“Almost any government is better than no government,” Mark Dever once said. But he said it before this primary season. Perhaps you look at the current race and the choice likely to face us all in the general election come November and think, Really?
Yet we likely wouldn’t think the U. S. situation is so bad if we lived in Syria or Yemen. Those who’ve experienced no government will know what the Bible teaches, but it’s easy to forget in the relatively peaceful West that government is a gift of God’s grace. Lack of human authority combined with the human tendency to sin is never a recipe for peace or prosperity. 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 our government? Are we to be revolutionaries, or patriots, or conscientious objectors, or constant complainers?
Peter’s first letter speaks to the heart of our uneasy relationship with government. The apostle gives us three principles for an attitude check—a check we’ll need repeatedly between now and November 8, and beyond.
1. Submit, don’t worship.
First, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”—literally to every human “creature” (1 Pet. 2:13). 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 isn’t divine, so he’s not to be worshiped. No human ruler is to be worshiped.
Yet this practice of ruler-worship isn’t limited to the first century. Aren’t we 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 idolaters when we will sacrifice time, money, and resources for a political party but not 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 bring hell on earth? Just as J. C. Ryle said “the best of men are only men at their very best,” 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 (1 Pet. 2:13) and our respect (1 Pet. 2:17), but not our worship.
2. Submit to every human authority.
Second, Peter doesn’t limit submission to the supreme ruler. Christians are to submit to every human authority, “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Pet. 2:13–14), since 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” (1 Pet. 2:14). Through his appointed governing authorities, God maintains order in the world for the common good.
Consequently, while we’re in this world we’re to submit to all governing authorities from the top down. Of course, if there’s ever a conflict between human and heavenly authority, we choose to God over man, as Peter did (Acts 4:18–20). Outside this qualification, however, there are no exceptions; Peter’s command is comprehensive.
It doesn’t matter if those governing authorities are good or bad; if you elected them or not; if you agree with them or not. Christians are to submit to governing authorities and those authorized to speak on their behalf. God isn’t surprised by their rise to power; he put them there.
3. Submit as good citizens.
Third, we submit by being good citizens (1 Pet. 2:15–16). As God instructed the exiles in Babylon, “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” (Jer. 29:7).
We’re free to “seek the welfare” of our city by involving ourselves in earthly government, including official capacities. One of the ways we can serve government is by taking a role in it, either at a local, regional, or national level. That may mean running for political office or serving in an advisory position. It may include stepping into a role that addresses specific societal problems and concerns, such as human rights, healthcare, economics, foreign policy, or national defense. None of these is off-limits for Christians; all can be arenas for worship and love.
But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that if we just get the right candidate in office we can have “heaven on earth”—or that the “wrong” candidate will bring about the opposite. There’s only one new heavens and earth, and there’s only one heavenly King. His rule isn’t subject to a majority vote.
We worship him alone; we hope in him alone; and we serve him as we submit to those he has, in his wisdom, placed in authority over us.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Juan Sanchez’s new expository guide, 1 Peter for You (Good Book Company, 2016).