Honor the emperor? Really?

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1 Peter 2:13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

One of the accusations made of early Christians was that they were not good Roman citizens. Why? Because they were reported to have their own king – who was not the emperor. When the church was very small, in the earliest days, it was probably not a big deal. But as the church grew from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands and beyond, allegiance to Jesus as king was a problem in the eyes of secular rulers. Persecution of Christians would come and go in brutal fashion.

So in this passage, the apostle Peter counsels believers to submit to secular rulers in accordance with the laws of the land. If Christians were model citizens, it would hopefully allay some of the concerns about them. As a practical word of guidance, particularly for that place and time, this makes perfect sense. Yet, it leads me to a question:

Is this guidance still appropriate for today?

Sometimes government is part of the solution and sometimes government is part of the problem. As Americans, we are fortunate that our laws provide for civil protest when we believe governing authorities have lost their way. And there is always the power of the ballot box to periodically make changes in leadership.

But as I think on the last century or so of world history, there are many instances of brutal totalitarian rule across the globe. As a Lutheran Christian, I am reminded of a noted Lutheran church leader named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who openly opposed Adolf Hitler’s regime in WWII Germany – and was eventually executed for treason. In his writings, Bonhoeffer made the case that there are times when Christians have an obligation and duty to oppose murderous secular rulers in the name of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Another instance would be 1960s protests here in the U.S. regarding civil rights of American citizens of color, or even the rights of women to be equal under the law as men, and so on. Given our history of revolution against the king of England that established this nation, one might say protest against government is part of our American D.N.A.

So today, especially as we enter into another presidential election cycle, I’m pondering the implications of the need to observe the word of God, while observing the need to hold leadership accountable. And I gotta be honest – neither political front-runner for president (Clinton or Trump) excites me at the moment. Surely our political parties can do better. Please?

Lord Jesus, we live in a complicated world. Things aren’t always black and white as we’d like them to be. Give us grace to do your will, especially as it relates to our relationship with secular authority. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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