The church in her first few centuries was little involved with society or government because they were so involved in their own communities living out their faith. As Mac comments, they were not uncaring or insensitive to others, but they did live very distinct and separated lives. In fact, Tertullian notes that third century Christians were more likely to be executed for presumed anti-social behaviors than for inflammatory behavior or teaching.
That is not the focus of many churches in our modern day. “Many of the weapons of our warfare are…of the flesh, and ineffective rather than spiritual, and divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses, (2 Cor. 10:4), (Mac p. 214 commentary on Romans).
Jeremiah writes the words of God to his people in Jer. 29:7, a people who were captive to the Babylonians, instructing them to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.
There is only one limitation to the Christian submission to civil authority: when civil mandate runs counter to God’s clear will and commands. There are numerous examples of this in both the Old and New Testaments. In Exodus 1:17, pharaoh ordered Jewish midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies, but Shiphrah and Puah feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.
Because these brave women chose to obey God rather than the king, God honored their “civil disobedience” and was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty (v. 20). Another example is when king Nebuchadnezzar commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to worship his gods and the golden image he had erected. They replied to his command, O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up, (Daniel 3:16-18).
This is an amazing passage of undaunted courage and strength of resolve in the face of incredible human power. These young men did not know whether God would let them come through this monumental trial unscathed, but they were sure that even if they died, God would deliver them from being forced to worship idols. They showed the king the respect due his office, but they answered him with a fearless confidence in their Deliverer and a resolute determination to obey Him. Of course, they did live, because the pre-incarnate Christ walked through the flames with them!
Jesus will always travel the roughest roads right beside us; He promised to never leave us or forsake us! See also Daniel chapter one and chapter six for other examples of civil disobedience as a result of direct obedience to God for a higher goal.
An instance in the New Testament of this same principle is when Peter and John were preaching the gospel in the streets of Jerusalem. When they were warned by the Jewish leaders not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), the apostles relied, Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20).
“The Lord had commanded, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15; Matt. 28:19-20), and therefore to obey those human rulers would mean to disobey their divine Ruler, which they would not do. When Peter and John persisted in their evangelization, the Jewish leaders warned them again, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:28-29) (Mac p. 216).
MacArthur observes that in most of the world, even in former communist lands, by far the most common obligation is to obey both God and men. However, Christians continue to see our Constitutional rights to freedom of religion being eroded today. The absence of public prayer in schools and public meetings is notable as just one example.
Mac writes: “Although He sends His own people out as sheep in the midst of wolves our Lord commands us to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, (Matt. 10:16). We are to be alert, cautious, and concerned about what is going on around us and in the world. But that must not be the focus of our attention, and our living in the midst of it must be innocent—free of anxiety, ill will, rancor, and self-righteousness.
“Men will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues, Jesus continued to warn, and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given to you in that hour what you are to speak. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you,” (Matt. 10:18-20) (Mac p. 217).
We must understand also that persecution is not an excuse for civil disobedience or rebellion, but for “patient endurance and righteousness, (Mac). A Christian should not seek persecution, he continues to note, because persecution of itself has no inherent value. In fact, Jesus said, Whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next, (Matt. 10:23). Paul did just that in his ministry, barely escaping with his life in several cases. And aren’t we glad he lived on to write another letter, comfort another church?
I’ll close with a quote from John MacArthur: “Regardless of the failures of government—many of them immoral, unjust, and ungodly—Christians are to pray and live peaceful lives that influence the world by godly, selfless living, not by protests, sit-ins, and marches, much less by rebellion. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, we have both the right and the obligation to confront and oppose the sins and evils of our society, but only in the Lord’s way and power, not the world’s. In this way, says Paul, our living is good and profitable for men, (Titus 3:8), because it shows them the power of God in salvation. They see what a person saved from sin is like,” (Mac p. 217).
Until next time, may the Lord bless you as you study His holy Word and seek to live godly lives in these challenging times. God bless all…mike.