Honest Conversation

In an epistle written to prepare believers for the rigors of persecution, Peter has instructed them first to build the kind of character that can endure trouble—indeed, that cannot only endure it but can even rejoice when it is most intense (1 Pet. 1:6). Such a character is patterned after the holiness of God (1 Pet. 1:15-16). It is a character that has broken the chains enslaving the soul to fleshly lusts (1 Pet. 1:14) and has yielded to the control of such virtues as sobriety and hope (1 Pet. 1:13).

But coping with life in a world hostile to people of faith has another aspect as well. The believer must not only strengthen himself to meet adversity. He must also live in such a way as to neutralize, if possible, the hatred of the ungodly. He will not have to endure their persecution if he can win their tolerance or even their respect. Peter therefore proceeds to give believers some practical advice on how to live at peace with people who reject the Christian gospel.

He says that we should have our “conversation honest among the Gentiles” (1 Pet. 2:12). “Conversation” is a word that has changed meaning in the centuries since the King James Version was produced. Then it meant “manner of life” or “behavior.” The word “honest” is an attempt to interpret the Greek word, which actually means “beautiful.” With reference to conduct, it means “noble” or “exemplary.” What Peter is saying, then, is that believers should conduct themselves in a way that is absolutely above reproach, and that is so full of goodness that even the enemies of Christ will see it as deserving of praise. If the ungodly withhold praise now, because they willingly blind themselves to the goodness of God’s people, they will give it on the Day of Judgment. On that day they will appreciate the good works that we have done. They will admit that we made the world a better place, and that we brought blessing even into their own lives. They will remember too that we tried to give them the gospel that would have delivered them from damnation. Because nothing but truth will be spoken during judgment before a divine Judge, the wicked will acknowledge that we were instruments of grace leading them to God, and they will glorify God for giving them such grace, although when they had a chance to respond with faith, they counted this grace as worthless and cast it aside.

Obeying Civil Authorities

Which rulers must be obeyed

Peter now gives specific directions for blunting violent opposition. The key, he says, is to live on the best possible terms with the authorities (1 Pet. 2:13). Do everything necessary to avoid antagonizing them. They are the ones with greatest power to persecute the church. Therefore, the church should give them perfect cooperation. Lest we be tempted to think that our loyalty is due only the highest levels of government, Peter specifically states that we must obey lesser officials as well as the supreme ruler (1 Pet. 2:13-14). The meaning for us today is that we should live in submission to the laws of local and state government as well as the federal government.

Which laws must be obeyed

The cooperation we offer the authorities should extend to every requirement they impose on us. Notice that Peter is at pains to say “every ordinance” (1 Pet. 2:13). We dare not pick and choose which laws we will keep. We are obliged to respect not only the laws that forbid murder and other crimes clearly in violation of God’s moral law, but also the minor regulations that seem to have no moral significance. We should park in the right places. We should secure the proper building permits. We should even obey the speed limits.

The divine right of rulers

So far, my argument for keeping the laws laid down by government has been solely pragmatic. I have said that we should position ourselves to be on good terms with men with power to persecute us. But there is also a more profound and compelling reason to obey human laws. That reason, as stated by Peter, is that rulers are sent by “him”—that is, God—to keep the wickedness of man under control (1 Pet. 2:14). Here is another place in this epistle where Peter shows familiarity with the writings of Paul. The wording Peter uses is quite similar to what we find in Romans 13, Paul’s defense of government as a legitimate institution ordained by God. Both writers agree that a government official is God’s minister (compare 1 Pet. 2:14 and Rom. 13:1, 4). They agree also that his rightful function is to punish evildoers and reward those who do well (compare 1 Pet. 2:14 and Rom. 13:3-4). It follows then that we should view a ruler not as someone who has risen to his high place through the machinery of politics, but as someone that God has placed over us. To resist a ruler is to resist an authority that God Himself has set up for our good. To rebel against him is equivalent to rebelling against God. The second reason for submitting to human laws is, therefore, that they have divine sanction. We cannot fulfill our duty to God without fulfilling our duty as citizens.

Good deeds as good public relations

Yet Peter returns to the pragmatic reason for leading a law-abiding life (1 Pet. 2:15). Over the centuries, the ungodly have hurled all manner of false accusations against the church. In the Roman period, malicious tongues spread the gossip that Christians sacrificed and ate babies in their rite of communion. In the period before the Reformation, the Catholic church accused Bible-believing dissenters of being in league with the devil. In our day, the liberal media portray fundamentalists as antidemocratic and bigoted. Peter says that all such attacks come from “the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:15). How should we deal with false accusations so that, if possible, we can avoid violent persecution? Peter counsels us to take refuge in well doing. If we as believers stand out as the most upright members of our communities, if we are always the first to step forward with help when it is needed, if we can always be trusted to conduct our affairs with perfect integrity—our enemies will find it hard to stir up passion against us. Instead, the ungodly who know us best, our immediate neighbors, will rally to our defense, because each one will have felt the touch of Christian kindness.

Soul Liberty

Peter then turns to consider what our behavior should be as citizens. The phrase “as free” is rather puzzling and has produced various interpretations. Most modern expositors understand it to be an injunction, which can be translated, “Live as free men.” Some members of the church did have their freedom, while others were bondslaves. Peter seemingly is telling them all that no man should regard himself as inferior to his brothers in Christ. He has gone through a list of prestigious titles which they all share. They are all “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (v. 9). Every humble believer has been honored with membership in these select groups. Therefore, in his heart, though he may outwardly hold a position as another man’s servant, he should consider himself as good as any other man, bond or free. Moreover, he should recognize that God has set limits on the extent to which another human being should possess and control him. No human master can claim ownership of his soul. That belongs to God alone. Thus, he has the absolute right to determine and obey God’s will without anyone else’s interference. Baptists refer to this absolute right as soul liberty.

But as soon as we feel ourselves free, we are tempted to misuse our freedom. Peter exhorts us not to use it as a cloak for malice (v. 16). In other words, soul liberty does not grant us any right to do evil. We should always view ourselves as free to do good, in obedience to God. But we should never tell ourselves that it is our right to hate or seek vengeance or bring harm on others. Some years ago, after a scandal arising from American treatment of Iraqi prisoners, a Muslim firebrand was quoted on the media as saying that when an Arab is brought to such disgrace, his tradition demands revenge. But revenge is never an option for a Christian, though he is a free man in the eyes of God, because, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).

The American Revolution

Now we come to a hotly contested issue in church history. I recently read a book on the American Revolution, which skillfully set forth the debate that took place among good people in the colonies as to whether it was right to rebel against the king. Many felt on the basis of religious convictions that it was wrong to take up arms against a legitimate ruler. Others felt that the king had overstepped his rightful authority and that Christian men ought to rise up and defend their God-given liberties. Much the same debate took place in the American South before the Civil War between those who found Biblical justification for seceding from the Union and those who believed that secession was contrary to Biblical precepts. Is it ever right to resist a ruler? Or is rebellion in every instance a use of liberty as a cloak for malice?

I can only give you my own opinion, but it is not simply an opinion about political debates in the distant past. The same debate may crop up again, at any time, and demand that believers take sides. Not long ago in China, some Christians in house churches accepted the idea that the Bible is a revolutionary book, giving them God’s permission to agitate against and overthrow their Communists rulers. Does the Bible truly support this idea? No, it is a dangerous perversion of Bible teaching. My opinion is that the Bible gives no room whatever to those who seek to justify civil rebellion. Besides the passages we have examined in 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13, the Old Testament contains several very firm admonitions not to join with rebels against the king (Prov. 24:21-22; Eccles. 10:20).

Therefore, what stance would I have taken during the American Revolution? I could not have been a vocal supporter of King George’s policies, because they were unreasonable and unjust. My obligation to obey a civil ruler does not require me to say that black is white. Under the laws at that time, I had every right to criticize the British government for its handling of colonial affairs. But also I could not have leveled my rifle at some poor British foot soldier and shot him dead. For all I knew, he might have been no scoundrel, but a God-fearing man with a family longing for his safe return. Bloodshed merely to achieve a change in government is never God’s will, in my opinion.

The Political Theory Embraced by Our Founding Fathers

Sometimes in our patriotic fervor we do not tell the truth about the American Revolution. Most of its prominent leaders were not godly Christians, but deists, and the principles they enshrined in our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, were derived not from the Bible, but from a doctrine of natural rights developed by such philosophers as the Englishman Thomas Hobbes and the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau. The political theory embraced by Jefferson, Franklin, and other framers of our system of government rested on three premises, none of which has Biblical support.

The social contract

The first is that man in his primitive state saw the benefits in cooperation with other men and created an organized society under a common government. In submitting to such a government, he surrendered some personal liberties, yet only with the understanding that the government would protect other personal liberties. Philosophers referred to this trade-off supposedly at the origin of human society as the social contract. Does this idea of how societies were formed square with the facts? No, there is absolutely no evidence that any society originated in a social contract such as the philosophers describe—no evidence that any society started when free men came together and deliberately agreed to cooperate on mutually beneficial terms. The Bible offers no information about the particular events leading to the formation of human government, yet, in the passages we have examined already, it teaches clearly that human government was instituted by God. The first reference to government in the Bible comes after the account of the Flood. When God was declaring His covenant with Noah, He decreed that henceforth anyone who committed murder should be put to death (Gen. 9:6). By whom? Scripture says, “by man.” Noah and his descendants obviously could not fulfill this requirement except by setting up some sort of governmental structure capable of apprehending, trying, and executing anyone guilty of murder. We see, then, that human government did not originate in any supposed social contract, but in a clear command of God at the time when mankind was restarting human society after the Flood.

The doctrine of human rights

Second, according to our founding fathers, man has inherent rights that every government is obliged to respect. The Declaration of Independence calls these “certain inalienable rights” and lists three in particular—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Bible, however, does not grant man any rights at all. It is not denying that man has rights in relation to other men or in relation to government. Rather, it is teaching us that from God’s perspective, rights, such as they are, exist only as a consequence of man’s covenant obligations. For example, God in His covenant with Adam laid on man the obligation to be fruitful and multiply, and He created the institution of marriage so that man might fulfill this obligation in a way consistent with the welfare of both parents and children. Later, to assure successful families, God spelled out certain duties for both husband and wife. For example, a husband must love his wife. It does follow, without dispute, that a wife has a right to be loved. But God never told a wife that she had such a right. Instead, He gave her the duty to obey her husband. And so it follows that a husband has a right to be obeyed. But again, God never presented him with such a right, in so many words.

The emphasis throughout Scripture on duties rather than rights has a sound basis:

  1. Duties give us a proper motivation for conduct. Scripture presents our duties as commandments of God. Whether we fulfill these duties is therefore a decision whether we will obey and please Him. Conduct along the path of duty is God-oriented. But if our conduct is motivated mainly by the desire to defend and enlarge our rights, it is self-oriented and potentially selfish. It is conduct seeking advantages for self rather than a right relationship with God. Rights readily become an excuse for self-promotion, perhaps even for grasping more than a fair share. Many illegitimate social causes have tried to make themselves more popular by parading under a banner of supposed rights.
  2. In the modern world, the emphasis on rights is an excuse to leave God out of the picture. To blame all social problems on failure to respect the rights of others misses the point. Why does a man have rights? Only because God forbids others to injure him. The real source of all trouble between men is therefore failure to keep the law of God, to fulfill the duties that God has laid upon us. A Biblical emphasis on duties reminds us that the fundamental problem of human society is sin.
  3. An emphasis on duties rather than rights is consistent with God’s primary objective in shaping the character of His children. Above all else, He wants them to learn how to love. As their two chief obligations, He requires that they love Him and that they love their fellow man (Matt. 22:36-40). Love grows naturally out of the discipline of unselfishly doing our duty, but remains stunted if we are aggressively asserting our personal rights. We soon view others as offenders and ourselves as victims. In place of love, there is a sense of being wronged. Instead of peace as each person attends to his own duties, there is conflict. A mind preoccupied with its grievances finally drowns in a sea of bitterness.
  4. An emphasis on rights is humanistic. The focus is on what rightly belongs to me, a mere man, rather than on what rightly belongs to God.

Does man have a right to life? Yes, murder is wrong. To liberty? The only true liberty is liberty in Christ. But it is not a human right. It is a gift that God bestows on those who meet the conditions of repentance and faith. In its outworkings it is altogether different from political liberty. The latter enlarges a man’s power to serve his own interests. The former, as Peter says, frees us from vanity so that we might serve God (1 Pet. 2:16). What about pursuit of happiness? Certainly man should be free to pursue it, but happiness itself is not a right. It is a reward God bestows on those who walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Consent of the governed

Third, government is solely by consent of the governed. The Bible instead recognizes only one who has the right to change government. He is God, the ruler of rulers (Psa. 75:6-7). His sovereignty permits human effort on behalf of peaceful change within a constitutional or other legal framework, for political action of this kind is merely another operation of the existing government. But any human effort to overthrow a regime by extralegal or violent means usurps God’s place as supreme monarch.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not seeking to debunk patriotism. Nor am I questioning that we should be grateful for many features of our political system. Whereas the philosophy underlying the Declaration of Independence is highly flawed because it is unscriptural, Biblical principles did have a profound influence on the framing of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We can be especially proud of two freedoms we have as Americans. The first is the right of every accused person to due process. Whenever sitting rulers have persecuted Christians, they have proceeded unjustly, often illegally. For example, the trial of Christ Himself was contrary to the law. The right of due process that we enjoy as Americans serves to protect the church from any attempt by government to arrest and imprison Christians arbitrarily and without cause. The second freedom to be especially cherished is freedom of religion. Because the courts are busy eroding this freedom, we have a duty to defend it by all available means consistent with the law.

Critical Distinctions

In his counsel on ways to avoid persecution, Peter continues by urging us to treat all men with honor (1 Pet. 2:17). He specifically includes the king among all men. Yet in further instructions sandwiched between the exhortations to honor all men and to honor the king, he reminds us that our duty toward our fellow believers is to love them and our duty toward God is to fear Him. Peter is making two critical distinctions.

Between fellow man and fellow believer

He commands a kind of love for the brethren that he does not recommend for the lost. Why? From the teachings of Christ, we know that we should love all men, even an enemy (Matt. 5:44). Yet although our love for them can be compassionate and self-sacrificing to the utmost degree, it can never gain the special warmth possible in love for the brethren. One reason is that our association with wicked people cannot be unrestricted. We cannot join in their defiling practices. Thus, our love for them never expands very far in the dimension of true friendship.

Between king and God

Peter commands no more than honor toward a king, but requires fear toward God. Why? Because fear of a secular ruler might hinder us from doing right. If his dictates conflict with the law of God, God is the only one we should fear. We must obey Him regardless of any consequences we will suffer by disobeying the ruler. In comparison with our fear of God, our fear of these consequences should be as nothing. Rather, we should rejoice at the opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ, who was also mistreated by wicked rulers (1 Pet. 4:13; Acts 4:25-28).

The Dilemma of Duty to a Wicked Ruler

When we read Peter’s requirement to honor the king, our first thought may be, “Surely he means a good king. Surely a Christian is not expected to honor a Stalin or a Hitler.” But lest we put hedges on a requirement that God meant to be absolute, Peter does not say, “Honor your king,” as if he was referring to the reader’s king, whoever he might be at a remote time and place. Rather, he says, “Honor the king,” and the king when Peter was writing was Nero, perhaps the most despicable monster who ever held the title of Caesar. The atrocities he committed against the church in Rome were horrible. He used some saints as torches, setting them afire when they were still alive. Others he fed to wild dogs. It is evident that Peter’s command to honor the king applies to every king, good or bad.

How is it possible for a believer to live in submission to a wicked ruler? Is not a wicked ruler a puppet of the devil, for the devil is the prince of this world (John 14:30)? He claimed truthfully that he disposes of earthly kingdoms to whomever he chooses (Luke 4:5-6). But even the devil operates in subjection to God. He can give power to no man without God’s permission. Scripture clearly teaches that each individual ruler owns his position by divine appointment (Psa. 75:6-7; Dan. 2:21; 4:17; Jer. 27:5). There is no exception to this generalization. If every ruler is God’s choice, it follows that every ruler is a legitimate authority who deserves to be obeyed.

Yet it is still undeniable that some rulers are wicked and cruel. If a Christian finds himself living under a ruler who is especially bad, he must keep three principles in mind. These will help him accept the authority of a government that in itself merits little respect.

  1. Even the cruelest of rulers tends to show favor to subjects who obey him. His cruelty is normally vented on those who are resisting him or seeking to remove him.
  2. God can have His way even in the decisions of a ruler who is totally incompetent (Prov. 21:1). A believer can trust that any ruling of government affecting him personally represents the Providential will of God.
  3. If a wicked ruler takes up a reproach against God’s people and seeks to oppress them, they can be confident that God is allowing the persecution only because it will further the cause of truth. Persecution can have many benefits. For one thing, by driving hypocrites out of the church, it purifies both the leadership and the rank in file. Men who were attracted to the church because it provided some earthly gain suddenly discover that the advantages in being a Christian are not worth the costs. When confronted with the danger of jail and death, they suddenly remember that they are really skeptics. Also, persecution gives true believers an opportunity to display a love for enemies and a patience under trial that some worldlings will recognize as supernatural. Thus, their suffering becomes a powerful testimony that Christianity is true. The angelic countenance on the face of Stephen, the first martyr, left a deep impression on one of those consenting to his death, a young man named Saul (Acts 6:8-15; 7:54-8:1). Later, Saul himself turned to Christ and, becoming known as the Apostle Paul, embarked on a career laying the groundwork of gentile Christianity. An old adage is true. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”