Dr. Nicholas Walterstorf has been a professor at Harvard Divinity School, Yale University and the University of Virginia. In an address to the students of Biola University Dr. Walsterstorf notes a very short but important phrase in 1 Peter 2:9-17. The conclusion to a section about how to relate to a Gentile world concludes with a four-part sentence that begins with the words, “ Honour everybody…”
He points out that, in the Mediterranean world of the first century, honour went upward, not downward. You honoured your master. If you were a wife, you honoured your husband. Everybody honoured the emperor. The ancient world knew nothing of joint headship of the family or democratic process as we know them now. The much-vaunted democracy of the Greek city-states was used basically to kick people out of the city (ostracism – based on the “ostrakon,” a pottery shard used to record the vote of a citizen regarding the motion to evict someone). [Side note: It is interesting that this version of “democracy” is now back in vogue in certain television “reality” shows.] Naturally, this honour extended to obedience to the constituted authorities, since the Kingdom of God had not yet been fully realized as a universal dominion “on earth as it is in heaven. “ There are four New Testament passages that describe the role of Christians within constituted authority structures of the time: Romans 13, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 2.
Romans 13 makes it clear that God has a purpose for the authority structures above us, and that they are not necessarily of the devil. Just watch what happens in places where an oppressive regime is overthrown by force. Rarely does this result in positive change for the citizens. Usually things become chaotic, brutal and dangerous for ordinary people until strong leadership emerges to forcibly suppress the violence. This can sometimes take years. Often the leadership becomes even more oppressive than the one it replaced. Because of the fickleness of human nature, authority is necessary for stability and a measure of peace. In this world anarchy usually leads to lawlessness and violence.
In the here-and-now, however, God has provided a way out of merely knuckling under to authority to avoid the bloodshed of anarchy. Dr. Walterstorf notices that each of the four passages above that tells people to honour and obey the authority structures of that society adds what he calls “a kicker.” For instance, Paul says that while children are to obey and honour their parents, parents must not provoke their children. Wives must be subject to their husbands, but husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church. Yes, slaves must submit to their masters, but masters are to treat them justly and fairly. Yes, governments must be honoured and obeyed, but their job, under God’s authority, is to punish wrongdoing and praise those who do right.
Peter’s advice seems to go way beyond that of Paul. Not only were the disciples to honour the emperor, love the brotherhood and fear God, but they were to “honour everybody.”
Yes, everybody. Really.
Peter means to democratize honour in the same manner that the account of human creation in Genesis 1:26-27 democratizes “the image of God” in all human beings, both male and female. Dr. Walterstorf speculates that the image of God in all human beings has never been revoked in the Scriptures, and that this is the reason why we are to honour everybody. Parents are to honour their children; husbands are to honour their wives; masters are to honour their servants; and governments (at least those headed by Christians) are to honour their citizens and vice versa.
So, how does this work in a democratic society?
Theoretically, even better!
Christian citizens now often have the right to provide feedback to the democratically-elected government over them. This should be done in a respectful and honouring manner. Bad-mouthing political opponents or government leaders goes contrary to that advice.
As examples of wisely and respectfully advising non-Christian governments we can look to Daniel’s interactions with Nebuchadnezzar and later emperors. Daniel was always respectful, even when offering what must have been unwelcome advice in Daniel 4:19-27. Note also the response of Belshazzar to Daniel’s interpretation of the handwriting on the wall in 5:17-29. Finally, notice Daniel’s response to King Darius after his overnight stay in the lion’s den in chapter 6. Notice also that he has successfully transitioned from Babylonian overlordship to Persian rule. He has somehow managed to retain a high position in a very different government’s cabinet. Most of the old guard would have (literally!) lost their heads during the transition.
Joseph, Ruth and Abigail are also good examples of how honouring everyone within the authority structures of the society can work, even in difficult times. Surely we can make it work during our own relatively good times, with much more responsive political and family systems!
Finally, I’ll provide a personal example that I only recalled after our session was over. In June of 1979 I was a Canadian Armed Forces recruit in Basic Training (boot camp). I was also a young Christian who faithfully read my Bible daily in the last half-hour before lights-out. This was noticed and remarked upon by believers and non-believers alike in my squad of 30 young men, and I respectfully answered queries of both, without putting down the beliefs of believers and non-believers with whom I disagreed.
I began to notice that our commanding NCO’s (non-commissioned officers: Sergeants and Corporals) always referred to us by family name, without any sort of honorific (no “Mr.” or “Private” before the last name). By example, they encouraged us to do the same thing among one another, and I saw this as a way of breaking us down into something less-than-fully-human.
I resolved to resist the tendency by beginning to refer to each of my squad-mates by first name when out of earshot of our NCO’s. They began to notice, and started doing the same thing among one another. Before long, it had spread to the rest of our platoon (3 other squads). When new classes began after ours, I led the charge in re-humanizing them among themselves, too.
By the time I left, after 11 weeks, fighting between within and between platoons had been greatly reduced, and everybody was calling each other by first name among the platoons continuing their training as my platoon graduated. We worked out schedules for mutual help so that we could hopefully all succeed. (Not all of us did immediately, but two squad-members who fell behind were able to catch up in the following class after we all encouraged them to continue.)
I remained respectful of our NCO’s throughout their attempts to form us into their mold. They shook their heads at my methods, but could not deny the results. By graduation I was considered the most effective, if unorthodox, leader in my squad by our NCO’s. Even by the Master-Corporal who considered me to be the strangest and least-military-minded recruit he had ever trained. It never occurred to me at the time that I was doing what Peter advised: to honour everybody.
(Please don’t understand this to mean that I never fail at honouring everyone. I am human, too. That was just one good example out of a lifetime of mistakes and faux-pas in this area, as in many others.)
It can be done, however. So let us honour the Prime Minister and his cabinet, love the brotherhood and sisterhood, fear God and honour everybody.