Suffering Under the World’s Authorities (1 Peter 2:13–4:19)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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David Hataj, CEO, Egerton Gear, Inc., on Non-Judgmental Corporate Culture Change

I returned home after 8 years to assume leadership of my father’s gear manufacturing company. To my eyes, the business was in trouble. Relationships on the shop floor were tense and deliveries to customers were often late or defective. The problems might have been related to the copious quantities of alcohol consumed by the employees, led by the CEO, my father. There was always a quarter barrel of beer in the break room, and a group accompanied my dad to the local bar every day at lunch to get a start on the day’s drinking.

As a believer, I objected to these behaviors, but I sensed God’s call to come back to the family business to be a blessing to my parents and the employees. It was an opportunity to be a witness for Christ’s love, forgiveness and redemption. I treated every employee with compassion and respect. I instituted more effective manufacturing processes and quality control. The business started turning around.

But I received harsh treatment by my father’s drinking buddies. I was ridiculed for not getting drunk. Rather than defending myself and retaliating, I strove to follow Jesus’ example as the suffering servant. When cursed, I tried to bless. When ridiculed, I quietly went about my job without condemning. Although I had major disagreements with my father, I always tried to show him honor and respect.

The experience turned into my own personal hell. But over the course of several years, the tide began to turn. Fewer people hung around after work for free beer. Some employees left the company, while others begin to embrace the new values. A sign of the mantle of leadership being passed to me came one day as my dad (not me) removed the beer barrel.

In this situation, my calling as a resident alien and priest could only be incarnated with a posture of humility and self-sacrifice.

- Letter to the Theology of Work Project, Aug., 19, 2010

What might it look like for Christians to exercise our calling as resi­dent aliens and priests in the work environment? Peter addresses this directly in instructions to his readers as foreigners and slaves. As for­eigners, we are to honor and submit to the civil rule of whatever coun­try we find ourselves in (1 Pet. 2:13–14), even though our citizenship in God’s kingdom entitles us to live as “free people” (1 Pet. 2:16). As slaves—which apparently constituted a large segment of Peter’s readers, since he does not address any other class of workers—we should submit ourselves to our masters, whether they treat us justly or unjustly (1 Pet. 2:18–19). In fact, unjust treatment is to be expected (1 Pet. 4:12), and it offers us an opportunity to follow in Christ’s footsteps by suffering with­out retaliating (1 Pet. 2:21). Notice that Peter is talking about suffering unjustly, not suffering from the consequences of your own incompetence, arrogance, or ignorance. Of course, you need to suffer obediently when receiving just punishment.

In practical terms, you are not free to disobey those in authority even in order to get what you think is rightfully yours. You will surely find yourself in situations where you don’t get what you deserve—a pro­motion, a raise, an office with a window, a decent health care plan. You may even find your employer actively cheating you, forcing you to work off the clock, punishing you for your boss’s errors. It might seem ethical to cheat your employer just enough to make up what you were cheated out of—calling in sick when you’re not, charging personal items to the company, stealing office supplies or goofing off on company time. But no, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:17). God does not give you the op­tion to take back what was wrongfully taken from you. The fact that you lied to or cheated someone to make up for how they lied to or cheated you does not make your action less evil. Your call is to do right, even in a hostile work environment (1 Pet. 2:20). “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Pet. 3:9). Instead, Christians should treat those in authority—even harsh and unjust masters—with respect and honor.

Why? Because our vocation as priests is to bless people, and we can’t do that while defending ourselves, just as Christ could not die for the salvation of the world while defending himself (1 Pet. 2:21–25). Christ, of course, was not afraid to exercise power and challenge authority in certain circumstances, and Peter is not claiming to recapitulate the en­tire gospel here. Other parts of the Bible—especially the Prophets—emphasize God’s call to resist oppressive and illegitimate authority. And submission doesn’t always mean obedience. We can submit to authority by disobeying openly and accepting the consequences, as Jesus himself did. Here and throughout the epistle, Peter draws us almost exclusively to the self-sacrifice of Christ as a model.