Does God Call Us to Submit to Everyone?
We close the week with a rather technical question. It’s also an important question from a sharp listener to the podcast named Brent. “Pastor John, hello! Can you tell me why modern English translations translate ‘ktisis’ in 1 Peter 2:13 as ‘institution’ or ‘authority’ or ‘ordinance’? Every other occurrence is typically translated, as in the ESV, as ‘creation’ (sixteen times) or ‘creature’ (two other times). To me, based on the context, it seems as though we, as believers, are to submit ourselves, or to be subject for the Lord’s sake, to every human creature. For such a thing we have been freed by the finished work of Christ to do ‘good’ (1 Peter 2:15) and to serve them ‘as servants of God’ (1 Peter 2:16) as we ‘honor everyone’ (1 Peter 2:17). Even Paul’s text on submitting to authority in Romans 13:1–7 broadens quickly to a discussion of how we relate to all people (Romans 13:8). So is Peter’s ‘ktisis’ mistranslated? Or am I missing a nuance here?”
I think Brent is basically right here in drawing our attention to the way Peter unfolds the act of subjection in 1 Peter 2:13 in the acts of doing good (1 Peter 2:15), the act of serving (1 Peter 2:16), and the act of honoring (1 Peter 2:17). I think that’s a really sharp contextual observation to draw those four things together: subjection, doing good, serving, honoring. So let me step back and see whether there are other considerations that might affect how we understand how we translate the word ktisis — or “creation” or “institution,” as it’s translated in so many modern versions.
Subject to Everyone?
The ESV, like most English versions, translates 1 Peter 2:13–14, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.” Now, that term “human institution” Brent is saying is literally “human creation.” And that’s right — it is. And that’s the most literal translation of it. So, the translation would then be, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human creation.”
Now, before we can even ponder whether that’s right or not, we have to ask what it means, because it’s an ambiguous phrase, isn’t it? It might mean “things created by humans” — so a human creation might be a government or laws that humans have created. Or the phrase “human creation” might mean “humans created by God” — so human beings are God’s human creation. So, 1 Peter 2:13 might mean, “Be subject to whatever man creates,” or “Be subject to the persons that God creates.” Which is it? And I think the answer, if you just take those two questions, would be pretty clear from the use of the word create and creation, the verb and the noun, throughout the New Testament.
Thirty-nine times — I looked them all up — the New Testament uses this word create or creation. And without exception, they refer to God’s act. Never in the New Testament does creation or create refer to something man has made or man does. So, I think it would be highly unlikely that the term “human creation” in 1 Peter 2:13 would refer to something that humans create. Rather, the term very likely means human creation in the sense of humans that God creates. Human beings are God’s human creation.
Now, that in fact is the way Brent in his question is understanding it. And he’s wondering, Why shouldn’t it be translated, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human creation,” or more clearly, “every human creature” — that is, persons created by God. Why isn’t verse 13 to be understood as calling for a kind of submission to all people, all human beings?
Two Pointers to ‘Institution’
Now, whether we’re going to be sympathetic to that possible translation — namely, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human creature” — is going to depend on two things.
First, do we believe that the word “be subject” (hypotagēte in Greek) can mean anything less than “obey” — maybe more, but not less? If we think that this word “be subject” always involves the idea of obedience, then we won’t be able to say with Peter’s intention that we should be subject to every human person, because many humans would instruct us to do sinful things that we certainly should not obey.
And I think it’s fair to say that’s the judgment of most biblical scholars — namely, that being subject does involve the idea of obedience. That’s the first thing that will affect how we translate this.
The second factor that leads people away from translating verse 13 as “Be subject to every human creature” is that the immediate application and perhaps limitation that Peter puts on it is this: he continues, “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Peter 2:13–14). So, the argument is that, since Peter is applying subjection to governors and emperors, he doesn’t mean it to apply to all human creatures, but only to those whom God has created to have his appointed authority (as, for example, is clearer in Romans 13:1–4).
Now those two arguments are strong enough to incline me, and most others, not to take issue with the common translation, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13).
Subject to All in Honor
But like I said at the beginning, Brent is onto something that we really should take seriously because even if it might not be Peter’s primary intention here, it seems to be his and Paul’s understanding of the Christian life to say that there is a sense in which we are to be subject to all people — not in the sense of obeying, but in the sense of serving. That is, be subject in the sense of humbling yourself, and going down low (sub-ject), and getting under another person, and doing all you can to lift them up into truth and righteousness and everlasting joy.
“There is a sense in which we are to be subject to all people — not in the sense of obeying, but in the sense of serving.”
Now, Peter seems to go in this direction in verse 15 when he grounds the submission to every human creature or institution by saying, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). And this idea of doing good turns up again and again and again in 1 Peter. It’s one of his most common and distinctive phrases. It turns up over and over as a general way of relating to all people, not just to those in authority.
And then, even more amazing, Peter says in verse 17, “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). And in a sense, it’s just as radical to say “honor every human creature” as it is to say “be subject to every human creature,” because certainly there are dishonorable humans just as there are humans we should not obey. So, if there is a way to honor dishonorable humans, then there may be a way to be subject to humans that should not be obeyed.
Then in the next paragraph, verse 18, Peter tells slaves to “be subject to their masters” (1 Peter 2:18). And then in the next paragraph, 1 Peter 3:1, he tells wives, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” And then, to our surprise — my surprise, anyway — he says in the next paragraph, 1 Peter 3:7, “Likewise [that’s the surprising word], husbands . . .” And then instead of saying, “Be subject to your wives,” which he doesn’t say, he says, “Live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.”
So, he’s not going to say that the role of the wife and the husband are interchangeable in terms of authority and submission. But he is going to say, just like he did back in 1 Peter 2:17 (where it says, “Honor everyone”), that husbands are to honor their wives. And he introduces this command with “likewise” as if it is a kind of repetition of the commands for submission that he’s been giving to us in our relation to government, relation to masters, and relation to husbands.
“Christians, following the example of the humble, sacrificial Christ, should be subject for the Lord’s sake to all.”
And then add to this that Paul says we are to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10), and that we are to be subject to each other (Ephesians 5:21), and that we should “count others more significant” than ourselves in the sense of becoming their servants (Philippians 2:3).
Going Low to Lift Up
In all those pointers, I think, in 1 Peter and Paul, I would say that Brent is onto something when he draws our attention to the fact that there is a sense in which Christians, following the example of the humble, sacrificial, suffering Christ, should be subject for the Lord’s sake to all people — in the sense, not of obeying, but of desiring earnestly to go low and to do what we can to lift them up into the truth, and into faith, and into righteousness, and into everlasting joy.
So, I think we should give Brent the benefit of the doubt here and say that’s pretty sharp. And we ought to really consider that possibility.