A Christian’s involvement in government

An exegetical and cultural review of 1 Peter 2:13-17 by Expedition 44 YouTube co-host Matt Mouzakis

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as 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. As free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17 NASB)

We have done several videos on a Christian’s involvement in government. 1 Peter 2:13-17 is a text that is often cited as the primary passage of instruction in this conversation.

The interpretation of this passage put forth in many American Evangelical churches and Protestant churches teaches dual citizenship; that the church rules in the realm of spiritual things and the government in the area of the polis. This “dual citizenship” idea allows Christians to still feel an obligation to participate in the systems of this world and even positively encourages to be politically involved in them; yet somehow, they still consider themselves to be “spiritual exiles”. This always seemed a bit gnostic to me, or perhaps a contradiction of terms.  This idea of two kingdoms or dual citizenship came about as a result of the politics of the Reformation. Earlier this week was the 505th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation brought much good but, in my opinion, did not go far enough back in their reforms.

The idea of two kingdoms is credited mainly to Martin Luther. This doctrine granted independence to the state and the church in the spheres in which they rule. The government was to have free reign in the secular sphere and the church in the spiritual, both as God’s instruments. An example of this is seen in the peasant revolt. Prince Fredrick comes to Luther citing the Sermon on the Mount (loving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc.) and asking for advice on how to bring peace since it seems that Jesus is against violently crushing the revolt. Luther, referring to passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, tells him that his role as the authority mandates him to take a harsh (even violent) stand against the rebelling peasants, it is the role he plays as a civic leader.  The moral calling of the government is viewed as a top of the social hierarchal authority and not a bottom one as of a Christian. So, Fredrick proceeds to violently slaughter a bunch of peasants to “bring peace”. Luther essentially tells the Prince that those in political power, including Christians, must resort to coercive and violent methods to manage the state even when they go against the ethic of Christ. The other side of this is that the Church is simply placed into the realm of dealing with the spiritual and Christ is demoted to “secretary of afterlife affairs” instead of King of kings and Lord of lords.

We need to ask if this doctrine and this way of interpretating 1 Peter 2 results in entanglement with the kingdoms of this world. I believe there is a better interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13-17 based on the context. The following interpretation shows that we are exiles and ambassadors here for the Kingdom of God and we have citizenship in only one kingdom: the kingdom of God.  

Context

The letter of 1 Peter was written to Christians in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He begins his letter calling the audience “called exiles and strangers/aliens” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). This audience has been living in this area for their entire lives; Jews having been here for generations after the dispersion and gentiles being in their native-born homeland. Yet, Peter calls them exiles and aliens because of their baptismal identity and they are now citizens in the Kingdom of God. He says they are “called”. The language of “called” or election in the OT was not simply about salvation but about a vocation or mission- ambassadorship.

This new citizenship this would have brought about social troubles in these times due to not participating in the emperor cult and the worship of the local gods. They were seen as atheists for only worshipping one God and unpatriotic for declaring the gospel of Jesus as Lord (and Caesar as not).

Preceding this text, we have Peter reminding these churches of their identity in Christ’s Kingdom and fact they are now exiles and aliens in the lands they live in,

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)

Peter kicks off his message about kings and rulers by reminding these churches that they are a set apart nation and not part of the kingdoms of the world.

Submit to the Government?

            When we come to 1 Peter 2:13 it is often used in a way that tries to communicate the concept of outright obedience to the governing institutions. But the verse doesn’t say that. The word Peter uses for submission (hypotasso) meant to voluntarily yield, so this is not subjugation or outright obedience. If Peter meant obedience he had a word for that, but he did not use it (hypakouo).  The concept of obedience is in 1 Peter but it is applied only to God (1 Pet 1:2,14, 22). Peter says this submission is “for the Lord’s sake” and we’ll see how he defines this as we continue.  

            The next thing that we need to look at is the word that is translated as “human institutions” in the text (some translate it as “human authority”). The Greek word for “institution” is ktisis. This word is used 19 times in the NT and it always means a creature, being, or God’s creation act. It never is used to communicate a human institution or any type of human authority. A better translation of this would say, “submit to every human creature/being”. This sounds very much like Paul in Ephesians 5:21, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. I believe Peter is trying to communicate two things: 1) We are to submit to every human out of love and reverence for Christ because they are made in His image and worthy of honor and dignity, and 2) It is also a subversion of the idea that Caesar had authority and was like the gods (or a god himself). So, Peter is saying “nah, he’s a created human being like anyone else”, and thus taking Caesar down a notch by removing his divinity.

God’s Will for Government?

            The next idea that many try to extract from this text is that government leaders and governments are established by God to punish evildoers and praise those who do good. There are a few things we will need to realize here though, first, contrary to the way our good friend Pastor Steve Cassell interpreted this text in our voting episode, the text never says that God appoints the king or the governors. 1 Peter 3:14 says the king appoints the governors, not God, and then simply explains the local governor’s job description. 1 Peter 2:13-17 does not speak of any God ordained role for kings or governors, that must be read into the text.

            Many will cite Romans 13 and the “ordaining” of governments and authorities or the governments as a servant. But there are also plenty of texts that show how God doesn’t set up governmental leaders (1 Sam 8; Hos 8:4) and actually says it’s against His will. Also, there is the fact that pagan nations were called God’s “servants” (Assyria, Babylon, etc.) and then used to punish Israel and other nations. This simply communicates that God can use kings, governors, or governments as a tool to accomplish His means.  (See our article on Romans 13)

            One thing that is often missed here is the cultural context of the honor-shame society in the Roman world. When people did great deeds in public there was an expectation to receive public honor. Peter is not telling the Christian about the “God ordained role” of governors or rulers but rather about living such good lives in love to their neighbors that the governors and rulers would have to publicly honor them. God can use the governors as a tool to publicly honor Godly deeds and people. Peter’s point here is to counter the thoughts of violent retaliation against authorities for the injustice done when Christians refuse to follow the Roman culture (1 Pet 2:11) and instead following the way of Christ and the example of the suffering servant. In doing this the governors and kings will be forced by custom to honor Christians, their behavior, and way of life because of the good it brings.

The Way of Christ

In 1 Peter 2:16 he says the church is free, they are not slaves to the kings or governors but not to use that freedom for evil but to rather to subvert in love. He explains this in verse 17, “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king”. This goes along with the interpretation suggested above that this is about equal honor of all human beings; “all people” and “the king” are put in equality. Yet, there is a special kind of love for the brotherhood/sisterhood of Christ. Also notice that fear is reserved only for God, just like obedience is.

Now we need to chase a squirrel (excursus) for a minute… There are many who bring up the idea that in the USA “we do not have kings, we have representatives” or “our Republic form of government can’t be applied to these texts because it did not exist then”. The issue being addressed here is not the style of governing institution but the issue of human authority- Who is your authority? Let’s define “authority”:  it is the idea that some people have the moral right to forcibly control others, and consequently, those others have the moral obligation to obey. Sounds like our government even though we have “representatives”.

We can say that our representatives “work for us” and “do our will”, but is it the truth? A Princeton study recently looked at 20 years of voting data researching the simple question of “does the American government represent the citizens”? They found that it does! But only if you are in the top 10% wealthiest Americans: the ones who use of lobbyists, which is 100% legal and constitutional. The study concluded “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”[1] Usually the rebuttal to this is that the system is not working the way it should. But even at the ratification of the constitution there were 3 million people living in this country only 10% had a “voice”. If you were a slave, a woman, or didn’t own land you could not vote for a “representative”. It has always been about the rich ruling the poor and 10% “representing” the other 90%. George Washington when writing to John Jay about this said that the common people don’t have the common sense of what’s good for them so we must inject our imperial dignity.[2] “We the People” has historically always been 10%. You cannot have true representation unless everyone is actually represented. The people are not represented despite the rhetoric and deceptive euphemisms such as “will of the people,” “consent of the governed,” and “representative government.” This quote sums it up,

“Thousands of years ago, megalomaniacs claimed to be gods in order to rule over their subjects. Once that stopped working, they claimed to be representatives of the gods in order to rule over their subjects. Once that stopped working, they claimed to be representatives of their subjects in order to rule over their subjects.”[3]

Maybe the Republic can get better. Maybe your vote can make a difference (or maybe it’s an affirmation of an anti-Christ system?). I’m sympathetic to the redemptive movement found in scripture. I believe Jesus will make all things new! But I believe this comes through the organism of the church and not through the institutions and systems of the world. The message here is that when we look to anyone other than Jesus to govern us we are becoming idolatrous (1 Sam 8). We do pray for our leaders but in order than we can live quiet lives going about Kingdom business (1 Tim 2:1-2). We do honor “leaders” the same way we honor all made in God’s image. This all comes down to allegiance. 

So, I do agree that the early Christians didn’t have a republic in view but their subversion of Rome was not due to the style of its government. It was because they declared Jesus as their King, the Kingdom of God as their government, and the Jesus upside-down way as it’s Law. If Jesus wanted a Christian nation he would have planted one or tried to make Rome “Christian”, but instead he started the church as His kingdom ambassadors. This goes back to the original plan in Eden for humans to live in equality under God’s rulership. The way of humans ruling over other humans is the result of the fall not the Edenic ideal. God’s ideal has always been a Thearchy/Theocracy. His call is for His disciples to plant these kingdom communities and pull the world into it rather than for Christians to take positions of power in the world systems and force their morality and ethics onto society. How can we expect people not born again by the Spirit to behave in a Christlike way? But we can work to transform hearts and minds by being the church. The early church (first 300 years of Christianity) did this and it began to transform the world until Constantine gave Christians political power in the 4th century. The pagans praised the Christians for their deeds of justice and societal transformation despite having no political power. They took care of the poor, the outcast, the homeless, the mother, the baby, etc. better than they could. They prophetically acted justly to the “least of these” and spoke truth in love to power from the margins of society. This was way the early church interpreted what Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon- to seek the good of the city and in its peace (shalom) you will have peace (Jer 29:4-7). We need to stop outsourcing the call of the church to the government.

When Jesus was on trial with Pilate he says he is a King and “His kingdom is not of this world [like this world], if it was his subjects would be fighting [would be using power over tactics]”.  Yet what we see a lot of in the American church is Christ’s subjects fighting to be in power. Jesus rebukes James and John when they want positions of power in His kingdom with the strongest NO you can get: “it is not so among you” (Matt 20:26). If Jesus didn’t even let his disciples have political power in his Kingdom do we really think he would want Christians have political power in the kingdoms of the world? The early church went around proclaiming this King and His way of life. This is actually what the Gospel is. It is not an individual self-focused proclamation of forgiveness of sins (these are the benefits) but an announcement of a new king and a new way of life.

 “These men [Paul and Co.] who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.  Acts 17:6-7

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not calling for Christians to overthrow the government. Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus and Christians seek peace- they are peacemakers. Jesus acknowledged that Satan ruled the kingdoms of the world and declared that seeking political power was equal to worshipping Satan (Matt 4:8-10). The government that is proclaimed in the prophet Isaiah that “shall be on his shoulders” is not America or any other earthly nation, They will be put under Jesus feet and suffer the same fate as death (1 Cor 15:24-26) because they are really Satan’s agents of death. It is the Kingdom of God that is the government on Christ’s shoulders. I am calling for the church to get disentangled and live in the power-under way of Christ and His kingship. We see Paul speak of the wisdom of the way of the cross which is foolishness to the world and yet says it is this wisdom is what declares to the rulers and authorities that they are “coming to nothing” (1 Cor 2:6). It is time to get back to being ambassadors and exiles until God’s kingdom comes in fullness and until His will is done on earth as it is in heaven!

If we still try to take a positive view of the “authority” of kings, governors, or governments from the text it would be very difficult based on the context proceeding 1 Peter 2:13-17. After Peter speaks about kings and rulers, he uses 2 other parallel examples to show how Christians should relate to worldly “authority” in order to win others by behavior. First, we have the example of slaves and masters in 1 Peter 2:18-20 and next the patriarchal system of the Roman household codes in 1 Peter 3:1-7. In each we see a posture of submission and love in order to bring these “authorities” into the Kingdom of God. If we want to take a positive view of “authority” of government or kings from 1 Peter 2:13-17 we must also make the case that slavery and patriarchal systems are part of God’s ideals and positive as well since these three are literary parallels. We obviously cannot do that, though many Christians throughout history have tried to and some are still trying to… but that is another conversation for another time. The point Peter makes to those under these systems is not to subvert them in the way the world would (violence, etc.) but rather through the way of Christ.

In the middle of these texts, Peter gives the example for Christians to follow, which is the way of their King,

You have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. 1 Peter 2:21-25

And then in the end of this discourse we see how the church should look different than the world in the area of marriage and thus should look different in the other two areas of slavery and “authority” as well,

You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. “He must turn away from evil and do good; He must seek peace and pursue it. “For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, And His ears attend to their prayer, But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:7-16

Peter lays out the mission- it is to image the way of Jesus. The church’s role is to reflect heaven on earth as heavenly outposts in this world. Therefore, believing husbands should live in an understanding way with their wife because they are socially lower/weaker in the Roman society (not weaker sex in mind or strength). In the church they are fellow co-heirs in the Kingdom. This is language of kingdom equality and echoes his message of honor towards all humans. Notice that Peter says if husbands don’t live in equality that their prayers will be hindered! This is all completely backwards compared to the Roman society.

Peter concludes with the example of Christ and the mission of love as the way to “stand up” and notice it looks like how you live your life as a reflection of Jesus character rather that how vocal you are about standing up for “truth”. There is a time to speak up for justice but it must be done with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15). The American church (me included) often concentrates on the part about always having a defense for our hope but often lacks in the Christlike character that is at the foundation of this verse in the context: being harmonious, kind-hearted, humble, not returning evil for evil (violence for violence), not returning insult for insult, blessing those who come against us, and actively seeking peace. 

The Early Church

The disciples of the disciples (early church fathers) in the first 300 years of Christianity did not agree on everything but when it came to this view of Jesus as King it was a virtually unanimous view. The Constantine shift changed the entire view of Christians and the state when the church got entangled politically. Yet, the early church prior to this shift did not base their convictions on who was the earthly king or what kind of government system they lived under. Jesus was king and this was the reason they could not participate in any empire or state despite who was in charge or what format it was ruled in. Now we don’t put the Church Fathers on the same level as scripture but they do give us insight into what the early Christians believed based on scripture and from being taught by the disciples and the disciples of the disciples.

“Celsus [A Pagan] also urges us [Christians] to ‘take office in the government of the country, if that is necessary for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.’ However, we recognize in each state the existence of separate national organization that was founded by the Word of God. And we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule within churches.… So, it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices. Rather, it is so they may reserve themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God [Kingdom of God]—for the salvation of men.” – Origen

“To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.” – Origin

“Among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.” – Athenagoras

We Christians have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings; nor is anything more entirely foreign to us than the affairs of the state. – Tertullian

Shall we carry a flag? No, it is rival to Christ! – Tertullian

I owe no duty to forum, campaign, or senate. I stay awake for no public function. I make no effort to occupy a platform. I am no office seeker. I have no desire to smell out political corruption. I shun the voters booth, the juryman’s bench. I break no laws and push no lawsuits; I will not serve as a magistrate or judge. I refuse to do military service. I desire to rule over no one- I have withdrawn from worldly politics! – Tertullian

“For how can he be just who injures, hates, despoils, kills? And those who strive to serve their country do all these things.”— Lactantius

If you are a Christian, no earthly country is yours. God is a better builder and maker of our country. Even if we gained possession of the entire world, we are nevertheless immigrants and foreigners. We are enrolled in Heaven; our citizenship is there. Virtue of soul is what we put on and is our defense, not the greatness of our nation… our warfare is to make the dead to live, not make the living die. – John Chrysostom 

“A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” Hippolytus of Rome

I could keep going and going with evidence from the first 300 years of Christianity.[4] But the point is that they lived out the politics of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles that we have seen in this text from 1 Peter 2.

  • Submit yourself in love to your neighbor (and your enemy)
  • Disciples live as exiles and ambassadors of a different Kingdom
  • Disciples pledge allegiance to one king and one kingdom
  • Disciples subvert in though love and power-under service instead of power-over tactics

Jesus said that you cannot serve 2 masters (Matt 6:24) and you can gain the whole world and lose your soul (Matt 16:26)- Worldly politics will definitely do this. James says friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4).  Paul says no soldier entangles himself in civilian affairs but is about pleasing his Master (2 Tim 2:4). The evidence of the New Testament and the Early Church shows us how off base the two kingdoms and dual citizenship teaching of the Reformation was. Let’s start a new Reformation and take the church all the way back to the teachings of Christ! Back to true discipleship!

The example and way of Christ is to suffer in love, to bear the sin of others in love, and to bring peace through your actions and behavior that will turn the world upside-down. Through this way of life Jesus brought stray sheep home and we are called to follow the King’s pattern. We subvert the kingdoms of the world through love of neighbor, not violence. We submit in order to win those in “authority” over to God’s Kingdom. This power-under way of Christ is the mission of His ambassadors!


[1] Gilens and Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, Perspective on Politics, 2014.

[2] The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. XI (1785-1790).

[3] https://www.rivalnations.org/voting-is-violence/

[4] For more quotes on the beliefs of the Church Fathers see this e-book https://jasonporterfield.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/100ECQ-Web-Optimized.pdf

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