“But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever he pleases.”—Psalm 115:3
As we explore Peter’s instruction on biblical authority from I Peter 2:12-17 at the same time we celebrate our national independence, it seems only right to take a few minutes and discuss biblical submission to human authorities ordained by God. This is a very unpopular subject in our day, and I want to briefly explore the cultural reasons why this is so and conclude with an important reminder for our July 4th commemorations and celebrations.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, the human heart has been inclined toward making itself the center of all things. This inclination is actually the very source of the Serpent’s temptation in Gen. 3:5, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eat the forbidden fruit—forget what God said and do what you desire—and you will be at the center, not God. Now, pan forward thousands of years. One expression of the human impulse to crown itself as center happened in the 18th century through the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Through thinkers like Voltaire, Rene Descartes, John Locke and others, the ideas of natural law, inherent freedom, and self-determination slowly but surely undid the established beliefs of communal and civil authority derived from Almighty God. In its place, a rabid individualism took hold and a “no-one-is-the-boss-of-me” mentality. As the Enlightenment ideals became more pervasive, not surprisingly the classic concept of God-given authority or power was turned on its head. Revolution and rebellion become the norm. Fighting authority, any authority, was conceived to be a virtue.
As these ideas were teased out over time, we began to experience in the late 20th century what cultural evaluators called “postmodernism.” Postmodernism is the failure, or inevitable conclusion (depending on how you view it), of the self-at-the-center project of the Enlightenment. One indicator of postmodernism is a growing suspicion of authority that ultimately leads to disdain for authority altogether. The fact that anyone would claim authority is viewed as a power play of some sort—a subversive attempt to repress individual freedom. To their credit, postmodernists are right to a degree. They saw the failure of the Enlightenment, and often identified and battled against the abuses of power that were spawned in part by the Enlightenment. But in their zeal, they went too far, throwing out authority with the abuse of authority.
In our passage, Peter recovers true biblical freedom by recovering true biblical authority. He teaches us that a biblically defined and practiced authority is essential to the existence of individual and communal freedom. In the same way that submission to God’s authority in the gospel is the path of salvation, submission to legitimate human authority is the path of human freedom and flourishing. You can’t have one without the other.
As you consider the tremendous blessings we enjoy nationally, and take time to thank God for them, please do not forget that we are only as free as we are committed to being “one nation under God.” And further, what is true of our nation is true of our church, our families, and our lives. Freedom will continue to ring if the path of freedom continues to be walked. What is the path to freedom? “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17)