Where do we draw the line in obeying government?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: This might be difficult to answer. I am Christian, and I would like to know where we should draw the line when it comes to “respecting” the government. I don't mean this in an insulting, disrespectful way… but if the government said all women must get an abortion… or used the Bible falsely to support a terrible agenda — or any scenario where a government becomes abusive and harms innocent people  when is it right to rebel?

Let me take this a step further. Would it ever be biblically permissible to become part of a resistance movement against such a bad government? I realize that these are tough questions, but I hope you can help me sort through them. Thank you!

Answer: You know what? This question is easy to answer! … unless of course… you are looking for a “right” answer — a one-size-fits-all-answer… like we were answering the question, “Should I worship idols?” ( … the answer to which would be an unqualified “no.”)

The difficulty comes because it’s a “How should we live in light of the biblical data?” type of question, and the answers to that type of question are as variable as the people who are asking them. But they compound exponentially when we add your “what ifs?”

Nevertheless, we do have “answers.” They come in two forms: direct teachings in the Bible and the example of some of its actors. But the quintessential answer to the question “At what point should we disobey government?” comes from Acts chapters 3 and 4... where Peter and John were put in jail by the religious leaders for healing in Jesus’ name.

I realize that the religious leaders were not officially “the government” ... as in the federal government in the USA. (Rome was that technical equivalent.) But the religious leaders had power where it counted… over the day-to-day life of the first-century Jews. Since they had the power to ruin people’s lives, the analogy holds.

If you remember, Peter had healed a beggar who was lame from birth. The man was well-known in the community because he begged at the temple gates daily. The people thought that Peter had healed this man by his own power, but Peter corrected them. He gave all the glory to Jesus Christ... and reminded the Jews that they had recently rejected and killed him.

Now, Peter had gathered an audience. About five thousand people were saved in the light of this miracle! So, the religious establishment had to do some damage control... but they ended up throwing Peter and John in jail for the night. When they released them the next day, they told them not to teach in the name of Jesus anymore. Here was their reply.

“… Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18–20, NIV).

To answer your question, that is the point where you may disobey the government. When the government has overtly and systematically made laws and performed actions that directly oppose God’s truth, we have precedent. Peter and John claimed to have a higher authority than even the high priest. They appealed to God... and they continued to preach about Jesus Christ.

In my opinion, this is one of the great stories in the history of humankind. There they were… two apostles standing alone — (effectively) thumbing their noses at “the man!” But I left out a part of the story. If you plan to copy this precedent, make sure to copy the entire precedent.

As post-Pentecostal believers in Jesus Christ, Peter and John had the indwelling Holy Spirit. They had no more of the indwelling Holy Spirit than do you or me. But Acts 4:8 goes out of its way to mention the Holy Spirit’s particular agency to this miracle. It says that Peter was “filled” with the Holy Spirit!

So, did Peter receive an extra dose of the Spirit... like some of the charismatics might claim is possible? Or were Peter and the indwelling Holy Spirit sort of pumping each other up for what was to come. (I prefer that answer.) But whichever way it was, you had better make sure that’s what’s happening if you stand against the government. It has to be a special visitation (or spiritual epiphany) before you break the baseline rule of the Bible: believers are to obey governing authorities — even the bad ones! (1 Peter 2:18).

The apostle Paul is the one who hammers this home... particularly in Romans 13. But it shows up as early as in the 10 Commandments under the guise of honoring your father and mother (Exodus 20:12). This notion of “honoring your betters” is reinforced throughout Scripture. The issue is that we all stand as biblical types (sort of) with anyone who is “over” us as an image of our relationship to God — who is over everyone and everything! Only under extraordinary circumstances should we break that imagery.

Do you remember when the apostle Paul was contending for the gospel and someone struck him... and Paul lashed out verbally? (Acts 23:1-4). He did not know that the strike was under the aegis of the high priest. When he found out, he apologized... and gave scriptural warrant for that apology. Now Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ — the King of Kings! Yet he apologized to the high priest because of his position, not because of his person.

I’m an American. Our society is based on practicality, not honor. So we have an inborn, “Who does he think he is?” ... kind of snarky attitude towards any superior. This is unfortunate. I constantly fight that inner voice. The Bible was written to people in an honor-based society, so to understand it better, we should leave our arrogance at the Statue of Liberty.

I say this to emphasize the importance that Scripture places on obeying authority... and therefore... how great a moment in spiritual history it was when Peter and John rebelled. But we tend to look at that moment as global permission to rebel. That’s a mistake. When we weigh the whole counsel of Scripture, we never have permission to rebel… or at least… if you follow that rule, you’ll be right 99.99% of the time. That same Peter who rebelled did not want others to do the same. He wrote in defense of civil obedience in 1 Peter chapter 2.

Now, if the Holy Spirit is compelling you to take a stand against authority — and you’d better be sure it’s the Holy Spirit… because there are a lot of imitators out there that are having immature Christians for breakfast — then go for it. I’m proud of you! But that would be such a rare occurrence that I do not plan on experiencing it in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I would encourage you to use the example of Peter and John to advance in your spiritual walk... to call out social wrongdoing... to take a stand on doctrine... to speak out against wrongdoings at high levels. But don’t become a “sovereign citizen” ... and don’t join a Christian secessionist movement.

Instead, pray for those in authority; pay your taxes and do the work that’s in front of you. If you die by following the rules, you will have died honorably while advancing God’s kingdom’s objectives. Just know that we can’t perform the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) if we separate ourselves from the world socially. We are to separate spiritually, though... and that should be enough.

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1–4, NIV)

Jesus is a great example of when to behave sharply. This should come as no surprise. He was obedient to the Father unto death! But while he was here, he didn’t mind mixing it up with the people who were working against his kingdom. Famously, he chased the money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12). But when the moment was right, he was also verbally aggressive. He called out people who had the wrong ideas, and he boldly taught the ideals of his kingdom (Matthew 7:21-23; 23:25).

That being said, God wants us to be good citizens of both kingdoms — of the earthly kingdoms we happen to inhabit... and of the kingdom of God. These are not mutually exclusive. Ancient Israel was originally a theocracy... but eventually became a monarchy. God told them over and over that, if they took care of business his way, their lives on earth would be the best they can be (1 Kings 3:14).

Look at Joseph and Daniel... arguably the greatest “practical heroes” of the Bible. On one hand, God calls us to be separate (2 Corinthians 6:17) ... yet he sets up Joseph to be a ruler in Egypt. He looked like an Egyptian, he talked like an Egyptian and he married an Egyptian woman. Yet he was God’s man. Daniel also cooperated with four pagan governments — so much so that he was continually a leader. He even had a pagan name — Belteshazzar  (Daniel 1:7). How’s that for cooperation! But God didn’t blink. God used him mightily.

You see, the Bible is punctuated by people who had moments of courage in the name of God. Esther interrupted King Xerxes (Esther 5) ... Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship the image (Daniel 3)… Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). But mostly, the Christian life is about cooperation. We cooperate with God primarily... but we do this by living the most productive lives we can here on earth. The thing is, we should do it without making the kind of waves that would be a bad testimony of our God (1 Peter 3:15).

(A sister ministry, Got Questions Ministries, has a good article on civil obedience. Click here to read that article.)

The apostle Paul taught overtly in Romans 13 that we should obey the government. But in 1 Thessalonians he teaches the same thing — only more softly... and in a voice that says we should cooperate with the life we have... with the time we have... and in the place we have.

I’ll end with Paul’s words, and I pray these perspectives helped. God bless you.

“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9–12, NIV, emphasis mine)

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20211011 Where do I draw the line when it comes to obeying the government? ).

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