In yesterday’s post I mentioned that there is one exception to the Christian’s responsibility to submit to the government. I also mentioned that I would “get to that in a moment,” and then I never did…so I am getting to it now.
When Peter and John stood before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing authority) they were told to stop preaching Christ. Peter and John responded by telling the Sanhedrin that they could not do that–that they had to obey God rather than man. This is Exhibit A in explaining when Christians are not only not responsible to yield to the government’s authority, but are in fact compelled to disobey the government. If you want it in one sentence, here it is: Christians are called to respect and submit to the governing authorities unless and until those authorities require something that God forbids or forbid something that God commands.
Peter and John are an excellent example, but there are others throughout the Scripture. Some of the most well-known Sunday school stories are about Old Testament saints refusing to yield to ungodly commands from human government. Daniel, for example, refused to follow a law which said he could pray only to the king, because he knew that obedience to that law would be disobedience to God. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego refused to bow before the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar because they knew that doing so would violate God’s commandments. Esther broke the law against approaching the king without permission because she knew that her responsibility to intercede on behalf of the Jews in defense of Haman’s evil scheming was greater than her responsibility to wait quietly and see if she was summoned.
Fortunately in America we have seldom been placed in positions of having to disobey the human government in order to obey God, but that time may come. There have been some examples, of course. Military chaplains have faced instructions that may require them to disobey a command from their superiors or to disobey God’s commands regarding homosexual marriage. Recent healthcare legislation has presented challenges to many Christian businesses and Catholic institutions regarding contraception and abortion. Some states have passed laws that some have argued could be construed as outlawing spanking, a practice many Christians believe the Bible teaches as a necessary part of raising godly children. These are some examples, but there are others, and there will likely be more to come. We must be vigilant to stay aware of human government’s attempts to compel actions or behaviors that violate God’s Word. If such laws exist, then and only then are Christians in the right to disobey those human laws.
Will disobedience to human laws bring consequences? It might. But we are not to fear the consequences that human governments can inflict upon us. When Daniel continued to pray to God he was thrown into a lion’s den. When his three friends refused to bow before the golden image, they were cast into a fiery furnace. In both of those instances God spared their lives. He may not always choose to do so, however; sometimes, for reasons we may not understand, God allows His people to suffer persecution, imprisonment, even death, at the hands of human government. Nevertheless, we need not fear. Matthew 10:28 commands us not to fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego were spared, but they did not know they would be. They told Nebuchadnezzar that their God could spare them from death in the furnace, but even if He chose not to they still would not bow to his image. May we have the same power of convictions that those young men did.
In keeping with yesterday’s post, let me also mention that even when human governments may institute laws that violate God’s will for His people, there is no justification for speaking evil against the government. Yes, disobedience is then warranted, but it should be respectful disobedience. Daniel did not scream obscenities against the king or his conniving advisers when the law was passed requiring prayer to the king only. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego did not announce to the crowd how stupid Nebuchadnezzar’s law was, or shout threats against the king, or even ask God to reign down punishment on the king or the nation. No; they calmly but confidently, respectfully but resolutely explained why they could not obey the king’s law. Their lives and actions were salt and light even in the midst of disobedience!
Let us pray that we will never have to choose to disobey the government in order to obey God, but let us pray as well that should we have to do so, that we will have the faith and courage to do so with dignity, confidence and respect.