As godlessness increases in our western democracies, as our leaders seek to redefine morality, diminishing all real sense of right and wrong, so Christian believers are increasingly coming into conflict with the law. Our governments seem unable to bring themselves to punish wrongdoers adequately, and they are now frequently harassing the law abiding. This is a reversal of the godly order. The question now arises as to whether as Christian believers we are bound to obey every law our governments take it into their heads to put on the statute book? The answer to this must be a resounding, no.
Whilst we are not free to pick and choose what laws we will obey, there are many laws that can have no hold over anyone. Godless laws, laws made in contradiction to the Bible or laws that lie outside the authority given to rulers by God and are contrary to Him, can have no binding authority over us. We are therefore relieved of any obligation before God to obey them as this would make us disobedient to Him, causing us to sin, and must as a consequence be disregarded. Some of those on the front line are likely to be Christian doctors and nurses who may be pressured into performing procedures contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Believing teachers, college lecturers, will without doubt, should governments continue along their present road, increasingly clash with the authorities in what they may be compelled to do. There will be many others too: pastors who insist on preaching the whole counsel of God – already prosecutions have been brought against some. Are we moving to a day when godly preachers will furtively move from place to place undercover in order to minister the Word? This is not so far-fetched as we may imagine. University students are coming under fire. Who next, Christian hotels and guest houses perhaps? Eventually most of us will be hit in one way or another.
Where godless men rule and, in conscious rebellion against God, elevate themselves in their own minds to the throne of God to rule, because they are opposed to Him and reject His rule over them, they will necessarily introduce legislation that contradicts the revealed Word of God. This will inevitably bring us as Christians into conflict with the civil authorities at some point.
Before anything else we must recognise that as Christians we are enjoined by the Scriptures to be law-abiding citizens. Despite this, the obligation laid upon us by God to obey civil laws rests not in the recognition of an authority inherent within the rulers themselves by virtue of their superior position. This would give the authorities a carte blanche to intervene in every area of our lives, as indeed they attempt, and essentially this amounts to tyranny. Their power is strictly limited whether they recognise this or not.
What authority our governments enjoy is derivative, derived not from the will of the people, but given to them by God to whom they must also answer. Although these men may all be a thoroughly godless bunch, they exercise this power as His servants. As such their powers are strictly limited and not comprehensive. Men rule only within the parameters of a divine mandate.
The relationship between God, rulers and the ruled is laid down for us very clearly in the New Testament.
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)
From this passage it is clear that rulers are given of God for two main reasons: first, “for the punishment of evildoers” and second, “for the praise of them that do well”. They are to restrain and punish evildoers and to encourage those who do good. We submit to “every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” not for theirs. We obey men, God’s servants, because we obey God also as His servants.
To resist the authority that God has put in place is to resist Him. Rulers are in place for good and not evil. Those who resist them, resist good. Rulers, like we the ruled, are God’s servants, His ministers. We must be subject to them.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:1-7)
We see too from the above passage that we are not entitled to withhold taxes for whatever reason. Governments seem particularly inept at doing what God has asked them to do yet run to take over that which goes far beyond their remit. As a result of believing they can legislate so widely and control so many areas of our lives where they really have no business to be poking about, this means they need to take more money than they ought in order to cover the extra expenditure. The answer is not to refuse to pay.
“Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” (Matthew 22:15-21)
We give to Caesar what is his, even although Caesar, it must be said, often tries to appropriate that which is not his to take. The Lord Jesus paid His taxes and encouraged His disciples to do the same.
“And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.” (Matthew 17: 24-27)
Governments have been put in place by God, therefore civil disobedience, whether passive or deliberate, is a very serious matter indeed. Given the very strong statements in the above passages, can it ever be justified? Certainly, it can. Indeed, there are times when it would be positively sinful to obey the authorities. In the Bible and in history we find many examples of how godly men have resisted rulers. We can go further, where the State possesses no authority, where it exceeds its mandate, we have no obligation to obey; although we may find it circumspect to conform where this does not bring us into direct conflict with the Word of God and thus we avoid offence. Nevertheless, when pushed, such laws can have no binding hold over us. Indeed, where there is this kind of conflict we ought rather to follow the example of the apostles to ‘obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). As did the apostles, we too must be prepared to take the consequences of our actions placing ourselves in God’s hands when wrongly accused and prosecuted. This is something followers of the Lord Jesus have done down throughout history and have even given their lives.
The Sexual Orientation Regulations that have recently been introduced here in the UK are not binding upon anyone, never mind Christian believers, simply on the grounds that they are contrary to Scripture. They can bear no civil authority because they bear no divine authority. We can safely ignore them and refuse to abide by them. The same may be said of abortion laws, and many aspects of legislation concerning children, the family and education. All such laws, because they go beyond the authority given to rulers and conflict with Scriptures, are in essence a form of tyranny.
What goes on within our family, the education of our children, these things are no concern of the State. Matters of the Church of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel are no business of the State. Rulers ought to be supportive and not hinder these things but instead encourage us to good works. These areas of our life become an immediate concern of the civil authorities only when wrongdoing is found to be taking place there, then the authorities are duty-bound to step in, yet it is just here that they so often fail.
We have many examples given us in Scripture of those who resisted the authorities. Daniel was among many nobles of Israel carried off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians were quick to take advantage of their wisdom and knowledge and to share in the blessing of God that was upon these men. Many do the same today, seeking to gain from godly men and what God has given them, whilst rejecting their God. For all that, neither Daniel nor his friends were about to make any compromises. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow before the golden image set up by Nebuchadnezzar. God preserved them even when thrown into the fiery furnace. Some years later king Darius, deceived by Daniel’s enemies, was persuaded to issue a decree forbidding petitions to any but the king for thirty days. It was Daniel’s custom to pray three times a day to God, on his knees, his window open towards Jerusalem. Once the writing was signed, he deliberately went home and did what he always did. For his pains, as we all know, he was thrown into a den of lions. Here too God preserved His servant. When our modern apostate States put themselves in the place of God and demand we bow down and worship, we refuse. When they intervene between us and our God, we carry on as we always did and take the consequences knowing that God is still well able to shut the lions’ mouth and deliver us should He so choose. Let us take courage from those who have gone before us.
“Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:33-38)
The supreme example of how we should behave when brought before the authorities is the Lord Jesus Himself.
“For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” (1 Peter 2:19-23)
In defence of any refusal to obey the authorities, we ought not to muddy the waters by an appeal to conscience alone, which can be fickle, is often unreliable, and carries no final authority. Conscience must be bound by Scripture, if it is to be of use to us. Neither should we appeal to an assumed ‘right’ to freedom of speech. Precious and hard-won though this privilege may be, it is not open-ended and has its limitations. Our hearts and consciences are bound by one thing and one the thing only, the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
No one can escape the authority of God simply by denying His existence. Atheism, agnosticism, nor anything else can ever be an excuse before God. Whether men believe in God or not is totally irrelevant. We are all, believer or unbeliever, each one answerable to God for what we do, in our family life, at work, wherever we are. Whatever responsibilities we carry in this world, whether they be great or small, ultimately we carry that responsibility before God. Unbelief does not make God disappear. There is but One God, and therefore there is but one ultimate Lawgiver for all men. We are answerable to men insofar as they have been delegated authority by God. Beyond that we do not answer to them.
Serious conflict with the state is something we have long been unaccustomed to in western democracies, and this has been an extraordinary measure of God’s grace towards us, but this was not always so. Why should we expect it to be always the case? Are we not also ‘soldiers of the Cross’?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
The freedom we have hitherto enjoyed has permitted the spread of the Gospel. When a nation refuses Christ, God may well remove the freedom that permits His Word to be preached. Having refused Him, men will be now denied the opportunity to hear, repent and believe. The persecution of believers is something our Saviour and Lord has taught us to expect. In the history of believing people persecution is in many respects the normal state of affairs and peace is unusual.
“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not him that sent me.” (John 15:18-21)
This is really at the heart of everything. There can be no mixing of darkness and light.
There have always been those who have preached salvation through faith in Christ alone and paid for it with their lives. Even in pre-Reformation days many stood boldly for the truth. Gospel testimony was all but obliterated in some countries. One historian writes of the Church of Christ in 12th century:
“The slaughter had been so prodigious – the massacres so universal – the terror so profound, and of so long duration, that the church of Rome appeared completely to have attained her object. The churches were drowned in the blood of their members, or everywhere broken up…public worship everywhere ceased. All teaching was become impossible. Almost every pastor or elder had perished in a frightful manner; and the very small number of those who had succeeded in escaping the edge of the sword, now sought asylum in distant countries, and were enabled to avoid new persecutions, only by preserving the most studied silence respecting their opinions. The private members who had not perished either fire or sword, or who had not withdrawn by flight from the inquisition, knew that they could only preserve their lives by burying their creed in their bosoms. For them there were no more sermons no more public prayers – no more ordinances of the Lord’s house – even their children were not to be made acquainted, for a time at least, with their sentiments.” (in A Concise History of the Baptists by G. H. Orchard, ,pp.217-218)
Ours is such a light affliction by comparison. Perhaps the days will soon be upon us when preachers will once more have to flee from one place to another under the cover of darkness, when believers will have to meet behind closed doors. Such a situation would certainly have a purifying effect in the professing Church, tried by fire. May God grant us His grace and strength.
We need today those prepared to display the quiet strength of Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, who when asked to retract his writings said simply and without his usual impetuosity:
“If, then, I am not disproved by passages of Scripture, or by clear arguments; if I am not convinced by the very passages which I have quoted, and so bound in conscience to submit to the Word of God, I neither can nor will retract anything, for it is not safe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I am. I cannot do otherwise: God help me. Amen.”
We need again today, those who in the face of those who maintain ‘it cannot be otherwise’, respond with Luther’s words, ‘I cannot do otherwise’. Whatever men may purpose to do against us, we are in God’s hands and not theirs. He reigns over and above all and will bring their evil deeds to nothing. All too easily, we allow ourselves to be jerked into a faithless panic, we become fearful about things that have not yet happened, clearly forgetful that nothing is outside God’s hands. The world has not broken free of His grasp. He treads on His enemies as easily as we would swat a fly. In the face of evil men, the instructions of God’s Word are clear and to be obeyed, are we to know His peace and protection.
“Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.” (Psalm 37:1-2)
Those in authority over us need to be reminded that whether they believe it or not, whether they accept it or not, ultimately the only real authority they have to rule comes not in the first instance from an electoral mandate from the people over whom they rule, but from God. Rulers may evade having to answer an enraged populace, but they shall not escape having to answer to God for the shambles they have made of the stewardship He has entrusted to them, for the arrogance, the deliberate rebellion against Him, the turning on its head of all He has commanded and revealed.
Rulers and magistrates, both benevolent kings and evil tyrants, are all raised up by God for one reason: to fulfil His purposes. God's purpose for every ruler is that:
"He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain." (2 Samuel 23:3-4)
God reminded Pharaoh:
“And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)
King Nebuchadnezzar had elevated himself in defiance of God in much the same way as many of our modern rulers have done. He had expected from his subjects that which belongs only to God. To teach him that One alone is God, He was driven by God to live with the beasts of the field and made…
“…to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will. …And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:25 & 35)
It is precisely this that our rulers must acknowledge, but will not. Will they not now make a turn about, then in a coming day they will be forced to do so, acknowledging the One true King, namely the Lord Jesus, and they will bow the knee to Him whom they now so despise. To Daniel, with the eye of a true prophet of God, it was given to see that which is yet to come about.
“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. …I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:9, 13-14)
Nebuchadnezzar repented. He had gone a step too far, as have our present-day rulers in the laws they are now making. Belshazzar, a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, had to be reminded of this by Daniel the prophet.
“O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.” (Daniel 5:18-21)
Nebuchadnezzar repented, humbled himself before God and his kingdom was restored to him. Belshazzar did not repent.
“And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven" (Daniel 5:22-23)
The result was that the kingdom was taken from him, he was killed and his kingdom given to Darius the Mede.
The writing is on the wall – an expression straight from the book of Daniel. A hand wrote on the will whilst king Belshazzar was partying with his cronies blasphemously using vessels taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. In this way God told Belshazzar what would happen to his kingdom. What did the writing say? “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting” (Daniel 5:27). So it comes to all rulers, they are weighed in the balances and when found wanting they are removed. Our modern rulers laugh at this and write it off as ancient mythology. God laughs at them and anyway cuts them off when they least expect it and when He has had enough of their nonsense. History is full of such examples. Says the Psalmist, king David:
“I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." (Psalm 37:35-36)
In the New Testament, King Herod, elevated himself beyond all that was modest and appropriate. Luke chronicled what happened in Acts.
“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost. But the word of God grew and multiplied.” (Acts 12:21-24)
God brings down all those who give Him not the glory. His truth, in the meantime, still multiplies. His Word will never be eradicated. The harder they strive against it in one place, the more it springs up in another.
Let not those who rule us today, lift themselves up, for should they do so, they will be brought down to hell. For some, the writing is already on the wall, do they like Belshazzar, not discern its meaning? Then let me spell it out most clearly. “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” As yet there is still time, still time to turn, time to acknowledge Him who is the King of kings. Let this ring in the ears of the ungodly men who rule us.
“Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.” (Psalm 2:10-12)