This post is a continuation of one I wrote here. I looked at a passage in 1 Peter 2 and discussed how our Bible reading and study can be unduly influenced by our different perspectives – where we grew up, what our family structure was like, our education level, our gender and many other things.
In this post I want to go back to that passage, add another from Titus, and talk a little about how being an American can influence how we react to and interpret these passages. Here’s the 1 Peter passage again:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:13-17
And here is the passage from Titus:
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2
What is your initial reaction to these passages? If you’re a Christian who lives in America you may bristle at these phrases: be submissive, be subject, emperor as supreme, honor the emperor, speak evil of no one. We don’t have emperors; we’re used to speaking our mind on every issue, especially on social media. Politics is a kind of sport in this country. We have fun mocking and scoffing at the stupidity of the other side of the aisle. We’ve also inherited a tradition of freedom that has allowed for widespread dissent, the creation of new political movements, as well as the ability to sign petitions and effect change and protest on the streets. We feel it’s our birthright to call out the government when it’s doing something wrong. Don’t misunderstand – I love our country and our freedoms. God has blessed us immensely and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
It is not my aim in this post to discuss the believer’s relationship with government and when we are called by God to disobey. This is a post about how we look at Scripture. What is influencing our reactions? Do we even acknowledge and examine these reactions? This is what I’m calling people to do. Do you read and study out of your identity as a Christ follower who happens to be an American or do you identify primarily as an American and then as a Christian? Your initial reactions to passages like these can help you answer that question.
It’s interesting to look at how Peter identifies his readers. In the beginning of the letter he calls them exiles who have been dispersed among various geographical areas. Then in chapter 2 verse 9 he calls them a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession. We are God’s people. This is the way we should identify ourselves.
Another crucial thing to keep in mind is that these letters were written to believers during times of oppression and persecution. The believers Peter was writing to were living under the tyrannical and brutal rule of Nero. And Peter is exhorting his fellow brothers and sisters to honor this emperor! That will definitely grind against our American sensibilities. What does that mean? I don’t know specifically, but I do know that it has something to do with realizing that someone else ultimately has authority over Nero. (See Romans 13) And knowing that persecution is ordained by God for the good of his people, his church. In Acts, the stoning of Stephen led to the scattering of the church and its tremendous growth led by Paul – the one who approved of Stephen’s stoning! Peter also makes it clear in his epistle that when we suffer it is according to God’s will. (See 1 Peter 3:17; 4:19)
What does it mean to submit to and honor the rulers and authorities in our context? That will vary according to the situation and will require prayer, great wisdom and humility. But the first step is to humble ourselves under God’s Word, submitting our perspectives to it, letting it moderate and control our biases, not the other way around.