When is it okay for Christians to intentionally disobey the government, and how should it be done? I sometimes hear the quote “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Please explain the response of Peter and the apostles to the rulers in Acts 4 and 5.
The examples in Acts 4 and 5 show us that Christians have faced this question from the beginning of the church on earth. Many of us are debating it now because of worldwide government restrictions on public gatherings, including local churches, in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Far back in the Old Testament, we also see Daniel and his three friends struggling with laws they could not obey (see this post The Radical – part two, for example, and also review Dan. 3:13-18 and Dan. 6:10-13).
There are many Bible passages that illustrate civil disobedience by faithful people, and the consequences. We want to focus on your opening questions, “When is it okay to disobey, and how?” We think the cited examples in Acts 4 and 5, when examined closely, provide a good pattern. We can’t explain everything in those passages in a short answer, but let’s briefly review both incidents:
“So they [the council] called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 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 4:18-20).
“…They set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name…’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree…’ And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (Acts 5:27-411).
The “when” to disobey is illustrated by what the rulers did: they ordered the apostles “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” No Christian can obey an order like that. We belong to Christ and He commands us to go out into the world, carrying His name. By issuing their order, the council rulers had rejected their accountability to God, and stepped over the line of what responsible government authorities are supposed to do. Compare Rom. 13:1-7.
The “how” is shown by the apostles’ response:
- They brought God’s testimony of His Son directly to the rulers’ consciences, and stated firmly that their preaching and teaching was based on a true and reliable witness.
- They did not speak against the rulers, other than truthfully recounting the rulers’ recent actions. They spoke with both truth and grace. Sadly, Christians can be quick to speak harshly about those with whom they disagree, especially when leaders such as teachers, bosses, and politicians are the subject. Even Paul nearly got himself in trouble in a similar situation (Acts 23:1-5).
- They still did what they had to do. They preached and taught in the name of Jesus, disobeying the command to stop.
- They suffered for it, and they thanked and praised God in response! They understood the persecution meant the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ was reaching dark places, and they considered it an honor to suffer unjustly for their Lord’s name!
- They didn’t oppose the rulers in any unnecessary way. No recall petition was filed against the high priest, and no street protests were organized to expose the conspiracy of the Sanhedrin. They had an eternal perspective about these things, and a far more important mission: lost souls needed to know that Jesus is Lord.
From Acts 4 and 5, and other New Testament examples involving Peter and Paul in particular, we learn that our Christian testimony will sometimes bring suffering and persecution. The Christian perseveres for as long as the Lord allows. In his letters, Peter encouraged believers who had been scattered abroad by persecution. Yet he also challenges them, and us, not to suffer as criminals or meddlers. Our flesh wants to fight back, and that will earn a deserved response from government authorities. If we suffer, it should be only because we are Christians (1 Pet. 4:12-19).
One final comment about the pandemic. There are times when governments may restrict our activities for good reasons, including wars, terrorism, disease outbreak, or other national emergencies. There is no “formula” for these situations. We need godly wisdom to look carefully at what we are being ordered to do. Are we being targeted and persecuted as Christians, or just being restrained along with many others, for a temporary period, so that a crisis can be resolved?2
If the government is trying to act for the good of its people, then that is one of their God-given responsibilities (Rom. 13:3-4) and we can trust God for grace and patience during the disruptions. The path of faith requires serious prayer and careful review of God’s Word, and not emotional or proud reactions. It may also require us to recognize that there are other options we can pursue that allow us to both worship and serve the Lord in some capacity, and obey the authorities, even though change can disrupt a comfortable routine.
In closing: we realize the above is just a brief response to a complicated topic that Christians have been debating for a very long time. The scriptures we referenced provide only a starting point for further research. We pray it was helpful! Have you faced a similar situation? Share it in the comments below and we will be happy to learn more about the challenges you faced!
1. In this quote from the ESV, we have restored some capitalization that the translators omitted.
2. For example, if the government is closing church buildings, but it is also closing bars and sports arenas and accepting a very large drop in tax revenue as a result of its actions, that may be a sign that Christians aren’t being specially targeted for persecution. And that can be true even if the government is inconsistent in how it enforces those requirements. Since governments are human institutions, inconsistent actions are a standard feature.