Glynn Harrison’s book A Better Story: God, sex and human flourishing is a great account and analysis of the social shifts in sexual ethics in Britain, which are mirrored so closely here in Australia.
In the introduction he says this about how changes have impacted Christians in the UK:
“In the space of just a few decades the Christian moral vision, which had buttressed the ancient institutions of marriage and family for centuries, effectively collapsed. And most people today would think good riddance. Living in the shadow of this great revolution, those Christians who still cling to the old Christian morality understandably feel overwhelmed. As if from nowhere, the home team suddenly feels like the away team. Worse, after witnessing the junking of their moral convictions, they find themselves cast as an immoral minority, a kind of enemy within. Most Christians no longer feel comfortable even admitting to their beliefs in the public square, let alone advocating them.”
Exposed to public ridicule. Old privileges and prestige being dismantled. A Christian worldview is not just seen as something quirky or quaint or irrelevant, but dangerous and hateful and wrong. Around the world, and here at home, there are moves to restrict old freedoms – to restrict the public expression of the gospel.
Submission to human authorities
Into this age, into this world, comes the Bible’s command to submit to human authorities (1 Peter 2:13-14). Can you think of specific, concrete examples where submission to rulers either would or would not be appropriate for Christians? What does submission look like today? What are the boundaries or exceptions to submission? Think about it: examples of exceptions to Christian submission to authority, and examples where it was right for Christians to submit to authority. Notice anything? I do. Why is it that as soon as talk turns to submission, we go looking for loopholes? We go looking for all of the reasons why we don’t need to obey this clear command. Well, at least two reasons: first, we’re sinners, and sinners always think that they know better and they should have the right to act as they please. We rebel against the rule of God and if we think we can get away with it, we rebel against any other rule as well. Second, to make matters worse, we’re Australians – and Australians have a particular contempt for authority. Our founding fathers were criminals and convicts, our national heroes are bushrangers like Ned Kelly. One hundred years ago our soldiers were so successful, in part, because they habitually disobeyed stupid orders. From my time as a policeman I can tell you that I very rarely felt the love and willing submission of my countrymen. It is so ingrained into us that we don’t even recognise how radically anti-authoritarian we are until we meet people from other cultures. My Christian friends from Africa and Asia are consistently amazed by how little submission and honour we pay to our leaders. I remember trying to explain to one mate how respect and honour just looks different in different cultures. Just because we don’t call people by titles, or offer them special privileges, or hold back in publicly questioning, disagreeing with or ridiculing our leaders doesn’t mean that we don’t honour them. We just show it in different ways. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “Well, how do you show it? What does submission look like in Australia?” I remember hearing the sound of crickets chirping. We will follow the leader – as long as the leader is going in a direction we would choose anyway. But here’s the thing about submission. It’s not submission until you disagree. If you only ever submit to an authority that is telling you what you already want to do, you haven’t submitted. You have retained your autonomy. You are the final authority. That’s very Australian of us. And if we struggle to submit to godly Christian leadership in our churches, how will we go with submitting to government or other human authorities? Do you submit willingly when you pay your taxes? As you’re driving your car, does it matter if there is a policeman around the corner, or are you always joyfully submitting? Do you submit to parking laws? I can actually tell you a sure-fire way to get out of any parking ticket for under $5 – do you want to hear it? Does the sign saying “eight items or less” at this supermarket checkout apply to you? Do you have an orientation to submit? Is submission a character trait that you are exercising throughout your life? It is about an orientation, then here’s the rub. If we have no practice and no predisposition to submit to authority, how will we go with submitting to Jesus as our Lord – to God as our Father and judge?
Submit to God
The idea of submitting to God and submitting to human authorities is absolutely connected. We are to submit to human authority “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13), because it is “God’s will” (v15) that we do so, because in fact we are “God’s slaves” (v16). So, this is where the limits around submitting to human authorities are found: will this submission be for the Lord’s sake; will it line up God’s will? And almost always it will, at least for us here, at least for now. But did you catch that last description of you in verse 16? Slaves of God. Not a phrase we use that much. Probably not featuring in our evangelistic tracts very highly, I suspect. It’s like the fine print we’re a bit embarrassed about. We like to think that freedom means the capacity to do whatever I want, but “whatever I want” is a form of slavery – to self, to sin, to my desires which wage war against my good. And, in fact, perfect freedom is found in taking the strong decision to choose to submit to God as my master, my Lord, my ruler. What does that look like? How do we live as slaves of God, in the midst of a world in which his people are slandered and maligned and ridiculed? “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
Honour, love and fear
Showing proper respect or honour to everyone is un-Australian, because we choose to honour those who have earned our respect – the respectable ones, the honourable ones. But honouring everyone shows that we march to the beat of a different drum, where we recognise that the drummer has created every person in his image – even those who make our lives miserable. And to honour the king or emperor or Prime Minister or Premier or local MP or policeman or ATO official is very un-Australian, too. But, of course, the Bible tells us not just to honour them but to pray for them as well… and I wonder how you’re going with that right now! The other two parts of the picture are the love for Christian brothers and sisters – which anyone who actually knows God will exercise – and the idea of fearing God. It’s fine print that we don’t like talking about, but it’s so important. Notice that God is the only one that Peter says we are to fear? Not the authorities who have the power to punish and kill. Not the slave masters who beat up and are cruel. We are to submit to them, even honour them, but not fear them. Fear is reserved for God and God alone. This fear is not a cowering immobilising terror. This fear is informed. It is those who praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us new birth into a living hope, that fear him. It is those who are shielded by his power, that fear him. It is those who have tasted that the Lord is good, that fear him. It is those who are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that fear him It is those who know God’s mercy, that fear him. And those who fear God don’t have to be afraid of anyone. Last year I met up with some brothers and sisters involved in ministry training in the Middle East. They are training evangelists to work in places like, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. That is, they are training to be evangelists in countries where evangelising Muslims is illegal. So many things struck me about their stories. They were filled with a joyful fear of God and so were unafraid – even of those who threatened them with death. They worked hard to obey their government in every way they felt they could, but their fear of God helped them to see the limits of this submission.
Slaves and masters
In verse 18, it is also the fear of God that Peter says controls the submission of slaves to their masters. There is so much that we could say about this section on slaves, but I just want to make a couple of quick observations. Slavery, the ownership and control of one person by another, is evil. Slavery is a present-day reality for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and it is evil. Your work, the job you have, is not the same thing as slavery. You have choices. We live in a country with labour laws to protect workers and using the protection of labour laws is one way of submitting to human authorities. But the Bible does not say to transform the unjust social structure of slavery. It also doesn’t say not to work for such transformation, and I think the abolition of the slave trade stands as one of the great accomplishments of the evangelical awakening. Alongside it were all kinds of other dramatic and good social reforms, and the founders of the Church Missionary Society were amongst it all. But although many of the same people were involved, the mission society was not the group that did the political lobbying. We need to notice here, just as the founders of CMS did, the way that the NT approaches this. Slaves, who had no power to change the structures, were given instructions about how to live in their horrible circumstances in a commendable way before God. Their status and identity in Christ, as part of the royal priesthood, the holy nation – was not endangered by their being slaves. So, they were encouraged to faith in Jesus… and to new life in him. It is not the transformation of social structures, but of individuals and of the people of God as a whole, that is the priority. The transformation of me and of us into the likeness of Jesus. That is the priority. We in Australia have the awesome privilege to be involved in the democratic processes of politics and decision making. More than ever before, I think, we need to take our place in civil service, public life and politics. Now is a time for stepping up, not shrinking back. To seek to advocate and practice justice, especially for the vulnerable. This is part of what it will mean for others to see our good deeds. But we must be very cautious about pulling the camel of transforming social structures into the tent of Christian mission. The bulk of the world’s Christians and an increasing percentage of the world’s Christian missionaries come from countries that don’t enjoy the economic and social privileges we enjoy, and we need to learn from them, again, that gospel ministry is not dependent on political influence and freedom and power. As the debates unfold this year, we absolutely should be praying for the preservation of religious freedom in Australia. But the Lord Jesus will continue to build his church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it, whatever laws the Australian government enacts. We should argue for religious freedom because it’s good for the country, not because the gospel depends on it. If we are not doing good – if we are arrogant or ignorant, objectionable or careless, lazy or selfish, and we suffer for that (v20), that’s fair enough. Suffering for doing good, and enduring unjust suffering, is what Peter’s on about here.
Suffering and Jesus
This is not just something for slaves – it is core to Christian identity. Enduring unjust suffering is of the very character of the Lord Jesus who we follow. This is the Lord Jesus as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) that Peter is writing about. Jesus’ suffering and death were both unique, and at the same time a pattern of the new normal. It’s unique because, as the sinless one he bore our sins in his body on the tree. He takes our sin, dies a sacrificial death in our place, heals our wounds and we can do none of that. But the pattern of his suffering, we are told, is an example that we should follow in his steps (2:21). What are these steps? He committed no sin (v22) – well, straight up we know we can’t pull that off! But there are no free passes. How about verse 11 – abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul – or verse 24m “having died to sins”. Does your sin have the stench of death in your nostrils? Have you ever prayed for that? I have. I’ve prayed, “God, make pornography disgusting to me. Make me feel sick when I glimpse it”. You might ask God to make your lust for new clothes, or new gadgets, or more money, a stench in your nostrils. And look back at what the Bible says to us in 1 Peter 2:1: to “rid yourself of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind”. If we took away malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander, what would our social media feeds look like? What would our meal room discussions at work sound like? Can we work out ways of engaging in discussion with those who abuse or threaten us that follow the steps of the Lord Jesus?How could you do this? How can anyone sign up for this? We can only do it if we are “conscious of God” (v19) or, more pointedly, if we “entrust everything to him who judges justly” (v23). If we fear God and not people; if we desire our eternal inheritance more than fleeting comfort or pleasure; if we have tasted that the Lord is good; If we treasure our identity in Christ – as God’s royal priesthood, his holy nation – more than the approval of the cultured despisers, if we have confidence that God will put all things right in the end; If we have died to sins and are ready to live for righteousness, if we have new birth into a living hope, if we have sincere and deep love for one another we will be ready, like Jesus, to suffer on the way to glory. If you are able to take this confidence into the New Year, and – despite all that others may do or say about you – you are ready to love them, honour them, and not retaliate but do right… well, you are going to stand out like a sore thumb! Like a star in a dark universe. Like a stranger, a foreigner, an exile. We fear God, and for that reason we don’t need to be afraid of anyone else, or any social change, or any difficulty that is coming. Our living hope is sure and certain. Our eternal inheritance cannot be taken away and will not perish or fade or spoil.
The Rev Simon Gillham is head of the Department of Mission at Moore College. This an edited version of a talk he gave at the CMS NSW/ACT Summer School in January.