In my previous post (Obeying God, Obeying Man — Some Key Scriptures), I listed some key Scriptures dealing with obedience to government, as well as a list of cases in which disobedience to government is either clearly approved, or appears to be approved, by God.
In this post, I’d like to draw some principles that appear to be well-supported by the Scriptural evidence. The specific text of most of the passages cited below can be seen in my prior post.
- God wants us to be law-abiding and respectful towards civil government. Romans 13, Titus 3, etc.
- If it comes to a choice between obeying God and obeying man, we must obey God. Acts chapters 4 and 5.
- By implication, therefore, if a command of man requires us to directly disobey God, we must disobey it and instead obey God. Exodus 1; I Kings 12; Daniel 3; Daniel 6; Amos 7; Acts 4; Acts 5, others.
- Also by implication, if a command of man requires us to directly facilitate the wickedness of others, we must disobey it and instead obey God. I Samuel 20; Matthew 2; II Corinthians 11.
- If the civil authority exceeds its jurisdiction by intruding inappropriately on the religious duties and conscience of a church or individual Christians, we need not obey it. (The rejection of civil authority over the religious sphere is seen in I Samuel 13, II Kings 1, and II Chronicles 26.)
- By implication, though it is less clear in Scripture than point #3, if the civil authority exceeds its jurisdiction by intruding on the family life, it has violated the jurisdiction of another God-ordained institution and need not be obeyed. This was not the focus of my prior post, but passages such as Numbers 30, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and others make clear there is an authority structure in the family which is parallel to and not subject to either the religious (Old Testament-Levitical, New Testament-church) or civil authority.
- Disobedience to government under points 2-4 is not a matter of rejoicing or rebellious attitudes, but a matter of regret, and to be avoided through appeal or creative solutions where possible. This is implicit in the attitude towards civil authority taught clearly in Romans 13, Titus 3, I Peter 2, and I Timothy 2. We see this attitude exemplified by Daniel in Daniel 1.
- Disobedience to government under points 2-4 is not without consequences, and Christians who choose to disobey should not expect the civil authority to ignore their actions. Christians are, however, free to exercise any legal rights they may have to resist wrong authority. This also was not a focus of my earlier post but we see several examples of this in Paul’s actions in the Book of Acts.
- Wisdom, love, and/or concern for evangelistic witness may direct that Christians should comply with excessive directives of the civil government, not because the wrongful civil directives have any moral or Biblical force in themselves, but because of a sober assessment that those actions bring the greatest glory to God. This also was not a focus of my prior post but perhaps is illustrated by this post: Why I’m Wearing a Mask Tomorrow. I believe the government has overstepped its bounds in requiring Christians to wear masks in church, but I choose to do so anyway for the reasons given in the article.
Elaborating on point #4 above, there are several examples in Scripture where the religious authorities oppose and rebuke the civil authorities when the civil authorities intruded in matters of worship. There is no obligation, therefore, for churches to obey the civil authorities when they try to restrict normal and appropriate religious practices. The civil authorities, who do not share our faith, do not have the capability to properly assess what is necessary to the exercise of our faith, and do not have any Biblical remit for determining what parts of our worship practice are acceptable and which are not. Therefore, we have no Biblical or moral obligation to obey them.
Should churches choose to disobey the civil authorities, we may have to deal with legal consequences, but in many cases down through the centuries Christians have had to do exactly that. If we do disobey the civil authorities, we should do so with a meek, rather than a rebellious, spirit. And there may be times when we do what they want us to do, not out of obedience to them, but because doing those things will be the best way to honour our Lord.
There is one area in which civil authority can and should have some say in what churches do. I’ll leave that for my next article.