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 NASB). 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.


  1. February 8, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    I’m looking forward to hearing how our role as exiles/strangers coordinates with the Scriptures that remind us that King David (with his army) and Abraham (with his 300) were also strangers/exiles.

  2. February 15, 2021 at 11:01 pm

    […] Read More […]

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