Should Christians always Obey the Authorities?

Last month we looked at the Christians attitude to authority as: ‘there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God’ (Romans 13:1). But we also noted that those in authority are: ‘God’s servant for your good’ (v4). So is it ever right to disobey the authorities if they in some way fail in that role?

The early Church, when facing opposition from the Jewish authorities, faced a stark choice. Were they to continue preaching the Gospel or stop as they had been commanded to (Acts 4:1-22)? But Peter and John answered them, “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”’ (Acts 4:19-20). Having witnessed Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection the answer was obvious! Although Peter commends obedience to rulers and authorities in his epistle (1 Peter 2:13-15), their experienced and conscience compelled them, in this case, to disobey them in obedience to Christ’s command to be his witness starting in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8).

The role of ‘hate crimes’ for the protection of individuals in society is something that all Christians should feel able to support. We should want to see people protected regardless of their race and should deplore violence against anyone due to their sexuality. However, what if something supported by law is contrary to scripture?

I believe we can learn from the attitude of the apostle Paul. When in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) the number of idols in the city was detestable to him as a Christian and a Jew. But his approach was respectful as his purpose was to reach the: ‘Athenian mind’.[1] So when given the chance to proclaim the Gospel he does so in: ‘a convenient and customary place for public speaking’.[2] By this approach the Athenians hear the Gospel in a culturally accessible way.[3] The message is very direct! But the approach is gracious and loving, as Paul wants people to understand the ‘good news’, whereas some zealous Jews might have felt a God given right to take a hammer to the nearest idol! So we have the Scriptural principles, but how should they be applied in this day and age?

Firstly, we present the whole ‘Counsel of God’. For example, the Bible teaches the wrongness of any sexual relationships outside of Heterosexual marriage.   But a Christian at a Gay Pride event with a placard quoting Leviticus 20:13 is hardly doing that or showing a loving approach! If preaching on that passage, references to Isaiah 61:1-3 (the year of the LORD’S favour), 1 Corinthians 6:9-11and Romans 3:23-24 would present the right balance with an offer of forgiveness for all who have sinned and repent.[4] Secondly, we must stay as much as possible within the law. We have a perfect right to make a stand against abortion, but not to act intimidatingly, knowingly causing distress or obstruction outside an abortion clinic! God is the higher authority, but we are still called to submit to the ruling authorities where we can! The question we must ask is what are the necessary laws to break and when does protesting fail to be a constructive and loving witness? This is surely what is being taught in 1 Peter 3:15-16 where Peter puts an emphasis on: ‘gentleness and respect, having good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who recall your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame’ (v16).

Lastly, we must show great wisdom. The court case against the Australian Pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot was rightly over turned.[5] However, during their seminar on Christianity and Islam, although in many instances they quoted the Quran accurately, it was reported (in otherwise favourable reports) that some remarks were unwise and over the top. The case was a travesty in a country that prides itself on free speech, but it demonstrates the need for Christians to take care.[6]

In conclusion, the route to necessary law breaking should always be a long one and wisdom must be sought in the process of responding to laws that limit Christian liberty. When authorities fail to act as: ‘God’s servant’ (Romans 13:4) by producing laws that are contrary to Scripture the Church should preach against them in the most appropriate and robust manner! But that should be the last resort and other than that there are no excuses! In the end we are called to be good citizens who pray for those in authority so we might have good government and live peaceful lives (2 Timothy 2:2).

[1] J A. Alexander, Acts (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth 1963), 146.

[2] Alexander, Acts, 149.

[3] N Logenecker and N C. Tenney, ed F E. Gaebelein The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9, John and Acts (Grand Rapids, The Zondervan Corporation, 1981), 475.

[4] Something we all need to do!

[5] The incident was a seminar in March 2002 to instruct Christians on the teachings of Islam.  Unknown to the organisers several Australian converts to Islam attended and lodged a complaint.  The writer of this article does not want to be seen as over critical of these fellow Brothers in Christ, the example is used just to express the need for care.


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