How do “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?
Accept. Honor. Love. Reverence.
Those are the imperatives in 1 Peter 2:13-17.
The first, “accept” (NRSV; usually translated “submit”), heads a long sentence that runs from verse thirteen to verse sixteen. The difficulty of accepting or submitting to a hostile empire generates a long sentence to contextualize or explain what Peter means. In other words, to tell a group of marginalized people to accept (or submit to) a generally hostile imperial power needs some explaining!
1 Peter 2:13-17 is the first section in a series of four that applies what it means to live as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11-12) within the culture readers find themselves. The first three address specific concerns. The fourth is more general.
- Residents, accept (submit to) imperial authority (2:13-17).
- Slaves, accept (submit to) the authority their masters (2:18-25).
- Wives, accept (submit to) the authority of your husband (3:1-6), and, husbands, accept (submit to) the relationship with your wife (3:7).
- Everyone, accept (submit to) everyone in the community (3:8-12).
Peter utilizes a common genre in ancient ethical texts called the “Household Code,” which lists the respective duties of people in a Roman household (including extended family, slaves, workers). However, Peter’s interest is not an exhaustive delineation of roles and duties. Rather, he addresses “sore” points within the Christian community. In particular, how do members of a “household” (whether state or home) live within that “household” when the head of the “household” does not share their faith commitments?
- How do we live in a hostile empire?
- How do slaves live with hostile masters?
- How do wives live with unbelieving husbands?
- How do we live together as a marginalized community?
In effect, Peter does not offer a timeless set of immutable instructions to be reproduced verbatim across the history of Christianity. Rather, he answers this question–what does it mean for Christians to live in this moment in this situation? In other words, given the Christian narrative with its commitments and values, how does one relate to hostile authority (empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands)? Given different circumstances, the answers might be different even though the same or similar principles would be employed, and given analogous situations, the meaning might be quite similar. So, it is important to pay close attention to Peter’s advice for the “exiles” in Roman Anatolia in order to hear what the message might be for us.
The leading verb for the main sentence in 1 Peter 2:13-16 is hupotasso, which is usually translated “submit.” Etymologically, the verb means to “place under,” and carries a wide range of meaning including to yield, accept, defer, assume responsibility under another, or submit.
“Submission,” then, has a wide semantic range from absolute obedience to an imposed authority to deferential yielding to another. The former is often an external authority while the latter is voluntary submission for the sake of some greater purpose or interest. Its meaning, then, is shaped by both its literary context and the historical situation.
Padgett (As Christ Submits to the Church, Kindle location 1328) suggests Peter is operating in a social context where he calls for “a one-sided application of the ethic of servant leadership” present in the Gospels and Paul. The external demands and expectations of empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands entail a deferential, accepting, and submissive attitude so that their “good lives” might receive a hearing and ultimately bring glory to God. Otherwise, overt resistance to these authorities would engender violence and subvert the gospel’s mission. Nevertheless, though the term “submit” counsels against overt revolt, it does not preclude–as we will see–subversive, peaceful presence.
The NRSV renders hupotasso as “accept,” and this probably works best. In other words, given the situation, live under the authority of the empire or live within the established order. A marginalized community cannot change the reality, nor can they materially affect the situation. So, it is best for them to accept what they cannot change and to “do good” with their lives for the sake of the gospel.
This involves submission and obedience, that is, living as obedient people under imperial rule. This obedience, of course, is not absolute as if the well-being of the empire overrules their commitment to Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they submit “for the Lord’s sake.” In other words, they submit because they are committed to God rather than to the empire; they submit for the sake of God’s mission rather than to support the empire. There are limits to their “submission.”
Submission to Imperial Authority
Peter commands submission, literally, to “every human creation,” which probably means something like every human institution rooted in governmental or imperial authority. This “human creation” (or institution) is identified as “emperor” (basilei, or eing) or his “governors” (hegemon). Governors represent the emperor since they act “through him” (emperor).
Governments are human creations; they are social-political constructs. More specifically, the emperor is not God (whatever the Emperor might claim), and neither are his institutions cloaked in divine authority. They are human, and the Christian’s allegiance does not lie with human institutions. Whether constructed by autocratic power (like a Caesar) or democratic power (social contract theory), they are human creations or institutions. Given social realities, Christians “accept” this situation and live peaceably within it.
Government intends to praise those who “do good” and punish those who “do evil.” Of course, the problem is that the government is not exactly working like that in this situation (is it ever?) as Christians are imprisoned, harshly criticized, and treated as criminals. Whatever their intent–and it probably reflects what God intends for human governments, that is, to restrain evil and promote the good, Peter’s readers do not have such assurances from Roman authority. Nevertheless, Peter counsels his readers to “do good” within the Empire and advert, as much as possible, any governmental action that is designed to punish those who “do evil.” They are to live within the order imposed by imperial authority.
This submission, however, is not resignation or acquiescence. Rather, it is a positive witness within the culture, and this is manifested by “doing good,” which has the potential effect of silencing ignorant fools (those who pursue folly in their lives). This positive approach–an approach which engages culture to one degree or another–offers a public witness in the presence of those who are invested in a different way of life than the wisdom God offers. “Foolish” here does not mean “idiot” or “stupid,” but reflects Hebrew wisdom literature where the fool chooses a path that leads to death in contrast to the wise person who chooses a path that leads to life. This is a moral rather than an intellectual characterization.
What does Peter mean by “doing good”? Some think that Peter is talking about public, cultural acts of benefaction where wealthy leaders of a community do something for the welfare of the city. They might lay a pavement, erect a gate, or fund a building for the benefit of the city. However, this is far too restrictive as this positive witness is also applicable, in principle, to slaves and wives who were impotent to do that kind of good. Rather, “doing good” (like acting honorably in 1 Peter 2:11-12) describes a way of life that is salt and light in the community. “Doing good” is the opposite of “doing evil” (1 Peter 1:14-15).
So, why submit? To potentially silence the critics, but also to pubically witness to their freedom. They submit because they are free, which is paradoxical.
Grammatically, the verb “submit” from verse 13 should be supplied in verse 16 (which lacks a main verb) so that it reads: “Submit (or, accept) as free people and not as those who use freedom as a covering for evil.”
Christians, though slaves of God, are free from governmental authority, but they submit to governmental authority as a witness to what is good and right rather than using that freedom to hide in the darkness of evil. But they cannot be coerced into evil by governments since their allegiance is to God rather than the state, and God has freed them from such obligations. Christians are “free” of imperial authority, but they submit to it for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
Christians accept imperial authority because their public way of life is designed for good, not because they are enslaved to human authority. In other words, Peter’s claim is that imperial authority is something Christians freely accept for the sake of their public witness, that is, for the sake of the Lord’s mission in the world. Christians accept imperial authority in order to further God’s witness and goodness in the world. They do not seek chaos, and neither do they seek power (in the context of 1 Peter). Rather, they only desire to “do good.”
Accepting or submitting to the governmental authority in the present United States of America is much more empowering, of course, than submitting imperial authority. In principle, believers may use all legal and peaceful means to adjust the order, which is–in a democracy–part of the nature of the order itself. However, when the order is adjusted in ways that disturb believers, Peter call’s them to submit (accept) rather than revolt or disturb the peace of the order.
Four More Imperatives
The first imperative is “submit” or “accept,” which Peter elaborates in 1 Peter 2:13-16.
The next four imperatives (1 Peter 2:17) summarize the basic orientation that shapes life in the empire.
- Honor everyone.
- Love the extended family (“brotherhood”).
- Fear God.
- Honor the emperor (“king”).
“Honor” is the same word in Greek, and it applies to everyone and the emperor. Green (Two Horizon Commentary) perceptively comments on this parallel: “It is hard to imagine a more devastating critique of the Roman way, for with pairing of these two directives Peter has flattened the status pyramid of the Roman world.” Honor belongs to everyone, whether emperor or not. This parallel is essentially subversive and points to this reality: the community of God honors the emperor no more honor than anyone else. Honor belongs to slaves as well as emperors.
Sandwiched between these two uses of “honor” are two directives that call the community to love each other and to worship (fear) God.
This is also an implicit subversion of the empire. Christians “honor” the emperor (as well as everyone), but they “fear” God. They do not worship the emperor; they worship (fear) God. As Horrell notes (1 Peter [NT Study Guides], see chapter five for a discussion of polite resistance), this language appears in the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (8-9, ca. 180 A.D.): “We have none other whom we fear (timeamus), save only our Lord God, who is in heaven…Honor (honorern) to Caesar as Caesar, but fear (timorem) only to God.” In the language of 1 Peter, the martyrs fear (worship) God, but honor the emperor. Peter’s address, then, is life and death. Honoring the emperor, but worshiping (fearing) only God could get you killed in the empire.
Believers function as an extended family, an adelpotetai (brotherhood). Peter has already called for a loving community earlier in the letter (1 Peter 1:22), which shares a common new birth, and thus are family. While everyone is honored (even loved–Christians love their neighbors), the Christian community is a family which fears God and loves each other (a familial love).
How do we treat everyone, including the emperor? We treat them with honor, or we love our neighbors. How do we treat our own community? We love them as family. How do we treat God? We fear God, that is, we approach God in reverent awe, entrusting ourselves to God’s way of life. In other words, we love God. This is the way of wisdom since to fear God is the first step on the path of life (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 12:13).
I find it rather distressing (saddened rather than distraught) that Christians in the United States live in such fear of the future, specifically the loss of a “Christian nation.” This fear generates anger, suspicion, hateful rhetoric, and despair. It is misplaced “fear,” and reflects misplaced allegiance (or authentic fear, the worship of God).
1 Peter called its first readers to live in hope, gentleness, love, and reverent awe among the nations. Without doubt, the imperial Roman culture was saturated with non-Christian values, commitments, and practices. These shaped every aspect of that culture–education, entertainment, and civic religion. Their children, nor anyone else, could escape that cultural reality and influence, and they won’t escape in our present culture. Yet, Peter–though realistic about the harsh criticism and hostility of that culture–calls believers to a way of life that is saturated with goodness and hope.
I suspect that the loss of the “Christian nation” within the United States of America (which was never “Christian,” since the church is God’s holy nation as a people rebirthed into Israel) has shocked some, generated fear among many, and led to despair for most.
We now live in a post-Christian culture, and this is an opportunity for believers to live authentically in the present as a people who bear witness to the future that God wants to bring into the present; that is, to bring heaven to earth. We find ourselves in an analogous situation as the original audience of 1 Peter, which Peter characterized as a fiery trial that will refine the people of God for the sake of authentic witness.
In some ways, we ought to welcome this. Christianity is exploding in China, and declining in the US. Perhaps the clarity of the cultural shift may help us refocus our message on what God has done in Christ. Perhaps Christians in China can focus on cross and community because they are truly “aliens” without the temptation to embrace political agendas. Perhaps we might consider such a focus and leave the political agendas to others. This is not a plea for withdrawal or isolation from culture, but the sort of presence within culture that bears witness to cross and community–including peace and justice–rather than a search for power and control.
Fellow Christians–let us pursue peace with all people, live lives shaped by the cruciformed God (the God who went to the cross for the sake of others), and bear witness through our good works to the coming future that God yearns to share with the creation.
Let us love God and love our neighbors.
So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?
We accept or submit to human governmental authority for the sake of God’s mission in the world. We submit by “doing good.”
We honor both slave and Emperor; we honor everyone. We treat everyone with respect and dignity, which belongs to their humanity.
We love the family into which God has birthed us through the resurrection of Jesus. We are siblings who love each other.
We fear God. We reverently trust God and follow the path of wisdom, which Jesus has paved for us.
So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?
We might call it “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity.” But it is not so peaceful or conformist that Christian identity is lost, and it is sufficiently “resistant” and “subversive” that it does not escape suffering.
Peaceful resisters are still imprisoned, and subversive conformity is still “alien” to the culture.