Revolution or Submission?
“The land of the free and the home of the brave.” Americans belt out these closing words of our national anthem across ballparks and during Independence Day gatherings. As the song grows towards this last line, it’s meant for our country’s pride to grow along with it.
And it’s certainly true that there are many blessings we have in America that aren’t as true in other countries or during different periods of history. As Christians, we especially appreciate the religious liberty and the freedom of speech enshrined in our nation’s laws. Religious liberty laws protect our freedom to assemble for the sake of worship and to carry out God’s will for our lives. Freedom of speech laws allow us to speak and teach biblical truth and preach the gospel, even if it’s not always a welcome message in our broader culture. So it’s understandable and right for us to have gratitude for our country.
At the same time, the Apostle Peter instructs the church to “not [use] your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16). In other words, just because we are spiritually free in Christ, and though we may have civil freedoms in America, these freedoms are not to be abused. Instead, the Apostle calls on us in this same passage to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors…” (2:13–14).
This language of subjection relates to deference and obedience, meaning our default posture to the civil authorities in our lives is to be one of submission, not resistance. This same word, “be subject,” is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe the way children are to be subject to parents (Luke 2:51), and employees are to be subject to their employers (Titus 2:9).
But the Apostle takes it a step further in 1 Peter 2:17 when he later says, “Honor the emperor.” This direction to honor our governmental leaders goes deeper than mere obedience and submission. Instead, it points to heart-level respect, because it’s possible for me to outwardly obey someone without inwardly respecting that same person. So, the Apostle wants us to ask ourselves if our actions are right and if our hearts are right. Not only should we do the right thing towards our governmental leaders, but we should also feel the right thing, namely, honor and respect.
It’s possible for me to outwardly obey someone without inwardly respecting that same person
Now you may be thinking, “Really?! Show submission and respect to (fill in the blank with whichever political leader you dislike the most)?!” All of the worst things about your least favorite governmental leader may make it feel impossible and even wrong for you to respect that person and their leadership. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Apostle called the church to this kind of submission and respect for governmental authorities during the first-century Roman empire. The Christians who Peter is writing to here had far fewer freedoms and privileges than we do in America. In fact, in many cases, they were deeply despised and violently persecuted by their political leaders. And yet still, the Apostle calls them to submissive obedience and sincere respect.
This is so important because it’s a part of our comprehensive Christian witness to the broader culture that we show submission to our governmental leaders. Without question, we must bear witness by speaking the gospel and “proclaim[ing] the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Still, we must also live gospel-informed lives, “keep[ing] your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (2:12). And one aspect of honorable conduct (in fact, it’s the first area of conduct that the Apostle mentions in a list of different areas) is how we relate to governmental leaders with submission and honor.
Of course, the Apostle Peter knew there was a time when governmental authorities must be disobeyed. It’s recorded for us in Acts 4 when he blatantly and openly disobeyed the Jerusalem authorities when they commanded that he no longer preach the gospel (Acts 4:18–20). In a later interaction, Peter famously responds to his persecutors, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Nevertheless, Peter’s example and instruction show that our default position towards our governmental leaders is to be one of submission and obedience, trusting that every earthly authority has been put in place by God himself (Daniel 4:17; Romans 13:1–2; John 19:10–11).
So while our country’s legacy may be one of revolution, we must also consider the apostolic call to submission. And while we may rightly celebrate the many freedoms we have in America, we must not misuse our freedoms by disrespecting and disobeying our authorities. Let’s honor the King of kings by living well under earthly kings. Let’s show our ultimate hope is in heaven by living obedient lives on earth.