Honor the Emperor
The reading for today’s sermon includes a famous text: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2.13–17). It has an equally famous parallel in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13.1–7).
These texts belong to the Christian tradition of submission, a concept which we have covered at length from other texts (e.g., Mat 5.38-48; Phil 2.3-4; Col 3.12-4.1). Christ set the pattern for His followers by allowing Rome to hang him on the cross. Peter and Paul tell us that we, like Jesus, are to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. Their immediate audiences were to submit to the very same Empire which crucified the Lord!
What does it mean to submit to the governing authorities? We usually equate submission with obedience, which is only partly right. Submission includes obedience, but it is more than just obedience. Peter tells us to “Honor the emperor.” Paul tells us to pay “respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” In other words, we are required not only to do what the authorities say, but we are to esteem them according to their position. We are to dignify them rather than demean them.
Think of this in terms of your children. I suspect that most of our kids have at times been obedient without being submissive. Children’s attitudes make the distinction plain. They can make “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” the most scornful phrases you’ll ever hear if they are being merely obedient rather than being submissive. Christ teaches His people to be submissive.
(Let us grant that Christ’s example also includes speaking truth to power and that many of His interactions with the powerful were as far as can be from respectful. The Christian life is complex in this way. Sometimes we are called to be peaceful; sometimes we are called to be firebrands. To fit the space, I will constrain this essay to consider peaceful submission.)
Obviously, submission is a challenge in American life. Most of us were taught from a young age that we do not like politicians from certain parties and that not liking them means that it’s okay to deride them. You may have to follow the laws in America, but it’s not against the law to burn an effigy or float an angry baby balloon made in the likeness of the President. The apostles call us to not only to obey the authorities but to respect them and to pray for them (1 Tim 2.1-2). We must consider if we are living up to the teachings of the apostles in the way that we think and speak about our government.
A final word: texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 have become lightning rods in our modern political discourse ever since the child separation crisis at the border. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to condemn illegal border crossings, some started citing the text to justify the federal government’s policy of separating illegal children from their parents at the border.
The apostles, like the prophets before them, tell us that Babylon and Rome are in power at God’s good pleasure. The apostles and prophets tell us to submit to Nebuchadnezzar and to Caesar. The apostles and prophets absolutely do not justify or excuse what Nebuchadnezzar and Caesar do. The governing authorities to whom we submit must themselves submit to the true Authority, and He promises His wrath against wrongdoers.
For our part, we are to submit to the authorities—not to kowtow to them and justify their wickedness. Let us obey them, respect them, and pray for them to do good rather than evil.