1 Peter 2 – Obey the Authorities

Tonight we are discussing 1 Peter 2. In the second part of this chapter (vv. 12-25), Peter follows up his prior appeal to a holy life with an appeal for a life of submission to earthly authorities. Within these readings (and through 4:11) Peter admonishes his audience to always maintain good conduct within the world and be subject to the world’s hierarchies both in the civil and household realm. Hopefully, this reading and the reading next week should give us a great pause on the use and application of Scripture. This email is available online and on Facebook.

Good Conduct in the World: (vv.11-12)

Peter begins his discussion by telling his audience to “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles . . .  so that they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” v.12. A similar teaching is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16) and echoed by Paul – “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:20-26). The world should look at us and give glory to God. The question Peter poses to his audience and to us, therefore, is how does your life and your good deeds glorify God? How is the manner of your life a witness to the gospel?

Obey the Authorities: (vv.13-17)

Peter tells his audience and us to be subject to every human institution, including the emperor and governors. This teaching is identical to Paul’s teaching that we should be subject to all governing authorities and to resist secular rules is tantamount to resisting God. Rom 13:1-7. As Jesus says, “Render unto Caesars what is Caesars.” Matt. 22:21. This teaching is unambiguously clear and yet, during this time period between Memorial Day and July 4th  we all will celebrate our rebellion against, refusal to be subject to, and resistance of the rightful God-appointed rulers of the American colonies.

Maybe more than any other verses in Scripture, these verses (1 Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7) have been used as tools of oppression in the name of God. In his treatise, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Martin Luther justifies the violent suppression of the Great Peasant Rebellion, which lead to approximately 200,000 deaths, on the basis that the peasants deserved death because of their rebellion against lawful authority. In modern times, these verses have been used to give Biblical legitimacy to Adolf Hitler and later to Apartheid. We all know from experience that there is a time to obey and a time to rebel.

Slaves be Submissive: (vv.18-25)

Peter continues by teaching that slaves must be submissive to their masters. Once more, Paul will echo this teaching. Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22-24. With these verses, the Biblical justification for slavery, particularly in the antebellum South, writes itself. Slaves be subject to your masters. To rebel against your master is to rebel against God. This is the apostles’ teaching. I hope, that taken in isolation, these readings are repellant to you both as an American (which shouldn’t matter) and as a Christian. I have attached an explanation of these verses from Ben Witherington’s book. (pp. 148-51). These explanations provide a context for Peter’s teaching (the teaching is addressed to slaves themselves, these are house-slaves, and Roman slavery is different than New World chattel slavery), but the teaching should still cause us problems.

Interpretation of vv.13-25:

In looking at vv. 13-25 (and the parallel verses in Paul), the question that must necessarily confront us is how should these verses be interpreted despite their ostensibly clear meaning. Whatever interpretive tool we use with regard to these verses, we must necessarily apply it to other teachings in Scripture. How do we prevent the Scriptures from being used by slaveholders and Nazis to justify their oppression? The answer lies in asking why would Peter give this advice and how can we understand this advice within the larger teachings of Scripture.

First, Peter, like Paul, is writing to a nascent religious movement. Outsiders have no understanding of what Christianity is. Therefore, Christians must maintain good conduct in the world, even if it means submitting to the world’s rules. In the Roman world, disruptive sects get brutally repressed. There is self-interest in Peter’s advice – don’t give those in authority over you to do you wrong. This isn’t bad advice for today either. We, as Christians, should obey the law and not be unduly quarrelsome. We should be known for our good works, which will bring people to the knowledge of God, and not for being mere rabble-rousers.   

Jesus gives us the key to how we are to interpret and understand all of Scripture. For all of Scripture rests on the two-fold commandment to love God and love your neighbor. Matt. 22:36-40. In his work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine says that we must always understand and interpret Scripture in light of this two-fold commandment and that any interpretation that we give to Scripture that does not build up the love of God and the love of neighbor is perniciously deceptive and mendacious. (Book 1, Ch. 36). Therefore, using any Scripture to justify the oppression or degradation of our neighbor is necessarily wrong despite how clear the words of the Scripture may be.

But specific to giving obedience to the governing authority, Augustine also tells us that “lex iniusta non est lex – an unjust law is no law at all.” On the Free Choice of the Will 1.5. This idea was taken up by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica I-II, Q 96. There he writes that laws are unjust when they are contrary to the human good or contrary to the divine good, such as inducing idolatry, and do not need to be obeyed. (Art. 4). Aquinas further points out that where the observance of a law would be hurtful to the general welfare, the law should not be obeyed. (Art. 6). Where our obedience to a scriptural rule runs contrary to Scripture itself, the rule cannot be obeyed. We are to be obedient to our government and our masters (employers(?)) unless their dictates run contrary to the law of love.

In modern times, the most cogent argument in favor of disobedience to lawful authority, despite the Bible’s teaching, comes in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. There, King forcefully lays out the principle that “an unjust law is not law at all” and should not be obeyed. And he sets forth why segregation is an unjust law under both Augustine and Aquinas. He writes that “an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Segregation distorts the soul and damages the person and therefore is unjust and must not be obeyed. Such disobedience is not unlawful.

In this time after Memorial  Day and looking towards our July 4th holy-day, the very purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to show the world and to preserve for posterity, the unjustness of the King’s laws in the colonies. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently states “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness), it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. . . . But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Despite Peter’s admonition, disobedience and rebellion in the face of an unjust authority is always permissible, though not always wise.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is lamb tagine. Discussion about 6:45. Compline at 8. I have attached two excerpts from Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 Peter. The first concerns slavery in Roman society and the second is a comparison of Peter’s sermons in Acts with 1 Peter. These are two good resources to dive deeper.   

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Martin Luther King

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