When Must Christians Obey the Government, and When Not? #Masks #202
Hello everybody and happy Friday – another weekend is nearly upon us. Today’s podcast has me filled with a bit of fear and trembling because it delves into an area that, as a pastor, I specifically and intentionally have avoided for almost a decade. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I don’t care…I actually care a great deal about politics and follow political news closely from a wide variety of sites. No, I don’t read 40 different newspapers a day, and I would be honestly shocked and astonished if anybody – especially a pastor – did that, but I do keep up. That said, when I read the New Testament I see very little focus on politics – especially the advocacy of political candidates or anything remotely along those lines. Should Christians vote and be involved in politics? I believe so, but you’d have a hard time coming up with a New Testament text that would clearly point you in that direction. Should pastors and church leaders focus a large percentage of their time in the political arena? I honestly don’t see anything in the Word of God that would seem to indicate a positive answer there.
And thus it is that we tackle today’s topic with a bit of trepidation. Our Bible passages include Joshua 24, Acts 4, Jeremiah 13 and Matthew 27. Most of these passages have a political/governmental slant. In Joshua 23-24, we will see a man who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest political leaders in the Bible, and maybe in world history too, say his final farewells. As far as I’m concerned, Joshua is highly underrated. Brave, Godly, a strong leader, and he actually seemed to like the people he governed more than Moses did. There was also not a major Joshua sin scandal – you’d be hard pressed to find many major sins of Joshua recorded in Scripture. In Matthew 26-27, you see multiple terrible examples of government gone astray. The Jewish government – the Sanhedrin – was ostensibly supposed to be represent God’s leadership and commands in human form, and yet they were fools who had strayed light years away from the commands of God – so far away that they didn’t even recognize God Himself – Jesus the Son of God who was fully God- upon His visitation. They couldn’t crucify Him quickly enough. Even Jeremiah 13 focuses a little bit on the leaders of Jerusalem, and how they’ve led the people astray. It also contains this astounding illustration in which God tells Jeremiah to go buy some underwear, wear it for awhile, then go bury it by the river and leave it for a long time, and then go back and find it again much later to see how dirty and ruined it was. I am not making that up!
None of those, however, are our focus passages…instead, we turn to Acts 4, in which we see a significant act of civil disobedience on behalf of the disciples of Jesus. Let’s go read the passage and then discuss it.
So they called for them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The Sanhedrin – the Jewish governing authority of Jerusalem has ordered the disciples of Jesus in no uncertain terms to stop preaching about Jesus. As you read, Peter and John pretty flatly told them that they were going to listen to God’s commands and not to the commands of the Sanhedrin and they kept on preaching about Jesus, as we see in Acts 5:
25 Someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the commander went with the servants and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. 27 After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28 “Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted this man to his right hand as ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The Sanhedrin, faced with this flagrant and public act of disobedience, want to put the disciples to death, but one of their number named Gamaliel persuades them otherwise, which leads to the apostles being severely flogged for preaching in the name of Jesus. In vs 29, Peter lays down a very important principle in terms of being the people of God under a Godless (or secular government): “We must obey God, rather than people.” I believe that Peter is referring back to the Great Commission of Jesus in which the disciples were commanded to take the good news and the teachings of Jesus to every corner of the world. To have obeyed the commands of the authorities would mean disobeying Jesus, and that was not an option for these followers of Jesus, nor is it an option for us. When any government commands people to do something that would cause us to disobey a command of God, we must resist. Resist in the right way, of course – much like the disciples did here – but resist nonetheless.
That principle stated, if we keep reading in the Bible – in fact, if we just keep reading until the very next book in the Bible, we will find some extremely clear and specific commands given to Christians in Romans 13 that we must obey. Let’s read them:
Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. 7 Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.
This is one of the clearest Scriptures in the Bible, and we would do well to remember that it is written to the Roman Christians, living under a Godless and pagan empire that had Jesus crucified and featured emperors who routinely claimed to be gods. Read the words. Grapple with them. Let them sink in to you.
Submit to the governing authorities, says Paul.
Why Paul – why would we do this? They are evil and wrong on so many things.
Because there is no authority except from God – and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.
Wait, surely not Paul – surely our current president/governor/leader isn’t from God, right? Surely our LAST president/governor/leader wasn’t from God was he, Paul?
YES, says Paul – the one who resists the authorities is opposing God’s command.
That is impossible, Paul – they are ordering us to do things that TAKE AWAY OUR FREEDOM, and they are LYING TO US CONSTANTLY.
The government is God’s servant says Paul, and therefore you must submit – not only because they will punish you if not, but because of your conscience.
NO WAY, Paul – are you kidding me? The government is God’s servant? They are a joke and SO WRONG ON (insert issue here)
Yes, says Paul, repeating himself in vs. 6 – the government is God’s authority!
Come on, Paul – they are requiring us to wear masks and they are impinging on our freedom, and causing all sorts of trouble…surely you aren’t commanding us to submit to the government? Really?!
Yes, says Paul in Titus 3:1 Remind them to submit o rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, 2 to slander no one, to avoid fighting, and to be kind, always showing gentleness( to all people.
This is utterly ridiculous, Paul – let’s ask Peter about this whole submission thing. Surely the guy who was BEATEN by the government for doing the will of Jesus will tell us that we can do what we want…Peter will tells us to do anything but submit to dumb governmental rules:
12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.13 Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority 14 or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. 15 For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good.
1 Peter 2:12-15
Uh-oh. You too, Peter? So – where do we find ourselves here, friends? On the one hand, we have an example of the disciples disobeying a direct order from the government. This is important, and noteworthy, but I believe that we should first build our theology and practice of the Christian life not on narrative elements of Scripture, but on clear commands. The only reason we reversed the order today is because Acts 4 is a narrative passage, and that is the passage in our daily Bible reading for the day. When we look at the clear commands of Scripture (Romans, Titus, Peter, etc), we are faced with an unquestionable call to submit to the government. We see in Acts 4 what I believe is the ONE single exception to this command, in much the same way that Jesus says that adultery is the one exception in marriage that allows for divorce. In Acts 4 and 5 we see the government giving the disciples a command that, if followed, would directly lead to disobedience to the Lord’s command to evangelize in the Great Commission.
Thus it would appear that Christians are told here to submit to God’s commands when they are in direct conflict with governmental commands, but to submit to governmental commands otherwise. Practically speaking – what does this mean? Well, as Paul says, it means we pay taxes. It further means that we submit to laws we may not like or agree with. How this plays out practically is a question that is too large in scope for a simple podcast like this one, but examples abound right now of applications for this overall principle: Submit to the government UNLESS the government commands us to do something that would directly violate a command of God.
Think about the law or order of the governmental authorities right now that sets you on edge – that inconveniences you, or bothers you, or that you feel is an overstepping of their authority. Does that command DIRECTLY cause you to disobey God’s commands if you follow it? Then obey God rather than man. (Acts 4) Does it not? Then submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every ruling authority. (1 Peter 2) Are you advocating on social media for disobedience and the opposite of submission to the laws and commands of the governing authorities? You MUST be sure that the laws you oppose and seek to disobey are laws that, if followed, cause you to disobey God. If they are laws you just don’t like, or disagree with on principle, then allow me to remind you to go read Romans 13 again. And 1 Peter 2. And Titus 3:1-2.
One final word: If you know me in real life, you likely know that I am no fan of the government in general, and would like to see much less use of governmental authority. I do not rejoice at being told to wear masks, or not have church services or how fast I can drive on a particular road. That is my opinion, and it is worth as much as you paid for it. As a man under the authority of God, however, I am joyfully constrained to follow God’s way and not my best judgment. He is Lord, and therefore I will submit to the governing authorities unless they tell me something that directly contradicts what God’s Word commands.
Allow me to close on a very non-political note – something far more important than politics, and one of my favorite passages in the Bible:
13 When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus.
May it be said of us also!