Verses 18-25 of today’s text may be familiar to some readers. They are often discussed in conflicts over how to interpret the words about slaves being subject to their masters.
If we look closely at verses 13-17, maybe we can apply the idea of authority more broadly. Those verses focus not on household masters but on local and national leaders. “For the Lord’s sake,” the writer urges, “be subject to every human authority, whether to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (vv. 13-14). These verses can provoke controversy too.
First, who qualifies as a “human authority”? The King of England? The President of the United States? The Supreme Leader of Iran? Or, going a bit smaller, is the human authority a state governor, a town mayor, or the chair of the board? Second, how are “wrong” and “right” defined? By the Constitution? Scripture? Local law? And third, exactly how far should our subjection go? What if a leader’s authority takes us into wrongdoing?
These are difficult questions, and the answers vary depending on when and why we ask them. Fresh on many of our minds is the recent political turbulence in the United States that seemed to peak with the Covid-19 pandemic. We weren’t sure which leaders to obey because many leaders in normally trusted positions gave conflicting information. Should we quarantine or not? Should we wear masks or not? Should we get the new vaccine or not? One “authority” gave us a particular instruction, and another gave us something entirely different. And this is certainly not unique to the pandemic. When the world is in turmoil, even leaders have a hard time knowing which authorities to believe.
So what are we to do? Sometimes we have to trust ourselves a bit more—do the research, discern what is logical, and make the decisions that are best for us and for those around us. Peter offers helpful, concise instruction as we do the best we can: “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (v. 17). In times of uncertainty and stress, we can’t go wrong with honor and love. We can’t go wrong when we have a healthy fear of God that consists of respect, reverence, and adoration.
• Do you think God puts people in positions of leadership?
• What happens when leaders we trust fail us in devastating ways?
• How can we balance respecting human authority with obeying God—especially when the two actions seem to contradict each other?
• How can love, honor, and healthy fear build our discernment skills as we question authority?
• When is it better not to be subject to human authority?
Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her teenage daughters, Samantha and Natalie, her husband John, and the family’s two dachshund mix pups, Luke and Leia. She likes supporting community theater productions and is often found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who. And she writes middle grade and young adult fiction for the pure joy of it.
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