“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (vv. 19–20). - Acts 4:1–22
Christian ethicists have long debated whether or not it is ever legitimate for believers to defy the state. This is understandable since there are many passages, such as Romans 13:1–7, that seem to encourage submission to the ruling authorities no matter what. Paul, however, was not reflecting any sort of naiveté when he instructed us to submit to the earthly authorities. After all, as one who was often imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, he well knew that the state could very easily become an instrument of evil. His commands to obey the state, as with all of the biblical injunctions to submit to the government, carry with them the assumption that our rulers are, broadly speaking, fulfilling the task that God has given them to preserve life and protect the right to private property.
Yet when the state forbids us to do something the Lord commands or commands us to do something He forbids, believers must not submit to the decrees of the authorities. Christians are never given the license to sin, nor are they permitted to abandon the dictates of God in order to obey the orders of other human beings. Christ alone has ultimate authority, as the apostles demonstrate in today’s passage. Given the chance to preserve their freedom and safety at the cost of preaching Jesus to sinners, Peter and John choose to obey the Great Commission (Acts 4:19–20; see Matt. 28:18–20). Make no mistake, they are engaging in an act of civil disobedience, but they are doing so in order to be faithful to the Lord. Such circumstances alone can justify such actions.
The principle that we may disobey the state if it forbids what God commands or commands what He forbids is easy to learn, but difficult to apply. The state will sometimes engage in unfair practices that we must follow because we cannot make the case that such practices violate Scripture. For example, the so-called “progressive” taxation that exists presently in the United States may be unjust, but we have no right to refuse to pay taxes (Rom. 13:7).
Our default position as Christians is to bend over backward to be model citizens. But when the demands of God’s kingdom directly contradict the demands of the kingdom of men, the mandates of our heavenly citizenship must win.
Because of our fallen nature, it would be easy to twist the principle for Christian civil disobedience enumerated in today’s study into an excuse to avoid the Bible’s call that we submit to the government. Indeed, our fallen nature makes us prone to find any loophole we can in God’s law in order to render something less than true obedience. Beware of this tendency in your heart, but also remember that your allegiance belongs ultimately to Christ, not to the state.
Passages for Further Study
- Exodus 1:8–22
- 2 Cor. 12
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