize their role in God’s world. We know that the 1st century Roman political climate was less than ideal, but Paul still wrote Romans 13 and Peter still wrote 1 Peter 2. Their goal was not to be political agitators but faithful missionaries, leading others to do the same. The same man, Peter, who said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man” does not mention any exceptions here.
The extent of this command is clear – “every human institution.” He has in mind leaders all the way to the top (Emperors) as well as local leaders (governors).
Our motivation is “for the Lord’s sake” or “on account of the Lord.” Our motivation is the glory of Jesus. That’s why we strive to be good citizens. Our motivation is higher than simply obeying the law – we want to please God. Keeping the speed limit honors the Lord. Paying taxes honors the Lord. Obeying restrictions on gatherings during the current pandemic honors the Lord. Our primary motivation is to please the Lord, and so we honor Him when we follow His word on these matters.
Why should we do this? For God’s will and our witness. “For this” is followed by the reason. First, it is for God’s will. This should be enough for us. It’s God’s will that we do good. But it’s also for our witness that we strive to do good. “Doing good” will “silence” (literally, “muzzle”) the critics. Peter is challenging us to live a joyful, generous, sacrificial, Christ-honoring life in order to silence accusations. By submitting to governance, we can silence any claims that we are some maverick group, doing whatever we please. Such an attitude does not commend the gospel. Our witness is a priority and must be protected to honor God.
We are free, but Peter says we need to use our freedom correctly (2:16). Peter says don’t use your freedom in Christ as an excuse for disobeying the governing authorities. Christian freedom means we have the greatest freedoms: we are freed from condemnation, free from the law; but not free to be insubordinate. We are set free to obey God. We are “God’s servants” – we ultimately submit to ruling authorities not because we are their servants, but because we are God’s servants.
We “honor everyone” because everyone is made in the image of God. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ because there is a special relationship we have in the faith. We “fear God” alone because only He is to be revered and worshipped. And he concludes by saying “honor the emperor” a second time. We don’t have to agree with rulers’ politics in order to honor them in a way that honors God. Respect the office, even when you disagree with the leaders.
So then, how do citizens of heaven live as citizens of earth in light of Scripture? We do so by submitting to governing authorities, acknowledging God’s design for them, and thanking God for all the good that is done through them. We pray for those in leadership (cf., 1 Tim 2:1-4). We should avoid being the kind of Christian that spends more time criticizing than praying. We are called to be good citizens. That means paying taxes, obeying the law, and being respectful. We are to engage the political process with truth and justice and the common good in mind. Finally, we rest in the providence of God. It would be good in this moment to ask for God to calm our hearts and remind us that he is sovereign. No matter the circumstances, our testimony is “Our God reigns.”
The second area we want to address has to do with submission as well - this time to church leadership.
The Lord commands his people, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
This passage makes it clear that once you have joined together with a local body of Christ, you are to obey and submit yourself to its leaders. The writer of Hebrews explains that there are advantages for members as they joyfully submit to church leadership. It also makes clear that the elders are responsible before Jesus, the chief Pastor (1 Peter 5:4), to “watch over your soul.” While this may initially sound intrusive, realize that we are charged to watch over you “as those who will have to give an account” to God on judgment day.
When each of us joined the elder board, we became accountable to Christ for all Bethel members. When you joined Bethel Church, you became accountable to its leaders. We are asking you to continue to be sensitive to the weight of divine accounting as we seek to watch over the flock with care. As a member, we also ask that you maintain a posture of obedience to the position we have taken during this pandemic. We pray that our leadership is an “advantage to you” and that you may experience peace and joy in submitting under these circumstances.
Our desire is to truly care for you as we hold to this core conviction that we will have to give an account for your soul one day. The only way for this level of care to take place is for you to make yourself accountable to church leaders. When accountability is present, the church can guard through restorative discipline and formative discipleship. We want to see all people placed in our care walking in the truth at all times and in every way. The apostle John rejoiced in this way when he said, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 4) It would be our great joy to see every soul assigned to our care walking in the truth, living with joy, strengthening the church, and honoring Christ.
The Bethel Eders