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Civil Submission in 1 Peter and the Contemporary Context

Civil SubmissionRecent posts regarding the command for civil submission in 1 Peter has provoked a bit of discussion about the contemporary application of the command. In this post, I would like to (1) reflect generally on civil submission in the contemporary context and (2) reflect on the American context of civil submission, especially as it relates to the US Constitution. (Background reading of recent 1 Peter posts is assumed).

Civil Submission Today

Mike Fox and I had a discussion about related matters in the comments section following my post on Slavery in the Roman Empire (you can read more there). I noted what I see as one factor in a church’s role in national and civil issues: the disposition of the government toward the church. If local churches in a particular place are persecuted, I find Peter’s words especially applicable. He does not suggest that leaders cry against the Empire from the pulpit, but rather that they submit, continue in faithful obedience, and continue to give Gospel-witness. As mentioned before, submission is not the equivalent of condoning the abuse of the Empire. Rather, Peter presents a paradigm: Gospel-witness is more important than self-preservation.

I also think it’s important to note that New Testament commands regarding civil submission do not prohibit the condemnation of abuse. In light of biblical teaching regarding justice (even civil justice) I think the church has a responsibility to call sin what it is (as always). Believers should condemn the abusive acts of regimes, even when they are our own. Even so, I think New Testament teaching as a whole suggests that the priority of the church in relation to the world is one of evangelism, not political activism. Notice that when the apostles stood before civil authorities, the Gospel message was the focus (see Acts 26:1-32 for one example of MANY in the book of Acts).

Civil Submission and the U.S. Constitution

Note again the previous discussion regarding the meaning of “every human institution” (πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει) in 1 Peter 2:13. The phrase refers to the creation of a civil authority. Peter proceeds to give two examples in the context of his readers: (1) The Roman emperor; and (2) Roman provincial governors (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Considering this in the context of the United States, I wonder whether or not the United States Constitution falls under the category of “every human institution.” I am beginning to think it does.

The reason this is so important is because submission in the American context may actually obligate the citizen to be involved. The constitution begins: “We the People of the United States.” It declares the United States to be a republic, a form of government in which the power lies in the hands of the people. Thus, responsible citizens participate, vote, and stay informed. This is quite different from pacifist perspectives which also are defended based on New Testament teaching. What are your thoughts?


In any contemporary situation, we must not forget the ultimate goal of submission in the context of 1 Peter: Gospel-witness. So it is today. The Christian citizen of any nation is to be submissive for the sake of the Gospel, not for the sake of an agenda. This is crucial. God does not belong to a political party, nor is God a citizen of any nation. God is God and His Word stands as it is. The biblical priority for the church’s relationship with outsiders is that of evangelism. This isn’t to say that God is not concerned about justice. He is, and He has the means to bring it about: redemption and perfect justice through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

15 Responses to Civil Submission in 1 Peter and the Contemporary Context

  1. josh,

    you wrote, “Believers should condemn the abusive acts of regimes, even when they are our own. Even so, I think New Testament teaching as a whole suggests that the priority of the church in relation to the world is one of evangelism, not political activism.”

    i think those two sentences pretty much sum up my position as well. good post brother


    • Thanks, Mike. By the way, I checked out your post on OT Introductions and I honestly just don’t know what I would use. I’m stuck in the first century for now!

  2. In case you an Mike agree prematurely, I want to make a distinction: Believers may condemn an act, but they may not vocalize it. Again, to get back to your earlier point, we are not going to hand the pulpit over as a podium for social justice. When the government is doing its worst to Christians, such is when the preaching must be most like the life of Jesus — who, as Peter said, went to the trial, he did not offer back threats (which he could have done, and he could have explained eschatology too).

    If Christians could suffer with a view to the Resurrection (instead of a view to our congressman making better laws, or to the hope that our courts will get good judges), then we will be like Christ.

    Jesus was surrounded by injustice. He saw the mistreatment of widows and orphans. And he offered up his body without calling down the forces at his disposal. He put on display a different way to think about God and justice. God is going to set all things right at the end of the age, and our proof is what happened in the middle of this present evil age.

    So I agree with you that “Believer should condemn the abusive acts of regimes…” but that is going to be a tangential observation, not a speech or a message. I recognize bad cops and bad judges, but I don’t make speeches about them, nor I am eager to vocalize my discoveries of their badness. The world needs to know that eating a fruit off of a tree was evil — being a message that is disbelieved. And they need to know that even the wicked will be raised (John 5) — another disbelieved message. Sin is so rampant, that to try to reform government would be like Noah trying to fix society instead of building the Ark.

    God will fix society. He will get all good judges to rule. But that is going to happen in the New Heavens and the New Earth, wherein righteousness dwells.

    I say all of this because I still think there is a distinction between what Mike and you are postulating. I think, based on what I read from you, that this is closer to your reading of 1 & 2 Peter. Regardless, there are competing ideas on how to understand the Christian’s relationship to the government.


  3. “Believers may condemn an act, but they may not vocalize it”, by which I mean, it could be the case that seeing it, they might not happen to vocalize it. I wasn’t saying the scripture prohibits them vocalizing their observations. Nor does it demand that we vocalize every evil we spy.

    • Yes, I continue to affirm what we have previously discussed. However, reflecting on the American context in this post, I think something new is added to the mix. If our governing authorities obligate us to participate in certain civil activities (such as voting), then participatory activity becomes part of submission (I’m not thinking of political activism at this point, but basic civil responsibilities).

      To reflect a bit further, I wonder what role local pastors have in communicating how the Scriptures should affect such participation. For example, if the government begins considering the legalizing of abortion for children up to 1 year of age, should a discussion of the matter be held within the gathering of a local church? Considering the American context, I happen to think so. My logic is as follows: If submission entails civil participation, then civil participation should be dictated by biblical principles and merit attention in the local church. The focus still remains the Gospel and the edification of the believers.

  4. steve,

    one of the things i brought up earlier was the role of christian speech when a third party is being abused, and i think josh is in part responding to that (though correct me if i’m wrong, josth). i agree that (authentic) christians must expect persecution & persevere through it (including bearing witness to Christ), but what about when the government is abusing another group that is not christian? do christians exercise a prophetic voice or simply ignore the social abuse/injustice while preaching the gospel?

    put simply, sure, christians should seek christ through our trials (even trials imposed by the empire), but i believe the church should exercise its prophetic voice when the regimes abuse other parties (or at least i’m leaning that way). this may not feel relevant in the usa, but people in south africa, east africa, parts of asia, the middle east, well basically the rest of the world outside europe, really encounter such situations.

  5. But surely the crux of civil disobedience is not the speaking out or otherwise against a regime, rather it is the breaking of the law.

    My question would be this: when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in 1955 (and lets presume such WAS illegal rather than debate the specifics of the driver’s request), was it is sin? If the law was broken and she refused to submit to the authorities in that matter, did she sin?

    If not, why not? What were the factors making her civil disobedience unsinful?

    • Let me be clear: segregation was and is wrong. However, if we take the situation as you have qualified it above (esp. the qualification ‘illegal’), I think proper application of 1 Peter suggests that the right course of action would be to remain obedient for the sake of the Gospel. Again, the purpose of obedience is Gospel-witness. The willingness to sacrifice personal justice for the purpose of Gospel-witness is central to the passage. It seems to me that civil disobedience is the right course of action only when such disobedience is required to obey God’s explicit commands as found in Scripture.

  6. Josh, I agree with your general principles stated here. My wondering is whether to obey laws of segregation *IS* in fact disobedient to Scripture. Loving one’s neighbor, perhaps? I haven’t decided on this myself, but it is certainly an issue I consider ripe for debate.

  7. Brothers, in Bible college they taught us to diagram sentences. So, a cursory examination leaves me with a question for you. Which “human institutions” was Peter calling for our submission to? It would appear that the text of 1 Peter 2:13 states that it is those “sent by Him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

    OK. Then what of those ‘authorities” that punish good and reward evil? (This applies to Romans 13, as well). It would appear to me that Peter was being very specific as to which authorities are worthy of our submission. Are we then to submit to evildoers? Is that not what authorities that punish good and reward evil are? And, how can the ignorance of foolish men be silenced when godly men submit to evil authorities?

    If you want to know why a Christian nation such as ours has fallen into the gutter, I would suggest you look no farther than the pulpits that preach absolute submission to the state. Is that not idolatry? Forget God, the state will provide? A good source for further study on this issue is A Christian Manifesto written by Francis Schaeffer. I highly recommend it to you.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think the most significant qualification on the phrase ‘human institutions’ in the passage is the adjective ‘every’ (πάσῃ). I think given the following context with slaves submitting even to crooked masters, your qualification above is incorrect. Peter’s answer is “Yes, we are to submit, even to evil-doers… for the sake of Gospel witness.” If you’re interested, I’ve discussed the context of 1 Peter 2-3 in related posts which you’ll find linked above.

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