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IV. Four Crucial Questions
Let me wrap up this message by looking at some very practical questions raised by this passage.
1. How far can a Christian go in expressing opposition to an unjust government?
On one level, the answer is clear. You can go as far as the law allows you to go. You can picket, you can collect petitions, you can write letters to the editor, you can call a talk-show and sound off, you can write to your heart’s content on your own website, you can make a video and post it on YouTube, you can vote and encourage others to vote with you, you can visit your congresswoman or your senator, you can sit in the coffee shop and argue with your friends. You can take out an ad in the paper if you like. You can join with others to work for change. You can run for office. Submission doesn’t require you to keep your mouth shut about injustice and corruption.
However, the issue of the heart is very important. It’s better to keep quiet than to speak out in burning anger. If you believe that God can work his will even through a corrupt leader, that will temper your comments, cool your emotions, and keep you from doing or saying something you may regret later.
2. What should Christians do if the government orders them to do something that conflicts with their faith?
Peter and John gave us the answer in Acts 5:29 when they said, “We must obey God rather than man.” The highest authority is God himself. Like the Hebrew children who refused to bow down before the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), we must take our stand for our faith. And then we must be willing to suffer the consequences.
Pastor Kent Hughes shares some helpful insights about the circumstances in which disobedience is not only permitted but demanded of the Christian:
Our conclusion is this: A Christian must disobey his government when it asks him to 1) violate a commandment of God, 2) commit an immoral or unethical act, or 3) go against his Christian conscience (a conscience which is informed by Scripture and is in submission to the Spirit of God). (Romans, p. 242)
John Stott summarizes the issue in this succinct statement:
The principle is clear: We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God. (Romans, p. 342)
Again, the attitude of the heart is so important. If you read Daniel 3, you discover that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego spoke respectfully to the king even though they disobeyed his direct orders. In other words, they disobeyed with a submissive heart. That’s why God blessed them in spite of their disobedience.
3. What about civil disobedience?
This term covers a wide range of activities, but it usually refers to breaking a law in order to protest injustice. Sometimes that happened in the Old Testament, such as the Hebrew midwives refusing to kill the babies (Exodus 1) or Rahab the harlot hiding the Israeli spies in Jericho (Joshua 2). Today we use the term to refer to what happened during the civil rights movement of the sixties or some of the protests that take place outside or inside an abortion clinic.
Again, consider these words of John Stott: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty” (Romans, p. 342). The problem lies in discerning whether a given law clearly and absolutely “contradicts” God’s law. Obviously, we all agree that if the government forced women to have abortions, that law should be resisted. But most conflicts are not as clear-cut as that. What about a law that restricts protest at abortion clinics but does not forbid it altogether? Is civil disobedience a “Christian duty” in that case?
It’s difficult to set down hard and fast rules covering every situation because one person’s Christian conscience may lead him in one direction while another person may choose to do something else or not to participate at all. But if you choose the course of civil disobedience, it seems to me that it must be over an issue of clear biblical teaching, it must be done publicly so that others can draw the right lesson, it ought to be done in concert with other believers, it must be accompanied by prayer and repentance, and finally, if you do break a law as a form of protest, you must then face the fact that you may be punished for your actions.
Believers who choose disobedience cannot also claim some special protection from God when they break the law of man. Again, the attitude of heart is crucial. You may not always be able to obey, but you can always have a submissive spirit because you believe in God.
4. What does it mean to be a good Christian and a good citizen?
Very simply, it means that we have dual citizenship–on earth and in heaven. As citizens God calls us to submit ourselves to those who are in authority over us, to obey the laws, to do what is right, to pay our taxes, and to show honor and respect to everyone who is over us. As Christians God calls us to take our rightful place as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt preserves and it flavors. Light dispels the darkness.
There is a sense in which all of us are called to be godly rebels. It happens because we have dual citizenship. As believers we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). As members of the human race, we have citizenship in America or in some other country. The conflict is inevitable because the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man are sometimes at war with each other. Many times our Christian faith will force us to stand against the status quo and take positions that are unpopular and politically incorrect.
It seems likely that we will increasingly be put in that position in the years ahead as our culture becomes increasingly secular.
As a Christian, I see much around me that deeply disturbs me. As an American, I pray for leaders that will obey Micah 6:8 and act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before Almighty God. For the most part, that prayer has not yet been answered.
“The Only Times We Are Given”
Richard Neuhaus was on his way to a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania. When he arrived at the airport, his host spent over an hour detailing everything that was wrong with our country, our society, our culture, our families, and our schools. When his host had finished his dreary litany of national ills, Pastor Neuhaus replied, “These may be bad times, but they are the only times we are given. And we must remember that despair is a mortal sin.”
How true. These are indeed the only times we are given. Despair is never an option for the Christian. Let us reaffirm our belief that our God reigns over all the nations of the earth. He is the Lord God Almighty. To him all the nations are but a drop in the bucket. The One enthroned in the heavens laughs at those who rage against him. No matter who controls the House or the Senate or the White House, God is still on the throne.