After Jesus’ death and resurrection, King Herod got super mad and arrested some of the believers, including James and Peter, and put them on public trial. The night before the trial, an angel of the Lord woke Peter up, removed his chains, opened the prison doors and led him out the main gate of the prison.
Yet after escaping from jail, where he had been imprisoned for breaking the law, Peter went on to write in a letter:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to the 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 foolish men.”
And similarly, while Paul was in Damascus, he escaped from a strongman city governor who was trying to arrest him, by concealing himself in a wicker basket and having himself lowered down the city wall through a window.
Then after reaching safety, Paul wrote a surprising letter:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
So are Peter and Paul hypocrites, asking Christians to do as they say, but not as they do?
Though these passages have been used to maintain the status quo (ever since the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it the official religion of the Empire), there is a BIG disconnect between Peter and Paul’s actions and the way we have traditionally interpreted their words.
The key to undertanding is in the word “submit”. Take a look at this. The Greek word hupo-tasso, which has been translated as “submit” or “be subject,” literally means to arrange stuff respectfully in an “orderly manner underneath”.
This simple meaning of “social orderliness” would have been understood by original readers, but it is a little obscured in our English translation.
This word is used in Ephesians 5:22 to encourage husbands and wives to submit to one another, and it reflects God’s concern for order and respect.
Here’s the main point – Paul and Peter believed that governing authorities are necessary for keeping the peace. God is a God of order – not anarchy or chaos.
But here’s where we go wrong. There’s ANOTHER word, hupo-kouo, which is best translated as “obey,” which literally means to conform, to follow a command, or to kowtow to an authority as a subordinate.
Peter and Paul could have used this word, “obey,” but they chose not to.