This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course essays by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.
“Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17) is Peter’s terse apostolic admonition to first-century Christians, “pilgrims of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1), whom Nero had exiled to Asia Minor from Rome. The admonition includes the specific objects and extent of their acquiescence: “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man…to the king as supreme, or to governors…” (1 Peter 2:13-14a). In the same vein, the Apostle Paul wrote in more general terms to the Christians at Rome and Gortys (the capital of the province of Crete), using the language “rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1, cf. Romans 13:1-3). Paul surely had in mind the imperial Caesar Nero, as well as various lesser authorities who ruled Rome’s provinces, such as Herod, Felix, and Agrippa.
Historians refer to the phase of the ancient Roman state in apostolic times as the Principate. The Emperor was Caesar and, as such, held autocratic dominion. Although high-handed rule dominated, a number of decentralized forms and conventions still existed—leftovers from the oligarchic self-government of the Roman Republic (which effectively ended in 27BC). Thus, wealthy Plutarchs were called upon by the Emperor to handle various administrative functions in each province of the Empire (totaling 50 million inhabitants). It is important to realize that the Apostles were writing to Christians who lived under an autocratic, brutal state, rather than the famous Roman Republic that had ended some 80 years earlier. Sure, the memory of the old Republic likely filled the imagination of many citizens, but it was no longer a reality. (In the same way that some Romans might have mused about their glorious Republic of old, so some modern American patriots fondly muse about the liberty-loving American republic before 1861.)
The Bible’s political context is important because it profoundly influences our theology of public policy. Yet the clear contextual differences between the political organization and public policies of first century Rome and the present day seems to be missed by many pastors and Christian leaders today. Some of them apparently presume that the Apostles lived under a state similar to ours. However, it is manifestly clear that they did not, and proper biblical interpretation must be tempered accordingly.
Consider the differences in the form of government then and now. We do not have a “king”. While the principle of submitting to those in authority, even in a Constitutional Republic, can rightly be inferred from the passages pertaining to obedience to the state and honoring the king, it is quite possible that structural changes in government can lead to corresponding changes in our response to the state and its policies. Some Bible doctrines are either dependent on or subject to contextual considerations, meaning that with some commands only principles survive without the exact form of obedience.
For example, modern Christians do not literally buy a “sword” for use as a weapon (as Christ says in Luke 22:36); because of technological improvements they can buy a gun. Likewise, Paul commanded Roman, Achaean, and Macedonian Christians to greet each other with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). The command was given four times—one more time than the Apostles commanded Christians to be submissive to state authorities. Yet modern Christians do not have the exact practice of greeting-by-kissing because the culture has changed. Only the principle of affectionate salutation has been retained.
So how should American Christians “honor the king”? They have no monarch. Does that fact invalidate apostolic doctrine about submission to state rulers? No, the principle of submission still stands. Culture does not wipe out biblical theology, even if the application of doctrine must be adapted to technological and cultural changes—like swords and holy kisses becoming guns and handshakes.
Other important questions remain however, including the reason why Christians should submit and what Christians should submit to. I have argued in Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (Alertness Books, 2003) that Christians submit for expedient or pragmatic reasons. The Bible in several places calls believers to exercise practical wisdom—perhaps even insincere and superficial performances—before rulers (Proverbs 23:1-3; Ecclesiastes 8:2-5; Matthew 17:27). Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, one may conclude that the kind of performance mandated for Nero and his cronies should correspond to those mandated in these other passages.
In America, a case can and should be made that the proper object of submission by Christians is to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence since they comprise our formal government. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, and congressmen are not kings. Our political structure is not autocratic but rather a republic based on a contract between “We the People”. The political allegiance of an American Christian is not to the President or to Congress, but to the republican contract established by the people. That means that an American Christian can submit to the principles of the Constitution, for instance, and still dishonor, condemn, or even—as a last resort—overthrow the government actors who oppose it. This idea would have been unfathomable in the context of the first century, even for those acquainted with the Roman Republic era. Yet it is part and parcel of the American civil society that Providence has decreed.
Originally published in The Times Examiner on June 8, 2005.