Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
1 Peter 2:17
It can be difficult to obey the Lord's instructions regarding kings when our king changes every four or eight years. And it can be difficult because one could argue that our true kings are the Supreme Court judges, or maybe, if you feel like really stretching a point, the Senate. It's difficult to know what it means to be subject to every ordinance of man, whether the king or governors sent by him, but not that difficult. After all, nobody is dipping us in paraffin and lighting us to burn all night. So we're supposed to obey the civil authorities. We know that. But we're also supposed to honor them.
What does it mean to honor the king?
Most (although far from all, sadly) know that obedience to man is only rendered so far as it doesn't conflict with God's law. Although this can be a legitimately difficult pill to swallow, it's not the pill I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is obedience and honor not being the same thing. Many Christians have difficulty with what it might mean to honor the king. "Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." (Rom. 13:7)
I think many of us have the idea that honoring the king is, as the tired phrase has it, a "heart issue". We have this conception about our relationship with God as well. We know that God loves a cheerful giver. We try to remember that when we tithe, so we think we should also try to remember that when we pay our taxes, a mindset that says more about our theology of tithing than our theology of tax. The ideal, we think, is to have a heart that wants to pay forty percent of our income to the state with a smile. And the perceived ideal is that when we honor the king, we hold him in affection. That we honor him with a smile in our hearts.
There is a sense in which this is true, with God behind it all. When we do God's will for us toward men, we are doing it unto our Lord, whether we eat or drink.
But when I honor Obama or Trump, or the city councilman, does it mean that I have to like the guy? I'm going to argue not, and please, I'm not making this argument to make excuses for us, but to take them away. I think that many of us end up churning water because we just can't bring ourselves to like the guy. I mean, we pray for him, but in my heart I can't have affection for the guy. And what if we ever ran into a Nero?! I'm supposed to honor a martyr-maker?
Yes. But you don't have to do it with a cheerful heart unto the guy, but unto the Lord. And honoring him does not mean you endorse his actions.
As an aside, even when your heart isn't cheerfully giving to God, it ought to be giving to God anyway. His Holy Spirit will sanctify and change your heart.
Let's look at the structure of 1 Peter 2:17: "Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king." Some of you will have seen that it is chiastic in structure. There is an outside, and an inside, and what is inside is what is most important, what is central, what is the heart of the issue.
The chiasm is set by the word "honor". Here we have A., Honor everyone, B. Love the brotherhood. B'., Fear God, A'., Honor the king. The heart of this is to love your neighbor as yourself and to love the Lord your God. The heart of this is the Gospel. What is most important is what is in the Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven, of course, grows to conquer, and that which was outside is inside, more and more. But until the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, there will always be an outside. Who, in this passage, is on the outside? A. Everyone else. And A'. the king.
How do we honor everyone? I think you know. And it is unlikely you feel a burden to like everyone in your heart of hearts as you honor everyone. You don't only honor your boss, you honor the bus driver and the mailman and the person in line at the grocery store. Always. Or at least, you ought to. And you know how to do it. You show courtesy, you show respect, you honor the authorities they've been given, and are charitable in your interpretations of them.
So it is with the king. In Scripture we are at times told to fear the king, and at others, not to fear him, for the Lord is with us and not with him. But we are never told not to honor.
Even in disobedience we may and must honor the king. What does the king do when we disobey? Throw us to the lions. An if the king has done so, we need not be grateful to the king, or love him for it. Daniel is our example here. We must continue to honor him, as we honor all men. And we honor him as is appropriate to the dread lords of men, who are like unto gods. We bow a knee. We use their titles and honorifics, we show all courtesy. We who are about to die salute you, to steal a phrase from the gladiator-slaves.
Many Christians know that we must disobey the king when he sins by ordering us to bow to other gods. He will be judged, as all men will be. And the king is, of course, wrong to side against the gospel; he is not excused because man's law says that God's people may be slaughtered (the book of Esther). Our vice is to think that when the king disobeys God, and/or orders God's people to do so, that our obligation to honor disappears with our obligation to obey.
I think it is helpful, even before times of crisis, to keep those two ideas distinct. We honor all men, and we honor the king. We honor all men even when we oppose them to their faces. This must change our discourse. And this must clear up confusion. We can work against the evils of human institutions just as we work against evils in creation. We shine light, we shine love, we shine honor. And we fear God, not man.
President Trump is not an honorable man. It becomes us to treat him with honor.
Postscript: this does not mean there is no room for satire or lampooning. But that is a matter for another post.