It starts when we’re still in diapers: we want to do what we want to do. For instance, we don’t want to submit to our parents’ authority. We don’t want to go to bed on time, eat our vegetables, brush our teeth, or clean our rooms.
We all grow up, but we don’t grow out of our “cosmic authority problem.” Even out of Pampers, we still don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like our parents telling us to minimize the time we spend playing video games or scrolling social media. We don’t like our coaches and teachers telling us to be on time or to stop talking.
And, even as adults, we don’t like being ordered to do things, such as paying our taxes or obeying the speed limit. Submission, especially for Americans, is a fighting word.
In this three-part series, we are going to explore the who’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s regarding God’s command for Christians submit to institutional authorities. In this, the first installment, we will look at the who and when of institutional submission.
If you are familiar with St. Augustine’s The Confessions, you know he tells an interesting story about him and his friends breaking into an orchard to steal pears. But he also tells the reader two interesting facts: he doesn’t like pears, and he wasn’t hungry. So, why did he steal the pears? Augustine says he found delight in doing what was forbidden.
I guess that shouldn’t surprise us: our first parents were rebels. Adam and Eve did the very thing they were forbidden to do because Satan told them they would be like God (Genesis 3:5). Unfortunately, we are all like our primal parents: We don’t want to do what God and lesser authorities tell us to do because we want to be in charge. We want to define good and evil for ourselves.
And yet Scripture calls Christians to glad submission, to willing obedience to God and lesser authorities. 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.”
In the context of 1 Peter, “every human institution” includes the institutions of marriage (1 Peter 3:1-7), households (1 Peter 2:18-25), and the state or government (1 Peter 2:13-17). However, these institutions, which were especially relevant to Peter’s first audience, do not exhaust the list of institutions Christians are called to be subject to. Obviously, the institutional church would be another example of an institution Scripture calls us to be subject to (Hebrews 13:17). Every lawful institution, such as a school or a workplace, should also make the list.
In short, this passage tells us that we are to honor and obey the authorities in each of these spheres. Within the family sphere, children are to submit to their parents. Within the church, members are to submit to the elders. Within a school, students are to submit to the teachers and administration. And within the state, citizens are to be submissive to government officials.