Last week I addressed the matter of how we Christians should view government, especially in our time when we’re wrestling through our response to orders not to gather as churches. I demonstrated from Scripture that government was instituted by God himself, and so it is incumbent upon us that we submit to governmental authorities, even unbelieving ones.
But what happens when the government commands us to do something that contradicts God’s commands?
This, of course, is not a new question for Christians, and the Bible has answers to help us navigate the real-life situations we may find ourselves in.
In fact, the earliest Christians experienced this kind of tension between the commands of governmental officials and the commands of God fairly early. In Acts 4, the first time the disciples were persecuted for preaching the gospel, Peter asked a question of the Sanhedrin that was left largely unanswered:
Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God (v 19).
Peter implied that there was a contradiction between the commands of God and the commands of men — in this case the religious and political rulers of Jerusalem. And he asked these Judges of Israel to judge for themselves what to do in cases when the commands of God and men conflict. The Sanhedrin didn’t answer this somewhat rhetorical question, of course, but Acts 5:17-42 answers that question for us. And this is an account to help every generation of the Church to answer that question.
“What do I do when the government issues decrees that are in conflict with biblical teaching?” “What do I do when I am threatened for my public testimony? What do I do when the commands of God and men conflict?”
This time in Acts 5 when Peter addresses the Sanhedrin, he does not ask them a question. He answers his own question from chapter 4 very explicitly:
We must obey God rather than men! (v. 29)
So the answer to our question through Peter’s response is very simply this: It is right to obey God rather than men when the commands of men contradict clear commands of God.
I frame the answer in those terms specifically because the New Testament is very clear that we are to “render to Ceaser’s what is Ceaser’s” — in other words, we are to submit to the commands of our government. We see hundreds of examples of this kind of thing throughout Scripture. But when the commands of God and men conflict, it is right to obey God rather than men.
Now, I want us to note 5 important qualifications to this proposition.
We must make sure it is really a contradiction
First, we must make certain that it is really a contradiction before we disobey the commands of men. It would be easy for us to very quickly cite this principle whenever there is simply an apparent contradiction.
For instance, if the government says that we cannot barge into someone’s home and preach the gospel without their permission, we cannot automatically claim, “We must obey God rather than men!” and do it anyway! We have great freedom to preach the gospel in other places and at other times. It is not as if the government is telling us we cannot preach the gospel like these Jewish leaders were. In that case, the commands of God and men do not really conflict. The same would be true when the government commands that we get a license to preach or hand out gospel literature in certain circumstances. We have an obligation to obey our government in those occasions.
Daniel is a perfect example of this. When Daniel and the other Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians, they changed Daniel’s name from one that meant “Yahweh is Judge” to one that praised a false God. They also subjected Daniel to their pagan educational system. And they also commanded that he eat the King’s meat. All three of these commands were undesirable for a God-fearing Jew. But only one of them actually conflicted with a command of God — the command to eat the king’s meat. Only that command of men clearly conflicted with Old Testament law. The other two were certainly undesirable, but what is a name? And Daniel and the others could certainly stand strong in the midst of pagan education. So Daniel did not resist the name change or the pagan education. But when it came to being commanded to eat the King’s meat, something that contradicted clear commands of God, Daniel refused.
So if we are going to disobey men, we must first make sure their command is really a contradiction with God’s commands.
It is passive resistance
Second, notice that the apostles and other believers did not take up arms and actively fight against these Jewish leaders. No band of Christians came to break the apostles out of jail in the night. None of the Christians bombed the headquarters of the Sanhedrin. They passively resisted the commands of men when they contradicted the commands of God.
It is always for the sake of the gospel
Third, notice that while this was a passive resistance, Peter did not simply refuse to obey and keep his mouth shut. He explained to them why they could not obey, and then he preached the gospel just as he had the last time he was imprisoned. What is clear is that this resistance to the commands of men was not out of stubborn protection of their constitutional rights or to maintain tax exempt status — it was for the sake of the gospel.
If we are going to disobey the commands of men, we must make certain that we are doing so for the sake of the gospel, and that we make it very clear to all around us.
It is never resistance when we have done wrong
A fourth important qualification is found in another of Peter’s statements found in 1 Peter 4:12–16.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
Peter, who experienced suffering himself, tells us not to be surprised when we suffer for Christ’s sake. But then he warns us that persecution against us should never come as a result of sin that we have committed.
Unfortunately there have been times in the history of the Church when Christians — even pastors — have committed terrible crimes and claimed immunity to punishment on the grounds that it would be religious persecution. That is a terrible atrocity to the cause of Christ. Don’t ever let that describe you! I’ll give you just one example: As terrible as abortion is, it would never be right to bomb an abortion clinic and then claim that we are serving Christ. We should never break other laws in our resistance of those that contradict God.
It is always respectful, but never backing down from the truth
Fifth, just notice the tone of Peter’s response. Peter exemplifies the healthy balance we should have between kind, respectful speech toward governmental authority while at the same time never backing down from the clear truths of the gospel no matter how offensive they might be.
So while it is clear from this passage that it is right to obey God rather than men when the commands of men contradict clear commands of God, we must remember these qualifications. (1) We must make sure that it is really a contradiction, (2) It is passive resistance, (3) It is always for the sake of the gospel, (4) It is never resistance when we have done wrong, and (5) It is always respectful, but never backing down from the truth.