Dr. Zach Crook

Our world is filled with political debates and corrupt leaders. As believers who know the difference between right and wrong, this can become unbearably frustrating. How do we navigate this? Today we will examine what Christians need to know about submitting to authority and obeying earthly leaders according to the Bible. 

Peter’s Exhortation to a Persecuted Church

In 1 Peter, Peter wrote to the church scattered in Asia, now modern-day Turkey, to encourage them during intense persecution. He begins the letter by reminding them of their living hope in Jesus and challenges them to persevere. Peter then urges the church to live in a way that is holy and set apart, building their lives on the firm foundation of Jesus. Finally, he compares believers to living stones built up together to point others to Christ. In this 1 Peter 2:11-25, Peter continues to implore the church to live differently than the world by submitting to authority. This goes against our natural inclination to rebel, as we all have a rebellious spirit due to our human nature. However, Peter argues that by submitting to authority, we point people to Jesus through our obedience. 

The Purpose of Rules and Laws

In our country, we have traffic laws for a reason, and we are supposed to submit to that authority. We follow the rules on the road because it keeps people safe. The Bible tells us that God gives us these governing authorities and institutions for our good because of sin. We live in a naturally broken and chaotic world, so God, in His common grace and goodness to humanity, has given us authority and rules that we are supposed to follow for our good.

How Can I Submit to Leaders that are Evil?

However, there are times in this broken world when we have to submit to authority, that isn’t always good. This is what’s happening to the early church. They’re having to submit to the emperor and the Roman Empire, which is anti-Christian, and yet they have to obey the laws of the land.

Peter begins by urging his readers to abstain from sinful desires and to conduct themselves honorably among Gentiles. However, the real struggle comes when he commands us to submit to every human authority, whether to the emperor or to governors, as those sent out by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. Despite our natural distrust of authority, we must obey those in authority over us because God is sovereign and has placed them there for our good. Furthermore, he emphasizes that we must submit to every human authority, even the emperor, as God ordains these institutions, and it is ultimately His will. By doing good and obeying authority, we can silence the ignorance of foolish people.

We submit to these institutions because God ordains them, and our humble submission and civic goodness help silence the foolish. When we obey and work to make our community a better place, people take notice. As Jeremiah 29 tells us, we are to pursue the well-being of the city where God has placed us because when it prospers, we prosper. When we live as good, responsible citizens, it silences the foolish and points them to who Jesus is and the reality of what He has done.

Is Civil Disobedience Okay?

As we consider Peter’s instruction to submit to every kind of authority, we might wonder about situations where civil disobedience is necessary, such as the examples of Corrie ten Boom and Martin Luther King Jr. However, Martin Luther King Jr. himself encouraged people to obey every law they can and then peacefully disobey the ones that are egregiously unjust. So there is room for civil disobedience, but it must be done in a way that honors God above all else. Peter himself disobeyed authority when he refused to stop preaching the gospel, and he paid the ultimate price with his life.

But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us are not currently facing such extreme situations. Often, our issues with authority stem from our sin nature and rebellion, as seen in children not wanting to obey their parents and students not wanting to follow their teachers’ instructions. We must recognize this tendency in ourselves and strive to submit to authority as a way of honoring God and making a positive impact on our communities.

Many of us struggle with authority; the root of this problem is a struggle to obey God. While obeying human institutions is important, it is ultimately secondary to obeying the Lord. While civil disobedience is sometimes necessary, Peter reminds us to obey every law we can and to submit as a witness to the gospel, silencing the ignorance of foolish people. As free people, we don’t obey laws out of fear but as God’s servants. Peter exhorts us to honor everyone, including the Emperor, as every person is made in the image of God and worthy of honor. This is particularly noteworthy in the Roman Empire, with its unjust social hierarchy and distinctions between citizens and non-citizens. Regardless of social status, every person deserves respect and honor.

In this passage, Peter clarifies that the emperor is on the same level playing field as every other human being. He wants to show everyone that while the Roman Empire commands worship of Caesar as God, the only one who should be worshiped is Christ. We should honor everyone, including the emperor, but we should fear and worship God above all else.

Dishonoring Leaders Tarnishes Your Christian Witness

When we fear and honor God, we naturally see that every human being is created in his image and worthy of respect. So, while we do not fear or worship Caesar, we still honor him as the authority figure over us. It’s important to honor our government leaders, even if we didn’t vote for them, and not tarnish our witness by being overly political on social media.

We can disagree and criticize our leaders, but we should never stop honoring and obeying them. It’s crucial to step back and ensure that we are honoring those that God has put in authority over us, as this is ultimately what it means to obey God.

Do you know what the early church had to deal with at this time? They were called cannibals because they talked about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their savior, which we understand as symbolism in the Lord’s Supper. In addition, the Roman Empire also said Christians were atheists because they would not honor Caesar as Lord and would not worship any other idols or gods in other temples. The Empire spread negative rumors about Christians, saying they didn’t care about anyone, were anti-government, and anti-gods.

What does Peter say about this? He challenges us to silence the foolishness by honoring others and doing good. This can apply to different scenarios. As we honor, obey, and submit to authorities, it points people to Christ. Even if they disagree with what we’re saying, people can see that the way we’re living is positively impacting the chaotic world we’re living in.

Suffering is Not an Excuse to Disobey Leaders

Then Peter says, “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” We are called to suffer just as Christ did and should follow His example. It’s easy to complain about unfairness, but we should remember that Christ suffered for us and set an example for us to follow.

Peter addresses potential objections from members of the church who may question the idea of submitting to an unjust government or authority. He uses the example of Jesus to show that submission and enduring suffering is not only possible but also a Christ-like quality. Peter encourages the church to follow Christ’s example of not committing sin and not retaliating when insulted or suffering. Instead, Jesus entrusted Himself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s example, we can trust in God’s justice, even in the face of unjust treatment or suffering.

Why was Christ willing to suffer? One reason was that He had faith in God’s ultimate judgment. As a God of justice, every sin will be punished either in hell for all eternity or on the cross for those who trust and repent in Christ. Jesus knew this and said, “God judges justly,” and was willing to suffer for a little while so that others might be saved. Another reason was because of His incredible love for us. He suffered in our place, voluntarily going to the cross so that we could be saved. During difficult times when we feel like we are suffering unjustly, we can look to Jesus as our example and remember what He did for us on the cross to save us from our sins.

Next Steps in Submitting to Authority God’s Way

Peter encourages us to step back from our current storms and trials and look to Jesus as the author and perfector of our faith, who endured the cross for the joy set before him. By doing so, we can make it through the trials that God allows us to go through, as trials build our faith, as stated in James 1. When we feel our suffering is unjust, we should remember what Jesus did for us by bearing our sins on the cross so that we might live for righteousness, as he says, “By his wounds, we have been healed.”

Peter concludes by reminding the church that we were once like sheep going astray but have now returned to the shepherd and overseer of our souls. As a result, we live for him and point others to the reality of who he is and what he has done. We have the incredible privilege and responsibility of living in such a way that people will be drawn to our hope, even in a hopeless and chaotic world. We can silence the ignorance of others by doing good and living for Christ, as he notes in the following chapter, that people will come and ask us about the hope that we possess when we live hope-filled lives.