The Nature of the Duty
“Be Subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” – 1 Peter 2:13
The nature of the duty he commands is submission, or subjection, to human institutions—or human “ordinances.” That word, “institution,” or “ordinance,” is a very difficult word to translate. It basically refers to the civil authority structure. A fair translation would actually be “jurisdiction:” be subject to the civil magistrate in his jurisdiction. Now, let’s back up to that persnickety word, submission/subjection.
To “be subject to,” and to “obey,” are often thought of as synonyms. But I would argue (in line with historic Christianity) that there is a difference between subjection to, and obedience to, a ruler.
By the way, just so you have a frame of reference, or if you’re interested in further study, my view of this passage is basically shaped by Samuel Rutherford, the 17th century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, John Gill, 18th century English Baptist pastor, and Charles Hodge, 19th century American Presbyterian pastor.
If Peter had meant to say that any person who is in a position (has an office) of civil authority bears the divine right to govern every aspect of your life they please, as they please, and you are to do what they tell you to do no matter what—that you are to obey even the most outrageous commands in meticulous fashion—he could have done so in a number of different ways. But he didn’t say that… and he didn’t say “obey.” He said “be in subjection.” Now, granted, those two concepts are (rightly) related closely to one another. And this can easily be used to get out of having to actually respect, honor, and be in subjection to the civil magistrate. But that’s a result of our sinful and rebellious hearts, not careful exegesis. However, the fact remains that being in subjection to, and obeying, are not the same, and the difference is important. To obey you means that you give me a command, and I do it. That is often included under the heading of subjecting myself to you. But to be in submission, or to subject myself to you, means I’m willing to subordinate myself—to rank myself beneath you—it means that I acknowledge and truly live in light of the fact that you have some lawful authority to rule over me… to give me a command. But that does not legitimize every single command you may give me. But we’ll come back to that.
Recent events have renewed the need for a robust protestant political theology. And I say that readily and happily acknowledging that I’m not trying to provide that in this post. My point is just that we do actually need to think through these things; and I think it’s been made sufficiently clear that it just won’t work to continue gliding along, giving little thought to what the Scripture actually says about civil governance, and how it applies to our actual particular context.
So, be in subjection to every human “institution,” or perhaps a good paraphrase: “authority structure.” The fact that it’s human authority is also significant. The word translated “institution,” or “authority” (ktisis), is actually most closely translated as “creation.” It refers to the particular form of authority and law structures created, or put into place, by men. Now, we know from other passages that all authority is derivative authority. Only God has absolute and independent authority by virtue of who he is… all other authority is derived from Him. And because God prescribed the carrying out of justice by the civil magistrate, the civil magistrate, in carrying out justice, bears God-given authority. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 13. But here Peter isn’t making a point about the governing authorities having their authority from God. He’s mentioning the authority structures as those particular structures you live under in your context—the jurisdictions and institutions put in place by men. I think to best explain this, I need to just quote from John Gill.
“The order of magistracy is of God [in other words: the function of a civil magistrate, as the one to bear the sword in upholding justice, is of God]; it is of his ordination and appointment, and of his ordering, disposing, and fixing in its proper bounds and limits. The several [various] forms of government are of human will and pleasure; but government itself is an order of God. There may be men in power who assume it of themselves, and are of themselves, and not of God; and others that abuse the power that is lodged in them; who, though they are by divine permission, yet not of God’s approbation and good will. And it is observable, that the apostle speaks of powers, and not persons, at least, not of persons, but under the name of powers, to show that he means not this or the other particular prince or magistrate, but the thing itself, the office and dignity of magistracy itself; for there may be some persons, who may of themselves usurp this office, or exercise it in a very illegal way, who are not of God, nor to be subject to by men.”
In other words, as Wilson points out, a ruler might be a spurious leader—they might not have the right to claim the authority they’re claiming in the first place—and may be rejected or deposed on that basis, like when the chief priest, Jehoida, organized a coup to remove Athaliah, in 2 Kings 11, and replaced her with the legitimate heir to the throne… and did so amidst the cries from Athaliah of “Treason! Treason!”
And Jehoida wasn’t overly concerned about Athaliah’s accusation of treason, because, as Wilson puts it, “One of the things that does not belong to Caesar, is deciding what things belong to Caesar.” One of the things the civil authority does not have the authority to do, is define what the civil authority has the authority to do.
So, a ruler may be in place illegitimately. Or the ruler might be the Lord’s anointed, like Saul, and still give unlawful commands, that can rightly be ignored, or at times even be resisted in certain unlawful requirements. Think of Saul’s subjects restraining him from carrying out his decree in killing Jonathan, in 1 Samuel 14, or David violating Saul’s wishes for him to turn himself in. Similarly, Paul, when the governor of Damascus had guards posted at all the gates to arrest him, was lowered out of the city over the wall in order to evade arrest.
Now, I’m pushing the exceptions, and emphasizing the limits of authority, because of the reigning tendency of modern Christians to write a blank check for the government to do whatever they feel like, in any area of our lives, because they tell us they have the authority to do so, and are doing so for our own good. I’m emphasizing the limits to authority, because of how 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 are so abundantly misused today. But we have to be willing to push the other way as well, and remember that Paul and Peter are primarily pushing in the other direction, admonishing Christians not to be anti-authority, scofflaws. We are to be good citizens, and be subject to the authority structures in place in our context. Elsewhere, we are told by Paul to offer supplications and prayers for all who are in positions of authority, that under them we might lead peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness, piety, and dignity—which ought to be the aspiration of all men.
I’m only reminding us that whatever 1 Peter 2:13-14 means, and whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, these passages do not preclude things like Paul evading arrest, or Peter being killed later—and not because he was teaching Christianity in private (like he could have), but because he was violating noise ordinances and tolerance laws with his disrupting and troublesome public preaching. Paul, on three different occasions, flexes his Roman citizenship; and in all three cases, as far as we know, it has no particular gospel-furthering purpose, he simply says, “hold on, you can’t do that, I’m a Roman citizen”… “no, you can’t do that, I’m a Roman citizen; I appeal to Caesar,” and the first time, in Acts 16, it’s “no we’re not going to leave the city quietly, you flogged us as Roman citizens,” and so the magistrates come and formally apologize to Paul and Silas. So, keeping that in mind, we must take to heart what Peter is saying here, that we are to be subject to civil institutions… we are to readily acknowledge that the civil magistrate has a real authority.
To be continued in part 3…