Victor Chininin Buele
What is our place as Christians in this world? The Bible gives us what seems to be at times contradicting instructions, and it is easy to see that many have given up on Scripture because of what they perceive as contradictions. We are told that the kingdom of God is here (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 17:21), and we are clearly also told, “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” (John 18:36 ESV). We, Christians, live in a paradox. We are to think in paradoxes. Our minds will always be stretched through paradox. Not contradiction but paradox. So, what is our place here?
We are citizens of an earthly nation and citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). We have responsibilities in both realms. We are to be the best citizens here and serve as leaven in this realm for the kingdom of heaven. Peter in his first letter, chapter 2, addresses the Christians as those who were not a people but now are a people, those who are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” And the purpose of all of that is “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (9). We’ve been reconciled to God and made part of His kingdom (now and in its future consummation) in order to be an evangelistic light. We’ve been saved to proclaim. After taking Hosea’s “not a people” theme and turning it into “now you are God’s people,” Peter urges the sojourners and exiles (how he refers to the Christians) to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” and “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak of you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
The Christian is then called to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Verses 13 and 14 issue a heavy command to these resident aliens in Asia Minor. They are to “be subject (submit yourselves, NASB) for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme (a king, NASB), or to governors as sent by him (2:13-14 ESV).” The task is great: obedience and submission are required of the believer to every human institution. It doesn’t narrow it down just to the king/emperor, and it doesn’t narrow it down to governors. The reason for the submission is not shown to be the worthiness or the righteousness of the human institution. The sojourners and exiles are not asked to be subject to every human institution because of the institution’s own righteousness or goodness. It also does not say to be subject to every human institution because of self-interest, i.e., what the exile can receive from submission to the human institution. Instead, Peter centers the rationale for the submission on the Lord alone. These believers are asked to submit to the human institutions for the Lord’s sake.
Defining what Peter means by every human institution is marked by the context. Peter uses the word κτίσει, creation/creature. Peter refers to human creatures, that the submission is to be to “every human creature,” literally speaking. The context that follows this helps clarify this command. Peter highlights the emperor/king, governors, servant/master relationships, wives/husbands, Shepherd/undershepherds/flock of God. Then, Peter is not telling any of us to submit blindly to any and every institution created by men, especially not on the basis of worthiness or goodness or self-interest. He is also not telling us to submit to every person. He is also not making a case for slavery, for blind following, for subservience. He is making a call to honor the Lord in all relationships and spheres of our lives. The exiles will glorify God by deriving every aspect of their relationships from God, for the Lord’s sake.
With this said, there are three things to evaluate: the nature of the Christian’s involvement, the limits of the Christian’s involvement, and the nature of change.
Some commentaries indicate that it is possible that the sojourners in 1 Peter were originally all living in Rome but were deported and spread throughout Asia Minor after their conversion. If that is the case, the call to submit to such a government is even more difficult. The command to display an honorable conduct towards evangelism is one issued to those under an authority that would be, to say the least, very difficult to submit to. So, we engage trying to be the best citizens that we can, letting the fruit of our regeneration and conversion spread through our actions and involvement throughout the society. A little leaven can do much for the whole nation. The gospel is leaven. If we hide and don’t engage, then we surrender critical ground. The gospel is not imposition, though, so we cannot force our beliefs on anyone. We are not to be cultural warriors in the caricaturesque sense of the word. We are to keep our conduct honorable. We live for Christ here, all our life. We live in a glass case. Everyone is watching us and measuring our witness with our actions or lack of action. There should be no one more committed to the pursuit of justice, beauty, truth, and order than the Christian citizen of a nation.
But there are limits to our engagement. Ultimately we will not be able to decisively persuade a godless culture without regeneration. There can be no revolution without reformation. We cannot persuade a single person about Jesus Christ being the Son of God who came into the world to live a perfect life and die a brutal death in our place for all our sins before rising up again and ascending to the throne of the Father where he intercedes for us even now as he makes all things new. We just can’t. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the heart, mind, soul, to give eyes, ears, and soft hearts to take in the message we proclaim. Because of that, we can’t persuade somebody to display the fruit of repentance, the fruit of the Spirit from mere human persuasion. We can’t ultimately persuade anyone that abortion is murder and ought to be obliterated from our land. We can’t ultimately persuade anyone about a host of moral issues that are the outworking of the gospel. People need eyes to see given from God and they need our witness so that they can respond to God’s call.
And that is also the final point, the nature of change is that we cannot force change. We fully depend on God for that, but we must obey God also. He is sovereign, and we are responsible. We vote, but we know that our vote cannot change the hearts of a nation. We advocate for more just laws, but we know that ultimately a nation will legalize what it worships. We seek to root out corruption in worldly systems, but we know that when true repentance comes, the change will be mind blowing and a testimony to the power of God. We run for office, if it’s our call, remembering that men like Wilberforce fought to bring about impossible change. He was accused of preaching the gospel to the “savages” while he was trying to root out the slave trade from England.
The former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, notably said that there is not one square inch over the whole realm of this world over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry out, “Mine!”
The Kingdom is at hand, in our midst, but also not of this world. So, we live in this tension. We are sojourners and aliens. We are citizens. We don’t truly have a home in this world, but, as my friend Mike Bull says, “We must not be so heavenly-minded that we retreat from
the world nor so earthly-minded that we are disqualified from God’s blessing”