Note: Part of the mission of BioLogos is to foster Christ-like dialogue around issues of science and Christianity, particularly when those with whom we’re in conversation do not agree with our interpretations of scientific facts or specific Bible passages. This week we’ve been highlighting theologian Roger Nicole’s essay about loving our opponents as a guide for that task, but Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff adds another key insight: that we are called to honor them as well.
In this video of a talk he Gave at Biola University on February 10, 2012, Wolterstorff explores the Christian’s calling as given in 1 Peter 1: 9-17. In that passage, the writer clearly states that Christians should honor everyone, both those in authority and those of low position. The author of 1 Peter, for instance, asked slaves to submit to their masters while commanding masters to act justly toward their slaves. Although this ancient culture honored authority, the command to honor all people radically challenged the thinking of the time.
On what grounds could the New Testament author make this statement? According to Wolterstorff, it was on the basis of the image of God. Wolterstorff calls Christians to extend the principle of honor to governmental authorities and structures in this present day and age, when political discourse is often marked by a definite lack of civility. The image of God in humankind means that all people have intrinsic value to God; this warrants the honor of all, even those whose politics (or views on evolution) are opposed to our own.
Thank-you for that welcome, and let me join my personal voice in thanking the gospel choir. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am going to read you a passage from the New Testament book of the first letter of Peter. This letter was addressed to Jews who were dispersed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean; Jews who had become Christians. So, a dispersion of Jewish Christians (those are the original addresses), but as you will note, it is addressed to all of us.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. So I beseech you, as aliens and exiles, to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles so that in the case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to the emperor’s governors sent by him to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as free persons, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but use your freedom to live as servants of God. Honor everybody, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. —the first letter of Peter.
Honor was deep in the moral code of the ancient Mediterranean world. Everybody was not only to submit to those in authority over them, but to honor them. One of the ancient Roman jurists whose name was Opium defined justice as ‘rendering to each what is due him or her.’ The idea was that honor was due to those in authority over one. Persons are also to be honored for noble achievements—poets and philosophers, for example—statesmen and all that, but everybody is to honor and obey those who are over them. That was the general moral code.
That was by no means evident to those early Christians how they were to relate to this moral code of the surrounding pagan, Gentile society. Going off into the wilderness somewhere and setting up there own society with its own authority structures was never an option. So, how should they relate to the existing authority structures of the empire, of the household, of the family and so forth? Should they act like revolutionaries and try to subvert these structures? Should they just buckle under because they have no real alternative? Or should they submit because they honor those in authority; honor them because they were in positions of authority?
In several places, the writers of the New Testament address exactly that question—in Romans 13, in Ephesians 5 and 6, in Colossians 3, and here in the second chapter of 1 Peter—and in all four of those places, the council they give is exactly the same. As for the family, wives are to be subject to their husbands and children ought to honor and obey their parents. As for the household, servants and slaves are subject to their masters. And as for the empire, political subjects are to honor and obey the emperor and the governors sent out by the emperor. None of the New Testament writers imagined a democracy instead of an empire; none of them imagined households in which there were no servants or slaves; none of them imagined families in which there was joint-leadership instead of male headship; the New Testament writers spoke to what they knew. Christians were to live within the existent authority structures, and Paul makes it very clear in Romans 13 that the existence of these authority structures is not the result of the evil one, Satan exercising his wiles upon us, but the existence of authority structures in human societies is God’s will. So children, wives, servants, political subjects—they are not just to buckle under to those who hold legitimate authority over them, but they are to honor them, to obey them.
That is the consistent council of the New Testament writers to this new, young, fledgling Church wondering how it is supposed to relate to the society around it. But immediately after giving this council to their readers, the New Testament writers throw in ‘a kicker’ (I don’t know what else to call it). Yes, children ought to honor and obey their parents, but parents are not to provoke their children. Yes, wives are to submit to their husbands, but husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. Yes, servants and slaves ought to submit to their masters, but their masters are to treat them justly and fairly, knowing that they themselves have a master in heaven. Yes, political subjects are to honor and obey governmental authorities, but governmental authorities must keep in mind that their task, in the words of first Peter, is to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right. Always, what I call “the kicker,” is added.
Those in authority are not a law unto themselves; authority does not stop with them. They too are under authority; they are under God’s authority, and they are to honor and promote the good of those who are subject to their authority. In Romans and Ephesians and Colossians and 1 Peter, always it is the same pattern. Those subject to some legitimate authority are to honor and obey those in authority, but those who exercise authority are to do so under God’s authority—and in accord with God’s will that they honor and serve the good of those who are their subjects.
That is the consistent pattern, but then in the passage we read, the writer of 1 Peter throws in something that does not occur in any of the other New Testament passages. Let’s speak about living under authority: Honor the emperor, he says (that fits the pattern), but then he adds this: honor everybody—not just those in authority, everybody. Do not just refrain from demeaning them, don’t just tolerate them, honor everybody. Criminals? Yeah, I guess criminals too.
So what is going on here? What would lead the writer of 1 Peter to radicalize the scope of honoring beyond anything ever known in the ancient world? To—I don’t know what you want to call it—to democratize it, as it were. He doesn’t say, but you and I who have read the rest of the Scriptures can make a pretty good guess. Here it is: every human being bears the image of God (criminals too). There is nothing anyone can do to get rid of the image of God they bear, nothing, and God loves all human beings. So, we are to honor everybody because everybody loved bears the image of God and everybody is beloved of God. We are to honor everybody as a creature bearing the image of God and as somebody beloved of God in Christ.
So, not only are children to honor their parents, parents are to honor their children. Not only are wives to honor their husbands, husbands are to honor their wives. Not only are servants to honor their masters, but masters are to honor their servants. Not only are citizens to honor the government, government is supposed to honor the citizens. This is explosive stuff, and eventually this (I don’t know what to call it) eventually this ‘democratizing of honoring’ undermines authority structures of the ancient world: undermined slavery, undermined authoritarian imperial government, undermined families in which children were treated as mere property, undermined authoritarian marriages in which husbands just issued orders to wives. When emperors eventually became Christians, or Christians became emperors, they heard God as enjoining them to honor their subjects. When masters became Christians or Christians became masters, they heard God as enjoining them to honor their servants.
For the remainder of this year, it will be impossible for you and me to put politics out of mind. As we live through the political turmoil, you and I should constantly be asking ourselves: ‘What is your and my Christian witness to the present day political order?’ What, for example, is the application to our situation of the declaration by Paul and the writer of first Peter that those to whom they were writing were to honor the emperor and his governors? What is the application to our situation of their declaration that the God-given task of government is to curb wrongdoing and promote right-doing? And what is the application to our situation of the declaration of the writer of first Peter that we are to honor everybody?
The Christian witness to our present-day political order will include policy recommendations, of course, but if you and I absorb what the writers of the New Testament say, I submit that our Christian witness to the political order will go deeper than policy recommendations. It will speak to how you and I regard the government, and it will speak to how you and I engage in political debate and discussion. There is a great deal of bad-mouthing of government these days and a great deal of demeaning talk about those who hold positions in government. On the authority of Paul and Peter, though, it be your and my Christian witness to the political order that this is wrong, contrary to God’s will. I cannot get around the fact (can you?) that Peter and Paul and the others say that government is to be honored. Not only will this be our Christian witness; you and I, as Christians, will go beyond declaring this to ourselves refusing to participate in such bad-mouthing and demeaning.
Look, we will hold the feet of our government officials to the fire. We will hold them responsible for securing justice, for curbing wrongdoing, for encouraging right-doing; but we will do so while simultaneously honoring them as officials of our government. And it will likewise be yours and my Christian witness to our present political order that when we debate each other, we are always to do so in such a way that we honor the person with whom we are debating. Not only will this be our Christian witness, we as Christians will go beyond that declaration to conduct our own debate in such a way that we honor the one with whom we are debating.
An article on the front page of the New York Times of Friday of January 27 of this year included the following sentence about one of our politicians (I am not going to tell you who the politician was). It goes like this: ‘In 1990, the political action campaign that he ran offered candidates of his party, a list of words to describe candidates of the other party. The list included these words: decay, traitors, radicals, sick, destroy, pathetic, corrupt, shame.’ If we honor the person with whom we are debating as someone who bears the image of God and is beloved of God in Christ, we won’t use such language. “You are a chosen race,” wrote the writer of 1 Peter to his readers, “a royal priesthood. You are a holy nation. You are God’s own people so that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who led you out of darkness into his marvelous light. So, honor the emperor, love the brotherhood and the sisterhood, fear God, honor everybody.” Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
Nicholas Wolterstorff received his B.A. from Calvin College in 1953, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from Harvard University in 1954 and 1956. After teaching philosophy for two years at Yale, he returned to the philosophy department at his alma mater in 1959. He returned to Yale in 1989, where he was a member of the Divinity School, the Philosophy Department, and the Religious Studies Department. He has taught, during leaves of absence, at Haverford College, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, the University of Texas, Notre Dame University, and the Free University of Amsterdam. He retired from teaching at the end of 2001 and is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.