The Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. 2:13-25
From 2:11 to 3:12 Peter outlines the responsibilities of believers, not just toward the Christian fellowship, but toward all humanity. Citizens must submit to secular authority, v13-17, and slaves must submit to their masters, v18-21a. In simple terms, we should follow the example of Christ, v21b-25.
v13. In verses 13-17 Peter encourages his readers to "submit" (rank ourselves under) the authority of government. Peter implies that such institutions are from God - they are Divinely instituted, cf. Rom.13:1. Therefore, we should submit to them for the "Lord's sake" - out of our respect for Jesus.
v14. Secular authorities are authorized by God to punish those who "do wrong and commend those who do right," v13b, 14. When it comes to the administration of justice, the function of government is to apply the scales of justice - to redress the balance. So, for this reason, government authority is to be respected.
v15-16. God's will is that believers be law-abiding citizens. The fruit of this obedience will muzzle the foolish criticism of those who oppose the Christian faith.
v17. Peter concludes his instructions to the Christian citizen with four brief commands.
v18. Peter now tackles the issue of employment in verses 18-21a. Servants (employees) should submit to the authority of their employer out of respect for God; it is a Christian duty. They should do this, whether their employer is "considerate" (reasonable) or "harsh" (perverse, unfair).
v19-21a. Peter goes on to give two reasons why a believer should, out of respect for God, willingly suffer unfairly. First, "it is commendable", he says, in that God commends this type of behavior. Second, we are engaged to this life of bearing up under unjust suffering by the call of Christ.
v21b. Peter now turns to the example of Christ's suffering to support his contention that slaves should willingly submit to their masters, acting in the master's best interest, even when treated unfairly.
v22-23. Peter goes on to draw out the image of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah chapter 53; an image we should emulate. Jesus, the sinless one, suffered without protest, for he entrusted his vindication to God.
v24-25. Having introduced the example of Christ's death, Peter reminds his readers of the atonement. Christ's suffering and death is not just an example, rather it serves as an atoning sacrifice. Christ takes upon himself the guilt of our sin and so frees us from condemnation, such that we who were once lost are now set free. So, in the face of suffering we need to remember that the cross of Christ gives dignity and meaning to our cross-bearing.
Submitting to authority
During the second world war, the Lutheran church in Germany found itself under the rule of an criminal government. The problem faced by the church was whether they should be obedient to the government or undertake non-violent, or even violent action, to overthrow it. The inaction of the church stemmed from their inability to work through the issues in this passage and in Romans 13:1-7. Only a small number of church leaders, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, took action against the Nazi Government. So, does this passage command, even encourage, acquiescence to immoral secular authority in government and business?
From our passage for study we can draw a number of principles, although we need to remember that those of us who enjoy the freedom of a democratic society will find it difficult to place ourselves in the life-experience of Peter's readers. The Roman government, at this time, was a tyrannical dictatorship which discriminated on the basis of race, favoured the privileged, ignored the poor and waged war on its neighbors. Associations of any sort were viewed with suspicion. So, Peter sets out to advise his readers how to live as Christians within a despotic state that rested on enforced slavery and viciously trounced non-compliance.
i] Keep your head down. Peter advises his readers to comply with secular authority, whether government officials or slave owners. This is certainly the best way to avoid pain, and anyway, as Peter points out, government authority is instituted by God "to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right", so compliance is in accord with God's will. Also, compliance silences those who are critical of the Christian church.
ii] Accentuate the positive. Peter advises his readers to get on with the business of life as if they were living in a free open society, not using their freedom to infringe the freedom of others, but actually considering others in everything they do. They should remember that God actually views such behavior favorably.
iii] Take on the mind of Christ. Suffering, particularly when that suffering is undeserved, is soul destroying, but it can actually become edifying if we view it in the light of Christ's suffering. This is Peter's third piece of advice to his readers. As C.E.B. Cranfield puts it "our sufferings may be transformed from the meaningless and maybe sordid thing that they often are into something of dignity and worth by being associated with Christ's suffering such that our little crosses are lit up by the splendor and brightnesses of his cross."
We are bound to add a qualification to Peter's practical advice. Secular authorities are instituted by God to achieve a socially good end in an environment of freedom. If government or business acts in an immoral way promoting wrongdoing and reducing freedom, then it is opposing its God-given function. We are bound to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but the right to do evil does not belong to Caesar. We cannot ignore the evil of government or business, for to do so is to condone immorality and foster even greater evil. Of course, when it comes to social activism, of promoting a little touch of heaven on earth, it has its time and season. For first century believers the time was not ripe!
Jesus calls on us to be good citizens. In a democratic society this involves voting, lobbying, serving, paying our taxes, obeying the laws of the land... but also, protesting, demanding justice, etc. Doing right may cause us to "suffer", but God's grace is active in suffering.
1. If, as a Christian duty, we are bound to obey the government, at what point do we have the right to disobey? Consider some examples and discuss. eg. Military service.
2. It is often said that the tax system is designed in such a way as to compensate for everyone's cheating. Can we fiddle the books a little, or must we suffer and pay in full? Discuss.