In the last of his four commands in 1 Peter 2:17, Peter instructs the first century Church to “honour the emperor.” It’s even a bit surprising that Peter, the Jewish follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, gives this command at all.
In previous posts, I’ve argued Peter’s commands to the first century Church apply to us today in the post-Christian era in which we find ourselves. However, the first three of Peter’s commands—respect everyone, love the family of faith, fear God—seem to be a bit more universally and easily applicable to the Church through the ages. What about this last command, to honour the emperor? Does this really have anything to do with churches in a late-modern liberal democratic society?
To catch what Peter is saying when he instructs Christians to honour the emperor, we need to understand a bit more about the context of the Roman Empire.
In the first few centuries of the Church, Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was deemed to be nothing less than a god and commanded to be worshiped as such. Contemporary wisdom of the day might have said, “Worship, fear and obey the emperor and then do whatever else you need.” To disregard the emperor was tantamount to thumbing your nose at deity itself.
Given this heightened sense of the emperor’s status, it was inevitable Christians would come into conflict with the State. This was especially so because the earliest Christian confession claimed that Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a Jewish carpenter in the backwoods of the Roman empire, was Lord (kyrios). This was the same title with which the Caesar was endowed. “Caesar is kyrios!” the citizenry would cry. But Christians, of course, could not utter that phrase because they knew that Jesus alone is Lord.
In a culture that said, “Fear, worship and obey the emperor first and above all,” Peter quietly subverts that sentiment with a firm “No.” The emperor is but a man of whom we have no fear, if we reserve first our fear for God. Fear God first, and then and only then can you give the proper honour due the emperor. Peter challenges the Roman worldview which operated in fear of the emperor at every level.
But notice that Peter simply doesn’t ignore the emperor as if he were nothing. It’s not that Christians somehow are absolved of their responsibilities to the emperor (or in our day to the State). It is just that, Peter says, we have to get it in the right order and with the right emphasis.
For the Church, our fear of God and obedience to his commands, and indeed our commitment to people and our fellow Christians, all take precedence over the demands of the State. This ordering doesn’t undermine the rightful place of the State, but Peter’s command indicates that the State or the emperor isn’t something that dominates or dictates the way we live. Yet far too often, even in Canada, we think the government has precedence over everything else.
Here Peter gives us weighty insight into how we should relate to political authorities. Earlier in 2:13–14, Peter tells us to be subject to human institutions of authority, whether to the emperor or to other levels of government.
However, understand that the word Peter uses here, “be subject,” is most definitely not the word “obey.” Being subject to the governing authorities is not the same as blind obedience. We know that Peter himself told the officials, when they commanded him stop teaching in the name of Jesus, that “We must obey God rather than humans!” (Acts 5:29). So when Peter says, “Be subject to these human institutions and authorities,” he can’t possibly mean that we are to obey them at all times. Sometimes we know they tell us to do things we cannot do. Sometimes we have to do the right thing—the thing God clearly tells us to do—rather than what the human authorities tell us.
But even if at some we are point compelled to disobey the authorities, we are nevertheless called to be subject to them. Here the Apostle Paul is perhaps our best example.
In Acts 25, Paul has already spent two years in prison. He finally appears before Festus, the Roman governor. When confronted with the charges against him, Paul says (and this is my paraphrase) “I testify to you that I haven’t done the things I’ve been accused of. But if I am guilty of doing anything that is deemed to be deserving of death, I won’t refuse or fight it. But if the charges aren’t true, then I appeal to Caesar to seek a just ruling.”
This is instructive for us as the Church today, especially in a time when political division seems to be increasingly dividing not only our country but even the Church and Christianity itself. We are neither pro-emperor/pro-government, nor anti-emperor/anti-governor. We aren’t revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the government and authorities. Nor are we anarchists who refuse to abide by the government and authorities. Instead, we honour the governing authorities for what they are: Institutions that are human and part of God’s created social order. In other words, we honour the government as something God has envisioned and permitted, without living under the illusion that somehow it is perfect or demands our complete submission or subservience.
Here I think the Church needs to do better. I think sometimes we place too much faith in governing leaders to solve our problems, and we end up expecting a human leader to be a kind of Messiah (as we see happening in some places). On the other hand, we sometimes give in to fleshly temptations to tear down, disrespect and dishonour those who are, finally, serving us in these roles. (I think here of how often social media is used for these purposes). Neither of these behaviours is fundamentally Christian nor honouring to the governing authorities.
The reason Peter tells a church in the Roman empire to honour the emperor is the same reason a church in a post-Christian era needs to pay proper honour—but not unthinking subservience—to duly elected officials in twenty-first century Canada. Peter understands that God uses the State, whether it is full of integrity, corrupt or somewhere in between, for his purposes here on earth as we wait and cry for the coming kingdom of God. We honour the emperor, not because he stands in the place of God, but because God himself deems the emperor, the prime minister, the premier, the mayor, to be His servants, called to do his will. And whether or not these leaders understand and abide well by their role, Peter does not differentiate, but instead says to honour the emperor.
Here, I pray, God will help us to walk this tightrope between the extremes with integrity and, above all, in the freedom and love that the gospel gives us.
Let us, therefore, honour and be subject to the emperor, not out of fear of what he may do to us, but in gratitude to the Lord who has himself put the emperor in place for our good, and for the good of nation, even when the emperor sometimes, and even often, fails.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is part four of a four-part series. All four parts are available here.]
David Guretzki is Executive Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*