In 1 Peter 2.18 we find that archaic word in the King James Version, “froward.” The verse calls servants to submit to their masters, even “the froward.”
KJV 1Pe 2:18 ¶ Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
The verse is the only New Testament occurrence of the term, though it shows up 20 times in 19 verses of the KJV Old Testament. The dictionary gives this meaning:
“habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition”1
Other translations give these renderings: “unreasonable” (NASB); “unjust” (ESV); “perverse” (NET); “cross” (YLT). In the context, the word refers to a master who is not congenial, a difficult boss, rude, arrogant, mercurial, and likely tyrannical.
What do froward masters have to do with our discussion of submission to government during the Covid pandemic? In our last chapter, I closed with this:
“However, what if the government is wrong in its approach to a public health emergency? What if their orders make no sense, and they require something of us that will not address the emergency they declared? We’ll take that topic up next.”
I don’t know of any passages directly referencing submission to government when it is wrong. However, the third (and weakest) line of argument the Covid rebels use is the argument to the effect that government overstated the risks of Covid and added to our misery by proposing ineffective measures to combat a negligible effect. I summarized that argument in chapter 1, “The Covid Rebels and Their Rationale.” In its public statement, this is one of the primary arguments of James Coates and the GraceLife Church near Edmonton, Alberta.2
Since the Bible doesn’t discuss how to deal with governments when their policies are wrong (whether through ignorance, incompetence, or what I refer to as their “inner totalitarian”), the only way to gain Biblical instruction is to glean principles from related concepts.
I should note at the outset that I am not going to argue the merits of the government response to the Covid crisis. We all have our opinions, but most of us approach the subject as laymen, not experts. We only know what we read. We also tend to prefer those writers who agree with our presuppositions. If you are of a mind to be suspicious of government (because, of course!), then you will tend to give more credence to sources that show you how stupid or wrong-headed your government is. For the purposes of this discussion though, let’s all assume the governments all over the world panicked, over-reacted, and imposed faulty solutions that didn’t help the situation at all. In short, let’s approach this from the position that James Coates is basically right in his position justifying his actions. We are not saying his actions are right, we are just assuming his rationale behind them is correct. In this case then, let’s look at what the Bible says we should do about a froward government, gleaning insight from what the Bible says of other unreasonable authorities.
That brings us to froward masters in 1 Peter 2.18 and the disobedient husbands of 1 Peter 3.1. This will bring us to a study of submission to authority in general, which involves various authority relationships in the New Testament.
When talking about the servant/master relationship in the New Testament, we must be clear that we are talking about slavery. While slavery in the Roman Empire was not specifically race based, it remained slavery. Slaves “had no legal rights” and “no independent existence.”3 Tom Constable says, “In Peter’s culture the servant was the person who faced the most difficulty in relating to the person over him or her in authority.”4 The master’s authority extended to almost every area of life, though the slave could be well-educated, could serve in responsible capacities, could themselves own slaves, and in some circumstances could purchase their freedom. Nevertheless, they lived under their master’s authority.
Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2.18 called for submission to any master, the good and gentle as well as the “froward.” “Froward” (KJV) or “unreasonable” (NAU) translates skolios (σκολιός), an ancient word with the root idea of “crooked” or “bent.” Originally the word referred to the crooked or bent joints of the body, like the knee or ankle, but soon developed a metaphorical meaning when describing character. We have an idiom today that describes someone as “twisted” — I think that usage aptly communicates the meaning of this word.
What are we to do if we have a twisted master? Be submissive. (1 Pt 2.18)
Let’s hold that thought, because I want to turn our attention to another bad actor in an authority position, the disobedient husband, 1 Pt 3.1. The NIV translates this as “do not believe,” which I think communicates truth about the husband, but doesn’t convey the whole story. “Unbelief” can have a passive sense, whereas disobedience is active. This husband disobeys the word (i.e. the Word of God, the Bible). In Romans, Paul describes such men as those who not only disobey the truth but also “obey unrighteousness.” (Rm 2.8) In short, the picture is of a wife who has a husband with a worldview entirely in conflict with her own. No doubt this distinction will present a believing wife with ethical dilemmas, at least.
Nevertheless, with such a husband, what is a believing wife to do? Be submissive. (1 Pt 3.1)
The instructions are identical in both passages. The slave with the froward master, the wife with the disobedient husband, to both Peter says, “Be submissive.”
What, then, does “be submissive” mean?
There is a connotation to the English word “submission” that we tend to resist. The Merriam-Webster thesaurus gives us synonyms like these: “acquiescence, compliance, resignation; cringing, servility; prostration”5 The Greek word we translate with submission really doesn’t communicate this idea. The lexicographer Ceslas Spicq, as he began to discuss this word, said “‘submission,’ … should not be confused with obedience.”6 The confusion of these terms lies behind much resistance to the teaching of these passages, especially the passage concerning wives and husbands.
Submission is a uniquely Christian word. It occurs rarely in secular Greek before its use in the New Testament. One secular Greek reference does illustrate the meaning, however. In the papyri (collections of documents and letters found mostly in Egyptian garbage dumps), the word refers to postscripts or to attachments to a main document. Someone writes a letter, then in a subordinate position, adds a postscript. Or he writes his letter and then attaches a document to it. The letter is the main document, the attachment is in submission (in second rank) in the package, much as we would attach a resumé to a cover letter. The resumé is in subordinate position to the cover letter.
In the same way, the biblical view of marriage positions the wife in a subordinate role to the role of the husband. That doesn’t mean she is a lesser person, it is that her role is subordinate to his. (We note that fallen man abuses this God-designed order.) This order in the home is the normal order of human relationships, even in unbelieving homes one can discern God’s order. This is the way human relationships tend to work out.
In almost every home, children are subordinate to parents. In the military, lower ranks are subordinate to higher ranks. In a nation, citizens are subordinate to rulers (whether democratically chosen or imposed by heredity). Submission means acceptance of that natural order. One accepts the superior right and authority of those higher in rank and orders his life accordingly. (Submission will look different depending on the relationship. Children, for example, will submit to their father in ways that the wife will not to her husband. Both children and wife will still be in submission.)
We could say more about the meaning of submission, but let’s point to its essential idea. Submission involves arranging one’s self in proper relationship to one’s superiors. The consequence will generally be obedience to leadership, but the reason one obeys is due to a right ordering of one’s relationships. The individual in the inferior position acknowledges the authority of the individual in the superior position.
We must point out that the right ordering of relationships does not mean there is any call to or justification of blind obedience. If a subordinate commits a crime under the direction of a superior, the subordinate cannot escape his own guilt. There may be mitigation of punishment, the charge might be lessor (an accessory rather than a perpetrator, perhaps), but the guilt remains.
Nevertheless, the point we are driving at is this. If a slave has a master, the master is the master and the slave is the slave. Submission is at root a recognition of the relationship by the slave. He knows his place and he accepts it. If a man has a wife, the man is the husband and the woman is the wife. Submission occurs when she accepts her role and operates within it. If the husband is disobedient (i.e. unbelieving, as above), his worldview will inevitably lead him to act in ways contrary to the worldview of his believing wife. He may lead her and the family in ways that she knows are folly. Yet, unless he is insisting on sin, we would say that she needs to submit to bad leadership.
In the New Testament world, where slavery was so common, a believing slave might well have a froward master. The froward, unreasonable, disagreeable master may well put upon the slave disagreeable and unreasonable demands. The New Testament calls him to accept his place in the world and serve even his froward master. His submission doesn’t depend on the reasonableness of his master’s commands.
We don’t live in a world of slavery, thankfully, but we can draw parallels to our work environments. We have options the slave does not have (i.e. we can quit), but if we remain in someone’s employ, we must order ourselves properly in that relationship. The Bible calls us to submission. In such cases, we may have to carry out disagreeable and unreasonable orders.
The word “submit” is the word we find in Romans 13.1. “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” (The same Greek word is translated subjection here.)
1 Peter 2 begins with a call to believers to go put aside the works of the flesh and desire the sincere milk of the word. He then talks about the choice position of our Lord Jesus, the living stone whom we approach, and in whom we are built up, also as living stones, into a spiritual house. Peter tells us in this role, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Pt 2.9).
After establishing our position in relation to God, he teaches us to establish our position in relation to men. We are aliens and strangers in this world, we are to keep our behaviour excellent among the Gentiles (unbelievers), to overcome the slanders of the world against us. (1 Pt 2.11-12) And then comes this passage:
1 Pt 2.13-17 ¶ Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
Note these points:
Submit (there is that word again) to every human institution including the king and governors appointed by the king.
Submission is the will of God. (1 Pt 2.15)
Submission is an application of the war against the flesh, to which he calls us in 1 Pt 2.1-2, 11-12.
Submission testifies to the lost that you serve a master. (1 Pt 2.9, 12, 15)
What if the king is a bad king? What if the king is unreasonable (froward)? What if the king is disobedient to the truth?
What if the king decides that Covid-19 represents an emergency and requires the citizens to refrain from normal activities for over a year? What if the king decides to limit or forbid church attendance (while allowing people to congregate in stores? What if the king declares marijuana dispensaries an essential service, but refuses to declare churches as the same?
What shall we do with a froward king?
Pastor James Coates continues to argue7 that he and the elders of his church examined the data concerning the Covid crisis and concluded that the crisis isn’t that serious and they need not follow the government’s directives. He argues that the government is unreasonable in its demands, since he knows better than all the officials what the best course of action should be.
What is his authority for his conclusion? Is he an epidemiologist? Has he conducted experimentation in a laboratory that proves his thesis? Does he have the capacity to sift through medical journals and give a reliable opinion?
I think not.
Pastor Coates and the other Covid rebels argue that the government is unreasonable, therefore they need not submit. Is that what Peter would say?
I happen to agree that the government over-reacted to the Covid crisis and implemented policies that make little difference in the ultimate outcome. I happen to think the government is froward in this case. Nevertheless!
Nevertheless, I am just one man with an opinion, and I am not the government. I know my place in the world, and I believe that in this case the unreasonable, disobedient, froward government is my authority. I believe that because the Bible says so. My responsibility is to order myself under my authority and glorify God before the world.
Well, then, what about persecution? If the government is persecuting believers, what should believers do? To answer this, we need to understand persecution. That will be the subject of the next chapter.
Chapter 1: The Rationale of the Canadian Covid Rebels
Chapter 2: Putting Hebrews 10 into Perspective
Chapter 3: The Extent of Governmental Authority
Frederick C. Mish, ed., Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, v. 37 (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 135.
Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Pt 2.18.
Maire Weir Kay, ed., Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1996).
Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1994), 424.