One of the most misunderstood passages in the Synoptic Gospels is Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians about paying taxes: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:15–22;Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:20–26). On one popular reading, the Lord is saying certain things belong to the civil realm, such as paying taxes, voting, and the like; others belong to the religious realm, such as attending church, tithing, and praying. It is as though believers should (often grudgingly) live in the real world where we have certain obligations, but have a higher allegiance to God’s kingdom, which is “not of this world” (John 18:36).
The implications of this view are widespread. Some things are directly connected to eternity; others are not. Some professions are considered “full-time Christian service,” whereas others are in a support role. Making money is permissible as long as much of it is destined to the church or to missions. We talk about some people being “called,” say into the ministry, but others taking a “secular” job. Even the great Augustine dichotomizes the “two loves” as though only one is of eternal significance. The other is valuable as far as it goes, but not ultimately important. In the City of God he says, “In the earthly city, then, temporal goods are to be used with a view to the enjoyment of earthly peace, whereas, in the heavenly City, they are used with a view to the enjoyment of eternal peace.” Earthly peace is good, but heavenly peace is better.
But this view clearly misses the genius of Jesus’s reply to the snare of his critics. Whose face is on the coin? Caesar’s. So, we owe him taxes. But where is God’s face?Not on the other side of the coin—an absurd idea. No, his face is everywhere in the creation, including government. His image is imprinted on every realm of human endeavor, from our work to our citizenship, even to eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31; Eccles. 3:1–8). The problem of the sacred-secular view is that it is not grounded in a proper view of the creation. We should know better. Sin is the problem, not the world qua creation. Indeed, the creation is not a sort of confinement, or something second best to other things. We do look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, to resurrected bodies and institutions, but the transformation in view is not a renovation against the creation itself but against the cancer of sin that has invaded it.
Having said this, it is important to stress that God relates to the different parts of his creation in diverse ways. Accordingly, our responsibility to each aspect of our world and calling must vary, and our choices often need a great deal of wisdom. When the apostle Peter enjoins us to “honor everyone,” he does not mean that absolutely everything deserves our praise in an undifferentiated way. The context for his remarks is hardship and persecution. He warns against vengeance or vigilante justice. In this portion of his letter, he does draw attention to proper allegiance to governing authorities and to employers, in this case, “masters,” and later husbands (1 Pet. 2:12ff.), but it is not servile or blind obedience. Peter wants his readers to be alert to the best ways of behaving righteously. If we suffer, then so be it. But suffering should not be self-inflicted, nor does he tell us to seek martyrdom.
To whom does “everyone” refer? In his classic passage on apologetics, Peter specified hostile interlocutors (3:13–17). The defense of our hope must be considerate of our interrogators, including gentleness, respect, and a good conscience. In today’s culture, there is a distinct absence of this kind of civility. Admittedly, it is hard to maintain composure and honor those we disagree with. But it is a biblical requirement.
To honor everyone means avoiding two opposite postures. (1) Anarchy is the position that denies the legitimacy of government. It has a long history, culminating in the 19th century. Its more noble claim is “law and freedom without force.” Legendarily, however, anarchy collapses from its own excesses. The anarchy of the French Reign of Terror (1793–1794) was doomed to disintegrate into chaos. Many critics of anarchy point out that in its pure form it is unsustainable. But a more biblical retort is that it refuses to submit to legitimate authority, “legitimate” because ordained by God (Rom.13:1–7). There are many kinds of anarchy. For instance, you have the “hard” anarchy of Émile Armand (1872–1962), who recommended free love and the refusal of all moral norms. “Softer” kinds might include various forms of libertarianism, refusing to wear seat belts, opposing Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the like. One is reminded of the cowboy song “Don’t Fence Me In.”
The opposite posture would be (2) acquiescence. This says that even though something may be wrong, we need to “go with the flow.” At the extreme, one can find supporters of slavery based on the misguided notion that some people are born to serve, others to rule, and that neither government nor the church has the right to dictate otherwise. However, honoring everyone does not mean accepting injustice. Of course, there are various ways to fight against injustice. But nothing encourages us to accept the status quo without question. This can get tricky because on the surface certain passages in Scripture appear to be saying just that. For example, Paul tells the Corinthians to be contented with their present condition (1 Cor. 7:17). There are certainly times when it is wise to endure our condition. But the Bible is not against reform or any kind of change. When Paul discusses slavery, he appears to say: don’t try to change your status (1 Cor. 7:20–24). But the general force of Scripture, including this passage (“if you can gain freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity,” v. 21) is to honor institutions not by laying down like a doormat, but by interacting with them in order to effect justice without anarchy. Paul exemplified this in his own life. As we know, he appealed to Caesar rather than simply letting his adversaries go unopposed. That was his right(Acts 25:12).
In addition to understanding honor by avoiding the two postures just outlined, we can also understand it culturally. It is perhaps a bit of a cliché to say that Asian cultures are based on honor and Western ones on individual rights. This is not the place to engage in an extensive anthropological analysis of these differences. The truth is complicated anyway. But there is something to the generality. The story goes, two older women were standing in line, one Caucasian and the other Japanese. The Japanese woman asked the other one her age. As a Westerner, she took offense, not realizing that the Japanese woman was trying to assess her seniority in order to show the proper respect. Certainly, Asian culture, influenced by Confucianism, can exaggerate deference to the point of obsequiousness. But to this Westerner there is something refreshing about the respect for parents, the respect for the elderly, and for teachers (!) in places such as Japan and Korea. On the other hand, a healthy sense of individualism and a critical spirit (which can admittedly go awry) are virtues, as long as they are practiced with the appropriate honor.
In many ways, the cultural context of the first century is similar to ours (there are of course obvious differences). Thus, the appeal to “honor everyone” in the apostolic letters was obviously in tension with the great pressure on Christians either to rebel or to conform. It is the same today. Instead, proper respect of office bearers is called for, without sacrificing backbone. When Ananias ordered his minions to strike Paul on the mouth, Paul immediately retorted, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall” (Acts 23:3). But then, upon learning Ananias was the High Priest, Paul stepped back with something like an apology. Leviticus 19:15 commands that there be no partial judgments. But Paul also recognized that one may never speak evil of the ruler of the people (Exod. 22:28). Here is a perfect example of proper honor without compromising on principle.
My friend Robert Kramer served for eight years in the Maryland State Legislature. Because he was “pro-life,” he expected considerable pushback from the more liberal deputies. So, he decided to spend his first few months on issues where there was agreement on all sides: the environment, teenage drug abuse, and care for the elderly. When he eventually did address the question of abortion, he had rapt attention from the House. Why? Because he had honored his colleagues and refused to demonize them. At the end of his mandate, one woman told him she was still a liberal, but she was going to miss the way Kramer honored all his associates, including his opponents.
Honoring everyone might include a whole range of people, institutions, and even states of being besides government, parents, etc. No doubt, one of the most prevalent forms of refusal to “honor everyone” today is the politics of identity. For example, the contemporary refusal to accept the sex of one’s birth (gender dysphoria) is a form of dishonoring the way we have been made. I realize this issue is fraught with complexity. To move quickly over some intricate ground, we may safely generalize that at least since Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), the idea of “self-love” is no longer considered morally evil, but increasingly acceptable. We have our original identity, but it has been shaped and even corrupted by cultural forces, he said. A precursor to psycho-analysis, Rousseau favored going back into childhood to discover one’s authentic identity. In a long succession of iterations leading to views Rousseau would not have recognized, movements such as transgenderism argue that we may freely choose to become the opposite sex if that is our true inclination. But biblically, to honor everyone does not mean to bow before such a radical option, but to accept the way we were created.
This has tremendous implications, some very practical and down-to-earth. Edith Schaeffer, a heroine of mine, often complained of her finitude. Her family letters were full of protests against not being able to accomplish everything she wanted to. She was a woman of considerable energy, compared to most of us, but it was not enough for her. In her case, she was so compelled to reach out to others that it became frustrating to her when she could not embrace everyone. Most of us would like to accomplish half of what she did. I tremble to suggest she was not honoring her limitations. This is very difficult for all of us. A few years ago, I had a massive heart attack, which nearly sent me to the beyond. Thanks to the Lord’s kindness and to the skill of the surgeons, I am alive today. But I struggle, almost daily, with my limitations as a heart diseased person. I used to run up and down the soccer field, play numerous concerts, accept many speaking engagements, travel all over the world. No longer. I am still learning to honor my restrictions, sent by God’s kind providence.
Jesus, of course, is the great model for proper honoring. As a young boy in the temple, though he was the Son of God, he did not, as it were, pull rank on his teachers (Luke 2:46). He honored the woman at the well despite her lower status in the eyes of society (John 4). He honored the disciples by washing their feet (John 13:1–11). In his series of sobering “woes” against the scribes and the Pharisees, he never suggested they were sub-human, nor did he tell the people to rebel against them. They should receive proper honor, because they sit on Moses’s seat—even though they themselves do not practice what they preach (Matt. 23:2–3). Most tellingly, during his trial before Pilate, he did not call down the legions of angels at his disposal but endured the cross at Pilate’s behest. Jesus shows us how to honor others, just as he shows us how to do everything else in the kingdom.
In ending, let us go back to the immediate context for the requirement to honor everyone. Peter’s guiding principle was, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” The distorted view he was refuting is called antinomianism. This view, widespread then as it is now, says that since my sins are forgiven, it matters little whether I go on sinning. Stated this way, it sounds fairly evident. In Romans, Peter’s colleague the apostle Paul asks rhetorically whether we should go on sinning that grace may abound. He denounces this with the strongest language (Rom. 6:1–2).
But to the Corinthians, in chapter 9 of his first letter, Paul argues rather extensively that he is free. This gives him the right to get paid, take a wife, and receive honor as an apostle. He is not free to go on sinning. But the issue here was of his use of power. Having established his rights as an apostle, surprisingly, he says he will not exercise those rights (1 Cor. 9:12). Why? Because freedom is balanced by obedience? No. It is because he does not want to put any obstacle before his audience. He states powerfully, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (v. 19). These are convicting words. He puts a higher priority on winning others than on claiming his rights.
When I perform a wedding, I often reference a wise saying: If you get into an argument, it is sometimes appropriate to think, “I’d rather be married than right!” Does this mean agreement always trumps differences? Not at all. Some issues are non-negotiable. But you get the idea: think first of your companionship and only second of your being right.
When Peter connects freedom with honor, he is doing the same thing. We should honor others because we are servants of others, not because of a set of rules. “Whose face is on this coin?” Caesar’s. He should be honored. Where is God’s face? Everywhere. When we honor him, we are free to honor everyone.