Consistent Christian are not anarchists or scofflaws. We are gathered together today in this particular way precisely because we are not scofflaws. Every Christian who reads his Bible knows and understands that we are supposed to submit to the authorities that God has placed over us. What every Christian does not know, however, is that there are various understandings of how we are to do this. So yes, this is what we are to do. But how are we to do it? Are there different approaches to this assigned task?
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to 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. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:13–17).
Summary of the Text
In this passage from 1 Peter, we are told that we do whatever it is we do for the Lord’s sake. We obey magistrates in the Lord’s name, and we are not to obey them in their name (v. 13). In Romans 13, a similar passage, we are told a number of times that the authorities are God’s servants (deacons). This starts with the king, who is supreme. It then moves down to governors, and Peter again says the same thing that Paul does in Romans 13. The magistrate is to punish evildoers, and is to praise those who do well (v. 14). This is God’s will for us, so that we might through our lives silence the slander of ignorant men (v. 15), presumably those who accuse us of being lawbreakers. We are slavers or servants of God, which is what makes us free (v. 16). We are not to use the liberty we have as present possession as a cloak for malice or wrongdoing. And so we are to honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king (v. 17).
The problem is that these kinds of passages are often cherry-picked in way to make them say that our submission to the civil magistrate is to be absolute. God put them there, so shut your mouth. The problem with this is that you have been taught a basic interpretive principle. Interpret any particular passage of Scripture in the light of all Scripture. And so I would remind you that the man who wrote these words for us was soon to be executed by the magistrate as someone who was a grave threat to their civil order (John 21:18-19). This was the same man who was broken out of jail by an angel, and who disappeared from the book of Acts as a wanted man (Acts 12:10, 17). The guards who lost him were executed because of his disappearance (Acts 12:19). This was the man who was in jail in the first place because he was a leader of the Christians (Acts 12:3), and who earlier had told the Sanhedrin that he wouldn’t quit preaching (Acts 5:29). And he was the man who was writing this letter to prepare law-abiding Christians for the time of persecution that was coming, in which time they would be accused of being scofflaws (1 Pet. 4:7, 13-16). So whatever his words in chapter 2 mean, they have to be consistent with the life of the one who wrote them.
Among the governments that exist among men, three of them were created directly by God. And none of them can function smoothly without the foundational government of self-government, or self-control. Men who cannot control themselves are incapable of living within the context of free institutions. These three governments are family government, created by God in the Garden (Gen. 2:22; Matt. 19:6), civil government, also established by God (Rom. 13:1-5), and the government of the church, which was a gift to us from Christ (Eph. 4:10-12).
Other governments that exist are creations of men—political parties, service organizations, chess clubs, and so on. The three above were all three created by God directly, and He wrote the by-laws for all of them.
Now Arrange Them All in the Right Order
If you have been a Christian for more than ten minutes, you know that there are different doctrinal positions on all kinds of stuff. On eschatology, there is premill, postmill, and amill. On baptism, there is paedo and credo. On polity, there is independent, presbyterian, and episcopal. On soteriology, there is Calvinist and Arminian. We know the different positions, and usually we have a rough idea of what kind of church we belong to.
Now here is the surprise for some. Christians disagree about the right relationship of the church to the state. Some believe that the church is and ought to be the supreme government on earth (this is the Roman Catholic position), in authority over the civil magistrates. The second position is called Erastianism (after Thomas Erastus, a 16th century Swiss physician and theologian). This position holds that the state is supreme over the church. The default position of many Christians today is Erastian. The third position, which is a classic Reformed position, is that these various government are in a “checks and balances” position, on a horizontal plane, not stacked in a vertical hierarchy. And this is the view that Christ Church holds.
Having all of this sketched out on paper can help resolve any number of intellectual tensions. But you still have practical problems to solve. It might help you to know that a mugger with a gun taking your wallet doesn’t “get to” do that, but at the same time, it should be recognized that he is doing that. So the first level is to understand that we are talking about how things ought to be. We are talking about the ideal. In the meantime, on the way from here to there, you will at times have to do a cost/benefit analysis—just like with the mugger.
But in the meantime, whether you are under constraint or not, whether you are having to deal with restrictions or not, remember than you are free in Christ. Remember this line from our text: “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.”
The Father is good to us, all the time. Christ is Christ for us, all the time. The Spirit is with us, all the time.