In my own experience with toxic leaders, it was common to hear 1 Peter 2:18 quoted or paraphrased by those who wished to protect the authority of leaders. I quoted it to myself at various times while suffering under leadership abuse. It is often interpreted as a theological barrier to the accountability of Christian leaders.
Does 1 Peter 2 mean that we blindly submit to church and parachurch leaders though they be described as liars, mean, narcissistic, and other nasty characteristics by their followers?
The apostle Peter begins this section on “submission” to various authorities at the beginning of the chapter. Starting in verse 18, Peter instructs,
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” [1 Peter 2:18]
Upon initial reading, this verse appears to require absolute submission to abusive leaders. I asked participants in my study if and how they applied this passage to their interactions with their toxic supervisor.
Adam, a former employee of a mission school, said, “I used it against myself just to guilt myself into submitting to [the CEO’s] rule.” Adam said he related it to the Matthew 7 passage [“Judge not, that you be not judged”], telling himself “[the CEO] is very human. He is our director” and therefore, Adam should not judge or rebel against him.
Because Adam was in mid-level management, mediating between the CEO and faculty and staff, he would recall this passage as he struggled in his own relationship with the CEO and when he spoke with those with whom he worked. He would say to himself and others, “The Lord puts you under even unjust authorities. And the way you reach those authorities is to be godly and submissive and humble.”
He noted there were major consequences when employees would challenge the CEO. Rather than confronting the boss and facing those consequences, he kept his head down. He said,
“You have to go home and go to bed and get up the next day. And the only way to survive the next day is to rally your head to think, ‘You know this is just the way Christians live or this is just the way life is and you have to accept it.’”
Adam was in a position to counsel other workers who were suffering under the abuse as well. He felt he had an “obligation to mediate and so I would use things like that [1 Peter 2] on them and it was amazing how it worked!” He said others would respond, “Oh, you’re right. He’s just human.” The status quo was a achieved.
Ben, a director of a Christian education program, suggested that there were two “camps” of people at his organization. There were those who “camped out” in the 1 Peter passage, saying, “We’re just here to take it. It doesn’t matter what happens, it’s not our responsibility. We’ll take it. We’ll suffer. He is our master; therefore, we will be subservient to him.” The others were in the Matthew 18 camp, “constantly butting heads. Constantly trying to bring about change.” [for more on Matthew 18, click here]
Under Whose Authority?
So, how did those who “camped out” in 1 Peter 2 seek to submit to authority?
Ben suggested that he and his wife’s “accountability” was “to those who put us there.” The churches and individuals who supported them financially were their “bosses.” Rather than consider the CEO of the mission their “master” (vis-à-vis 1 Peter 2), Ben believed those who paid their salary (donors) were their boss.
For example, Ben recounted a sermon given by the founder that was a “tirade against the students” and spiritually “manipulative.” He sent the recording to several supporters, who were his mentors, for their advice. Ben said they all responded, “Something’s wrong. It’s not you…something’s broken.”
He believed it was to these supporters he was “subservient to in his position.” He finished by saying, “It is a very unique relationship to have. Because, yes, he is my boss. Yes, I answer to him. But my livelihood in no way depended on him.”
Slave or Employee?
I have found significant disagreement among commentators regarding the application of 1 Peter 2:18-25 to these situations. Peter instructs “household servants” to voluntarily submit in action and attitude to their master. But, Alan Stibbs and Matthew Henry disagree on the identification of household servants. Where Henry argues broadly for any modern-day employee fitting the description of a household servant, Stibbs suggests the Greek terminology means a slave, one who is under “absolute ownership and uncontrolled power.”
This distinction is very important to employees of Christian organizations. It can mean the difference between continuing to work for a toxic boss in silence or confronting and possibly leaving the organization, in effect, rejecting their authority. If the passage is speaking broadly to any employee, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the employee is responsible to keep his mouth shut and submit to his each and every command (as long as it isn’t against the Word of God).
Because the passage is speaking in the context of slavery, however it is important to be careful in the application of it to our free-market economy. A slave, by definition, had little choice about their employment. They were not free to come and go as they pleased. Should they stand up to the master, especially a “harsh” one, they could expect a harsh response.
Rather, is it possible the passage is speaking very practically, giving the slave both hope and permission? “Hope” that, by submitting to the boss, the leader will see the slave’s good works, repent, and glorify God in heaven (verse 12 of the same chapter)? And “permission” to protect themselves by keeping their head down, knowing any response on their part is likely to bring harsh consequences from the master?
This is very different from the circumstances of a non-slave employee in a Christian organization. They have the options of confronting a professing Christian leader/brother in their leadership and to leave the organization at will. Bosses of Christian organizations are no more above the accountability of their brothers than the elders in the Ephesian church where Paul suggests they should be confronted “in the presence of all.” [1 Timothy 5:20]
As R.C. Sproul argues, Peter and the apostles refused to obey the dictates of the “senate of the people of Israel” in Acts 5:27-32 when told not to “teach in [Jesus’] name,” so the authority of any man is not absolute over God’s people.
If man’s authority is not absolute [Acts 5:27-32] and Peter was speaking specifically to slaves, it may make more interpretive sense that leaders of free men should be held accountable. Submission to man’s authority is most certainly a biblical ethic, but not absolute, nor intended by God for the oppression of His people as they serve Him in the marketplace.
Stibbs, Alan M. The First Epistle General of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988. Page 110.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. V. 6 vols. Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.
 Stibbs, The First Epistle General of Peter, 114.
 1 Samuel 26:11.
Sproul, R. C. 1-2 Peter. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Page 78.