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A Righteous Submission
by Dan Kidd
I can't know for certain, but I'd stand to wager that you don't have today's passage framed and hung on your wall. Understandably so. This is a tough passage for every Christ-follower who is accountable to any one else's authority. To begin with, this passage has often been used as a biblical endorsement of slavery; "Slave, in reverent fear of God submit to your masters...". Is this not antithetical to the God of freedom, dignity, and particular care for the widow, orphan, and foreigner; the One who claims a people as his own only after having liberated them from their Egyptian slavers? Yes! Of course it is. In the Kingdom of God there is no slave or slaver, there is only freedom. As often as we pray "your Kingdom come" we denounce all forms of oppression, abuse, and captivity. None of us want to be treated with cruelty or inferiority, and so, obeying Christ, we do not treat others cruelly or inferiorly.
But what do we make of this passage? First, we remember that these letters were written by real people to real people living in the midst of a sin-soaked world. It's worth remembering that, according to tradition, Peter was, like Jesus, executed by the Roman authorities. So was Paul. Whatever this passage means, it cannot preclude standing firm in our devotion to Jesus and the growing Church. Still, the directive in this letter seems clear: "Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors." Peter's counsel to this early Christian community is that they submit themselves to authority.
What should be obvious is that we don't submit to authority due to the righteousness of those in leadership. The book of Daniel offers an excellent witness for how one might practice a deference, peacefulness, and even concern for authority--even an authority as crooked as the likes of Nebuchadnezzar or Darius. Daniel and his friends understood that impulsive resistance and flagrant rebellion create insurmountable barrier to God's mission: that his people would be like salt and light to the whole world. These early Christians were called to submit to authorities whose character decidedly didn't warrant such honor.
Could it be that we are called to do the same? It's not lost on me how difficult that could be for those of us who live in a country born in bloody rebellion and nearly severed over the institution of slavery. It's safe to say our relationship with authority is complicated. And this is not to suggest that we grow complacent or defeated in the face of evil. We are, in fact, our brothers' and sisters' keepers and--as often as we can replace evil for good--we must. But it seems that we may be called into a life of necessary balance.
Perhaps, in this cultural moment of ours, we're invited to be a witness to the watching world; a people suspended by God's grace in a curious tension. On the one hand, a people who are charitable, honoring, and peace-making towards our authorities (even those with whom we most disagree); and on the other hand, a people who are so deeply devoted to Jesus and each other that we oppose whatever harms another. What might it look like for us to be known for how uncommonly kind and honoring we speak about and treat our bosses, officers, and politicians? What might it look like for us to be honest, trustworthy, and active in our pursuit of light over darkness and freedom over bondage? What if, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we were radically both salt and light? Truth and love?
A petition for God's wisdom, guidance, and transformation. Lord, there are times when we are tempted towards rebellion and enmity towards our authorities. We are driven to thoughts and actions in response to the flaws and sins of our leaders rather than by your will and your love. Too often we say things we ought not to say, and remain silent when we ought to speak. Help us! Save us from having fiery, poisonous tongues. Humble us before one another and move us to compassion and honor. Holy Spirit, move us to do the things we should do, and prevent us from doing what we shouldn't. Lord, help us to be the salt of the world. Christ, help us be the light to the world.