Peter instructs his readers to “be subject” to human authority, beginning with the world of politics:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
Now, bear in mind that even though Peter wrote his letter before the official persecutions that would come later, there had been at least some localized persecutions that had been sanctioned by the Roman government. So the instruction to “be subject” to both “the emperor” or his various “governors” must have been a bit abrasive. Then again, the command to honor our political leaders is still abrasive to us.
How do Christians relate to the world of politics? On the one hand, God spoke through Jeremiah and commanded his people to “seek the good of the city” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). On the other hand, Jesus told Pilate that God’s “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). With Peter’s repeated emphasis on resurrection and future hope, what reason might we find for honoring political leaders?
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Some of you may be familiar with a man named Augustine, who in the early days of the Church famously penned a massive work called The City of God. In this book, Augustine declared that there are two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. You might say that Christians possess a sense of dual citizenship: inhabitants of the City of Man, though inheritors of the future City of God, that shall one day descend to earth as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).
But as even Jesus points out, a man cannot serve two masters. Which city receives our allegiance? Which city’s values should be our own?
To understand this, let’s get some help from an ancient thinker named Aristotle. Aristotle lived a few hundred years before Jesus, but it was in Medieval Europe that his ideas would eventually be applied to Christianity. Aristotle’s ideas enable us to distinguish between an “immediate hope” and an “ultimate hope.” That is, there are things we trust in for the present—though our trust lies ultimately elsewhere.
Think of it this way: the Bible tells us that God is the “sustainer” of life (Psalm 54:4). This means that we trust that in every circumstance, he is in control of our destiny.
So…why do you wear a seatbelt? Why do you lock the doors of your home? Why do you take medicine rather than ask God to remove the illness?
The answer is simple: placing ultimate hope in the authority of God doesn’t prevent me from placing immediate hope in the provisions of man. In fact, when the people in the city of Thessalonica got confused about the nature of Christ’s return, Paul reminds them of the importance of working hard in the present (2 Thessalonians 3:10—“if you don’t work you don’t eat”).
Applied to the world of politics, we might say that the Christian places his ultimate hope in the resurrection and coming kingdom of God, and places his immediate hope on life in the here and now.
I know this is a bit challenging, but this way of thinking is enormously helpful. Because the City of God is my ultimate hope, it prevents me from sourly gazing at my TV screen during the election cycle. And because the City of Man is my immediate hope, it prevents me from dismissing the world of politics as “unspiritual.”
Of course, the fact that Peter has to tell his readers to “be subject” and to “honor the emperor” tells us that we seem to have a natural bending toward rejecting authority. One of the great challenges today is not that we abandon any notion of political honor: it’s that we only selectively honor our leaders—and vilify those we dislike.
When the City of Man ceases to be an immediate hope and becomes an ultimate hope, political idolatry is born. In his wonderful book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller points out that there are three basic warning signs of political idolatry:
- First, our lives become dominated by fear and by anxiety over losing or gaining power in the public sphere. We are constantly on edge about the next political decision and political leader, and the peace of God is far from our hearts.
- Second, when we encounter those who differ from us politically, we see them as not only wrong, but deeply evil. Now, in fairness, there are political positions—on say, abortion—that Christians would label as morally evil. But rather than love our political adversaries, we’re more likely to engage in name-calling or heated arguments.
- Finally, we tend to see our greatest problem not sin and death, but see our political opponents as our ultimate enemy. “Things would go so much better,” we say, “if the [democrats/republicans] were in charge.”
This matters—not only because all forms of idolatry cause our souls to wither, but because political idolatry can be corrosive to the Christian witness. When doing research for their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons found that non-Christians were likely to describe Christians as “too political,” among other things.
This is a tragedy.
So what about you, right now? This morning you’ve probably already heard the results of the Iowa caucus. Are you sad? Angry? Frustrated? Elated? Enthusiastic? Are you hitting the “share” button on political memes mocking your opponents? Are you lamenting that “it’s over?” Some of these reactions reflect an abiding concern for the City of Man—and this is a just and right response in preserving our immediate hope. But ask yourself: is this dominating my attention and my thoughts? Are my children seeing me express a trust in the City of God, or do they see my concern resting on the City of Man? Where is my ultimate hope—my ultimate source of security and confidence? Does it come from the world of the Bible, or from the electoral college? The cross, or my conceal-carry permit?
God is in control. One day his eternal city will come, and all will be set right. Until then, we say Maranatha—come quickly, Lord Jesus.