This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon on I Peter 2:13-25 preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday November 19-20, 2011.
This passage addresses a very uncomfortable subject – being subject to authority, even when that authority is not honoring God or loving its subjects. The passage is made less popular by the context in which it was written – teaching exiled Christians how to response to an oppressor emperor (v. 13). We cannot chalk this passage up to theory or idealism; it was written for real people in a very un-idealistic situation.
While much more could be said about what this passage does mean, in this post I want to derive three things from the text that this passage does not mean.
First, this submission is not value neutral, and it is not to be applied to criminal activity. Peter states the purpose for which the authority has been put into place – “to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (v. 14). While Peter’s reader may have been in a situation where they had no protective authority to petition for help, it is clear that Peter was not saying “authority makes right.”
Based upon this, no one should apply this passage to fail to report criminal activity of someone in authority. Recently, this has been in the public discussion because of the Penn State scandal. More commonly, families fail to report physical or other forms of abuse by a parent. In these kind of cases, “being subject” does not include “being silent.” Knowing the function of authority actually requires just the opposite.
Second, this submission is not passive. The objective of the submission is to silence the ignorance and foolishness of those who are abusing their power (v. 15). Peter is not silencing his readers; he is teaching them God’s way of silencing their abusive authorities.
It is important to note that Peter does not surrender the definition of “good” to the abusive authorities. He is not saying, “Do whatever they want. Concede. Make them happy to protect yourself as best you can.” That is the mindset of codependency. It does not triumph over evil with good (Rom. 12:21). It lets evil define good and pretends that evil is right.
By doing good—true God-defined good—in the presence of evil, you leave evil speechless—at least to say anything coherent. The worst that can be said is, “Are you so stupid that you would continue to live well even when life does not reward you?” The reply is, “No, I just do not think the alternatives of being bound in fear or joining in foolishness are worse than not getting a reward.” But most often that answer is better lived than spoken until the question is asked with genuine inquisitiveness (Prov. 26:4-5).
Third, this submission is not mindless or will-crushing; it is free (v. 16). Peter does not equate submission, even to an ungodly authority, to counter freedom. Here I think it helpful to define freedom. Freedom is the ability to pursue what is most important in life. For Peter that was living as servants of God. Peter’s friend Paul spoke similarly about his experience with an unjust justice system (Phil 1:12-14).
In the oppressive environment in which his readers lived, it would have been easy for them to use their limited freedom as a reason for living in ways that displeased God – taking their anger out on one another (after all the police would not assist the exiles), to escape through substance abuse, to exact revenge on the authorities by stealing to “make things even,” or other such practices.
So what do we gain from learning what submission is not? We gain the ability to be boldly submissive with a mission. Ungodly authority does not rob us of our mission or the ability to carry it out. Evil doesn’t win when it has the upper hand. Evil wins when it becomes contagious.
In the same way, good doesn’t lose because it is disadvantaged. Good wins when it becomes contagious. Our goal when we have an ungodly authority is to make good—the gospel-powered embodiment of Christ’s character—contagious in our sphere of influence. In oppressive circumstances, we do this by utilizing the freedoms and resources we have to make God’s good more contagious than the authority’s evil.