Romans 13/1 Peter 2 Concerns

Below is a question from a member of our church (a good question) regarding the difficulties of application of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and the believer’s submission to the governing authorities.

Good Morning Pastor Steve,

Thanks for sharing this message (James White podcast on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2). 

We watched James White’s sermon “Unlimited Obedience” a few days ago. I see the same general thing is being preached in this message. I can see what he’s getting at, but I also have some concern that the context of 1 Peter 2 has not been explored properly. As I understand it, Romans was written at the beginning of Nero’s ruling, and 1 Peter was written years later as the Christians were facing heavy persecution from Nero and it was a time when Christianity was illegal. I find this to be extremely relevant as to the interpretation of this passage as he was writing to them specifically as being exiles facing various trials, that were brought on by their emperor. Yet, he’s specifically telling them to honour the emperor.

I also believe it’s important to keep in mind that Peter is instructing them how to conduct themselves during their time as exiles. He tells them in 2:12 to keep their conduct honourable amount the gentiles. Then in 13 to be subject to the human institutions. In verse 16 he instructs them to live as people who are free, but to not use their freedom in Christ as a coverup for doing evil. Verse 17 instructs the believers to honour everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God and honour the emperor. Following this, he instructs the slave to submit to their masters; not only the just master, but the unjust as well. Moving on to 3:1, he instructs the wife to be subject to their husbands even if they do not obey the word. I believe all this instruction including the text on obeying the just and unjust master and the husband whether he is obeying the word of God or not, to be relevant in the context of the passage regarding government.

Please help me to understand. Is James White saying that we must only obey a government that is under Gods authority? Or that we must obey the government unless it goes against Gods authority? These are two very different things.

From what I took from his sermon was that he’s saying we are to obey government that is under Gods authority. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

With the context I see in 1 Peter, I don’t know that that can be true. Please direct me if my understand of this is wrong. It’s something I’ve been looking into for a while now and would certainly like clarification if I’m seeing this incorrectly.

I understand the emphasis James White is placing is on verses 14 and 15, that the government is set up to punish evil and reward good. And that Gods will is for us to do good and as a result, this closes the mouth of foolish people.

Is that not still true even of a corrupt government? Our government hasn’t been one that is God fearing since long before my lifetime, yet there is still a truth to the fact that they punish the evil doer and reward the good. I can admit this line continues to be blurred, but non the less there is still truth to that. Murder is still punished, rape is still evil. However, abortion has been made legal and even celebrated. This is an example of where a Christian would require to stand in opposition. Along with gay marriage, as both of these go against Gods word. And I can see how more and more as time goes on, we will need to stand in opposition.

John MacArthur in his sermon titled “Obeying Civil Authoritues” mentions that we are to obey the government in everything with the exception of two circumstances. 1. The government is doing something that opposes Gods word. And 2. The government is asking you to do something that goes against Gods word.

This is how I understand the text.

Is this your understanding of these passages as well, or do you hold to a different interpretation? Such as, we are only to obey a government that is under God’s authority.

Thank you.

Hi ….., we are in agreement that context of the passages are huge in interpreting the meaning of the text. Historical context helps us to understand to whom the text is directly addressed and the circumstances they face which play a role in helping us see what they are being called to (possibly). As James White stated, he did not undertake to give an exhaustive contextual rendering, but an overview digging mainly to the calling of believers to submit to governing authorities. So, a few things.

First, history. Yes, 1 Peter is written roughly five to six years after Romans. Though the two passages are virtually identical in their content regarding submission to governing authorities, there is a historical difference in the audience and circumstances. Is that, in and of itself, enough to alter the meaning of the text? The simple answer to this is, no. History plays a role certainly in interpretation, but the principle means of interpreting scripture, outside of the passage’s immediate textual (not historical) context, is by comparing scripture with scripture. What we find in this case is that Peter exhorts believers to exactly the same thing Paul did.

There would also be a problem in suggesting that as Peter wrote, Christianity was illegal (thus by decree of the emperor against the law to practice and requiring a direct disobedience to Caesar to be a Christian.) That is simply not the case. As I outlined in a sermon a few weeks ago, Christianity was never illegal. You could be a Christian without a problem, so long as you could give homage to both Jesus and Caesar as Lord. So this was the issue. One had to submit to Jesus and submit to Caesar on the same level of submission so to speak. Well, of course, that places Caesar in a position God’s plan for government was never intended to hold. So the issue is God’s intention for the role of government. (interesting that in a conversation about submitting to authorities that the early Christians were killed for not submitting, and we should learn much about this issue from that fact.)

Contextually, in the passage, you did hit on the key, but you skipped over it. 1 Peter 2:12 really is the key to what is going on here, and in all the passages you reference regarding the authority/submission relationships. 1 Peter 2:12 “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.”

“Keep your conduct honorable.” Notice this is given before the call to submit to government. So it is not what comes next that defines “honorable”, but what has already been stated. This is actually a call summarizing what Peter has been saying since mid-chapter 1. 1 Peter 1:14-16, and notice the similarity of the verse leading into the call to personal conduct and compare to 2:11.  “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” So “keep you conduct honorable” is the same as “be holy”.

From chapter 1:17-2:10, Peter is explaining what that looks like, and then in 2:11-12, he repeats the call going into what this will mean in our submission to authorities of various types. The key to our submission is really best stated in those words of chapter 1, “You shall be holy”. What does it look like? 1:17-18 “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” 1:22 “love one another earnestly from a pure heart”. 2:1 “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander”. 2:2 “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation”. 2:5 “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. 2:9 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

These verses with their commands give us a picture of what this holiness looks like, what honorable life is to include. Yet we notice in 2:12 that even as believer’s live in this call to holiness, we will be called evildoers. And pay particular attention to the fact that it is not “if” they call us evildoers, but “when”. This, is really saying the same thing as 2 Timothy 3:12 “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”. This, not because we don’t submit to Caesar, but because we are holy. Interesting note from our Bible study on Wednesday night, Jesus the perfectly blameless, was persecuted. But why? He was persecuted because he did nothing wrong. He was holy, and evil men could not stand to have him in their presence. So they sought to rid the earth of him. We will notice into the passage on submission to various authorities that Jesus Himself comes up as an example, and we ask ourselves, because He is given specifically as an example, what Law did Jesus submit to? What we find is it is exactly the standard Peter (and Paul) set out for us in these passages on submitting to governmental authority. He submitted Himself to the moral law of God. James White did an excellent job of showing this in both of these passages (Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2). These actually frame the governments role in God’s economy. They are to punish those who do evil (violate God’s moral law), and reward those who do good (honor God’s law by lifestyle). I’m going way too long, but there is so much here.

Are we to honor Caesar? Yes. That is what it says, and it is clarified what that looks like in verse 15-17 “that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” In other words, live so as to honor the Lord holding to His moral law (good rather than evil), hold to God’s ordained role for governmental authority to uphold God’s moral law, so that when people call you evil it will actually be a testimony back on them, for they are those who Isaiah speaks of is Isaiah 5:20-23 “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” You see good and evil is defined not by the commands of Caesar, but by the instruction and commands of God.

You stated correctly, “I believe all this instruction including the text on obeying the just and unjust master and the husband whether he is obeying the word of God or not, to be relevant in the context of the passage regarding government.” Yes it is relevant, but let’s be careful in the “how”. Yes we are called to submission to both just and unjust rulers, (government, masters, husbands) even if they do not obey the word (which is basically saying even if they are not believers). That does not say submit to them in everything they call you to do, even when they do not obey God’s word. If it were so, why would the master be harsh with his slave? Verse 20 “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” This describes a slave who submits himself first and foremost to the moral law of God (let’s be consistent with the terms good and evil in the text) and who is then punished for it, he is called an evildoer and beaten for doing good because his master rejects what is (according to God) good. And so we see in the master slave relationship exactly the same thing we see in the believer/government relationship. We submit to the God given role for each, and there will be times within each when though we desire to be submissive, there is a higher calling which we are bound to and cannot deny, and yes we will be punished when we face that in faithfulness to the Lord. The same is true in the husband and wife relationship.

You asked, “Is that not still true even of a corrupt government?” Yes it is. We are still called to submit and do good. Yet in that submission there is a line, and that line is when the authority directs us to move away from the good (God’s moral law and directives for His people) which we have been called to live by and be holy. When that happens, we will be called evildoers, and we will be punished unjustly. That is true in the examples you cited, our position on abortion, and on gay marriage. We still submit to government, yet we cannot accommodate those positions and will not bow to them. So it is when government tells us we cannot gather, or that we must limit our gathering, or that we alter our worship practices. They have now stepped outside of God’s ordained role and we are forced at that point, just like abortion and LGBT issues, to hold to God’s role for government which they have neglected. Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. Our worship practices do not belong to Caesar to alter, and should he thus command, he is outside his God ordained role and we are to do good, which means hold to God’s directives.

As for the MacArthur message you mentioned and the two points he lists for when we are to disobey. I think that is quite good. So back to my original post, is it only when Government asks us to sin that we refuse to submit? No, that is only point number 2. We also do not submit when they are doing what is in opposition to God’s word. Both are in play in our current circumstance. We also need to be careful in how we define sin. Is sin disobedience to an explicate command of God? Yes, but we would be in error to limit it to such. Romans 14:23 “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Now we are entering into the domain of the conscience. To go against conscience is sin. Peter takes us to this very issue in chapter 3.

1 Peter 3:13-17 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

We are to be a people who live in holiness, we do good and not evil, including within these relationships listed, a people who are guided by God’s moral law and keep a good conscience (derived from living as God directs). Yet in this we will be called evildoers because there are lines we cannot cross in each of these relationships.

So the key is really verse 12. What does holiness look like in the context of governmental authorities, masters, and husbands. Do good, not evil, hold to God’s moral law while in submission to God’s ordained roles for each, but be holy in each.

Is James White saying that we only obey a government that is under God’s authority? No. That would be ridiculous because there are none (in the sense of actively seeking to submit to God’s authority). He is saying, as is MacArthur (BTW he is currently not submitting which should tell us where he believes we are with respect to his two points you listed), that we are to submit to government as far as we can up until they step outside of their God ordained role. Notice in 1 Peter 2 that governments, masters, and husbands each have unique God ordained roles, and within those roles there is to be submission. But we don’t impose the submission of wife to her husband upon the believer’s submission to the authorities. They are different roles. Submission might be similarly defined, but what it looks like within each role will be altered by the sphere God has marked out to be included in each.

Now where government is concerned, we do know that ultimately all are under God’s authority (whether they are actively seeking to submit to that authority or not), and He has raised them up and can tare them down, and will do so for His purposes, even evil governments. He will accomplish His purposes through them, whether good or evil. Yet, where they depart from the instruction of the Lord for His people is where our submission will be determined. We are to be holy, even if it causes government to call us evil, and they will!

I hope this helps. We don’t want to draw erroneous application from the text.

Pastor Steve

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