Sunday, November 08, 2009

Respect authority; do good. 1 Peter 2:13-17

Is our society breaking down? I remember getting the cane at school. The headmaster had made a new rule which I and several of the boys thought unreasonable. We deliberately flouted it in front of the teachers to demonstrate that whatever they said about it we didn't agree. We were not sly or underhand about it, we were not deceitful; we did not lie about it. The consequence was that we were all caned to demonstrate that there was a certain hierarchy in the school and we had to submit to it.

On another occasion a boy in my class deliberately flouted a rule that said we couldn't buy ice creams from a van parked outside the school gates. He didn't even want an ice cream; he just wanted to demonstrate that he didn't think the rule was reasonable. He too got his comeuppance.

This was back in the 1950s when society was more ordered. Today we tolerate campaigners for the environment breaking into power stations and chaining themselves to railings with their posters and slogans. We acquiesce to demonstrators shouting abuse at the police. Recently, individuals who have attempted to stop queue-jumpers or litter louts have found themselves cautioned by the police. We are supposed to allow this sort of societal disorder.

When they made the film Titanic they showed the 1st Class passengers behaving like louts, elbowing others out of their way as they made for the lifeboats and having to be restrained by a crew member firing his revolver. In fact it never happened. The 'toffs' of Edwardian society behaved impeccably, holding back to ensure that women and children were saved. Rich men like Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim stood aside. Guggenheim and his manservant helped women and children into lifeboats. When all the boats had gone they changed into their best clothes and prepared to "Die like gentlemen." Astor kissed his wife good-bye as she was put in the lifeboat. Astor said: 'I resign myself to my fate' and saluted in farewell." Of the 175 male first class passengers, only 57 survived whereas 140 of the 144 women and 5 of the 6 children lived. Such acts of heroism and self sacrifice were omitted from the movie because they did not fit the spirit of the age, where only the steerage class could be heroes. A contemporary witness wrote, "A third-class passenger who tried to climb in the boats was shot and killed by a steward. This was the only shooting on board I know of." Another said, "The behavior of the men was magnificent. They stood back without murmuring and urged the women and children into the lifeboats. A few cowards tried to scramble into the boats, but they were quickly thrown back by the others. Let me say now that the only men who were saved were those who sneaked into the lifeboats or were picked up after the Titanic sank."

This sort of historical forgetfulness is an indication of how society has changed and it is with this in mind that I hesitate to open up the next passage in 1 Peter chapter 2.
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Submission is not something we take easily to. In a rather strange passage in Matthew 17 (24-26) Jesus argues that sons of the king are exempt from tax. Some have argued that the sons of the King of Kings should not be under the authority of earthly kings. But Jesus has them pay the Temple tax so as not to give offence, and here Peter exhorts us to submit to earthly rulers. The authorities in Peter's day would have been Nero and Claudius - hardly benevolent dictators. In fact they were two of the most arbitrary and cruel kings that have ever lived. Yet Peter tells us to submit. We are free of earthly ties, yet for the Lord's sake we should submit. AS we proceed we will see how it is in the Lord's interest that his servants should submit.

The NIV translation here is a paraphrase. Literally, we are to submit to every 'human creation'. But the word 'creation' has within it the implication of a formed building, something constructed according to rules and physical law. Not a tumbledown shack made of grass and bamboo, but a brick built construction with foundations and perpendicular walls. Thus, the KJV has every human ordinance, the RSV and ASV and NEB 'institution' and the NIV and Good News Bible have 'authorities'. The emphasis is on an ordered society.

As members of a society, we must obey its laws. If women go to Saudi Arabia they should cover their head, not because covering the head is honoring to God, but because it is the local law and to flout authority is to dishonor God. Incidentally, we should expect Muslims coming to Europe or the US to obey our laws. There are indeed somethings in which we must choose to obey God rather than men, but we must recognise that if we do so and fall foul of what we see a an unjust law, we must accept the consequences. While we may detest abortion and we may protest against it inasmuch as the law allows, we should not break the law in our protests. By all means lobby Congress or Parliament. March or wave a placard, but don't shoot abortionists or blow up clinics.

In Ephesians 5:21 Paul writes "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." It is this basic politeness that is crucial to an ordered society. I once read a book about the cardinal virtues, written by an atheist. He proposed that the first basic virtue was politeness, because without it no society could exist. How can you hold a conversation unless you allow the other fellow to speak?

A child in arms who grabs candy at the supermarket checkout must submit to his mother; she must not submit to him. The meter maid who hands you a ticket when you park illegally must be submitted to. She doesn't have to submit to you. The soccer player must submit to the referee. It is positively evil when players crowd round him in an attempt to force him to change his mind. It is not that the child is worth less to God than his mother, or the motorist than Rita, or the footballer than the referee. There is a hierarchy of authority not of value. The footballer may be paid millions of dollars every year, far more than the referee, but on the pitch the player must submit to the authority of the ref.

The other night was Guy Fawkes night when we celebrate the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic revolutionaries attempted to blow up parliament. With the recent scandals concerning MPs expenses where they have used taxpayers money to have their moats dredged or to build duck islands on their lakes, some have wished that Guy Fawkes had succeeded. But Parliament legitimately has authority over us. That doesn't make them better than us or of more value to God, but we have to submit to them. A famous blogger has called himself Guido Fawkes after the revolutionary bomber, but he restricts himself to lampooning the government - a legitimate tactic. We will have the opportunity to vote this government out if we disapprove of it, but blowing them up is not honoring to God. Even petty bureaucrats are part of the governing machine. Their pettifogging restrictions have to be submitted to. Protest and point out their deficiencies all you like, but in the end you must submit.

But it is more than submitting. Verse 15 tells us that it is also God's will that we do good. Why? To silence foolish men.

Have you read recently how commentators equate evangelical Christians with fundamentalist Muslims? They would not have done so in the nineteenth century, when the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce was battling to abolish the slave trade and the evangelical Lord Shaftesbury (incidentally a local family) reformed society with the Ten Hour Bill; the 1842 Mines Act; reform of the lunacy laws; abolition of child chimney-sweeping; improvements in public health and slum housing; institution of ragged schools; improvements in the the plight of agricultural labourers; and training for destitute children, when the evangelical William Booth rescued people from alcoholism and prostitution and Dr Barnardo established orphanages. Foolish men who equate suicide bombers with works of charity, selflessness and goodwill are foolish indeed.

Do we keep up the good work? Modern evangelicals sometimes criticise good works as 'the social gospel', which they despise. We do not criticise liberal Christians for their opposition to cruel regimes, for fighting hunger, disease, oppression and slavery, for their zeal in rescuing women from servitude to their husbands, children from sexual abuse, people from poverty and prisoners from torture. We approve and join them as co-belligerents against evil. No, we criticise their neglect of the gospel and their subjugation of men's souls to their bodies. It is not a question of either preach the gospel or do good works. We should do good works because of the gospel.

We are free men, but we must never abuse that freedom. We are free to do good, not to do evil. We are free from the subjection of men, but we are slaves of God. The Roman soldier had the authority to compel any citizen to carry his load for a mile, but after a mile he had no right to compel that individual further. A christian, according to Jesus, should offer to go an extra mile, not because he is a slave of the Roman soldier, but because he is a slave of Christ.

We should show respect to everyone. A story is told of a missionary waiting in his house while murdering rebels outside went through the town killing civilians for the fun of it. When the dread knock at the door came he invited them in for a meal. Because he showed them respect they left his home intact. A soft answer turns away wrath. You must have found it so. Bullies complain "He never showed me no respect!" as they shoot an adversary. Show proper respect for everyone.

But love the brethren, and fear God. Because you fear God, you will honor the king.


Burke said...

Doc, I take it you agree with the idea of the "divine right of kings"?

And disagree with John Locke on the subject?

As I recall, the king relied largely on a verse in the Book of Romans (chapt 13?) commanding men to obey "such authorities as exist" as they are "God's ministers."

Terry Hamblin said...

No. Kings have no divine right to rule, as King Saul discovered. Everyone rules with consent. Once there is a legitimate ruler, Christians are called upon to obey the law even though they may dislike the law. However, if the law conflicts with their duty to God they must obey God rather than men and take the consequences of their disobedience. However, they may campaign legitimately to remove the king if he is a tyrant. As indeed James II was removed.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in the divine rights of kings; I believe in the rights of the Divine King.