Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Christians and Human Authorities

What is the proper Christian approach to non-Christian authorities? How should Christians relate to pagan governments? A key passage is found in Peter's first epistle.

1Pet. 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

The commentators disagree - is Peter advocating conformity (because he says to submit) or non-conformity (because he says Christians are to live as free men, with a primary identity as slaves and servants of God, not of Caesar).

For my part I think I'd want to talk about Peter proposing a policy of subversive conformity.

Christians are being told unambiguously that they must submit to the created authorities. To do less would be to do evil and to invite the negative sanctions at the disposal of the authorities – in other words, to suffer for doing evil. In this sense then, Christians are to conform, to obey the human authorities above them.

However, such conformity is subversive both in its basis and in its intent.

a. Christians must yield to the authorities in service to the Lord, as a part of their more basic submission to and service for God. They are in reality free, though free slaves of God, willing to serve him by living exemplary lives that serve his purposes in the world (of which more in b. below). The different levels of responsibility commanded in 2:17 suggest that where obeying the state conflicts with fearing God (or indeed loving the brotherhood) the Christian is under no obligation to comply.

b. Christians must yield to the authorities in order that the reign of God through the gospel might be furthered in the world. This is the inevitable conclusion from the hope of Gentiles converting in 2:12 as a result of the believer’s visible good works. It is also implicit in 2:15 where the criticisms against God’s people can be silenced by their civil obedience. Plug this into an eschatology of hope (e.g. Daniel 2:44-45) and you get the picture that as Christian's obey pagan authorities it contributes to their ultimate downfall (as pagan authorities anyway).

Christians submit to the authorities because Jesus, and not the authorities, is Lord. Civil obedience (i.e. conformity) functions within the more basic requirement to fear God and serve the Lord’s purposes, including the conversion of the nations – as part of ultimately bringing all authorities to find their rightful place under Christ’s overarching Lordship (i.e. it's subversive).

Of course, if we had time, we could discuss how 'subversive conformity' could be part of a wider picture we find in the new testament of power through weakness, victory through suffering, rule through service, resurrection via the cross, glory in jars of clay etc.

Some people did exegetical papers on this passage in my NT class, and I'm grateful for the way their careful work got me thinking. Any exegetical insights have probably come from them, any examples of bad thinking come from me.

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