“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” ― Leo Tolstoy
When reading any text in the New Testament, we must not impose our worldview onto the text. We must seek out original authorial intent. While Scripture can have multiple applications, there is only one meaning or intent. We must seek context both within the passage and in related passages and utilize clues from history to discover what the writer meant. We must let Scripture interpret Scripture. We must not let our interpretive tradition blind us- even if it is from our beloved confession or the magisterial reformers. We mustn’t look around at the way the world works and insert our assumptions about that into the text when the Bible gives commands related to civil authorities. We must avoid eisegesis (inserting our meaning into the text) and be exegetes (who derive the meaning from the text and no more). In short, we must apply the principles of sound hermeneutics and “not go beyond what is written.” Martin Luther once said, ”If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”
The New Testament includes many teachings to the church on how they are to behave in this world and how they are to relate to the institutions around them- even institutions that are often outright hostile to God’s people. Romans 13 for example was written to a church that had to live out their new identity belonging to Christ in the New Covenant while living under the Roman Empire, surrounded by the civil religion of their time, and the constant pressure to fall in line with the cultural expectations of what made a “good” Roman citizen or subject. Christians needed to know how to think and live as Christians in such a circumstance. Likewise, Christians in the 21st century need to know how to think about statism and its associated evils in our time too.
Besides Romans 13, no other passage is brought up as often as 1 Peter [2:13]-17:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, 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.
How does an anarchist obey this text with all its talk about being subject to the emperor as supreme or governors sent by him and even honoring the emperor? Isn’t this a checkmate against Christians who argue against the institution of the State as immoral? Not so fast. In order to obey this text we must understand it.
A few things are worth pointing out here. First, our subjection is “for the Lord’s sake” and not inherent to the institution itself. Our duty to order ourselves under or subject ourselves to the State is relative. Secondary. Temporary. Our true, primary, forever citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians [3:20]) and Christ alone deserves our full allegiance. He is our forever Prophet, Priest, and King. Earlier on in 1 Peter 2 we read:
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. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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.
To whom does the “you” refer? 1 Peter 1 answers this in the introduction. “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” Christ’s holy elect nation, the church of believing Christians, is scattered all over the world as sojourners and exiles. This is a running theme of this letter. So Christians don’t belong to the State. We belong to God. It is for the Lord’s sake we arrange ourselves under these institutions we find in our worldly sojourning- which often have very questionable morality. He has an eternal purpose for our existence in this present evil age as He advances His Kingdom of light against all the powers of darkness. Christ serves as an example for us. He lived and died under the Romans. Christ was tempted in the wilderness with all the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only He would just fall down and worship Satan (Matt 4:9). It must have been a real temptation. It must have been in Satan’s possession to give. Christ will have all dominion, but first he subjected himself to the institution of the Roman Empire, its governors, and tax collectors as sent by the Emperor.
Second, what are these institutions? Peter says they are human institutions. ‘Emperor’ was not a Biblical, God-appointed post. No prophet spoke on God’s behalf and crowned Nero Emperor. Sometimes, Christians mistakenly point to some Old Testament analog as demonstrating some element of statism being justified. “See, taxes aren’t theft! The nation of Israel commanded by God had tithes and taxes.” “See, Donald Trump was elected President, and God selects leaders like He chose David to rule Israel!” “See, killing civilians in this war isn’t a big concern since God commanded wiping out the Canaanites!”
The problem with these and similar arguments should be apparent. The geopolitical nation of Israel, the only nation ever in covenant with God, has passed and God deals with all people everywhere in terms of the New Covenant. He has His Holy Nation as 1 Peter 2 describes. The only offices he has expressly instituted in dealing with His people now are the elders and deacons in the church and the only rituals are the Sacraments. Its only warfare is spiritual (2 Corinthians 10:4) and its only charter is Scripture alone to make His people complete and lacking nothing (2 Tim [3:16]). So this human institution of Nero being “supreme” doesn’t mean he actually is the supreme. In that society the dominant culture was acting like he was- even going so far as to force others to say “Caesar is Lord” which led to persecution of resistant Christians. So again, “being subject to the emperor as supreme” is qualified, conditional, and nuanced. The Bible does not teach that gentile rulers are supreme or are invested with special prerogatives to violate God’s moral law in their task of enforcing law.
Which brings us to a third point worth considering is that this text, similar to Romans 13 (which we will see in another post), limits the extent of the powers of any individual saying they are the government “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Can they do evil that good may come? Like Paul, I would argue, “Certainly not!” Some, however, try to argue that individuals in the State get to play by different rules. They say things like their use of the sword isn’t restricted to defense of life and property in the same way a regular person living under the moral law is restricted. Individuals in the State institution are assumed to be allowed to extort people for tribute, kill people in warfare, and cage and kill citizens for breaking arbitrary commands from Nero or his governors. Some Christians even claim that when the State steals from one group to give to another that the State is doing its job in representing the people’s will. This is going well beyond the bounds of merely punishing those who do evil. The New Testament seems to tie civil authority and the sword inextricably- and swords are good for killing. Like George Washington said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence- it is force.”
The main difference in understanding between Christians (who all must believe that States have been ordained in some sense by God to bear the sword in history) seems to be found in a disagreement over what the word ‘ordain’ means. Was Nero appointed, ordained, established by God’s will of decree and will of precept? Or was Nero merely “appointed” and “established” to have his little kingdom for a little while, so God could accomplish His purposes in history as he does in all history including sinful acts of sinful men (Genesis [50:50], Acts [2:23])?
The immediate context after our text in verse 18-19 helps also:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.
The text goes on to explain how our suffering is connected to Christ’s suffering. He left us an example to follow in his steps. He entrusted himself to the one who judges justly even as he was nailed to a piece of wood by Roman soldiers in the greatest injustice the world has ever known. We obey the State in a similar way to slaves and servants obeying their earthly masters– oftentimes this was an involuntary, inhumane, and unjust relationship. This text does not teach the righteousness of the State even going so far as to discuss how Christians are to arrange themselves under these potential evils even when we suffer injustice.
Anarchists, it would seem, are more prepared to teach the core truths in understanding this passage than statists who believe that the State is just grand and everything it does is God’s will. We obey by putting the Lord first, we arrange ourselves under bad circumstances so that God’s kingdom will advance by the preaching of the Gospel, we seek our neighbor’s good by meeting their needs in the market and in voluntary charity, we love others and we love God. By doing this, all Christians would be wise to avoid grasping for power to wield it over others and just stick to the basics of ordinary Christian living. Your identity as a Christian is “sojourner and exile” and by living in light of God’s moral law, by loving your neighbor, loving the church, and loving God, you will put to shame your neighbors who seek to control each other and live at each other’s expense via the coercive State.