(Originally written November 5, 2008, the day after the 2008 Presidential election)
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves to God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Pt 2.13-17).
Churches will be atwitter tonight as Christians parse the election results. Most will abide by the unspoken rules that allow for complaining without really complaining. Everyone will know what we’re saying without saying it. We’ll read between the lines, knowing we won’t say what we want to say because it’s “church.” And we’ll baptize it all with a pious confession of faith that God is in control.
Christians are commanded to “honor the king” as a testimony that they love Jesus more than personal feelings or agendas. Peter wrote that under the wicked shadow of Nero, to whom he probably lost his own life. Yes, the gospel is so radical that if Nero lights the kindling under your leather-strapped feet then you die well, honoring him as a testimony that you hail from another world and he is no threat to your happiness. You stress that you died to this world long before your flesh started burning.
So if 1 Pt 3.17 includes the likes of Nero, it certainly includes the newly elected President of the United States; who by all accounts (and perhaps contrary to evangelical opinion) is no Nero. (Already I hear the snide, under-the-breath comments!)
For whatever it’s worth, I offer the following applications of 1 Pt 2.13-17 to our current situation (in no particular order):
(1) God commands us to honor President Obama. There will be many right exhortations that we must pray for him (1 Tim 2.1-2). We must absolutely pray for him. Not because he’s so bad, but because Jesus is so good and it pleases Him that we do. However, we are not only to pray for him, but honor him. In other words, we are not free to pray to God for him and then slander him before men.
In Mt 15.4, Jesus reiterates the Mosaic command to “honor your father and mother” (cf. Eph 6.2). To speak evil of one’s parents merited capital punishment, according to Moses. Therefore, honoring someone at least means speaking well of them. I don’t think we honor our parents in exactly the same ways as President Obama. For example, we should take care of our parents in their waning years (1 Tim 5.4), not the President.
Paul commands us to honor widows (1 Tim 5.3). He means more than just praying for them. He means show them honor with verbal and tangible expressions that we value and esteem them (1 Tim 5.10).
As hard as it will be for many Christians, we must honor President Obama with expressions that we value his God-given authority. This will test how much we really want to obey Scripture. If we can’t find it in ourselves to honor the President then it is a problem with us, not him.
(2) God does not command to us honor the position of President, but the President himself. With hermeneutical wizardry we convince ourselves that we can honor the position but not the man. Peter does not say “honor the position of king” but “honor the king.” It’s far easier to honor parenthood than many parents. It’s far easier to honor widowhood than many widows. But the gospel makes a radical demand of faith, testing our love for neighbor, and so we are to honor President Obama, not merely the presidential office. This is God’s will.
Where the President restrains evil and rewards good, we are to express our honor and thanks for God’s means of grace. Whether he deserved to be honored or not is not our decision to make. You and I deserve none of God’s favor and yet he lavishes it on us.
(3) There is more to honoring President Obama than appreciating the fact that he’s black. If all you can appreciate about this election is that a black man was elected, then you have much more praying to do for yourself than President Obama.
(4) The democratic ideal of the freedom of dissent does not necessitate dishonorable dissent. Peter appeals to our sense of freedom, but not such that we feel free to disobey God by dishonoring President Obama. There are to be no better United States citizens than those who claim Christ. We may be free to oppose and disagree with government policies, but always in humble submission to their final authority. The paradox of Christian faith is that we are free to be slaves because we are true sons.
(5) Honoring President Obama doesn’t mean absolute obedience or approval. Note Peter’s instruction: we fear God, but honor President Obama. We don’t fear the President. We only fear God. But we do honor the President.
It’s no secret that he’s radically pro-choice. Honoring him doesn’t mean abandoning a pro-life position. I don’t think he will, but if President Obama ever orders you to have, give or participate in an abortion then you refuse and go to jail (cf. Exod 15.1-21). I don’t think he will, but if he signs legislation that censors preaching then you refuse and go to jail (cf. Acts 4.19-20). But we go to jail respectfully, pay our taxes on the way, and in the words of Luther do so “without horns or teeth.” While there we do not spew hateful obscenities, but sing the songs of Zion. We rejoice that Jesus is King and He’ll make it right soon. There’s no glory in suffering abuse for being a jerk, but there is in suffering as a Christian (1 Pt 4.14-16).
It’s no mark of spiritual maturity that we vehemently, dishonorably and hatefully oppose a president’s abortion rights. It is a profound mark of spiritual maturity when we can honor him despite our vehement opposition. Well, when we act like Jesus did (1 Pt 2.21-25). Such shows our confidence in, commitment to and longing for another kingdom where “everything will live where the River goes” (Ezek 47.9). It shows we entrust our souls and cause “to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pt 2.23).
(6) Honoring President Obama doesn’t make you a liberal. Our gospel and politics have become so entwined that any favor shown President Obama will be preceived as liberalism. So we join in the offhand insults, baseless accusations, and dishonorable remarks. We fear being branded a political liberal. Dear brothers and sisters, we fear only God. Resist the strong current and obey Jesus. If you’re branded then wear it with a smile on your face and song in your heart. Your reward awaits you (Mt 5.11-12).
(7) Our children are watching and listening. This isn’t explicit in 1 Pt 2.13-17, but an implication from it. We must instill in our children respect for God-given authorities over us (parents, elders, pastors, teachers, kings, policemen, etc.). If they hear us constantly disparaging President Obama then they will think it’s okay for them to do so. If they hear us grumbling about the police officer who rightly stopped us because we weren’t wearing our seatbelts, then they’ll think it’s okay for them to do so.
They’ll complain about their teachers, being convinced they’re are picking on them. After all, that’s what Mom and Dad do. They’ll disregard admonitions from elders because Mom and Dad do. They’ll thumb their nose at the church’s authority because that’s what Mom and Dad do.
We complain that “kids these days” have no respect for authority. That says far more about us than them. We must be careful to communicate that God’s word is far more important than personal offenses.
So especially when around your children, use titles when referring to authorities. Don’t flippantly call the President “Barack” or “Obama.” Refer to him as “President Obama” to communicate a sense of honor and respect. The same holds true for Pastor Smith, Officer Johnson, Judge Williams, Doctor Matthews, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, etc. Jesus (his name) came also came with a title (Christ or Messiah), so titles matter when teaching children respect for authority.
Christians will be tested in the coming days (and years!). Temptation will rise up in checkout lines, at coffee shops, by the watercooler, and before the Lord’s Table. Many will be offering explicit and implicit derrogatory, dishonorable commentary. Will we be faithful to King Jesus? Will we be thankful that no president is a threat to our eternal happiness? Let’s live faithfully, die well and so silence the ignorance of foolish men.