We often frame freedom in terms of independence. We see it as independence from interference by others, whether government or individual. We also define freedom as independence from responsibility to our neighbor. Often, the more independent we are, the more honorable we hope to be perceived. This freedom asserts that we can stand on our own, beholden to no one.
Yet this idea of freedom clashes head-on with Peter's exhortation to "Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God" (1 Pet 2:16). We can get behind the idea of not using freedom as a cover-up for evil (that's obviously wrong), but our persistent sinful nature questions this idea of living as free servants of God. That doesn't square with us. But that's because our freedom as Christians is not a form of independence. Our freedom in Christ comes from our dependence on him. And it is freedom for, not from our neighbors.
Earlier in his letter, Peter reminds his hearers that they have been born again of imperishable seed, "through the living and abiding word of God," the word of the Lord that remains forever (1 Pet 1:23-25). He goes on to exhort them to "put away all malice and deceit and hypocrisy and envy and slander" (1 Pet 2:1).
Our freedom as Christians is not a form of independence. Our freedom in Christ comes from our dependence on him.
Peter lists attitudes and acts of sin and evil that we do against our neighbor. Malice being ill-will toward another, as we murder them in our heart. Deceit and hypocrisy being two sides of the same coin paid out by the father of lies as we act falsely, pretending to be a "good" neighbor while working against them behind the scenes or withholding help while they struggle. And envy and slander being that evil, which Jesus proclaims, comes from within, from our covetous hearts, and out of our mouths as we bear false witness against our neighbor (Mark 7:1-23).
All of this sin and evil against our neighbor hopes to bring them shame and ruin that we may be considered honorable in comparison. When we measure honor by how independent we are, we live at the scorer's table tallying up bank accounts and paychecks, job types, living arrangements, clothing choices, parenting styles, friendships, responses to circumstances of public health and racial injustice, voting habits, and the like.
In the end, we try to break free from our neighbors and stand taller than them by standing on their necks. But Peter encourages us to set this way aside. "For it stands in Scripture… 'whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.' So the honor is for you who believe" (1 Pet 2:6-7).
Any honor we have is ours only by faith. It is not our own. It belongs to Christ, and he freely gives it to us.
When our honor is not based on our neighbor's shame, but on Christ in whom we trust, we are freed from playing the comparison game and keeping score. This frees us to do what Peter encourages:
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 to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good, you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:13-17).
Again, Peter's words create tension. To the ears of Peter's first audience, the admonishment to ascribe honor to the emperor (and so to his governors) would be scandalous. Honor is a favorable reputation in the eyes of the public. Why honor someone who stands opposed to your faith? For the Lord's sake.
We try to break free from our neighbors and stand taller than them by standing on their necks.
But Peter does not mean "honor the emperor" to make Jesus look good, to defend God's honor in the eyes of the world. God doesn't need that. Instead, to honor the "emperor" and subject ourselves to the authorities for the Lord's sake is to do so for the sake of our neighbor.
Though our diluted sinful self tries to convince us otherwise, we depend on our neighbors, and our neighbors depend on us. And God daily and richly provides what we need for this body and life. He does so by putting his law in the hands of authorities who are tasked with protecting us from our neighbor and, as importantly, protecting our neighbors from us. They do this by punishing those who do wrong and praising those who do right. And he does so through us his living servants whom he has freed from the bounds of bean-counting so that we might live as free servants of God in service to our neighbor.