Text: 1 Peter 2:13-17
This morning we’re going to be talking about politics. I know that sounds like a violation of the most basic rule in the book. What’s come over me?
Well, I actually agree with the idea that one shouldn’t “preach politics” if that means pastors shouldn’t act as if their personal opinions about a political issue are equal to the Bible’s teaching on the matter. And I also agree that if the Bible does not give a position on an issue, then we must leave it in the realm of human judgment. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t address politics. It does, especially on the basic level of what the civil government is and what our duty as Christians is towards the government. We cannot say everything on this important and large topic this morning, but we will attempt to give an introduction to the Biblical teaching on government.
1 Peter 2:11-17
The Apostle Peter gives us a basic perspective on government in the second chapter of his first letter, but it’s important to notice the context in which he gives it. In verses 11 and 12 he says, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.” This sounds like good general Christian advice, but then the very next verse says, “Therefore 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” (vs. 13-14).
So what we see is that one of the first ways we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and have “our conduct honorable among the Gentiles” is to submit to the government. And notice how wide-reaching Peter’s command is, “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man… whether to the king… or to governors… those who are sent by him.” And then Peter repeats that, “this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (vs. 15).
Beyond the command to submit, Peter also tells us that submission to the civil magistrate is a divine command, “for the Lord’s sake.” This is because, as Paul tells us in Romans 13, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” (vs. 1-2). This teaches us that the civil government is itself a divine ordinance, a reflection of God’s own character and of His will for this world. Additionally both Peter and Paul also say that the civil magistrate exists to “punish evil” and “praise those who do good” (Rom. 13:3; 1 Peter 2:14). This means that the civil government has a moral imperative and that ordinarily obedience to the government is equivalent to “doing what is right.” We should remember as well, that Paul and Peter were both writing these things during a time when ungodly men ruled the land. Even if the man holding the office was not righteous, the apostles tell us that the office is righteous.
Peter also states that submitting or obeying an earthly lord is not a contradiction of our freedom in Christ but rather the way in which we ought to express our Christian liberty. While we are truly free, we freely submit to authorities over us in order to show the way in which Jesus exhibited His own authority, not lording it over others but as a way in which to serve. We are to live “as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Any notion of “freedom” which does not also voluntarily submit to authority is a false and anti-Christian definition. We are free in Christ and yet servants of all.
Other Biblical Statements on Government
The Origins of Government
Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are probably the two passages that give the most concise and direct statements on a Biblical philosophy of government, but the there are many other important passages which teach us an overall “Biblical theology” of government. Like most of our teachings on humanity, roles, and ethics, it all starts with creation. Adam was told to “subdue” the earth and to “rule over” the animals (Gen. 1:28). The basic concept of rulership, then, is included in the dominion mandate. It is a reflection of God’s own rulership, and so we can say that government, in general, is one important aspect of being created in the image of God.
It’s not entirely clear, however, whether Adam is to be understood as a magistrate over other men. He has natural and familial headship, but the way in which he would or would not “rule” his descendents is not told to us. Once sin enters into the world, it becomes very clear that there is a lack of true justice. Might begins to make right, and the situation devolves so dramatically that God decides to destroy the whole world with a flood. It is for this reason that, immediately after the flood, God issues the death penalty, an important step in the formalization of civil government. God Himself says:
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning…From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. (Gen. 9:5-6)
We see that it is God who requires the reckoning and not the sinful passions of man. The death penalty is also grounded in the image of God, so we see that one reason that civil government must punish evildoers is to protect the sanctity of life and to uphold the truth about the value and nature of the image of God.
As soon as this kind of violence is introduced into government, then the question of organization and regulation of violence arises. Who gets to be in charge of this very important and dangerous business? One traditional definition of the civil magistrate is that it is the institution which possesses “a monopoly on violence.” This does not mean that it must be excessively violent, but it does mean that it gets to be the one to regulate and limit violence, and it does so for the sake of being able to prevent violence. It is the sheriff in town, so to speak, the good guy with the gun who has the ability to end the work of the bad guys. And Gen. 9 makes this a core part of human government.
Delegation of Power
The next important teaching on government comes in Exodus 18, when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, teaches him of the importance of delegating authority. He shows him that problems are best handled locally but also that if they cannot be resolved, then they can be passed “up” the hierarchy to a higher magistrate.
What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?… The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself… select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. (Ex. 18:14, 17-8, 21-22)
This passage is fascinating for a few reasons. First, Moses is originally governing improperly, and his gentile father-in-law corrects him. Secondly, the various “rulers” are appointed by Moses based on their virtues. They are not popularly elected. And thirdly, they are instructed to bring the “great” matters to Moses. So the principle isn’t simply “localism” but rather shared responsibility. This is where the Israelite political structure came from, and it continued this way until the people asked for a king.
Speaking of monarchy, the Biblical perspective on it is mixed. As Americans, we are pretty well trained to hate the idea of a king. And the Bible does paint a negative picture of kings, at least in certain times. But on the other hand, David is a king, and a good one, and God promised to give him an heir who would sit on the throne forever. When Jesus arrives, He proclaims a kingdom, not a parliament or a congress, and He says that He is a king forever. So we have to be careful here. The story is complicated.
Now, 1 Samuel 8 says:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
…And the Lord said to Samuel, “…they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them… Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.” (vs. 4-5, 7-9)
The request for a king came from the sinful desire of the people. They rightly noticed that Samuel had not ruled over his own house well, but they responded to that wrongly by asking to be like the other nations. God says that in doing this, they rejected His rule over them.
From this we can see what a bad king looks like. A bad king makes the people work for himself rather than going to work for the people. He enlarges his personal estate and racks up glory for himself. Nearly every king of Israel turned out to be such a bad king. Yet God promised to bless the house of David, and He promised to send a king to sit on David’s throne forever. Something would have to change.
God has an interesting way of solving problems in the Bible. When Israel’s kings went bad, God did not replace them with a good king or even a revolutionary leader. Instead, He gave the people over to foreign rulers, rulers who were often very bad men themselves. First came the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, and then the Persians. Shockingly, throughout the various attacks and exiles, God seems to side with these Gentiles. They are His instruments, even as they defeat the people of Israel. And we see through the picture of the exile that good and faithful Jews are allowed to serve these Gentile leaders. The most famous example is Daniel. He works first for Nebuchadnezzar and continues to serve Darius. He not only submits to them as his political ruler, but he actually works for them and advises them. He’s a political minister and governor! He does refuse to submit to them when they command him to commit idolatry or when they forbid him to pray to God, but otherwise he obeys and even supports their governments.
This “exile” model continues into the New Testament. Though Jesus did proclaim a kingdom, the apostles still used the political structure of the Roman Empire, and they always professed to be good citizens. The most famous example comes in the book of Acts when the Apostle Paul appeals to his citizenship as the reason he should not be beaten (Acts 22:25-29), and then finally when he appeals to Caesar. In fact, Festus gives Paul the opportunity to be judged by the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, and instead Paul asks for Caesar, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged” (Acts 25:10).
Now, this “exile” model does not mean that it is wrong to apply your faith to politics. In fact, it’s impossible not to apply someone’s faith to politics. The question isn’t “whether” we should have God and morality in politics but rather “which” God and “which” morality we will have. What the Biblical model of exile means is that the civil government may or may not be ideal in any given case, and it most certainly isn’t the best or most Christian form, but it is nonetheless valid and we owe proper political service to it. We can and should attempt to improve it, and we can even preach to Caesar. After all, Joseph converted Pharaoh and Daniel converted Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. What do you think Paul was going to do in Rome? I think he was going to do the same thing he did to Agrippa. I think he was going to preach the gospel.
Having taken a sort of basic survey of the Biblical presentation on government, we can make a few statements about Christian principles. 1) The first is that civil government is good, an institution created by God to do good and punish evil. Anarchy is not a biblical position, and the consistent teaching of the Bible is that all rulers, good and bad alike, have been put into power by God.
2) We are called to submit to our civil authorities. As Peter put it, “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.” Civil government is an appropriate authority, and we submit to it out of respect for authority itself. It is often said that you salute the uniform and not just the person wearing it. This is true. We submit to our leaders because we believe that their God created their office and put them in it.
3) We are called to pray for our civil leaders. 1 Timothy 2 states, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (vs. 1-2). Notice that we are not only told to pray for their correction or conversion, but also that we can have peace and the ability to live our lives. We pray that they do their job well so we can do ours.
4) We should work to actually respect and wish good things for our leaders. This is particularly challenging when our leaders do things which we disagree, especially when they do things which we think are really bad. But Biblically we are forbidden from cursing them. “Do not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). Interestingly, that verse appears in Acts 23 when Paul speaks harshly against the high priest:
Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:1-5)
The high priest was in the wrong, since he struck Paul in the face and opposed the truth, and yet Paul himself agrees that the Scripture forbids him from reviling an authority figure. In 2 Peter, we are told that among those who will be judged on the last day are those who “despise authority” and “speak evil of dignitaries” (2 Peter 2:1). This is a temptation that will come to those of us who love righteous government, and we must be on guard against it. Sin loves to turn righteousness indignation into unrighteous indignation, to turn a love of justice into anger or dissension.
5) We can and must resist authorities, whether they be in civil government, family, or even the church, when they command us to sin. We see this in the examples from the book of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were commanded to bow down before an idol (Dan. 3:8-18). They refused to do so because of their true faith in God, and so they took the punishment. Notice that they did not actually start an armed rebellion however. Instead they bore witness, even to death if necessary. Daniel himself had the same thing happen to him. He was forbidden from praying to God, but he did so anyway. For this he was thrown into the Lion’s Den, and God miraculously saved him (Dan. 6).
In the New Testament, Peter and John are commanded “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). They replied “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Again the situation was a matter of the faith itself. They were forbidden from preaching the gospel, and so they resisted, choosing to be punished and even imprisoned. This was the fate of all the apostles, and they all died for their faith except for John. So we see a general rule to submit in all earthly things, but when it comes to the worship of God and the preaching of the gospel we are called to be faithful to God first, even if it means disobeying earthly rulers. A good rule to remember is that you can never agree to sin, but at the same time it is not a sin to be sinned against. As Christians, we are called to bear wrongs done against us so that we can always bear the true witness about God.
6) We need to be able to make a distinction between theology and politics. Everything so far has been a theological principle, but there are also political rules and principles which can change over time. For instance, one of the blessings of being Americans is that we have a government which is changeable. If we dislike something, there are actually legal ways to address it. There is no biblical statement which says you cannot vote contrary to the wishes of your Congressman. Nothing requires us to advocate for the same causes as our President. And so you can and should be politically active to bring about good and righteous things. There’s a difference between “not rebelling” and simply being happy with the status quo. Rather than allowing anger or bitterness to lead you to hate politics, you should do what you can to put good into the world through all good institutions of authority. Christians should be good citizens, and that means transforming society into the image of Christ through deeds of love and piety. But these must be done lawfully, respectfully, and in the right time and place.
As Christians we are dual citizens. Ideally we faithfully and honorably serve God and man, but like in all things, God must come first. The reason we submit to rulers, even bad rulers, is because we believe that doing so is a way in which we submit to God. And yet if those rulers ever command us to commit sin, we must resist for the same reason. We do so because we must submit to God. Yet in all of this we should remember that our citizenship is a way in which we not only serve God but tell others about Him. Let your political ideas and behavior be a testimony about God and His Word. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Let us pray.
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