SCRIPTURE – 1 Peter 2:13-17
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
God or the Government?
1 Peter 2:13-17
July 4, 2010
So what do you do when the most popular patriotic non-religious holiday falls on a Sunday? The last time this happened, in 2004, I was conveniently on vacation and turned the worship responsibilities over to the Elders, who wisely led a service of patriotic readings and songs. When you’re not sure what to preach, a hymn sing comes in very handy.
What do you preach when the call to celebrate God and the call to celebrate the government (or at least what our democratic form of government represents) fall on the same day? Do you preach God and government? God or government? God and/or government? God then government? I take a cue here from H. Richard Neihbur, who in his seminal book Christ and Culture laid out several different options for reconciling the relationship between our faith and our society, including our forms of government. I want to share three of them with you.
One of those options is the either/or “Christ against Culture.” In this option, you have to choose whom you serve and no form of government is valid unless God is the ruler. Christians stay out of politics all together. The Amish are a good example of this.
Another option is the opposite of the first. The “Christ of Culture” view sees the gospel fully engaged with the surrounding society, to the point where Christian beliefs are contorted so they fit with societal standards. The effort of the Nazis to make Jesus non-Jewish and pro-Aryan is an example of this, as is any effort we make to paint Jesus as a Republican or a Democrat. Christians should be political through and through and should adjust their version of the gospel to fit their beliefs.
A third option, “Christ Transforming Culture,” seeks to find a middle ground between the first two. We don’t have to choose Chris or culture, God or the government. This perspective believes that Christ, through his believers, is constantly working to make God’s kingdom real here on earth.
For example, our secular culture has produced some great technology, like the iPod. The Christ against Culture folks would never buy one; that’s the work of the devil! The Christ of Culture folks would buy one and worship it as an expression of human ingenuity. They would probably argue that Jesus had one for all his long walks. And the Christ transforming Culture people would use the iPod to spread the gospel, maybe by selling them to raise mission trip funds or program them with a Bible so that we can read God’s word on the go.
So with those three options in front of us, how do we proceed? Do we follow the “Christ of Culture” model and say the church should be in the thick of things when it comes to politics? Or do we take the “Christ against Culture” path, which says the church should never address any political concerns whatsoever? Something in between?
The Bible can be a helpful guide on days like these, but to be honest it can also muddy the waters. Let’s take Peter as an example. In the passage we read today, he encourages his readers to “accept the authority of every human institution.” Other translations use the more noble “respect all human authority” or the incendiary wording of “submit to every authority.” If we don’t dig a bit deeper here, we might conclude this is “Christ Surrendering to Culture.”
Peter tells his people to submit “for the Lord’s sake,” which at first may sound like a tacit divine approval of whatever the government says or does. And in Peter’s day, there was a strong belief that those in leadership were put there through God’s authority. This is ironic since Peter was writing when the Roman emperor was Nero, who was known for his tyranny and persecution of Christians.
But Peter isn’t the only one preaching this pro-authority message. Paul says in Romans that we should submit to authority because those authorities have been instituted by God. How do you think that would go over today? “You should elect me and then do everything I say because God sent me.” Our world is not Peter’s world. Peter’s folks were being called to submit to the Roman emperor, because not doing so could mean big trouble for the church. That’s not the case in our democratic society, so Peter’s rationale for submitting doesn’t hold much water for us today. So then do we toss this passage out of the Bible? It’s apples and oranges, you know. But unless we’re going to start downsizing the Bible, we have to deal with what’s in there, whether we like it or not. So if we’re going to leave this in the Bible, we need to figure out what we’re going to do with it.
I think we have to start with what it means to submit to or accept authority. Does that mean blind allegiance and extreme obedience? If it’s understood that way, the results can be horrific. During the Crusades, Pope Urban II called for the destruction of anyone who wouldn’t convert on the spot. His reasoning? “God wills it!” When we confuse love of God with love of country, we move from the positive power of patriotism to a destructively biased nationalism.
We run this risk as soon as we start to attach God’s name to governmental actions, which takes Neihbur’s “Christ of Culture” to the extreme. Abraham Lincoln said it this way in talking about the Civil War: “Both North and South read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes God’s aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” We have to be careful about claiming God is on our side an anything, because it automatically conveys the impression that God doesn’t care about who’s on the other side, and I believe in a God who created all people, not just the ones who look and think and act and vote like me. Do we bend our wills to fit with Jesus, or do we bend our image of Jesus to fit our wills?
So if we’re not called to blind allegiance, where does that leave us with Peter’s call to submit, especially when the party in power in our community, state or nation wasn’t our first choice? I would say that submitting or accepting is not the same as agreeing or obeying. I believe submitting includes disagreeing with our leaders, because that disagreement is the bedrock on which many of our nation’s advances have been built. We have gotten where we are through the civil disobedience of folks like Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Civil disobedience is what Neihbur would call “Christ Transforming Culture” and I believe it’s the most potent form of submitting.
While Peter’s context and our own may be completely different, there is one thing that is consistent from his time until now. Listen to Peter’s words again: “For it is God’s will that by doing right (submitting to authority) you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” In other words, Peter is saying that people are watching us and we have a duty to act in such a way that honors God and promotes the church. The foolish are out there in the Red and the Blue states just waiting for us Christians to slip up and do something they can criticize. It grieves me every time I hear Christians fighting and name-calling with other Christians or promoting hatred and violence. Is that really how God called us to relate? Do we really need to give our critics more ammunition?
Peter says if Christians live and operate within the boundaries of our governance system, these critics will be silenced and observers will see the justice and holiness of God’s people in action. We are called to be good citizens, and we can still do that through protests, civil disobedience and not voting for candidates we don’t like. But before we are good citizens, we are called to be good Christians, and that should be the defining filter for all we say and do, even in the political arena. The way we carry ourselves can have an incredible influence on those who watch us. We truly have the opportunity to be Christ transforming culture.
The paradox of Peter’s words is that we can submit in this way because of our freedom. Think about what we are celebrating on this day. The word “independence” is actually a negative word. The prefix “in-“ means “not.” “Incredible” means “not believable,” “incessant” means “not stopping,” and “inhale” means “to not hale.” OK, I’m not so sure about that last one. So if you carry this line of thinking on out, Independence Day celebrates the fact we are not dependent on something. We are celebrating that we’re no longer dependent on the monarchy of England and that we no longer are subject to taxation without representation.
But even as we celebrate what we are free from, God calls to celebrate that we are free to. We are free to be Christians. We are free to submit to authority. We are free to do what is right and orderly. We are free to disagree with our leaders in ways that promote change, not chaos. On this Independence Day, we celebrate that we are dependent on God, and that gives us the independence to live Godly lives. We are dependent on God, not the emperor or the president, but freedom from the power of worldly authority doesn’t give us license to hurt the church through our actions.
What I like about Peter’s message is that, while it was written in a different context, it still applies to us today, regardless of who is in power. If we support the current administration, we can submit by working to help make their plans a reality. If we don’t support the current administration, we can submit by working through the system to bring new leaders to office. This message is not dependent on which party holds the power. Instead, it calls each of us to live out our faith through our respect, acceptance and submission to authority. We Christians ought to be known for our respect of the government and each other, even when and especially when we disagree.
At its core, that’s a distinctly Disciples message. Our denomination was founded on the principle of unity, and we live it out each Sunday when we come to the table. One of the things I love about this church is that you will find people all across the political and social spectrum, in some cases diametrically opposed to each other in very passionate ways. And yet each Sunday, Republicans and Democrats, pro-this and anti-that come together to share in the one loaf that was broken to make us whole. And as we go from this place to live out this patchwork quilt of unity, we give people an alternative, life-giving way of relating. We join with Christ in transforming our culture.
Well, I imagine right now Republicans are mad at me for being Democrat, Democrats are mad at me for being Republican, and Independents don’t know what to make of me. But let’s lay aside our human labels for a moment and contemplate the incontrovertible fact that before we are anything else, we are God’s children, each and every one of us. On this day and every day, that freedom is something truly worth celebrating.