By Pastor Glenn Pease
Christians in general and Baptists in particular have played important roles in the patriotism of America. One of the finest patriotic hymns is My Country Tis Of Thee. It was written in 1832 by a Baptist clergyman named Samuel Francis Smith. The Pledge of Alliance to the flag was written in 1892 by another Baptist pastor named Francis Bellamy. Daniel Webster said, "Whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens. Nothing can be more contradictory than a Christian and a traitor. Nothing can be more in harmony than Christianity and good citizenship.
Christians had to be instructed, however, on what their relationship to the state ought to be. Paul in Rom. 13:1 writes, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers." Then he goes on to explain that they are ordained of God. He urges Titus to teach this to his congregation, and he writes in Titus 3:1, "Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work." We see then that Peter was not alone in his concern that Christians be good citizens. It is only by ignorance or willful disobedience that a Christian could practice irresponsible citizenship.
As we examine Peter's counsel to the Christians of his day we must recognize that our obligation is even greater than theirs. They did not have the freedom we do. Under their authoritarian system they needed only to be subject to the powers that be, but under our system it is not enough to be submissive, for we have the responsibility of helping to determine that to which we will be subject. Our responsibility is much greater because our freedom is much greater.
In verse 1 Peter makes it clear that good citizenship begins with the duty of being subject to legitimate authority. He did not have to bring in the exceptions and say unless they forbid what God requires, or require what God forbids. This is obvious, and Peter is not giving them a rule book. He is only laying down a basic principle that applies in almost all situations. Submitting to proper authorities is what Jesus meant when He said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." He is the authority in control and it is the obligation of believers to be subject to him.
Peter makes the principle almost absolute, for he says to be submissive to every ordinance to man. This is a real blow to the mystical type of Christian who feels that he rises above the reality of the world and need not bother with mere human institutions. Here is the text that tells a believer that the law of the land is the law you are to obey. They are often arbitrary and only man made, but Christians are to be ideal citizens by obeying these laws. Peter is writing to believers who had no say in the human institutions. We, on the other hand, can seek to get changes made that are more realistic. But as long as a thing is legally in force it is our duty to obey it. In so doing we reveal that we are good citizens, for we are willing to obey even what we feel is disagreeable.
Christianity is other worldly in its origin and its goal, but no one can charge it with being so in its practical effect in everyday life. It is to produce the most helpful people in the society of the world. The Christians greater vision beyond this world is to make them better servants and citizens. We have a motive that no one else has. We obey human authority, not just out of fear, but for the Lord's sake. Peter says this is to be the motivating power behind Christian submission. Good citizenship is a service to God, and it is to bring glory to God.
Peter than gives examples such as the king or emperor. Peter does not give us a different set of principles to follow if we are under different forms of government, for the same applies to all forms. If the established authority is a dictator, a Christian has the same obligation of submission. If a dictator lays down the law that everyone turn out their lights at 10 o'clock, every Christian home should be dark at 10. Maybe there is no valid reason, and maybe it is a foolish whim, but as long as it does not violate God's law, we are to submit. There are many things that Christians despise about living under a dictator, but his commands are to be obeyed in order to maintain order in the land.
Remember, Nero was the ruler when Peter wrote this. If Peter can urge submission to him, then no one can be an exception as long as they do not compel Christians to violate their loyalty to God. This really makes sense even if it would be hard and a bitter pill to take. Since everyone else has to do the same thing or be punished the Christian is to demonstrate he is loyal to authority and not subversive. This makes every ruler aware that Christians are good citizens and that they will be loyal if nothing is demanded that is ungodly. It is a powerful witness to the whole nation that Christians are for peace and order and they will not be a problem in society. They become a force for stability in any government.
Peter makes it clear that we are to obey local authorities as well as the federal government. It is not just the Emperor, but all whom he send out to keep order in the land. Peter says government is to punish evil doers and encourage good citizens by rewarding those who do well. Even pagan government is based on the need to protect people from sins consequences and promote goodness. Even a bad government needs to protect its citizens and so any form of government is better than anarchy. Christians are to always be a part of the answer by being supportive of the good goals of even a bad government.
In verse 15 Peter tells us why this is necessary. It is God's will that by doing good and being submissive that you put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. By being good citizens Christians will gain a reputation that will make false charges impossible. One of the quickest ways to loose your witness for Christ is to be a disloyal citizen. If you give a non-Christian the impression that you don't have to obey the laws and respect authority, you can count him out when you offer him the good news. The worldly man often takes his politics for his religion, and if you treat it lightly it is something like being sacrilegious, and he will not be much interested in what you have to offer. On the other hand, if you are a loyal citizen, and patriotic, you will capture his admiration.
In the early centuries one of the false charges against Christians was that they were dangerous rebels who should be killed before they infiltrate and cause rebellion. It was only by persistence obedience, and submission even unto death by thousands, that people were convinced Christians were not poor citizens. It is a serious charge if men can say Christians are poor citizens. If it is true, then we are out of God's will. The fact that Peter uses such a strong word for silence, which means to really muzzle, makes it obvious that Christians are to be such good citizens that it leaves critics without a thing to say in opposition.
In verse 16 Peter refers to them as free people. The Christian is not in bondage to any man or government. He is free, but he chooses to obey even a tyrant so that his freedom does not lead to evil, but to the service of God. Peter is concerned that Christians do not abuse their liberty. It would be so easy to use it as a covering to hide maliciousness. That is, one could plot against the law and justify it by saying, "I am free and not bound by human law." This could lead Christians to be anti-government rather than loyal citizens. Peter says that the Christian's freedom is to be always used as a means of serving God. The Christian has freedom of speech, but to use this freedom to speak foul words or cruel criticism is an abuse of the freedom, for it does not serve God's purpose. We need to use all freedom to serve, for to use any freedom for evil is to again be back in bondage. The test of all liberty is this: "Does it serve God, or only self, the state, or even Satan?" Only if it serves God is it true Christian liberty, and this is the liberty we have as believers to be good citizens.