What’s an Exile to Do? Live a Holy Civic Life

Posted by R. Fowler White

“It is the duty of people to pray for those in authority, to honor them, to pay them taxes or other revenue, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for the sake of conscience. Neither unbelief nor difference in religion makes void the just and legal authority of officeholders nor frees the people—church authorities included—from their due obedience to them” (WCF 23.4).

In a partisan political environment, the preceding statement might appear as if somebody’s trying to pick a fight. Then again, others will recognize it as, essentially, the teaching of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 1 Pet 2:13-17, specifically, we find Peter’s exhortation focused on the church’s civic life following on his general call in 2:11-12 for them to live lives of moral excellence in Gentile society. In fact, civic life is one of three spheres (state, family, and church) about which Peter will give God’s direction to Christians in 1 Pet 2:13–3:12. The big idea in 2:13-17 is this: live your civic life for the Lord’s sake. Notice how the Apostle breaks this down.

First, he says, be subject to human government—take your place under it, subject yourselves to it—for the Lord’s sake, that is, to commend the Lord Christ to others (2:13-14). Plainly, the starting point of Christian civic life is deference to the interests of our God, the ultimate Sovereign who puts earthly magistrates in place, both higher (here, the emperor as supreme) and lower (here, governors as sent by him), for His glory and for the public good. This is not to say that these authorities get to rule absolutely or lawlessly. Quite the contrary. No human authority is God or is outside of His control. Moreover, as sinful creatures, human rulers will sometimes contradict God. If these rulers command citizens to sin, let them be resisted or replaced by rulers who do not command sin. Christ and His Apostles certainly knew what it was like to live under magistrates who were neither Christians nor God-fearers. Their fellow citizens worshiped the Roman emperor as God and other gods too. If not that, then, they were counted as atheists. Knowing this larger cultural context, Peter’s message is forthright: church, take your place under human government to commend to others the ultimate lordship of Christ and, with that, their accountability to Him.

According to the Apostle, the Christians’ subjection to human government serves another purpose: to silence mudslingers and faultfinders (2:15). We’re to remember that God puts rulers in place not just to punish lawbreakers, but also to praise law-keepers. In that light, even though we don’t regard magistrates as God, we should abide by their lawful commands because, in general, the effect of our law-keeping will be to shut up those who falsely accuse us of unpatriotic insubordination or worse. Maybe Peter alludes here to the Roman tradition in which government honored citizens for good works that benefitted their cities. More likely, Peter thinks back on Israel’s exiles. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God clarified for them how they were to live away from their homeland. He said, seek the prosperity of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you will find your prosperity (Jeremiah 29:7, NASB20). Even so, we should pray on behalf of the communities in which our churches congregate and make every effort to be law-abiding citizens to silence the faultfinders and mudslingers.

In 2:16-17 Peter steps back to paint a broader picture of a holy civic life. Living holy lives as citizens means living as God’s servants, free from sin’s bondage to serve God, never free to do wrong (2:16). Once again, our civic life is about deferring to the interests of our God. The Apostle mentions four obligations. First, honor all people (2:17a). Even those with whom we have disagreements, we’re to treat with civility. Let others be disrespectful: we’ll respect our fellow citizens, because they, as we, are created in God’s image. Second, love your Christian siblings (2:17b). With them we have a communion that we just don’t have with our fellow citizens. Only with Christian siblings do we do ministries of worship, discipleship, evangelism, and mercy for God’s glory. Appropriately, then, we’re to have a special, higher degree of devotion to our fellow Christian exiles. Third, fear God (2:17c). Again, Peter stresses that we’re to live in reverent awe to please our Father and to avoid grieving or dishonoring Him (1:17). Fourth, honor governing authorities. Peter distills his lesson in this paragraph once more. We’ll not be disrespectful but civil to magistrates and pray for them, because our wellbeing in this world is ordinarily tied up in theirs. By doing these things, we’re not saying that government is God. Rather, we’re saying that God has freed us to serve Him, and in His service there is no license to dishonor earthly authorities. To the contrary, God has made it our obligation to respect His ordinance of civil government.

From their own experiences (Acts 4:5-22; 5:17-42; 24:1–26:32; Rev 1:9), Peter and the other Apostles knew well that life for Christian exiles in a highly partisan political environment is a high stakes drama. In that light, Peter requires us to give our fellow citizens no warrant to accuse us of being lawbreakers or worse. Rather, as good—holy!—citizens, we’ll take our place under earthly magistrates, commending to them and our fellow citizens the ultimate lordship of Christ and their accountability to Him.

No Middle Ground

I just finished reading Carl Trueman’s amazing new book. I advise everyone in the church to read it. If you want to know how the West got to where a transgender statement like “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” came to have plausibility, you have to read this book. One of the most important things he said in the book is something I had already agreed with, but hadn’t put it nearly as clearly as he did. Observe:

“[I]t is hard to conceptualize a culture in which the rights of religious conservatives and the rights of those who identify as sexual minorities can both be accommodated. It is precisely because matters of basic identity, and therefore of what constitutes dignity and appropriate recognition, are at stake that makes a negotiated settlement impossible. To allow religious conservatives to be religious conservatives is to deny that people are defined by their sexual orientation, and to allow that people are defined by their sexual orientation is to assert that religious conservatism is irrational bigotry and dangerous to the unity of the commonwealth” (402).

I have long wondered why it is that the LGBTQ+ groups will not simply leave conservatives alone. Why do they have to go after us? The reason is simple: they have redefined human identity to center on their sexual orientation. As Trueman proves over and and over again, the reason LGBTQ+ groups hate conservatives is that, according to them, we are denying their humanity. Of course, that is not what we think we are doing. But for them, they do not have humanity unless they can force everyone else to acknowledge that their definition of humanity is correct.

About Those Prophecies of Trump’s Re-election

Posted by R. Fowler White

During the recent election cycle, many continuationists (who believe, among other things, that the NT gift of prophecy continues today) reportedly predicted former President Trump’s re-election, and those prophecies failed to come to pass. These failures have led certain continuationist leaders to issue strongly-worded rebukes to those whose predictions proved false. Other leaders have called for renewed humility, and still others, while also calling for humility, have denied that any penalty is applicable. As an alternative to penalties, the failed but humbled predictors are told that they should admit their inaccuracies, recommit to exercising discernment, and, to prevent future such failures, submit themselves for review by and accountability to church overseers.

I don’t bring up this topic to debate (again) whether the gift of prophecy continues today. I raise it to reflect on how the churches should treat the prophesiers and their overseers. I’m particularly interested in the claim that there’s no need to apply any penalty. That response, it seems to me, presupposes the absence of relevant standards and sanctions in Scripture. And, in fact, some leaders tell us that there is nothing relevant in either the OT or the NT for what the recent prophesiers did. We can’t take up the full sweep of that argument in this format, but I’m not convinced, and I’m sure others aren’t either. In the NT, we do read of prophetic ministries in the churches that failed. Christ’s letter to the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29) presents just such a case, and it’s not presented as an isolated concern. Pointedly, Christ makes Thyatira an example from which “all the churches” should learn (2:23). Of course, the issue at Thyatira is not necessarily identical to recent failures, but it is analogous to them and relevant in ways that we should consider. So let’s take a look.

To begin, it’s striking to notice Christ’s opening and closing commendations to the Thyatira church. They were a congregation where love was bearing fruit in service, and where faithfulness was bearing fruit in endurance (2:19). They had congregants who held fast to what was true and good and abstained from what was false and evil (2:24-25; cf. 1 Thess 5:21-22). How, then, did an unsound ministry emerge in such a church? The clues are reasonably clear: the church had not corrected one of their own who was calling herself a prophetess and was teaching what was false and evil (2:20). Instead, the church had tolerated her ministry and had done so long enough to see her multiply herself in a troubling number of the congregants (2:20, 22-23). The negligence was such that it had spurred Christ Himself to do what the church had not done. He had warned the self-identified prophetess to repent and had given her time to do so (2:21a). Subsequently, He had uncovered her refusal to repent (2:21b). Finally, He had determined to afflict her and her followers with temporal punishment (2:22a) and even final punishment if they did not repent (2:22b, 23b). From the details of Christ’s letter to the Thyatira church, then, we learn that they had failed to deal properly with a prophetess whose ministry had become a notorious contagion in the church. They had taken no action through the formative-preventive oversight of instruction, nor through the corrective oversight of admonition, suspension from the Lord’s Table, or excommunication. In short, the church’s inaction was blameworthy. Why? Because Christ hates what is false and evil in His visible church, and so He commands all His congregations to carry out the oversight necessary to foster what is true and good. Wherever and whenever we do not give that oversight, we can expect the Lord of the church to do what He deems necessary, because He intends to reclaim guilty Christians, to deter others from sin, to turn away God’s wrath from His own, to purge leaven from our midst, and, above all, to vindicate His honor and the holy profession of His gospel.

In saying all this, I am not contending that those who made false predictions about the election should be prejudged as guilty of a particular sin and therefore liable to a particular penalty. I am contending that there are now, as there were in the NT era, relevant standards and sanctions in Scripture to apply to prophesiers and their overseers. I am contending, for example, that, because the fifth and ninth commandments still apply to us, congregations should at least investigate such issues as whether the recent predictors bore false witness (with or without intent to harm), whether they were in submission to church overseers, and whether church overseers adhered to a proper process of review and accountability before the predictions were made. If violations did occur, then penalties would presumably need to be determined and applied. These concerns would appear to be consistent with the implications of the lesson of the Thyatira letter for “all the churches.”