1 Peter 2:13-15 – The Duty of the Christian to the Civil Government
A Response to the Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage
Peter said in the passage just before this one (i. e. verses 11, 12) that the good lives of believers help to win over the unbelieving world. Then he shows us exactly how this works as we do our duty to the civil government. 1 Peter 2:13-14 show what our duty is:
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
Christians are here told to submit to the civil government; not primarily because the state has the police power and can get us, but ‘for the Lord’s sake.’ This makes clear that the way we relate to the government under which we live directly reflects on the Lord. That is why it is so important for us to do what God says through Peter: submit.
Peter makes it plain that we are to submit to the overall authority; in his day, that was the terrible emperor Nero, who persecuted the church, and did a huge amount of evil. Also, we are called to submit to the subsidiary authorities, such as governors and local officers.
Verse 14 says that we are to support them when they punish evildoers. Police power is necessary to deal with criminals, and we must back them, or else proper law and order are overturned. Paul says in Romans 13:4 that the state ‘bears not the sword in vain.’ In other words, the state must deal with such as murderers by capital punishment (instituted in Genesis 9), and also with external enemies, who would invade and destroy our country and its freedom. This means that we must have armies and navies with firepower when just wars are necessary.
Romans 13:6-7 says that believers must pay their taxes, even when the government is far from ideal (as it was in Nero’s time). Thus, co-operation with proper police power, and honest payment of taxes are ways that Christians show legitimate submission to the state under which we live.
In general, it has been the case that Christians have been good citizens, who have organized, built up, and maintained governments of all kinds (whether , tribes, monarchies, or republics). That is one of the powerful ways they have shown the peace, order, and love of the God who saved them.
Yet the Bible itself sets limits to the submission believers owe the civil order. When some of the Old Testament kings of Israel and Judah practiced idolatry, the holy prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah stood against them. In the New Testament, when the unbelieving Jewish leadership told the apostles to quit preaching the gospel, they had to disobey this unrighteous order. Listen to Acts 4:18-20:
And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.
The Apostle Paul escaped Damascus, when the unrighteous authorities had sealed the city with the intent to kill him. The believers let him down in a basket over the city wall. That was humanly illegal, but approved by God, the supreme governor of all.
Or in World War II, we can think of the wonderful Dutch spinster, Corrie Ten Boom, who with her family in Amsterdam, bravely hid Jewish people from the Nazi soldiers to keep them from being deported to the concentration camps. Later, she and her family would pay a heavy price for this disobedience to the Nazi controlled state. But in disobeying a wicked government policy (which was to kill the Jews), this family obeyed the Lord (i.e. ‘Thou shalt not kill’), and set a noble example for the world.
Here is the point: only God’s law is absolute; we must always follow what he says in his Word. But sometimes man’s law goes against God’s law; in that case, we always do what God said, even when it is contrary to unrighteous human law. This resistance to tyranny is always the basis of liberty. Behind all our liberties, lies the cross of those who have suffered for doing right, even when sinful governments opposed them for it.
Think of the British Puritans who populated these American colonies. They refused to obey an unrighteous crown, which tried to stop them believing, preaching, and practicing what God’s written Word set forth. We are here today because of their resistance to unrighteous human laws.
Now let me deal with only one unrighteous law, where American Christians are going to have to disobey an ungodly Supreme Court ruling (made on Friday, June 26th, 2015), which allows gay marriage throughout the nation. Today I will not seek to show the biblical grounds against marriage of persons of the same sex, but it is easy enough to do. Without going into the details of that, here is the problem that the church now must face: since marriage of same-sex persons has now become national state policy, what if the church follows God’s Word, and therefore refuses to perform such marriages?
To refuse to do it will now be to disobey an edict of the US Supreme Court. Does that mean the state will seek to disadvantage the churches by removing their tax deduction, or putting property taxes on them? That remains to be seen. If such things happen, then we will be back in the position of our Puritan forefathers, whom the British state severely persecuted for not following state policy (as, for example, how they worshipped).
Whatever the cost, our British Christian ancestors determined to follow the Lord, and to pay whatever price was necessary. Our modern liberties for the last three hundred years have come out of their disobedience to an unrighteous state. That may be a price that true believers have to pay from time to time, and why would we be any better than the rest to have to pay such a price?
In the providence of God, such struggles may be a divinely appointed way to wake up a sleepy, self-satisfied church; to make her decide whether she shall obey God or man; whether the Word of God is true, and whether she will give her all to follow him. It may be a way to make us lean hard on Jesus, and thereby renew our first love. Worse things could happen!
Let me say something here that I think is very important for all of God’s people: in case we have to resist unrighteous governmental edicts, we must always seek to do so in the spirit of Christ. Paul said to Timothy: ‘The servant of the Lord must not strive’. That is, we stand for God’s truth, but graciously, and not in a self-righteous, harsh, or angry way. In other words, we seek ‘to speak the truth in love’; we must not speak the truth in hatred. That would be to deny who Jesus Christ really is.
In all our testimony against any kind of sin, we must demonstrate the love of God for sinners, and show that the way of forgiveness and repentance is always open for them, much as they may be opposing the truth at this time. We must never personally hate government officials who are enforcing unrighteous decrees. That is the holy example Peter and John gave when they were commanded not to speak the name of Jesus at the Temple. Insofar as we follow them, our testimony will have a supernatural ability to penetrate the consciences of those who are on the wrong side. The showing of gentility and charity when one is being wrongly persecuted is one of the main ways over the hundreds of years that has won many a lost person to the Lord.
But how can we manage this? The answer is simple, but most demanding: we must continually take to our knees, and seek the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to walk in the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus told us in Luke 11 that the Spirit is given in answer to prayer. How much we are going to need the blessed Third Person of the Holy Trinity in days soon to follow! We already know what to do; let us humble our proud flesh, and do so!
If we stand for truth when it is against the mandates of an unrighteous government, and do so in the grace of the spirit of Christ, then 1 Peter 2:15 promises what will in due season happen, and it is really all we need to know right now:
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
Let us close with the words from a hymn by Faber:
Faith of our fathers! We will love,
Both friend and foe in all our strife,
And preach thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life.
May the Lord grant us that grace in days to come!
Dr Douglas F. Kelly is Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.
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