In 1 Peter 1, the apostle writes that those who have received Christ are citizens of heaven and that our short time in this corrupted creation is like an exile from our heavenly home country. The reason God has kept us in this world is to represent him and reach others for his glory. As God’s elect (chosen) people, we must remain “holy” or “separate” from the world around us. We are a people of light in the darkness. Our behavior and our desires are different from those who do not know God. And our allegiance is different because our king is in heaven.
Roman citizens in Peter’s day were required to pledge allegiance to Ceaser by swearing, “Ceasar is Lord.” But Christians resisted this oath and expected church members to confess instead, “Jesus is Lord.” This simple creed, “Jesus is Lord,” was one of the first creeds of the early church. If the government (or anyone else) requires us to disobey God’s word, we must do what is right and peacefully face the consequences. In Acts 5:19, Peter himself said, “We must obey God rather than men.” We never violate Scripture; as God’s living word, it is the ultimate authority.
Peter’s letter, however, does not elevate defiance as the attitude that should characterize holy exiles. Instead, he elevates submission.
The Passage (1 Peter 2:13-17)
The passage begins, “Be subject,” and the same word reoccurs in verse 18 and chapter 3:1. The section of the epistle from 1 Peter 2:13 to 1 Peter 3:6 is one long treatise on submission to authority. Peter is elevating submission as a defining characteristic of holy exiles, and he does this by addressing three areas of life where one party must submit to another:
- Citizens must submit to the government (2:13-17)
- Servants must submit to their masters (2:18-25)
- Wives must submit to their husbands (3:1-6)
This is the first sermon in a three-part series on submission. In this message, we will focus on what Peter says about the submission of citizens to the government. Our focus will be on 1 Peter 2:13-17, but we will consider the more popular passage in Romans 13:1-7 as well:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
What Does it Mean to Be Subject?
1 Peter 2:13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Romans 13:1 says, “be subject unto the governing authorities.” The word translated as “be subject” (hupotassō) is elsewhere translated “submit.”
What does it mean to “be subject” or “submit”? The prefix hupo is the equivalent of our prefix hypo, which means “under.” Someone who suffers from hypothermia has a temperature that is under the healthy range. A hypothermic needle goes under the skin. The word tassō means to arrange or put in order. Hupotassō then means to arrange under. The word was used by the military to describe a soldier’s total submission to his superior. To submit is to respectfully come under authority.
To Whom Are We to Submit?
We are to submit to “every human institution”—every earthly authority, without qualification. Some people suggest that we should only submit to good governments. That is unbiblical. The government in Peter’s day was off the rails. The emperor, Nero, was completely out of his mind. He killed his wife and his sister and was trying to kill Christians. Under the dictatorship of a complete psychopath, Peter writes, “Honor the king.” This is an unequivocal command.
There is only one exception, which we have already mentioned: if the government asks you to disobey God’s word, then you should simply refuse to do so. But this is to be done with a respectful attitude, as was exemplified by Jesus who quietly submitted to Pilate’s judgment to crucify him. The apostles followed Jesus by peacefully accepting the government’s judgment to put them in prison. They did not resist. They did not take up arms. They did not start a revolution.
Why Should We Submit?
There is a lot at stake in our submission. Here are four reasons.
The first reason we should submit to the government is for the Lord’s sake. We see this in verse 13. To have a disrespectful attitude towards the government, resist their authority, or take up arms against them, is to dishonor Christ. God is most glorified when Christians are peaceful citizens who go about gospel business. 1 Timothy 2:2-3 says that we should pray for government leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and a quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”
Second, we should submit because the government plays a part in restraining evil in the earth. In verse 14, Peter says that civil authorities are “sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” Romans 13:3-4 says,
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.
Third, we should submit because the government gets its authority from God. Peter says to submit to “the king, as supreme.” “Supreme” means “having high authority.” Romans 13:1 echoes this by saying, “be subject unto the higher powers.” If someone has authority it raises the question, from where do they get their authority? Romans 13:1 answers this question: “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Daniel 2:21 says, “[God] removes kings and sets up kings.”
Fourth, we should submit to silence those looking for a reason to criticize Christians. 1 Peter 3:15 says that our submission to government is “the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Christians should avoid unnecessary conflict with the authorities and do our best to gain a reputation as the best of all citizens. We should pay our taxes, respect building codes, and even keep the speed limit (I need help with this one). We do not want to give anyone a reason to call into question our testimony.
Verse 16 says that we are free, but we should not use our liberty as a cloak for maliciousness. We should act like servants of God. Servants of God submit to earthly authorities.
Check Your Attitude
Verse 17 concludes this section by dealing with our attitude: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Notice the chiasm here. In English, we would move from the lowest authority (all men) to the highest authority (God). But the Biblical literary device of chiasm places the matters of importance in the middle.
A Honor everyone
B Love the brotherhood
B’ Fear God
A’ Honor the emperor
Love for believers and fear of God are on the inside. Honor for all men and honor for the king are on the outside. We are to honor the king in part because we are to honor all men. The courteousness and kindness we extend to the government should certainly be no less than we extend to our average fellowman when face-to-face with him. Because government officials are so far removed from where we live, it is easy to slander them without immediate consequences. This is not Christlike.
Unless it was in direct obedience to God, Jesus never disdained, disregarded, or disrespected a public official. Before we can testify to Christlikeness, our attitude towards the government must be renewed. It is sinful to make offhand comments like,
- “I hate the government”
- “Stupid government”
- “Dumb bureaucrats”
- “Washington is worthless”
- “They’re all a bunch of crooks”
The church should not be a breeding ground for political rabble. Elders are charged to “remind” their flock “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). Politically-charged ramblings during testimony time or government-maligning prayer requests should be confronted as sinful. Pastors who feed an undercurrent of anti-government sentiment need to repent.
Romans 13:7 tells us to “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.” Honor is owed to public officials, no matter how ardently we disagree with their politics.
Here are some more examples that flatly violate God’s word:
- “The government should stay out of my business”
- “The government can have my guns when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers”
- “Don’t tread on me”
- “If the government takes my rights, I’ll fight back”
- “I could never respect that politician”
These are not Christian attitudes or ideas.
Frequently Asked Questions and Objections
I’ll close with a few frequently asked questions:
A common question is, “What if the government is an evil government?” The command to submit does not depend on the goodness of the government.
This leads to the question, “Who will stop evil governments?” The only one who has the right to tear down an evil government is another government because God has given governments the right to wage wars. Christians may join the military to fight a just war, but they should not participate in a revolution against their own government. John Wesley opposed the American Revolution.
This raises another question: Shouldn’t Christians stand against evil? Yes! And there are many ways to do this without disobeying or disrespecting the government. We should preach against evils such as abortion, and we should exercise our rights to stop it. For example, it is the right of American citizens to vote; therefore, Christians should vote for candidates who promote Biblical values. It is also the right of American citizens to protest; therefore, it is acceptable for Christians to hold a respectful protest such as the March for Life. However, it would be wrong for a Christian to participate in a riot, join a revolution, or slander the government.
A final question, closely related to the previous ones, is, “What if the government tries to take away our religious freedom?” Again, the command stands. We should simply practice our religion and preach the gospel, whatever the consequences. If this places us in violation of the law, we should accept the punishment, whatever that is.
This is what the early apostles did. When they disobeyed the government by preaching the gospel, they were thrown in prison. They accepted the punishment quietly, singing hymns in their jail cell and witnessing to those with whom they came in contact (Acts 16). On house arrest in Rome, Paul had the opportunity to win many of Caesar’s men to the Lord (Acts 28). Paul and the apostles did not lead a revolution to overthrow the Roman government in order to secure their religious freedoms. This would have dishonored God and turned Christianity into a socio-political movement.
God does not need his people to have religious freedoms to advance the gospel. In fact, the gospel usually advances the most when Christians are forced to hold their faith in spite of government persecution. Christianity is losing its influence in America where religious freedoms are the greatest; it is exploding in China, Iran, and other places where persecution is the greatest.
Romans 13:2 issues a forceful warning against resisting the government: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”