The election is over. What now? Three principles for living as Heavenly Citizens under Earthly Authorities

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)

Government is a gift of God’s common grace. Lack of human authority combined with the human tendency to sin is never a recipe for peace or prosperity. As Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church has said, “almost any government is better than no government.” But how—as subjects of a greater King, who deserves and demands our primary obedience—are we to relate to the government that we are under?

  • As Christians, are we to be revolutionaries called to overthrow unjust governments and establish a theocracy?
  • Are we to be zealots, full of nationalistic fervor and promoting our government and political system as the answer to every society’s ills?
  • Should we be conscientious objectors, separating ourselves from worldly government, refusing to take any part?
  • Or maybe we’re to be constant critics who simply bemoan government, always complaining to others about how much tax we pay or how incompetent our leaders seem to be and what unwise laws they keep passing.

In 1 Peter 2:13-17, the apostle explains that, regardless of the type of government over us, we have a responsibility to earthly authorities—and he gives us three principles for moving forward. Though we are citizens of another kingdom serving another King, during the time of our exile on this earth we must submit ourselves to every governing authority placed over us by God.

Principle 1: Submit, Don’t Worship
Peter tells us to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (v 13). The word translated “institution” is literally “creature”—but institution is a good translation, for Peter is not telling his readers that they are to submit to every person created by God. In fact, Peter is making a nuanced and crucial point about the nature of authority. In his day, the Roman emperor—the authority—was an object of worship. But Peter is clear: the emperor is not divine, so he is not to be worshiped. No ruler is to be worshiped. Our leaders are mere human creatures like us–they are to enjoy our submission and respect, but not our worship.

Yet this practice of ruler-worship is not limited to the first century. Are we not worshiping a creature when we promote a particular leader (or party) as the answer to society’s ills, the one who can inaugurate heaven on earth? Aren’t we in danger of idolatry when we sacrifice time, money, and resources at the altar of a political party, but we won’t sacrifice time, money, and resources to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth? And what does it say about us when we speak of a mere human as an evil power that rivals God, as though the wrong election result might well bring hell on earth? Just as J.C. Ryle said that “the best of men are only men at their very best” (Expository Thoughts: Matthew, page 209) so too, the worst of men are still only men at their very worst. Our leaders are mere human creatures like us, but as human creatures, they bear God’s image. They are to enjoy our submission (v.13) and our respect (v.17), but not our worship.

Principle 2: Submit to Every Human Authority
Peter does not limit submission to the supreme ruler of our state alone. Christians are to submit to every human authority, “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (vv.13-14) because they all serve the same purpose. They are God’s ministers appointed “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (v.14). Through his appointed governing authorities, God maintains order in the world for the common good of society. Consequently, while we are in this world, we are to submit ourselves to all governing authorities from the top down.

There are no exceptions; Peter’s command is comprehensive. It does not matter if those governing authorities are good or bad; it does not matter if you elected them or not; it does not matter if you agree with them or not. Christians are to submit to governing authorities and those who are authorized to speak on their behalf. God is not surprised by their rise to power; he put them there! (Although an important qualifier is necessary here: As Christians, we are to obey all governing authorities, but as God’s slaves, if there is ever a conflict between human authority and heavenly authority, we must choose to obey God over man.)

Principle 3: Submit as Good Citizens
We are to submit voluntarily as those who are free in Christ (vv.13, 16). We submit not only because we have to (to avoid punishment) but because we choose to (“for the Lord’s sake”, v.13).

We submit by being good citizens (vv.15-16). As God instructed the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah’s day, we are to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

We are free to “seek the welfare” of our city by involving ourselves in earthly government, including serving in official capacities. Government is not evil in and of itself; it is ordained by God. One of the ways that we can serve government is by taking a role in government, either at a local, regional, or national level. That may mean running for political office or serving in government in an advisory position. It may include stepping into a particular role that addresses specific societal problems and concerns, such as human rights, healthcare, economics, foreign policy, or national defense. None of these are off-limits for Christians.

We are also free to influence government as earthly citizens. That may mean speaking for good policy and against bad policy. Often times, Christians have had to speak out against unjust policies. In democratically elected governments, Christians are free to influence government by voting during elections. However, we are not to deceive ourselves into thinking that if we only get the right candidate in office, then we can have “heaven on earth.” There is only one new heavens and earth, and there is only one heavenly King, and his rule isn’t subject to a majority vote. On the day of his return, he will establish a government that is righteous, just, and peaceful. Until that day, we are to seek justice for those around us, to the degree that we are able and have influence.

Love,

Pastor Juan

Note: This article is an excerpt from Pastor Juan’s book, 1 Peter for You.

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