We saw yesterday that honourable Christian living requires intentionality, which covers every area of life. Peter encouraged his readers to ensure that both their inner and outer lives honoured God (2:11–12). In what follows, he applies this truth to several spheres, beginning with intentionally honourable behaviour toward government (2:13–17).
It must be noted that Peter’s exhortation here concerns godless government. This is evident both because Nero was “emperor … supreme” when he wrote and because he frames his discussion with the exhortation to honourably live before those who “speak against you as evildoers” (v. 12). The exhortation would be no less valid toward godlygovernment, but Peter’s immediate concern is hopeful and honourable living before godless authorities.
Peter’s basic exhortation is to “be subject” to governing authorities. This instruction must be considered in light of the prevailing Roman attitude toward government. Peter wanted his readers’ behaviour toward governing authorities to be different from the surrounding society, but difference in the first century looked quite different from what it does today. In South Africa today, a different, Christian attitude is submission in a culture that ignores government. We are called to a higher ethic. In the first century, Christians were called to “be subject” in a culture that worshipped government. Their call was, in a real sense, to a lower ethic. Christians were to “be subject” to, but not to worship, the emperor.
By offering this exhortation, Peter introduces what Abraham Kuyper called “sphere sovereignty.” Roman emperors claimed absolute authority and demanded to be obeyed without question. Peter shows that, while governing authorities are to be respected, and even obeyed, their authority is not absolute.
The question of when it is appropriate to disobey government is a thorny one and, to some degree, is not the focus of this particular exhortation. Since it is a question that is frequently asked, however, it might be worthwhile digressing for a moment.
In one sense, a case can be made that we should never disobey government. At least, this case can be made on the foundation of a good understanding of sphere sovereignty.
When the apostles were instructed to stop preaching the gospel, they replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Notice that that their response was framed in terms of obedience rather than disobedience. This is because, in one sense, to ignore the instruction of the council to stop preaching was not an act of disobedience. Let me explain.
Disobedience, by definition, implies authority. The apostles did not disobey the religious council because the religious leaders had no authority to instruct them to stop preaching. Since the council had no authority in that sphere, they could, in a sense, not be disobeyed. The apostles were obeying Christ’s authority to preach and the religious leaders had no authority to override that. There was only one authority to obey. We should always be subject to legitimate authority, but never to illegitimate authority.
Consider an example. Suppose that a father asks his young adult son, who still lives at home, to collect take-outs for dinner. Since he is hungrier than normal, the father instructs his son to exceed the speed limit to get the meal back quicker. The righteous response would be for the son to obey the speed limit. In one sense, he would not be disobeying his father, because his father has no authority to override governmental authority when it comes to speed limits. The speed limit is set in the interests of community safety and security and that authority falls to civil government, not to parents. The father cannot speak where God has not given him authority to speak. He has legitimate authority within his God-given sphere but no authority outside of that sphere.
Christians must understand the principle of sphere authority. God gives parents authority in the home, government authority in civil matters, elders authority in the church, and employers authority in the workplace. Each of these structures has legitimate authority within its God-ordained sphere, but none has authority outside of its sphere. Christians are called to submit to authority when that authority speaks within its ordained sphere.
Scripture assigns government the responsibility to protect the safety and security of its citizens and legitimate authority to act in that interest. When government seeks to exercise authority outside of that sphere, its authority is illegitimate and Christians are not called to obey.
More could be said about that, but the problem in this text is “the passions of the flesh” (v. 11). Submission to authority does not come naturally and, particularly when government is a godless one, the temptation is to ignore every instruction it gives. Peter exhorts Christians against doing that. When government acts within its legitimate sphere of authority, Christians are called to obey—even a godless government.
The call from 1 Peter 2:13–17 is to check our heart. While government does not have absolute authority, as the Roman emperor claimed, it does have legitimate authority within its God-given sphere. Rather than immediately reacting with knee-jerk disregard, Peter calls us to ask whether government is acting within its legitimate sphere of authority and, if so, to intentionally “be subject” to it. Pray for God to help you check your heart in this regard so that your conduct among the Gentiles will be honourable and you will give them no justification to reject Christ’s authority.