Last Sunday we were working through 1 Peter 2:11-25 in the sermon, and one of the issues in the passage was the command to be subject to every human institution, including governments. Peter even mentions the emperor specifically, and we know that the first century Roman emperors were no friends of Christians, and not particularly just either. The reason we are to act in this strange way is not because the authorities deserve it, but because of Jesus’ example for us, and because God has put the authorities in their place.
The question was posed to me afterwards: what about if your government passes laws that contradict the law of God? How do we submit then? And how do things differ in our democratic system as opposed to the first century Roman imperial system?
There are a few intertwined issues here, so let me take a few moments to clarify some things.
Firstly, our ultimate King is God. He is the one we fear (1 Pet 2:17), while the human authorities we only honour. So where the government pass laws that we personally do not like, but which don’t contradict God’s law, we need to submit to them. So road rules, tax laws and the like we are bound by, and Christians should be exemplary citizens in all these matters. But if the government forbids gathering with other Christians, for example, while God encourages and commands this, we would find a way to meet with others even thought it was illegal in terms of the state. If there is a conflict, then God’s law is our highest authority.
Secondly, and in a similar vein, if the government passes laws that permit things that God’s law would not, we are bound to God’s law. So even if abortion is legal, we should not do it for it does not recognize people being made in God’s image. And if prostitution is legal, that does not give us permission to indulge in this as it contradicts God’s purpose for marriage and sex.
Thirdly, being in a democracy does alter things. We have a say as citizens and it is right for us to speak up on important issues. We are not being subversive to sign petitions, to write to our representatives, or to protest peacefully against policies we think are unjust. That is part of us being a good influence on society. But when a decision is made we are bound to submit to it, within the boundaries that we discussed earlier.
It is a tricky issue. Christians in places like 1930s and 40s Germany, or modern day Middle Eastern countries, face these questions every day. Even in countries like Australia we will increasingly need to think them through. But we are called to be in the world but not of it; both good earthly citizens while remembering our true citizenship is in heaven. Let’s reflect Jesus well in how we respond to and respect our secular governments.