Now we come to some of the most controversial and misused verses, not only in 1 Peter, but in the entire New Testament. The second half of 1 Peter 2 has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in the history of the West. Slave holders in the Americas used verses 18-25 to claim God’s blessing on their monstrous denial of their slaves’ humanity. Verses 13-14 have been used by dictators and segregationists as blanket permission for brutality and inhumane treatment of their people.
Before I begin to explain what this passage means - and does not mean - it is important to remember some context. At the time that Peter wrote these words, Christians were not in a place of power in the Roman Empire - far from it. They were a persecuted minority who were being hunted across the empire at the command of the Emperor; their very identity was illegal.
As such, these words weren’t intended as instruction or permission to those in power. After all, no Christians were in power in the 1st century. This passage is intended as a guide to people who are powerless on how to live in a society that abuses them, treats them unjustly and condemns their very way of life. Those who read this as a justification for the way that they use power, or use it to blame or subjugate the powerless, are not reading the passage as it was meant to be read.
With that, let us start by looking at Peter’s instruction for dealing with those in authority in verses 13-17. These verses have often been interpreted to mean that the government must be obeyed no matter how unjust its laws may be. It is important to note that this, at least, is one thing Peter cannot have meant. Preaching the gospel was illegal in Rome, the very city from which he is writing. If Peter really believed that all laws - no matter how unjust - must be obeyed, then he would have had to renounce his faith.
So what does Peter mean? The key, and often overlooked, phrase that begins this section might help. Peter prefaces his command by saying “For the Lord’s sake…” In other words, this entire instruction on obeying human authority starts with a reminder that Christ is our true Lord - the ultimate authority in our lives. As Christians, we should never obey a human authority that tells us to do something our Lord forbids. Peter certainly didn’t! But this passage is a command to obey the laws of the land anytime they don’t conflict with God’s law. Put another way, Peter isn’t telling us to obey unjust or immoral laws. He is telling us that, just because the government may enact some laws that are unjust, doesn’t mean that we get to ignore the ones that aren’t.
Now, let’s turn to Peter’s instructions for slaves. Again, it is key for us to remember that Christians were not in a position of legal authority. Neither Peter, his audience, nor the slaves in question had the power to end this unjust institution. His words do not condone slavery, they are intended to advise those forced to live with an injustice they cannot escape. Peter offers comfort and the hope for eternal justice in a situation where everyone knew there would be no justice in this life.
I will close by noting a common criticism of this passage - and of the New Testament in general. Many wish that Peter would have encouraged Christians to resist these injustices or even to rise up and overthrow the Roman regime, built on the backs of slaves and intended to promote a level of inequality unfathomable to a modern reader. Surely these practices require revolution, not mere advice!
Such critics fail to realize that revolution is precisely what Peter and the early Christians had in mind. Not the sort of revolution practiced by the Soviets in Russia or the Jacobins in France - ushering out one bloody regime by replacing it with another. The revolution these early Christians desired would not be accomplished with arms and armies, but by winning over people - changing a society by changing hearts and minds. They sought to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, not another failed kingdom on earth.
That is still Christ’s plan today. How will you be a part of it? How can you support the revolution? Who in your life needs to hear the Truth?
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