Thursday

07 September 2017

“As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (vv. 16-17)

Psalm: Psalm 74:13-23


Background

It is here, in today's passage, that we can really begin to see how different 'Peter' was, perhaps, from Paul. Alienated and exiled from Israel and their fellow, non-Christian, Jews, viewed with suspicion by those Gentile Christians who followed Paul's lead, and persecuted (as were both Jews and Christians) by the Roman authorities, 'Peter's' community was in a very vulnerable position. So in verse 13 he urged his readers to "honour the emperor" as the "supreme" authority on earth, in apparent contrast to Paul's insistence that Christians can have only one Lord, and that is Jesus, not the emperor. But, if you feel exposed on all sides, it is understandable that you want the protection of the law (which of course Paul himself did, in Acts 25) by showing yourselves to be loyal citizens.

The place of slaves within the Christian community was a particularly sensitive social and political issue. Paul had, famously, declared that "in Christ" there is "neither slave nor free" (Galatians 3:28) and he had urged Philemon to treat his slave, Onesimus, as his "beloved brother" (Philemon v. 16) (also have a look at 1 Corinthians 7:21-24). But 'Peter' seems here to be urging slaves to be docile and submissive, and to behave as proper slaves should (there is a similar passage in Titus 2:9-10, probably not written by Paul). Slave uprisings were quite common (remember Spartacus?) and anything that encouraged slaves to think of themselves as 'free' was to be discouraged. To suffer injustice meekly would, said 'Peter', earn God's approval and would be following Christ's example. Now, it's possible that Paul, too, accepted the status quo, and believed that slaves should, in all circumstances, just put up with their lot - but he does seem to be rather more disruptive and subversive in his thinking than 'Peter'. Slaves, inspired by Paul's teaching, might start to get ideas above their station, but 'Peter' would keep them firmly in their place, appealing again to Isaiah, and the famous chapter 53 for support.


To Ponder

  • "For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution" (v. 13). Do you agree with 'Peter'? Why? What about human institutions which stand in the way of the flourishing of creation, for example?
  • For much of the history of the Church, passages like this have been used to endorse the authority of the state (the divine right of emperors and kings, for example) and to justify cruel and exploitative institutions such as slavery. What would you say, then, to a 19th-century Church of England bishop whose personal wealth (and the wealth of his diocese) was largely based on income from West Indian sugar plantations?


Bible notes author:  The Revd David Rhymer

  • Sign up for e-newslettersKeep in touch with what interests you