Submitting to the Government
Topic: English Passage: 1 Peter 2:13-17
This is a very timely passage for us to talk about today, and I’m glad we’re doing it in one language at a time because it gives us more time to talk, and it gives me the chance to be a little more specific or nuanced.
I think the obvious question for us, and for many churches, is how we are responding to COVID, but there are also many, many other questions that this passage can bring up. I won’t be able to address all of that, but I hope that our time together lays a groundwork for some of the thinking you do on your own or with another group.
In order to organize our time today, I’m arranging our study today under three headings: The Instructions, The Motivations, and the Considerations. Okay?
That’s gonna be our outline as we talk about submitting to the governing authorities. First, it’s The Instructions—What is this commandment actually telling us to do?
Second, The Motivations—Why are we being told to do this? What’s the reasoning behind the command?
And lastly, The Considerations. I was almost going to say “the Exceptions,” but I don’t think that’s the best way to think about this. There are some important considerations to take into account when we apply this passage, and it’s important to address those, especially right now when churches are having to make decisions in light of all the COVID-19 restrictions.
You need to be equipped to answer people biblically when you talk about government regulations, and hopefully our study today helps with that. If you want to talk more, maybe we can extend this into next week, or maybe even a midweek meeting of some kind, if enough of you want that. But talk to me about that.
Let’s start with our first heading for today—The Instructions. What is this passage telling us to do?
At its heart, the commands here are not complicated. They may not be easy to follow, but they’re not complicated. God’s message to His people, by the Holy Spirit and through the Apostle Peter, has two components. There is an internal attitude, and there is an external action. And you see them in verses 13 and 17.
The first instruction is from verse 13. It says “Submit” or “Be subject to.” That is talking about obedience. That is the external action this passage calls us to. We are called to obey.
To obey what or whom? It says we are to submit to every human institution. Literally, it says to every human creation. And what it’s getting at is the structures and systems that have been created by man and for man. What Peter has in mind specifically here is the government. This is talking about civil government.
Peter’s first-century audience was living in the Roman Empire, so they fell under the jurisdiction of the Emperor. At the time of this writing, that was Nero.
And in verse 14, Peter traces Nero’s authority at the top level down to the governors, and by extension, the lower, more immediate levels. The Roman Empire was divided up among governors, and some examples of those from the Bible would be Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa, Felix, and Festus.
Peter is giving them as examples of the entire system. In that day, it would go down to the Roman Soldier who patrolled in a town, or the local tax collector, or, in Jerusalem, the Jewish Council. Those were extensions of civil authority.
Peter says “Submit to them.” The Greek word is hupotasso, and it’s a combination of the word hupo which means “under” and tasso which means “arrange.” So, arrange yourself under this authority structure. Listen to, and obey, the rules they’ve put in place.
Which rules? Peter doesn’t specify. He is being as broad as he can, without giving any specific exceptions in this instance. The default position here is, “Obey the laws and the rules and the regulations that the government has placed on you. Be an obedient, law-abiding citizen. Don’t rebel.”
But that’s not the extent of the command. Remember, obedience is the external action this passage calls for, but there is also an internal attitude. Externally, the command is to obey. Internally, the command is to honor.
That’s what you see in in the final phrase of verse 17—“Honor the Emperor.” You see the same word used at the beginning of verse 17—Honor everyone. The external action is obedience, and the internal attitude is honor. To honor someone means to esteem them, to show them respect.
Parents and children, you know there’s a difference between honoring and obeying. You can obey the letter of a command, but still not honor someone, right? Honor and obedience are not exactly the same thing. A kid can take out the trash but roll his eyes and grumble the entire time.
Or, as a citizen, you can obey the officer who tells you not to park in front of a fire hydrant, but then go inside and badmouth him. That’s not honor.
There will be times of disagreement with authorities like presidents or governors or judges and police officers, but those disagreements don’t take away our responsibility to treat them with respect and with humility.
So, the instructions we have in this passage are to obey and to honor. Again, it’s not always easy, but it’s not complicated. Obey and honor. Obedience is the external action, and honor is the internal attitude.
Let’s move on now to the motivations behind these instructions. And this is important to understand. We want to know God’s commands, and, as best we can, we also want to know His heart behind those commands. So, what are the motivations here?
The first motivation is our honor for God. Our honor for God. Verse 13 says we submit “for the Lord’s sake.” We honor the governing authorities because we honor God who has ordained that they be there.
God has ordained authority as part of this life. In the home, parents are the authority. At your job, there is probably someone or some group over you. And in society, we have civil authority. That was God’s design.
I’m not saying that God has directly and joyfully placed every single government official into power. What I’m saying is that God has ordained that nations and societies be run with some structure of authority. Some individuals in our society have a role to play in the leadership or the governance of our society. Do you get that? If you don’t have that, you have anarchy; nobody is in charge.
This is the point Paul makes in Romans 13:1. He writes—1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
If you reject and rebel against authority, you are actually rebelling against something God has put in place.
In fact, eventually we’ll get to verse 18 next week or the week after. And there it instructs slaves to listen to their masters, even if they are harsh or unreasonable.
Going back to civil government, Paul goes on in Romans 13, verse 3
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, 4for 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.
The governing authorities aren’t perfect, but they have been placed by God as a common grace to deter evil and protect us from harm. That’s why the general pattern for us is to obey them. And that can include laws we don’t like or maybe even disagree with.
Again, it’s not a perfect legal system, but we are much better off with the laws than without them. The enforcement of the law minimizes evil in our communities.
Ecclesiastes 8:11 speaks to the absence of law, and it says: Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.
And that’s what Peter is getting at in 1 Peter 2, verse 14. The Emperor helps make the laws, and then the governors and the local representatives enforce that law. Peter says the governors are sent to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.
This is God’s design for civil government. For the good of society, and for its preservation against evil, God has decreed that there be government and some kind of enforcement of law.
Romans 13 says that punishment includes taking life if necessary. That’s the power of the sword. So, out of honor to God’s design in this world, we honor the governing authorities. We honor the president, no matter who it is. We honor our governors and judges. We honor police officers. That what God wants.
There’s a second motivation here, though. And this is more along with Peter’s focus. The first motivation was our honor for God. The second motivation is our testimony before the world. Our testimony before the world.
Look at verse 15—For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
What does that mean? That’s the same thing Peter was talking about back in verse 12. And notice the use of that same word, “good.”
Verse 12 says—Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Respecting those in authority, even when we disagree with them is part of those good deeds Peter is talking about. And it helps correct the lies this world tells about us.
What do you think when you turn on the TV or you look at your phone and you see people screaming obscenities and spitting at police officers? What do you think when you see people stopping traffic and looting businesses and throwing explosives at police? Does that strike you as honorable conduct?
Some media outlets are trying to normalize that kind of stuff. They say it’s justified because of other injustices in society. Those kinds of groups are operating under a whole different set of values. The only way they know to make a difference is to start destroying stuff. Frankly, it’s the adult version of a tantrum.
But how are Christians supposed to respond? We’re not called to be revolutionaries. We’re not called to overturn any governmental system. We’re called to trust our Father and show this world that our true hope is in heaven, not in some governing structure.
Will our government and our rulers promote ideas and philosophies that are contrary to God? Yes, they will. We live in a fallen world. But God calls us to respond according to His truth, not according to our fleshly desires.
And when the unbelieving world sees the way we behave ourselves, their slander is shown to be false. Peter says they are ignorant and foolish. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Their arguments against us don’t make any sense.
In Peter’s time that would have included people saying that Christians were trying to overthrow the Emperor. Today, it might show up in a similar thought, with people saying that Christians are anti-government or that we are some kind of hate group. We can help prove that false with our conduct.
We need to stand on our convictions, but we need to do that with gentleness and grace and love.
Later in chapter 3, verse 9, it says don’t return evil for evil, or insult for insult.
Verse 15 says—in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
We don’t have a license to sin and to break the law whenever we want. We can’t go out there and say, “Well, technically we have diplomatic immunity because we are citizens and ambassadors of a different kingdom. We represent Jesus Christ, and your laws have no power over us!” That’s foolishness, and it’s dangerous. And it works against what God wants for us.
Here’s what God says. Verse 16—Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
We’re not slaves to our fleshly desires anymore. We are slaves of God.
The motivations behind the instructions to obey and to honor are our own honor for the Lord and our own testimony before the world. God will use our obedience and our holiness to vindicate the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus will be shown to be righteous.
Hopefully, that’s clear in your mind. God wants us to honor the government. And that honor is not based on whether or not we like the rules. It’s based on God’s design for us in this world.
Having said that, we come now to the special considerations for this command. This is our third and final section for today—The Considerations. Maybe you end up with more questions than answers here, but that’s part of what it means to study the Bible and apply it to your life. This is practical theology. This is the nitty-gritty stuff.
What special considerations should we have in our mind as we think about these principles, and how does that relate to how you think about COVID regulations, or immigration issues, or whatever else comes to mind? Let me share two considerations. And again, I may not answer all your questions with this, but that’s okay. Come talk to me afterward, and I’d love to talk some more.
The first consideration is a conflict between different level of authority. What happens when there is a conflict between different layers of civil government?
In Peter’s example, he’s talking like the Emperor and the governor are on the same page. But that’s not always going to be the case.
Here in the United States we have levels of authority. It’s not a clear hierarchy. We have the president and congress and the supreme court operating at the national level. Then we have the state level. Then we have the county and the city levels, which are local. What do we do if they give us opposing instructions?
What happens when the local government is opposed to the government at a higher level? I don’t mean that they make it more specific. I mean what if they go contrary to it?
That’s sort of like asking, “What should a child do when Mom and Dad give him opposing instructions?” That’s not always easy to navigate.
What happens when the federal government prohibits something, but the state or the city refuses to recognize it or to enforce it? Or, how about the other way around? What do we do when federal law gives us a specific freedom, but state law denies it to us? How should we respond?
Someone might argue that the federal level takes precedence because it’s a higher authority. Someone else might say that the local government has priority because it has better insight into what’s happening since it’s closer. It’s not always easy to figure out which way is best.
One principle we see in Scripture is that Christians have the freedom to appeal to higher courts. Again, that doesn’t mean we can be rebellious or dismissive of local authority. We still ne to show honor, bBut we can make appeals to higher authorities.
That’s exactly what happened with Paul when he was arrested. Rather than have his case settled by the local city officials, he said “I appeal to Caesar.” That’s Acts 25:11. Paul went to the highest court of the land.”
We’re not specifically mandated to do that, but we do have an example that seems to give us that freedom.
Some churches are applying that when they think about COVID restrictions. They are arguing that restrictions on our corporate gatherings and on our ministries are an infringement on our First Amendment rights. So, they’ve gone to court. They’re appealing to a higher level.
Just to share one more scenario: what are you supposed to do if a police officer knocks on your door and is asking to look inside your house? As a Christian, are you obligated to let him in?
You have a local authority wanting access to your home. But you also have written laws that protect you. What do you do? There’s probably some disagreement over that. This is part of Christian freedom.
One the one hand, he’s a local authority, so you might obey him and say, “Of course officer, come right in.” On the other hand, maybe you’re inclined to say, “I’m sorry, officer, but unless you have probable cause or a warrant, I’m not going to give my consent.” Whatever side you fall on, what needs to be evident is a heart of submission and humility and respect toward that office.
Let me move on now to the second and final consideration. The first consideration is that there will be opposing views between different levels of authority in the government. The second consideration is there will be opposing principles between God’s law and man’s law. This is a big deal.
Imagine, if you will, or draw it in your notes if you want, a sliding scale from 1 to 9. Number 1 represents something that is forbidden or prohibited. You have been told not to do it.
Number 9 is something that is mandated or required. You have been clearly told that you must do it.
Right in the middle is number 5, which would represent something that is allowed or permissible. That’s neutral. You’re not banned from it, and you’re not mandated to do it.
Between numbers 1 and 5, we have numbers 2-4. Let’s call that discouraged. You’re not prohibited from doing it, but you are discouraged from doing it.
And between 5 and 9 is numbers 6-8. Let’s call that the encouraged section. That’s stuff that is not explicitly mandated but it encouraged.
So, you have this sliding scale from prohibited to discouraged, to permitted, to encouraged, to mandated. And as you think about an issue you can think about where you believe it falls on man’s law. And then you can think about where you believe it falls under God’s law. So you’ve got civil authority and divine authority, biblical authority.
When both God’s law and man’s law line up at level 1 or level 9, that’s easy to figure out what to do. And we praise God that human law lines up with His righteousness.
If both God and man prohibit something, you don’t do it. You don’t steal. You don’t murder.
If God and man both mandate something, you do it. You tell the truth under oath. You pay your taxes. Those are laws in the land, and they are biblical commands. Again, that’s easy to figure out what to do.
Then there are times when God’s law places something at level 1 or level 9, meaning it’s clearly forbidden or mandated, but the civil law disagrees. That’s unfortunate, but it’s going to happen because we live in a fallen world.
In those cases, even if obedience is difficult, it’s not difficult to know what the right thing to do is. You go with God’s law.
For example, it doesn’t matter if the law allows for a sexual relationship with your girlfriend, God’s law does not.
And even if man’s law is clear on the other side of the spectrum, you stick with God’s law. That’s what the Apostles did in Acts chapters 4 and 5.
The church was growing and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were jealous. So, they put the Apostles in jail. And in Acts 4:18, the leaders tell them, “Don’t preach in Jesus’ name anymore.” And in verse 19 Peter and John respond, “You guys, be the judge. Should we listen to you or to God who called us to be His witnesses?”
Well, in chapter 5 of Acts, they get arrested again, but an angel frees them and tells them, “Go back to the temple and preach the message of eternal life.” And so that’s what they do.
When the Council calls them in again, they say, “We told you not teach in Jesus’ name.” And Peter and John respond with Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”
That response got them whipped for disobedience, but the Apostles went out of there rejoicing that they were worthy to suffer for Christ’s name.
God’s law is greater than man’s law.
Again, it’s very easy to know what to do when man’s law contradicts a clear prohibition or a clear mandate from God. You respectfully disobey the human government. When human authority wants to force you to do what God has prohibited, or it wants to prohibit you from doing what God has commanded, you go with God.
Where this gets tricky, and where people will find disagreement, is in all the stuff in the middle. What about the stuff that is somewhere between level 2 and level 8? What happens there when there’s a disagreement.
That’s when you need to pray for wisdom, study what the issues are, and then make the decision you think will best honor God. That might also mean studying the law carefully. Because it’s not inherently sinful to look at a technicality.
For example, paying your taxes is a biblical command. But what about taking tax deductions for certain expenses? What about filing for unemployment? What about immigration issues?
What you do on those issues shouldn’t be determined simply by what benefits you most, but by where you believe those things fall on the spectrums of God’s law and man’s law. You need to study. And if both end up at level 5, then, yes, that’ll come down to Christian freedom or Christian choice.
This brings us to the discussion of our COVID restrictions. How are we responding as a church, and how should you respond as a Christian? Those are two different questions, so I’ll take them on at a time and then leave you to think about it for yourself.
How are we responding as a church? As elders, when we’ve talked about these kinds of issues, we are in general agreement with the argument that churches should be free to govern themselves as they see fit. I believe that’s affirmed not just by the First Amendment, but by the biblical principles of self-governance.
So, generally, we would stand with a church who feels that in order to worship Christ as a corporate church, they need to defy the orders.
At the same time, we have seen that in our own church, because of our size, we don’t feel it’s necessary at this time to defy the order by going indoors every week.
However, we do believe that God places a high premium on the physical gathering of the church. That is so valuable and critical for the life and health of a church. So, whenever the weather does not allow us to be outside, we will meet indoors.
We don’t do that as a way to “stick it to the man.” We do it because we believe that honors God and promotes His design for the church. We, as elders, have a responsibility to God and to our flock to shepherd you in the best way possible.
And even if our public schools recognize that this year isn’t going to be very effective for the education of our young children, I don’t think we as elders have the right to say, “Ok God, this year is just gonna be a wash for us too. We’re all just gonna do the bare minimum.” That’s not what God calls us to do.
My brother-in-law, BJ Cantu, who used to be a member here, is now a pastor at Christ Community Church in Orange County. And he wrote a letter to his congregation saying this: “Although our government leaders are endeavoring to look out for the physical health of our people, they have not accurately accounted for the spiritual and emotional health of our people.
“To be clear, we do not believe it is the responsibility of the government to care for the spiritual or emotional health of our people; that responsibility belongs to the Church. But in attempting to protect our physical health, the government has made it excessively difficult for our church to facilitate activities that encourage our spiritual and emotional health.”
In other words, there’s a clash between what the government is prioritizing and what church leadership should be prioritizing.
He goes on to say: “We understand the situation much differently today than we did in early March when the governmental restrictions were first put in place. We have seen the adverse effects that the restrictions have (inadvertently and indirectly) caused in the lives of our people.
“It would be irresponsible of us, as elders, to continue complying with governmental orders that are intended to protect the physical health of our people but simultaneously keep them away from resources that would encourage their spiritual and emotional health...
“Looking ahead, we will continue to strive to comply with the spirit of the government’s orders wherever they are not prohibitive to the spiritual and emotional health of our congregation.”
That’s a very accurate reflection of where I think our own elder group stands. There is a tension between the government’s apparent priorities and the church’s, and we are going to lean in the principles that God leans in on. And we’re asking for wisdom to do that well.
What does that mean for you personally, whether you’re here right now or watching online? Well, it means you need to make some decisions for yourself.
The question our civil authorities would have you ask is: “How seriously are you taking COVID-19?” I guess that’s kind of a loaded question because it might assume some things about the disease and about the appropriate response.
You’re going to have to form your own answer to that question. But the question, your pastors would have you consider more carefully is this: “How seriously are you taking your walk with Christ?”
Some of the members in our church, for various reasons, will feel like it’s most honoring to God if they don’t attend right now. That’s okay. Pray for them. We don’t want them to feel excluded or looked down upon. We want to reach out to them as best we can.
Others of you might be more inclined to take some liberties with the regulation. Maybe you think that the biblical commands to hospitality and unity and love are enough to justify taking someone out to lunch or inviting them over your house. Don’t make those decisions lightly. Don’t do that just because it’s what you want.
Study the Scriptures. Look at what the law says. Think about the differing layers of our civil government, and then make an informed and committed decision.
We’re not all going to agree on some of these issues. But let me close with what it says in Romans 14.
However you decide to respond to the COVID restrictions, or to any other human authority, God says, “Don’t despise one another. And don’t pass judgment on one another. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”