Regardless of who you voted for… regardless of if your desired candidate won or not, there is a Christian response to the election that we should all have. Consider the instruction from the apostle Peter.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:11 – 17, NIV)
Even with just a lick of knowledge of the mid-first century makes this a shocking command coming from a Christian leader to fellow Christians. The emperor at the time was Nero. Now, not every emperor thought of the Christians in the same regard. Nero had a special hatred toward Christians. In fact, he infamously would tie Christians to stakes, light them on fire, and let them serve as the candlelight for his dinner parties.
Emperor Nero was the face of evil. But this was the emperor in power when Peter wrote the words to “honor the emperor.”
If we are honest, this passage seems irreconcilable. It might even be the most difficult passage to live out, depending on what our opinion is of a person in power. But let’s clarify what Peter does not mean by this.
Honoring a political leader does not mean we…
- agree with everything they say or stand for. The chances are Peter disagreed with nearly everything that Nero represented.
- endorse their power. Peter was one of the many Christians who would confess that Jesus is Lord (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15) implying that Caesar is not.
- do everything they say. Part of the reason Christians were persecuted was their unwillingness to budge on critical issues of faith and practice.
The honor was not mutual. Nero did not honor Christians in any regard. And Peter did not bow before Nero or obey all his orders. So, if honoring a political leader is not those things, what is it?
Honoring the political leader in charge, whether that be the emperor (back then) or the president (today), means looking for ways to live at peace instead of looking for ways to cause division.
It means respecting the office and praying for the people in the office (even when we don’t agree with what they stand for). Paul modeled this by telling Timothy to pray for those in power.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1 – 4)
Christians were never meant to see themselves as anarchists, turning the world upside down through violent or forceful means. Christians did turn the world upside down by calling Jesus the “King” (Acts 17:6-7). Yet, instead of using forceful means to proclaim the message, they followed in the footsteps of King Jesus. They sacrificially served even at the expense of their own well-being. People are more likely to come to the “knowledge of the truth” in environments of honor and respect. And we have the power to create those environments.
Anarchy is not the answer, for the Christian. Allegiance to God is.
Allegiance to God always supersedes allegiance to the government. King Jesus always gets our obedience anytime there is a contradiction between God’s way and govt.’s way. But we must be willing to accept the consequences of our obedience to God and our disobedience to the government.
… fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17b, NIV)
The emperor (or President) is to be “honored” but only God is to be “feared.”
(If fearing God sounds like something antithetical to the Christian life, please read this blog we wrote on the topic of the fear of the Lord.) Regardless of how bad we make out a political leader of America to be, the chances are they are not as evil as Nero was. And yet, Peter instructed believers to “honor the emperor.” So, honoring the President, whether it was who we wanted in office or not, requires that we sacrifice some of our own pride for the sake of living at peace where we can and when we can.
Those who result to lawless rebellion (anarchy) are fighting for freedoms that they perceive (whether accurately or not) to be taken from them. But is that the case for the Christian? Look again at what Peter said in verse 16.
16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. (1 Peter 2:16, NIV)
We are free. Christ has purchased our liberation! And so no one, no government even, can strip us of the salvation given to us by King Jesus. So we have to be judicious with how we now live as free people. Instead of justifying evil actions, we get to use our freedom to posture ourselves humbly, as servants. How can we pick up the people of this broken world if we think we are now far above it?
Even Thomas Jefferson grasped this when he said,
“The reason that Christianity is the best friend of government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart.” – Thomas Jefferson
We don’t suggest we derive any theology from Thomas Jefferson, but we quote him here because if even Jefferson can grasp this, we better, too.
While we should be informed about what is going on and exercise our right to vote, our supreme effort is not in political reform, but in Spirit regeneration. We strive to see society changed not through legislation, but through the Gospel.
Society is impacted for the better when Christians are active participants in their community. And in that way, society experiences reform, preceded and led by spiritual renewal.
Even when it appears the government is in control, God is sovereign over the government. He is utilizing history to fulfill His ultimate plan, with or without the government’s permission or willful participation. Do you see how this can ultimately give us confidence despite how the government is trending? We are not shaken by what is taking place in the political office. We aren’t apathetic to it either, of course, but we know that these authorities are subject to God, who is the Master of the whole universe.
Jesus will indeed be recognized as the earth’s true and rightful king, all in due time. For now, we honor the leaders in power.