Our experiments in human government are less like classical music and more like jazz.
I cut my teeth as a percussionist in classical settings and on the field in a marching drumline. Whether at the timpani with music on a stand or standing next to five snare drummers with music from memory, we played the same notes the same way—every time.
Jazz drummers are a different breed. They play within a set of rules: rhythm, timing, technique, etc. But within that framework, they improvise. The same could be said of classical vs. jazz pianists, brass instrumentalists, etc. Of course, there is better and worse jazz music. But the quality of that music will be measured not so much by how well the ensemble kept to its specific notations but to how skillfully they played within a set of musical rules.
In Peter’s words to first-century churches, I hear more jazz than classical:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
Peter offers a framework for citizenship and statecraft rather than an exact prescription for a form of government.
1. The Reformed tradition recognizes monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as three forms of government that Christians can in good conscience live under.
But Peter’s instructions are also blue like jazz. Much like the blue notes in jazz (dissonant tones played for expressive purposes), for those with ears to hear, Peter’s teaching introduces a sometimes conflicting, dissonant perspective that challenges conventional notions of governance.
In what follows, I will highlight the surface and the subversive message in Peter’s words: the regular notes and the blue notes. I’ll also make passing applications to our situation as citizens in the United States.
Jazz Lessons for Statecraft and Citizenship
What lessons may we glean from Peter for Christian citizenship and statecraft? Here are six points of instruction I recently drew out for my church.
2. This is an adaptation of a sermon, “Be Good Citizens,” delivered to Heritage Bible Church, Greer, SC, October 3, 2021.
First, Get Your Theology in Order
Peter did not say, “Be subject to every human institution.” Rather, he said, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” (1 Pet. 2:13, emphasis mine). Why did these Christians need this particular exhortation?
Peter’s first readers knew who they were in Christ: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9–10). They knew Jesus’s teaching that God’s kingdom is not identified with a geopolitical nation. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Caesar is not God. Jesus is Lord. Amen.
But it seems Peter’s audience misunderstood what their Lord would have them to do. Perhaps they asked, “Why must ‘sojourners and exiles’ regard human government? After all, Jesus is Lord!” Perhaps they had Peter’s own boldness to disobey governing authorities in mind (Acts 4:19–20). To this simplistic and dismissive attitude, the Apostle Peter says, “Yes, Jesus is Lord. And he would have you be subject to your governing authorities.” That we do so “for the Lord’s sake” and not for any reason we please is a natural governor on our obedience to governors. There are times for resistance (we’ll get to that). But the main point is this: mature Christians are good citizens. Jesus as Lord limits the role of government, yes, but he also legitimizes human government. We must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Yes, you are free, but your freedom as God’s servants is a freedom to obey government while fearing the Lord (1 Pet. 2:16). That’s the lesson these Christians needed at that time.
A first order of business for our work in statecraft and citizenship is to recognize a proper separation, legitimacy, and compatibility between Jesus’s Lordship and the place of earthly government and governing authorities.
Now that our theology of subjection to government is established, we have work to do.
Second, Know Your Governing Authorities
We do well to know the names of our authorities so we can pray for them by name. But before that, we must know their roles so we can subject ourselves to them in alignment with their God-appointed roles. Peter writes for us to be subject to governing authorities, “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Pet. 2:13–14, emphasis mine).
This was not a prescription for a form of government but a description of the political reality under which these Christians resided. The Spirit wrote for these Christians in their context. Thus, we have an invitation for us to imagine what subjection should look like in our situation.
As Christians in the United States, we do well to understand our form of government: a constitutional federal republic. We are not ruled by a king whose authority is derived from blood or force. In fact, we do not have a ruler, but we are instead ruled by law, the fundamental law of which is the Constitution. According to the Founders, the government exists to secure the rights of the people, rights which are universally held and preexist government. Those inalienable rights alluded to in the Declaration of Independence were made explicit in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a series of amendments that outline our rights in relationship to the action of our government and make explicit what the government cannot do to us or take from us.
3. I expand on this responsibility and on the shape of our government in “Rule 1, Understand What You’re Doing as an American,” in a series of articles, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement.
Further, we are united as a federation of states, not strictly as people. Hence, we are “The United States of America,” not “The United People of America.” Thus, as citizens, we have defined relationships to federal, state, and local governments, a scheme that addresses national interests without smothering out local realities and concerns. Finally, we are a republic. We elect our representatives according to a scheme that checks and balances power. Their authority is derived from the people they are elected to serve.
Does the Bible explicitly prescribe a specific form of government? No. We should subject ourselves to governing authorities of different kinds according to their legal authority. But does this mean that the roles and goals of government are infinitely elastic? Certainly not. Not only are the authorities in any system not unlimited on their own terms, but God also has a Word on the matter. We turn next to this question.
4. For example, in the United States our governing authorities are under the governing authority of the Constitution which itself invests citizens with authority to check abuses. Our role as citizens is a role of authority over our governing authors. We are governing authorities!
Third, Understand the Biblical Role and Goals of Government
What do Christians have to say about the nature of government and its activities?
Peter’s readers lived in a pre-Christendom era, before what Francis Schaeffer called the secondary effects of the gospel were felt. By contrast, we live in a post-Christendom era where these effects are not merely fading but even revolted against.
Broadly speaking, it seems that Christians in America are vulnerable to two fallacies. Some Christians commit the God-and-Country fallacy and over-identify God with our country in such a way that mangles the Scripture’s teaching on the church and its mission. Others, repelled by the worst expressions of this thinking, commit another error: the Anything-But-God-and-Country fallacy. This group cannot stomach any mention of God in the discussion of the state’s role and goals. This fallacy would lead to statism or totalitarianism as Christians neglect the public truth that the state is not ultimate.
5. Andy Naselli’s piece offers a technical survey of historic views and contemporary voices: “What Is the Spectrum of Major Views on Political Theology? A Proposed Taxonomy of Seven Views on Religion and Government.” My summary here is admittedly reductionist, even anecdotal.
6. See Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1st trade pbk. ed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).
Peter, however, straightforwardly outlines the basic responsibilities of government: to punish evil and to praise good. Apparently, even the Roman government did a fair amount of both. God’s divine nature and power are revealed in creation so that humans can get this right. Individuals and even governing authorities are responsible to do so.
Christians then and now, for this reason, should be the first to affirm the good in human government. We thank God for crimes never committed, planes that never went down, and for prison bars that hold every child molester from doing more harm. On the other hand, Christians should be the first to work for the proper alignment of government with the truth about good and evil according to nature and Scripture.
This leads us to our fourth directive.
Fourth, Promote the Public Truth Concerning Good and Evil
Governmental institutions “punish those who do evil and . . . praise those who do good.” Peter assumes that the knowledge of good and evil is available to all by virtue of being made in God’s image.
In the Noahic covenant, the Lord established human government as a means to punish the evil of murder. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5–6). This prohibition and punishment established a principle of proportional justice, and the need for punishment to meet the crime committed. God’s common-grace instruction in the Noahic covenant is not merely punitive. The Noahic covenant affirms the good of fruitful multiplicity through marriage as basic to human flourishing (Gen. 9:7).
7. Paul affirms this continues in his appeal to Caesar in Acts 25:11.
But we can say more.
The Decalogue, or what we often call the Ten Commandments, does not apply to modern governments in a direct fashion. But these commands do instruct us concerning behavior we owe fellow humans, and with a little reflection, they reveal to us God’s moral code instilled within each of us by virtue of his created order. For example, the commandment, “You shall not murder,” presupposes the God-given right of persons to live, a truth rooted in creation (Exod. 20:13). The commandment, “You shall not steal,” is grounded in the right of persons to own property (Exod. 20:15). The command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” presupposes the legal right of persons to due process (Exod. 20:16). One of the basic roles of government is to protect people and property and to punish those who violate either. Government does not have to punish everything that is sin, but a government that rewards or overlooks the violations of the commandments just cited violates its God-appointed function.
The government should also enact policies and promote a culture that normalizes good behavior. Again, here, the Decalogue points us to prior creational realities to which all humanity is accountable. The command, “You shall not commit adultery,” is grounded in the right of married partners to expect the sexual faithfulness of their spouse and teaches us about the natural and moral context for human sexuality (Exod. 20:14). Good government recognizes marriage for what it is and regulates marriage for the good of children and (by extension) of society at large. Moreover, a government that knows its limits and stays in its lane will promote healthy families since the best conduit for virtuous citizens is found in healthy homes and churches. The command, “Honor your father and mother,” presupposes the context of the natural family with a mother and a father who are owed obedience because they are responsible (Exod. 20:12). The government should promote the stability and health of the family, which involves protecting the rights of parents and holding parents accountable for their basic responsibility to care for their children. Any government that tries to become a “nanny state” undermines parents and the virtue and health of its own society.
Even the command, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” assumes that humans have a proclivity to envy which is destructive enough to make God’s top ten (Exod. 20:17). While opposing envy with laws penalizing covetousness would venture toward some kind of thoughtcrime, the government can promote economic policies that reward hard work, productivity, innovation, and responsibility. In this way, therefore, magistrates can implement laws that channel self-interest toward the common good.
And what about the freedom of religion? Several commands in the Decalogue point to the basic human responsibility to worship God, “You shall have no other gods before me,” “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:3, 4, 7). As Robert Louis Wilken outlines in his book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, Christians are committed to several things. Freedom of religion or conscience is a right that precedes government and belongs to all human beings; conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that brings with it an obligation to act; and human society is governed by the powers of God and the state. Christians do right by the household of God and our neighbors of all religions to hold America to this promise even as we may advocate for the nation to acknowledge both its Christian roots and framework. The state should not compel religion, nor prohibit its free exercise. At the same time, in a nation like ours (see #2 again), Christians have a responsibility to influence culture such that celebrations, customs, and even institutions (government included) do not stand against Christianity.
In other words, as our first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is a profoundly good commitment. Christians should labor for religious liberty and support such reasons with biblical reasoning. Indeed, such freedom does not arise in a vacuum. And America’s enjoyment of such liberty, we should remember, is downstream from Christian beliefs and practices. To that end, we should not tire of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and explaining in public why religious liberty is a uniquely Christian value.
Fifth, Remember, You’re Being Watched
Concerning good citizenship, Peter writes, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet. 2:15). In this, we can’t help but hear Peter’s concern for the church’s witness. Christians were insulted and accused of doing wrong just for being Christians. But some may have been asking for trouble. Apparently, there were Christians among Peter’s readers who were gathering negative attention for how they related to their governing authorities. Here’s Peter’s message: good citizenship is God’s will for a good witness.
But two more things must be said.
First, Peter would not have us under the illusion that we can measure the faithfulness of our witness by the quality of our reception. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). Not all will see the Christians’ good citizenship as good right now in this life, at least. But “on the day of visitation,” when Christ appears, the final verdict will show our deeds for what they are.
Second, Peter’s readers knew what they had been freed from: guilt, sin, death, and this world’s authorities. But they did not fully understand what they had been freed to: freedom to obey the Lord—which means obeying earthly authorities. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16). Peter’s readers needed to hear that their allegiance to Christ did not permit them to disregard their governing authorities. Yet, in our context, this truth cuts a second way: allegiance to Christ does not free us to turn our eyes from evil committed by the government in the name of obeying our governing authorities. Not only are we responsible as humans to distinguish good and evil, but as citizens of the United States we are also responsible for our government.
It won’t do us any good to meet the approval of those who watch us down here if Christ disapproves of us on the day of visitation.
We move now to a point of resistance.
Sixth, Submit Whenever Possible, Resist When Necessary
Peter begins with a command to be subject to governing authorities. He ends with a command to honor the emperor, all very positive. It’s almost as though Peter forgot Jesus’s hard teaching about persecution from town to town, about being dragged before governors and kings, about being delivered over to death (Matt. 10:28; cf. 10:16–39). But there’s a blue note here if we have ears for it. Four clear commands close Peter’s teaching: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17).
The first two commands are straightforward. Christians should honor everyone. We honor our neighbors who hold governing authority with good citizenship. We honor our neighbors who do good by praising their good behavior. We honor those who do evil by insisting on due process, a fair trial, and a just punishment.
“Loving the brotherhood” is not as easy as it sounds. As pressure on Christians and churches increases, so does vulnerability to distrust and division within these communities. Love is the word that Peter chose to characterize life within churches. But also between our churches. This word “brotherhood” is only used twice in the New Testament, both times in this letter by Peter. In the other instance he speaks of the “brotherhood throughout the world” (5:9). This must lead Christians to love and even support the brotherhood when it is being persecuted throughout the world, from closed countries to California to Canada.
Now for the last two commands: Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Rome imposed its religion by force, requiring the worship of Caesar as god. On the coin that Jesus asked to see, as reported in Matthew 22:19, was the image of Rome’s self-declared god, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of Divine Augustus.” But neither Tiberius nor Augustus were divine. The Roman state was peddling a lie and coercing its people into false worship.
Fear is the proper response to God, worship with reverence and awe. Honor is what the emperor deserves, even if he pretends to be god, and that is all that he should receive.
Fear the Lord. Never fear the government. Straightforward obedience to this command means subtle and sometimes overt resistance to the state. What Peter has done here is not so much different from what Jesus did holding that coin with Caesar’s face. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he subtly insisted that the worship we owe to God we must deny to Caesar (Mark 12:17). Even more, though Caesar’s image was on that coin, God’s image is on Caesar!
8. Romans 13:3 certainly implies that Christians have a type of “fear” for the one in governmental authority, and yet this fear is in an altogether different category than the all-encompassing fear of God in 1 Peter 2:17.
9. For more on a theory of resistance, see See Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 1st trade pbk. ed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005); Glenn S. Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2020); Matthew J. Trewhella, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates: A Proper Resistance to Tyranny and a Repudiation of Unlimited Obedience to Civil Government (CreateSpace, 2013).
10. Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 12.
Just like Jesus, Peter instructs us shrewdly. He authorizes both submission and resistance and in such a way as to stay out of trouble himself! After all, Jesus did say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Right? After all, Peter did say, “Honor the emperor.” Right?
With these instructions, Christians today as in in the first century have what we need to navigate our diverse situations as citizens of earth. Some of our improvisation will be better than others, as it is with jazz. Some of our political circumstances will be more desirable than others. We should all pray and thank God for our governing authorities that we might lead a peaceful and quiet life for the sake and spread of the gospel (1Tim. 2:1–2).
A Sampling of Jazz, Music to God’s Ears
As I have shown, Peter offers a framework for citizenship and statecraft that can be put to work in different settings with different political possibilities. He does so in a way that commends good citizenship, a way of relating with our governing authorities that is both compelled and constrained by Christ’s Lordship.
But if we’re not so sure Peter had such subtly in mind, we need only to look at his life. Few can put it better than Doug Wilson, whose church, from all accounts, resisted their authorities honorably and courageously when their authorities abused their authority:
… I would remind you that the apostle Peter, who wrote the exhortation in 1 Peter 2, was soon to be executed by the magistrate as someone who was a grave threat to their civil order (John 21:18–19). This was the same man who was broken out of jail by an angel, and who disappeared from the book of Acts as a wanted man (Acts 12:10, 17). The guards who lost him were executed because of his disappearance (Acts 12:19), meaning that the angel there was playing hard ball. This was the man who was in jail in the first place because he was a leader of the Christians (Acts 12:3), and who earlier had told the Sanhedrin that he wouldn’t quit preaching (Acts 5:29), no matter what they said. And he was the man who was writing this letter to prepare law-abiding Christians for the time of persecution that was coming, in which time they would be accused of being scofflaws (1 Pet. 4:7, 13–16). So whatever his words in chapter 2 mean, they have to be consistent with the life of the one who wrote them.
And what about Paul? The man who wrote Romans 13 did more prison time than most of us have done, and he escaped from King Aretas by being lowered in a basket from the city wall (2 Cor. 11:32–33). In modern parlance we would call that running a road block or evading arrest.
11. Doug Wilson’s remarks on the steps of the Capitol in Boise, Idaho on May 1, 2020. “Liberate Idaho.”
In all of this is a subtle message: reverence for God entails resistance to government when government goes beyond its divinely ordered role. Peter’s letter was subtle. His life was not.
Government is from God, and it is good. Government is not God, and it can go bad when it starts to think it is. Thankfully, our own nation’s founders understood this, and they built checks on government power into the system.
For citizens of heaven and of the United States, as it is in jazz music, good citizenship requires an energetic note of subjection and a blue note of strategic resistance.