“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’ ” (vv. 19–20).
From the earliest days of the church, Christians have stressed their duty to be good citizens and obedient to the state. Paul in Romans 13, for example, writes of the believer’s obligation to pay taxes and submit to the right exercise of governmental authority. The first-and second-century Christian apologists (defenders of the faith) such as Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) wrote treatises defending Christianity against pagans who unjustly accused believers of thinking that they did not have to submit to the state. And throughout church history, believers have followed the New Testament admonition to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).
At the same time, however, Christians have by and large understood that there are points at which the godly response to the state is to disobey its orders. In today’s passage, for instance, we read of what happened when Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem for proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. When they were forbidden from preaching the gospel, the Apostles responded, placing the onus on the council to prove that they had to listen to the council’s authority over God’s command to proclaim Christ. In other words, they told the Jewish leaders that their command was illegitimate, that the followers of Jesus must keep His commandments even when they violate the orders of the state (Acts 4:19–20).
In Peter and John’s example, we see a key principle that must govern our understanding of church and state: when the state’s commands conflict with God’s commands, believers must follow the Lord. Christians have the right—indeed, the God-given duty—to disobey the state whenever the government forbids what the Lord commands or commands what the Lord forbids. Just as saints such as Daniel disobeyed the king when the king ordered the citizens of his empire to pray to him, so must we place our obedience to God above our obedience to the state (Dan. 6).
Certainly, it is not always simple to determine whether the laws of a state actually forbid what God commands or command what God forbids. Nevertheless, the principle of obeying the Creator before the state remains. Christ is Lord even over the state, and when the state rejects His lordship, Christians must nevertheless continue to submit to His law.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Choosing to obey Christ when His commands conflict with the state’s may earn us the designation of criminals or traitors. But that should not dissuade us from submitting first to Christ’s commandments before we do what the government says. Let us pray for discernment so that we might rightly know when and when not to obey the state, and let us encourage one another to be faithful to Christ even when the state disallows it.