St. Peter’s teaching that those under authority are to stick with their superiors, even when they abuse that authority, is a hard nut to crack.
If God bestows authority upon men “for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good” (1 Pt. 2:14), why then ought we to defer to anyone who abuses his borrowed status to punish the good, and praise the wicked?
The simple answer is that we need not, and in many cases ought not, obey wrongful commands. We must do good, and avoid evil, regardless of what perverse masters may say.
What then is St. Peter getting at? The precise nature of his point becomes clearer when we observe his hypothetical and theocentric framing of the mater: “If” a man continues to show respect to an abusive superior “for conscience toward God,” his sacrifice is “thankworthy” in the eyes of God.
Clearly, God will never be pleased if we facilitate a perverse master in his perverse ways. Additionally, our Lord has commanded that, when persecuted in one city, we flee (if possible) into another (Mt. 10:23). On numerous occasions Christ publicly rebukes those who abuse their authority (Mt. 15:3; Jn. 18:23; Jn. 19:11), and St. Peter teaches by example that we may sometimes openly reject the commands of government officials contravening the law of God (Acts 5:29).
Under what conditions, then, can it please God to “be subject” to wayward authorities? Clearly, the hypothesis presupposes that we do not allow ourselves to become complicit in evil. Unless a master is wholly corrupt, however, it is often possible to resist him on specific points, bearing patiently whatever punishment that may bring, while obeying him in all legitimate points.
This was the conduct of St. Thomas More towards Henry VIII; and though the pleas of Anne Boleyn seemed to weigh more heavily in the king’s mind then, there is no doubt that More’s intransigent obedience to God and the king, in their respective spheres, was pleasing to the One whose judgment matters most.
In this epistle, St. Peter is considering the power of good works to convert the enemies of Christ and win their souls for his Kingdom (1 Pt. 2:12). Just as Christ “delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly,” not in order to condone misjudgment, but so that “we, being dead to sins, should live to justice” (1 Pt. 2:23-24), so too must we consider how our response to particular wrongs is likely to influence those above and around us.
It is a good and charitable thing to instruct the ignorant and to admonish sinners; but it is also merciful to bear wrongs patiently. When done with integrity, patient forbearance does not constitute cooperation with evil, but does set an example of fortitude and perseverance, which may inspire others (including in some cases, as with St. Paul, our very persecutors) to change their ways.
As we confront a world dominated by perverse masters, we must by all means expose their perversity and contribute all we can to the rectification of their wrongs and advancement of a just political and social order.
At the same time, let us not forget that Christ by his own example showed that loving sacrifice of what is rightly ours, when it testifies to the mercy of God, is the most powerful weapon justice can wield.
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