I’ve been troubled by the behavior and comments toward those in political office by those who claim to follow Christ. Whether it’s conservative Christians who comment negatively toward the character of leaders like Presidents Obama and Clinton or progressive Christians who cast aspersions toward President Bush or Ted Cruz, the tenor of the comments I observe is so disheartening.
One of the foundational freedoms we have in our nation is the freedom of speech. But, just because we have a freedom does not mean we are bound to exercise it. In the case of those who identify as Christian, we have a greater obligation.
A Brief History Lesson
I want to give the proper context for my thoughts, so I’m going to do a bit of history review. Stay with me because this is important.
Saint Peter is counted among the original twelve apostles of Jesus. Protestant Christians give him significant influence in his role in the early Church and he is considered by Roman Catholics to be the first pope. To say his words carry some degree of authority for Christians attempting to live according to Scripture is a fair assertion.
He wrote a letter to a group of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus to give them some counsel in the face of the persecution they were facing. Most people date the writing of the letter sometime between AD 62-64, but there are some that argue that it may have been written later from AD 90 to even as late as AD 111. Let’s take a look at the three Emperors of Rome who ruled during these various spans of time.
If you were a Christian during the time Peter wrote his letter and you were found out, you would be executed. There were lots of interesting choices by which a Christian could be put to death. From being boiled alive to being fed to dogs to being crucified. It was not a good time to be among the faithful.
Trajan, who ruled from 98 AD until 117 AD, was the most lenient of the three. While he didn’t enact the same scale of persecutions against Christians and even gave them an out as long as they renounced their faith, he did execute some significant Christian leaders during his reign, most notably Ignatius of Antioch and Simeon of Jerusalem.
Domitian ruled the Roman Empire from 81 AD to 96 AD. There wasn’t much nice to say about Dom. He was just a bad guy who enacted policies to control both public and private morality. He killed Roman senators if he didn’t like them or wanted to take over their property, so he wasn’t about to give Christians a pass and executed believers without mercy.
And then there was Nero, who you may know as the guy who “fiddled while Rome burned.” He was emperor from 54 AD to 68 AD. After the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD). Nero, concerned that there was an effort to blame him for the razing of city, placed the blame for the inferno squarely on the Christians. This led to widespread executions among the Christian community.
It’s likely that Peter wrote his letter during Nero’s tenure as emperor. But, even if you want to believe it was written later, the point is that none of the leaders of the government under which Christians lived were particularly tolerant of anyone who did not worship Roman gods. They were going to be executed if they were discovered.
In the midst of this very real environment of persecution – and I’m not talking about what we think is persecution when our laws don’t let us pray in school or tell us we have to remove a sculpture of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse steps, we’re talking death here – Peter gave followers of Jesus these words of instruction:
“Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.” 1 Peter 2.17 (emphasis added)
Think about this for a moment. In the face of persecution, Peter is telling Christians that they are to “honor the king.” Another translation of this same passage says, “respect the government.” Let’s agree for a moment that the king at the time was Nero. Peter is telling the faithful that they are to honor the very guy that wants them dead. He is telling Christians to pay respect to the man who was blaming them for widespread fire in Rome so he could escape responsibility. Honor that guy?
The word that is translated “honor” here comes from a Greek word that means “to revere, to venerate.” It can also mean to value something as though it were your own. The word translated “king” is also a Greek word that can mean “leader of the people.” It kind of gives those who want to proclaim “not my president” a reason to pause. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, are you honoring our leaders?
When you speak negatively about our government officials, from the President of the United States to members of our law enforcement to the newest leaders of your city council, you are directly opposing how Peter instructed believers to act toward government. Peter did not say “honor the king…unless you didn’t vote for him, you don’t like him, you happen to think she’s a jerk, or he’s too liberal or too conservative for you.” No, he said to “honor the king,” period.
It’s impossible for someone to say they follow Christ, believe in the Bible, speak disrespectfully of government leaders, and justify their actions, without significant lapses in logic.. Can we speak toward policies with which we may disagree? Of course. But it must be done with respect toward the person enacting policy and never as a means to attack the individual. As people who say they believe in Jesus, that should always be our posture toward our leaders without exception.
I spend a lot of time with people of diverse beliefs. Many of them have incredibly negative views toward Christians. I would love to say it’s unwarranted, but it many cases we deserve what people think of us because, frankly, we say we believe one thing, but our actions speak otherwise. This is especially true – embarrassingly so – around election time.
In this difficult political season it is likely we will end up with one of the most disliked presidents in modern history. How will we who seek to follow Jesus react? Will we follow Peter’s call to pay respect to the leaders of our nation or will we once again act out of line with what we say we believe? Are we more concerned about venting how angry we are about the decisions of our leaders or are we more concerned about reflecting the nature of Christ to the world around us?
I hope we act a lot better than we have been.