The idea of giving honor to the earthly authorities is a touchy one, but is something we will be willing to do if we believe that it is for the best possible outcome. On Sunday I said:
I am not calling for Christians to blindly follow and support all of the decisions of the president. Peter is not calling the first century Christians to support the persecution of Nero. BUT there is a difference between honorable disagreement and unhelpful slander. Correction is needed, challenge is necessary (in all of the relationships mentioned above), but it must be aimed to help create a better solution, not just to tear down the current one.
The question that naturally follows (and I know it does because it has been asked more than once this week) is: what are the limits of this obedience. What are the conditions by which we as Christians have the right to disobey. Three good principles are:
1. Obey the law when it is in line with (or doesn’t break God’s law) | you may not always like the laws made. Pay your taxes, fill out permits, do it out of reverence to God. Your obedience to the law is a reflection of your trust in God’s sovereignty. If He is in control, we don’t have to be.
2. Do what God calls you to even if it breaks the law of the land | we don’t need to go around looking for loopholes, but there will be times when the state steps in and tells us to stop gathering, preaching the Word, having kids, or asks us to support sin; we will have to just keep being the church. We will face consequences. We must face these consequences with character and integrity.
An example of this is the way that the disciples faced up to government in Acts. Acts 5, Peter, the author of the letter we are studying, was imprisoned for preaching. At night, an angel of the Lord released them from jail. What do they do now? Gather a group to start an uprising against the Romans? No, the Holy Spirit tells them to get back in the public square and preach. When the leaders caught up with them their response was simply: We must obey God rather than men. After some discussion they were left to preach. But it doesn’t always end so well. Jesus submitted Himself to the authorities to the point of death. You can’t control the consequences, but you can control how you respond to them.
Put simply, if the law tells you to stop doing what God has called you to (or to do something God has forbid), God’s law has ultimate authority.
Within that, we should avoid putting ourselves in situations where compromise is part of the job. If doing a job causes us to act against conscience, it would be better for us to find a new job than use our position to rage against the machine. The sinful structures of the world force us to be shrewd and wise for the sake of our witness.
3. Civil disobedience to stand up for the cause of the weak | there are times when we must risk the consequences of earthly authority for the sake of those in positions of abuse. This is what caused Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stand up against Hitler for the sake of the Jewish people (and the German church), Martin Luther King Jr. to lead marches for Civil Rights, and Pro-life activists to stand in front of clinics. Their respect for the power of the state is what caused them to take on the consequences that come from civil disobedience. These acts must be in support of, not in place of, a life of integrity. If we are simply acting against, than we no longer have a voice to proclaim God’s goodness, for we only represent God’s justice. For the sake of the whole counsel of God, we must reserve our opposition.
We may be forced to give up our ‘rights’ for the sake of honor, but that is certainly in line with the teachings of the Bible. We must all struggle with what it looks like to ‘Honor the Emperor’ in our lives. We may not all come to the same conclusions, but we must all struggle to obey this command from God.