Relation of Christians to Civil Authorities
1 Peter 2:13-17
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;…

I. CATEGORY UNDER WHICH THE DUTY IN THE RELATION COMES. "Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake." There are various ordinances of man; i.e. Divine appointments for human relations which are subject to human molding. With reference to every such ordinance our duty is subjections, i.e. deference, even when we cannot give our approval. We are to be subject to the ordinance for the Lord's sake. There is here the Pauline thought that it is Christ who is represented in the position of authority, and we are to be subject to those in authority for the sake of him whose representatives they are. There is thus the placing of society, not only on a religious, but on a distinctively Christian basis. "The relation of superiority and subordination which permeates the whole of human society, and excludes all abstract liberty and equality, - this pervading relation of contrast, tending nevertheless to unity between authority and liberty, authority and obedience, authority and filial piety - in its original source, in its inmost foundation, and in its actual essence, is not of man, cannot be deduced from the right of the stronger or the more able, nor from the common consent, but rests on God's will and appointment, and is subject to his guidance. This implies that, in honoring his parents and obeying the laws, one obeys not only man, but also God. It implies that, whilst superiors and subordinates are mutually bound to each other, both are engaged to a higher third party, whose servants they both are, whose laws they must both obey, and to whom both must render an account. It implies, in one word, that the whole order of human society in its ultimate resort rests on the Divine will as its foundation" (Martensen).

II. PARTICULAR DUTY OF SUBJECTION TO CIVIL AUTHORITIES. "Whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him." There is here specified the ordinance of civil government. It is viewed concretely in the persons in whom it has reality. The highest authority is vested in the king; he is represented as sending governors, i.e. giving authority to magistrates under him. There is no determination here of the best form of civil government; that is left to human molding. The duty of being subject is not made dependent on the government under which we are placed being the best, nor is it made dependent on legitimacy; we have simply to do with the government in fact, and its acting head as representing to us, however imperfectly in the civil sphere, the government of Christ. Our subjection takes the form of obeying the laws, paying taxes, lending our influence on the side of authority. What we render to our civil rulers should be all the more satisfactory that we render it to them for the sake of that Lord in whose Name we regard them as acting.

III. JUSTIFICATION OF THE ORDINANCE OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT. "For vengeance on evildoers and for praise to them that do well." This language is connected with the under-magistrates, but with them as sent by the supreme magistrate. It therefore puts before us the idea of civil government. It is the employment of force, but for moral ends. It is for vengeance on evildoers; i.e. it sets itself to repress evil-doing (such as it takes notice of by proportionate punishments. It is also for praise to them that do well; i.e. it sets itself to encourage law-keeping and industrial enterprise by adequate protection to life and property. This is no human conception; it is the bodying forth (however imperfectly) of the Divine love for order, for settled institutions. "God is not the Author of confusion, but of order, and as in all the Churches of the saints," so also in the states great and small.

IV. MOTIVE INFLUENCING SUBJECTION. "For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." It is implied that there was an impression abroad that the Christians were evildoers, or elements of disorder in the state. That impression was not founded on fact; the apostle sets it down to the ignorance of foolish men, i.e. their self-caused inability in their ignorance to understand the Christian position (rather than to malice). It was not the quiet voice of wisdom, but rather the loud voice of foolishness. The Christians were really the greatest friends of order, and it was not only their interest but their recognized duty to occupy no doubtful position toward the Roman state. It was a direction to ancient Israel in captivity in Babylon, "Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace." Paul gives directions even to give thanks for kings and for all that are in authority. So it is here declared to be not good policy, but the will of God (which should have the highest power to influence), that by well-doing, i.e. specially by the greatest exemplariness in keeping the laws, they should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.

V. PRINCIPLE CONDITIONING LIBERTY. "As free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God." We should rather read "malice" and "servants." It is against good interpretation to bring in here Christian freedom in general. We are free specially in relation to the state. We are free to obey, or not to obey, the laws of the land. We are free to aspire after better conditions for the state. But we are not to allow our freedom to degenerate into license. We are not to use it as a pretext for gratifying our private revenge. We are not to use it as a cloak underneath which we strike at established authority. How, then, are we to find the right course? It is by this consideration, that we are servants of God, and bound by his laws. And if the laws of the land require what his laws forbid, or forbid what his laws require, our duty is to refuse obedience to them. We have an example of the latter in the refusal of the apostles to cease teaching in the name of Christ. When brought before the authorities for breaking the laws, they said, "We ought to obey God rather than man." They were willing to take the consequences, but they would not cease preaching Christ. However much we are in love with order, are willing to be subject to the ordinance for the Lord's sake, there is limitation. If a government were to seek to impose on us a form of religion of which in our conscience we did not approve, our choice would lie between suffering and exercising such power as we had. And if we as citizens had the power we believe that it would only be according to the mind of God that we should use it to overthrow the tyranny - the higher consideration in this, as in many cases, overruling the lower.


1. All men. "Honor all men." We must understand the worst of men as included. The ground of the honor is the worth which essentially belongs to humanity by its Divine constitution. We are made in the image of God, made to think of God and to do the will of God, made for God and immortality. The form in which Kant puts it is the following: "No man can be employed, neither by others nor by himself, as a mere instrument, but is always to be regarded as an end. And as he cannot dispose of himself for any price (which would be subversive of his own self-reverence), neither is he at liberty to derogate from the equally necessary self-reverence of others as men; i.e. he is obliged practically to recognize the dignity of every other man's humanity, and so stands under a duty based on that reverential observance which is necessarily to be demonstrated towards every other person." Besides this essential worth, there is superadded worth in the fact of the Incarnation. "The religion of Christ is a testimony to the worth of man in the sight of God, to the importance of human nature, to the infinite purposes for which we were framed. God is there set forth as sending to the succor of the human family his Beloved Son, the bright image and representation of his own perfections; and sending him, not simply to roll away a burden of pain and punishment, but to create man after the Divine image, to purify the soul from every stain, to commute to it power over evil, to open before it immortality as its aim and destination. And these blessings it proffers, not to the few, not to the educated, not to the eminent, but to all human beings, to the poorest and the most fallen. Honor, then, man from the beginning to the end of his earthly course. Honor the child. Welcome into being the infant, with a feeling of its mysterious grandeur, with the feeling that an immortal existence has begun, that a spirit has been kindled which is never to be quenched. Honor the child. On this principle all good education rests. Never shall we learn to train up the child till we take it in our arms, as Jesus did, and feel distinctly that ' of such is the kingdom of heaven.' Honor the poor. This sentiment of respect is essential to improving the connection between the more and the less prosperous conditions of society. Till Christianity shall have breathed into us this spirit of respect for our nature, wherever it is found, we shall not know how to raise the fallen. Perhaps none of us have yet heard or can comprehend the tone of voice in which a man thoroughly impressed with this sentiment would speak to a fellow-creature" (Channing). This duty is fittingly made the basis; for when we have learned to honor all men for the worth of their nature, we shall come more readily to being subject to what God has appointed for man - including civil government.

2. The brotherhood. "Love the brotherhood." We are to understand all that truly belong to the Christian circle. We are to love men beyond the brotherhood, but compassionately with a view to their being brought within the brotherhood. It is only within the brotherhood that we can get outlet for our brotherly feelings, because it is there only that there is community of life, that there are excellences on which we can rest with complacency. "In its true idea, or regarded as the union of those who partake in the spirit of Jesus Christ, I revere it as the noblest of all associations. Our common social unions are poor by its side. In the world we form ties of interest, pleasure, and ambition. We come together as creatures of time and sense for transient amusement or display. In the Church we meet as God's children; we recognize in ourselves something higher than animal and worldly life. We come, that holy feelings may spread from heart to heart. The Church, in its true idea, is a retreat from the world. We meet in it that by union with the holy we may get strength to withstand our common intercourse with the impure. We meet to adore God, to open our souls to his Spirit, and, by recognition of the common Father, to forget all distinctions among ourselves. This spiritual union with the holy is to survive all ties; the union of the virtuous friends of God is as eternal as virtue; and this union is the essence of the true Church." Let us, then, value the brotherhood as meeting the social side of our spiritual life; let our love go out towards all who have the reality of life in Christ, however much they may differ from us; let our love go out towards them even in proportion to the depth of their life; let us rejoice in the progress they are making; let us seek also the better realization of the brotherhood, including many conquests for it from the world. Stress was to be laid on this in connection with subjection to civil authorities; for if the brotherhood was dear to them as Zion of old to the captives (Psalm 137.), great care was to be taken that there was no unnecessary collision with these authorities.

3. God. "Fear God." This is the feeling of reverence which we are to entertain towards God as infinitely exalted above us. We are to fear God because of the far-reaching power, wisdom, even goodness, which he has displayed in his works. Even in the contemplation of a little flower, Linnaeus said, "God eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, I saw him as he was passing by from behind, and I was amazed." We are to fear him because he gave us being, because he has bound us by natural law, because he has especially bound us as free responsible beings by moral law. We are to fear him who is the absolutely holy Lawgiver, and especially when he commands from Calvary. It is evident that this fear to God has to do with subjection to civil authorities. It will keep us from over-estimating the ruler, as though his word were simply to be obeyed, his example to be followed. We have first to inquire whether no injury is done thereby to Divine law. It will keep us, on the other hand, from under-estimating the ruler. As placed over us under God, he has (with the necessary reservation that has been pointed to) a right to our obedience.

4. The king. "Honor the king." We may esteem the king because of his personal excellence, and we may be attached to his rule because of the advantages connected with it; but we honor him because of the office which he holds. Without this feeling animating us, we cannot give subjection so as to enjoy the approval of our God. - R.F.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;

WEB: Therefore subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether to the king, as supreme;

On Silencing Objections Against Christianity
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