Well, you know the type. We all have at least one of them in our lives. They are people who drive us crazy, who bring out the absolute worst in us. It may be a hostile neighbor, a former friend, a coworker, a parent, a brother or sister, a former spouse. The list is endless. It might even be somebody within the church.
For example, has anyone here ever worked for an impossible boss? According to Psychology Today, "Surveys show that up to half of all workers have a shaky, if not downright miserable, relationship with their supervisors." Which means that a lot of us here would say that we work for someone who is not a great boss; in fact, they could be worse than bad. And it causes us stress. Studies show that a worker's relationship with the boss was almost equal to his relationship with his spouse when it comes to the impact on his well-being. You know the toll that it takes.
Can everyone think of someone who drives them crazy, someone towards whom it is very difficult to maintain a good attitude? I want you to freeze that person in your mind, because I want to ask you a question.
I especially want you to think of someone who might have authority in your life or in the life of somebody close to you: a boss, a teacher, your kid's teacher, the president of the board you sit on. It could be the landlord or landlady. It could be someone here at the church that you report to: a ministry head, a deacon, or even a pastor.
Can we all agree that there are people who are in positions of authority over us or over members of our families who are hard to respect? Maybe that's a little tactful. Can we agree that there are some people who are in positions of authority who are absolutely nuts? They may be your boss or your teacher, or your kid's teacher, but every time you deal with them it drives you crazy. We all have someone like this, and if you don't right now then it's only a matter of time before you will again.
I once had a boss who was like this. To make it worse, he was a Christian. He would blow up at his employees and would act erratically. He would go storming off and would treat us like dirt. Employees never seemed to last very long because the pay wasn't that good. I remember coming home and thinking, "I have to quit. I can find another job. This just isn't worth it." This is one of the ways we usually deal with someone who is in authority over us who doesn't deserve our respect: we run away from the situation. This is the flight response. We decide we're not going to put up with it anymore.
Some of us are wired a bit differently. I know a local firefighter who always seems to be getting into trouble, and he has a unique way of fighting back. He tells me of going to his supervisor's office, sneaking to the very door of the office, and then bursting with so much commotion that it almost gives his boss a heart attack. Every time he gets into trouble, he devises ways of making his boss pay for calling him in. Some of you can relate: you are fighters. You don't let anyone treat you like a doormat. If someone wants to take you on, then you are more than ready for the fight, and you are not going to be on the losing end of the battle.
We don't put up with abuse. We believe that we need to take care of ourselves, because we are important and need to stick up for our rights. When we encounter a boss, a landlord, a pastor, or a teacher who gives us a hard time or that we just don't like, we either find a way to get them out of our lives, or we fight back so that they learn not to treat us badly. This is normal for us, and we don't even think twice about us. The bottom line is that we won't submit to anyone in authority over us unless we decide that they are worthy of our respect.
After all, we have options. If your boss is a jerk, you can file a grievance or use employment laws to your favor, or you can always find another job. If your kid's teacher is incompetent, you can talk amongst the other parents and get something going and make her life uncomfortable. If you don't like this church, you can find a hundred others. You don't need to put up with a pastor you don't like. If your kid's hockey coach is a pain, you can yell from the stands and put him in a place and register a complaint with the league. Nobody wants to be a doormat, and because we have choices, we don't have to be. We can always find a way to assert our freedom.
The question I want to ask, though, is this: What is the Christian response to those who are in positions of authority over us, who don't deserve our respect? Sure, we have freedom, but what does Christ want us to do? How is a Christian supposed to respond when he or she has a bad boss, a bad pastor, a bad teacher, landlord, or coach? Run away, fight back, or is there a different response?
Hundreds of years ago, a group of Christians faced a similar situation. They had all kinds of people around them who were not worthy of their respect. As we're going to see in a minute, they had every reason to disrespect those who were in positions of authority over them.
Like us, this group had freedom. The problem for them is that their faith in Christ had revolutionized their understanding of who they are. I say that's a problem, because for the first time in their lives they had choices. They understood how God saw them, and belonged to a church community in which they were valued and recognized to have worth. They had a newfound freedom in Christ, and this new understanding made it hard to accept being treated like dirt as they had accepted before.
These Christians, though, faced some challenges. The government of the day was completely unworthy of respect. The emperor at that time was Nero. Nero had his good points, but overall he was a difficult man to respect. He supposedly participated in drunken revelry and violence while more mundane matters of politics were neglected. He killed his own mother in his quest for power, as well as some of his other relatives. He eventually lit Christians as human torches for entertainment. The Christians had a choice to unite together and fight back, since rebellion was common, or to withdraw and hide out away from society. But what is the Christian response to an incompetent and unjust political ruler?
They also faced the problem of unjust masters. Some – or, as it seems, many – of these Christians were slaves. Slaves at that time had few rights. They were not seen as fully human. Some slaves were treated well by their masters, but others weren't. If you were a master, you could beat your slave for no good reason. That was your right. This seemed to be the situation that some of these Christian slaves were facing. They had a choice to somehow fight back, or else to run away. What is the Christian response to a master who can beat you senseless for no good reason?
Then there were husbands. We live in an egalitarian age in which men and women are seen as equals. We forget how revolutionary this view would have seemed throughout much of history. Women in Peter's day were not seen as men's equals. Within the church, though, women were given new status as equal heirs of grace, fully made in God's image, and sisters within the church body. But some of them were married to husbands who didn't get it, and didn't like being married to Christian women. Do you stick up for your rights at home, or get a divorce? How do you respond to mistreatment at home?
Maybe some of these Christians were facing all three challenges at once: a bad government, a master who beats them, and a husband who made life miserable at home. The temptation to fight back or to run away would have been unbearable.
Let's bring it back to today. Nobody here is facing the challenges that these Christians did. But we may have people in authority over us who are problems, big problems: bad bosses, incompetent teachers, pastors who don't deserve our respect, bad referees at hockey, and crooked politicians. We can run away or fight, but what is a Christian response to those who are in authority over us, but are unworthy of our respect?
Here's how the apostle Peter answered this question, and you're not going to like it. Look with me at what Peter writes to this group in 1 Peter 3:13-17:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of the foolish. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
So here's what Peter says to these Christians who were being mistreated. It's a word that we're going to choke on, but there's no getting around what he says: Submit. Imagine the reaction. Some of these slaves are going to work tomorrow and being beaten for no good reason, and Peter says, "This is how you should respond to your master: submit." The emperor Nero is, around this time, lighting Christians as human torches for sport, and Peter says, "This is the way you respond to Nero: submit." "This is how you respond to your husband who's giving you a hard time: submit."
I need to be honest and say that for most of us, this command goes against everything within us. We live in an age in which it's hard to submit to anyone. Yesterday I was part of a group that was told to chant, "The most important person is me. The most important person is me." We have been raised, many of us, to stand up for ourselves and to refuse to give in to anyone else. The result is that it's common today for people to think they don't have to submit to anyone, that no-one – not even good people – have a right to tell them what to do. A lot of people today would walk from a job if the boss ever tries to boss them. So it's hard for us to submit to anyone.
Even among those who don't have this attitude, you'd have to admit that we find it pretty hard to submit to someone who mistreats us. We may submit to a good boss, but we would never put up for long with a boss who treats us badly. We may cooperate with a spouse who loves us, but just watch out if our husband or wife treats us the wrong way. We may have a good attitude when we like a church, but we have no problem leaving or making our feelings known when things aren't too our liking. It's pretty hard to swallow Peter's command to submit to authority, especially when we don't respect those who are in positions of authority.
We may even look for a pass. Sometimes we look at authorities and think, "I don't need to submit to them. Their authority is only man-made." Peter won't allow us off the hook, though. He calls them "human authorities" in verse 13, or "ordinances" or "human institutions." Peter acknowledges that these structures are human, but we're going to see in a minute that to Peter, this doesn't change how he says we should respond.
Peter recognizes that Christians may even have a harder time in submitting to these human authorities, because we have freedom that others don't. He says in verse 16, "Live as free people." The freedom that Peter is talking about is freedom from bondage to sin, Satan, and selfish desires. We have a freedom in Christ that is incomprehensible. But Peter says that this freedom that we enjoy is not a freedom to do as we please. The freedom we enjoy, he says in verse 16, is freedom to become the slaves of God. We are released from bondage to sin, the law, and the world, not to live independently however we wish. We are given freedom so we can enter God's service.
Even though the authorities in our life are there by human design, and even though we have freedom, Peter tells us that it is God's will that we submit to every instance of humanly appointed authority in our lives: government, police, teachers, bosses, and so on. And he gives us two reasons.
The first reason is that when you submit to the boss or teacher or whatever in your life, you are actually submitting to God. The choice isn't really whether or not you will submit to your boss or whoever. The real choice you face is whether or not you will submit to God, because submission to God will mean that you submit to all that he's placed in authority over your life. On the flip side, every time you refuse to submit to someone in authority in your life, you are actually refusing to submit to God. That's why Peter says in verse 13, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake." You're not submitting for your boss's sake or your teacher's sake. You're submitting for the Lord's sake.
You say, "Fine, I'll submit for the Lord's sake, but only when the person I'm submitting to is worthy of my submission." Don't forget the context Peter is addressing. The people Peter says to submit to are anything but worthy of submission. Nero was not worthy. The abusive masters were not worthy. It has nothing to do with whether the person we're submitting to is worthy. Because submitting to them means that we are submitting to God, it is all about God's worthiness. Because God is worthy of our submission, we are therefore required to submit to all human authorities, not for their sake but for the Lord's sake.
Tired of struggling with her strong-willed 3-year-old son, Thomas, his mother looked him in the eye and asked a question she felt sure would bring him in line: "Thomas, who is in charge here?" Not missing a beat, her Sunday-school-born-and-bred toddler replied, "Jesus is." Whenever we think our unjust boss or teacher or pastor is in charge, it will be easy to rebel against their authority. But when we understand that Jesus is in charge, submitting to Jesus will mean submitting to human authority for the Lord's sake.
The second reason is that when you submit to the boss or teacher or whatever in your life, you make a case for God. Verse 15 says, "For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of the foolish." When we submit, we silence those who have bad things to say about Christians. Back then, the charge against Christians was that they were against the emperor and were disrupting the good order of society. Therefore, Peter says, Christians have to go out of their way to show that they will submit to the emperor whenever possible, and every other human authority. You'll disprove those who say that Christians are against the common good.
Today, the charge against Christians probably isn't insubordination. Maybe it's that we're judgmental or hypocrites. Our challenge – and we face it in spades – is to demonstrate that we aren't judgmental and that we aren't hypocritical. When the person who's in charge is unworthy, we have the chance to silence people's talk about the way that Christians act.
Charlene once worked at a company for a guy who was pretty hard to respect. To make it worse, he claimed to be a Christian. The way that he conducted his business gave Christianity a very bad name in that office. But people also knew that Charlene is a Christian. They weren't just watching her boss; they were watching her to see how she would respond to the boss. The way we submit, especially to a bad boss or teacher, will make or break a case for our faith.
You may be wondering, "Aren't there limits to my submission? Do I have to put up with anything?" The answer is yes, there are limits. There are times when we need to remove ourselves from a bad situation, or fight against injustice. But a lot of times, we go to the other extreme. We miss the chance to submit to the Lord, and make a case for our faith, because we are too quick to rebel. By submitting in all but exceptional cases, we honor the Lord and pass the sniff test in a world that is hostile to our faith. As Peter says in verse 17, fear God and love other believers, but still show proper respect and honor to everyone else.
Warren Wiersbe says:
Submission is not subjugation. Subjugation turns a person into a thing, destroys individuality, and removes all liberty. Submission makes a person become more of what God wants him to be; it brings out individuality; it gives him the freedom to accomplish all that God has for his life and ministry. Subjugation is weakness; it is the refuge of those who are afraid of maturity. Submission is strength; it is the first step toward true maturity and ministry.
Let me read that last sentence again: "Submission is strength; it is the first step toward true maturity and ministry."
In a world that rebels against submission, who do you need to submit to? To whom is God calling you to change your attitude and behavior? You'll never be able to submit on your own, but with God's help, as you submit, you will be submitting to the Lord, and you will be making faith in Jesus Christ an attractive thing in the eyes of a hostile world.