The Call to Submission
This week at New Life, we saw Peter’s encouragement to suffering first-century Christians to live in submission to their authorities, whether it be the emperor, their employers, or anyone else in a position of authority.
Here are Peter’s directives:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right… Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:13-14, 18 NIV)
Peter’s basic idea is that Christians ought to be a people who—as much as possible—submit to all human authorities. In this way, his words are similar to Paul’s instructions in Romans 13:1-7.
Of course, there will always be certain situations that call for civil disobedience. We have the example of the Hebrew midwives who rightly disobeyed Pharaoh in not killing Hebrew newborns (Exodus 1:15-21). We see the brave Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who—out of reverence for God—refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:1-28). We have the example of Daniel, who refused to follow a decree that prohibited prayer to God (Daniel 6:1-23). We could even look to Peter and John, who boldly and faithfully continued preaching the gospel, even as authorities ordered them to stop (Acts 4:1-20). In certain cases, our ultimate submission to God calls us to disobey our human authorities.
However, although some circumstances do call for civil disobedience, Peter makes no effort here to raise the exceptions to our submission to human authorities. He remains completely silent on this matter, and, instead, he focuses entirely on promoting humble submission to all authorities. As much as possible—Peter would tell us—unless certain lines are crossed, followers of Christ should be a people who are distinguished by their humility, their meekness, and their submission to every authority over them.
Here, it is also important to remind ourselves of what submission does not mean. When Peter encourages us to submit to every human authority, he does not mean we should purposely remain in abusive situations. He also does not mean we should throw our critical thinking out the window. Nor does he mean we should never petition our authorities for change. What it does mean is that we should be marked by humility and meekness as we navigate through the ungodly and unjust elements of the culture around us.
Take for example the American Christian’s right to free speech and critique of our authorities (Although, I would submit the right to do so does not always mean we should; sometimes, for the sake of the gospel, silence is the better option). Whether we’re dealing with a public platform or a private conversation with a friend, we could be tempted to express our critique of governmental authorities without kindness. Critique itself is not the issue. The issue is how we exercise our right to express our critique. Is it gracious? Is it gentle? Is it merciful? Is it humble? Is it meek? Or is it an offensive attack? There is a notable difference, and how we express ourselves could either be marked by our own pride, or it could be seasoned with a humble and submissive tone. As Paul would encourage us: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6 NIV). My prayer is that we—as God’s people—would always be full of grace. It is an element of godly submission.
This is especially true in our workplaces. Did you notice Peter’s call to “slaves” to submit to their “masters”? Understandably, when we read this, we naturally think of the slavery which occurred in our nation’s own history. We might even be shocked to see that Peter is calling Christian slaves to remain submissive to their earthly masters. After all, shouldn’t Peter be condemning slavery as an outright sin? Certainly, the Bible does condemn the selling of God’s image-bearers into permanent exploitation. In 1 Timothy 1:8-11, for example, Paul lists “slave traders” as those who are “ungodly” and “sinful”.
However, the slavery mentioned here in Peter’s letter is vastly different from the sinful slavery that occurred in our nation’s history. In fact, the word translated as “slaves” here in Peter’s letter comes from a Greek category of household labels. Historically, these were servants who were largely employed as stewards, managers, and helpers in someone’s home. They ran the work, whether in the home or outside in the fields. Peter is actually addressing a class of servant workers. A close modern-day parallel might be someone whose college education is paid for in exchange for four to six years of military service.
The idea is that we should be submissive to our employers, as well. But, sometimes, we find ourselves working under less-than-reputable business owners, managers, and supervisors. Perhaps you’ve experienced unfair work hours. Perhaps you’ve worked under a manager with a harsh character, or even a business owner who cheats their customers or the Internal Revenue Service. In these situations, how tempting is it to speak negatively of our employers? Or how tempting is it to intentionally do a poor job in return? As challenging as those situations are, Peter encourages us to do all the good we can, starting with gracious submission.
But he doesn’t leave us alone to the task; he also gives us three reasons—or three motives—for humble submission to every human authority in our lives.
Our Submission Silences Accusation
First, Peter teaches us that our submission to our authorities silences the world’s critique of Christians. Notice his words: “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). When we submit to our human authorities, we express a strong apologetic against the view that Christians are never up to anything good. Submission is a good work that silences accusation.
This was a lesson Peter learned in his own life. Remember when Jesus was betrayed in the garden? Peter unsheathed his sword that night, and he cut off the right ear of one of the individuals who arrived to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-50; John 18:10). But now, several years later, the older and wiser Peter is telling us to put our own swords away and to simply live a life of humble submission. For it’s through our own goodness, meekness, and humility that our criticizers will be silenced.
Our Submission is Seen by God
Second, Peter informs us that our submission does not escape our all-seeing God. Here are Peter’s words:
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20 NIV)
Did you notice the repetition of the word “commendable”? The word Peter uses here literally means “gracious” or “kind.” When we show submission to our authorities, we do a kind and gracious thing in the sight of God. What a wonderful motivation! Our submission is a good work that pleases our Father in heaven.
Our Submission Imitates Jesus
Third, and perhaps most important, Peter indicates that our submission imitates our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. (1 Peter 2:21-23a NIV)
In Christ, we have the greatest example of submission to human authorities, even unjust authorities. By quoting and alluding to Isaiah 53, Peter raises Jesus as our suffering servant, and he reminds us: Jesus will always be our greatest motive toward humility and submission in our own lives. If we want to be a people who reflect the likeness of Christ to the world around us, all we need to do is look to his own meekness in suffering. It will equip us to do the same.
My dear New Life Community Church, as much as possible, may we strive to submit to the human authorities in our own lives. It silences our accusers. It is seen by our all-seeing God. And, most importantly, it imitates our Savior. May we be recognized by our humility and meekness in a world that might otherwise never witness the character of Jesus.
With love for you in Christ,