Over a twelve-month period, we have invited Stephen Rees — an experienced pastor — to share his thoughts on various topics. Whilst his column may be edited for reasons of length or style, his views are his own and may not necessarily reflect positions held by the Evangelical Times.
Some time ago I attended a conference held to consider a very important subject. According to the programme the theme for the whole conference was ‘Obeying God rather than men’. That was an obvious reference to the words of the apostles in Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men’. The authorities in Jerusalem had forbidden them ‘to speak or teach at all in Jesus’ name’ (Acts 4:18). It was a blanket ban on any witness to Jesus. And the apostles knew they had to break it.
The Lord Jesus had given them a direct command to preach in Jerusalem. ‘You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem…’ So they knew that that was what God required them to do. And if God’s commands clashed with the commands of the authorities, they knew they must obey God rather than men.
We can find other examples in the Bible of the same principle. A law was passed in Babylon making it illegal to pray to any God. The only person to whom you could pray was the king. Daniel knew he must break that law.
Every believer is commanded by God to pray. So Daniel kept on praying — and he made sure that people knew he was praying. He prayed by his open window so everyone could see him (Daniel 6:10). He broke the law of the land in order to keep the commandment of God.
The believers for whom John wrote the book of Revelation were ordered by the authorities to worship the Emperor. Each of them was expected to show his loyalty by burning a pinch of incense at the Emperor’s shrine.
When they had done that, they would be issued with a certificate to say they had conformed. Without the certificate they could face persecution or death. But they knew God’s law. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). And they knew they must obey God rather than men.
In these cases, it was simple. There was a clear directive from men which flatly contradicted a plain command from God.
The problem is that for us things aren’t always that simple. It’s not always that clear what God has commanded us to do in a situation. And it’s often hard to be sure when the commands of men do contradict the commands of God.
Let me give you an example. God has commanded us to preach the gospel. ‘Go and make disciples…’ But he has not told us how, where or when to do that. There is no direct command to deliver leaflets from door to door, or to run a Sunday school, or to hold services in nursing homes.
If the government passed laws forbidding us to do those things, would we say that we must break those laws? Or would we say, ‘that’s OK — we’ll just find other ways to keep God’s commands and spread the gospel?’
What if the government made it illegal to preach the gospel in any public place, to hand out tracts, to set up a book table, to talk about God in hospitals, schools, universities, places of employment?
Would we say, ‘Well, we can still tell people the gospel in our own homes. We must just work harder at inviting people into our own homes, and tell them the gospel there’. Or would we defy the law and carry on speaking out in public?
You see the problem. The authorities in Jerusalem issued a total ban on any sort of witness to Jesus — in public or in private. So the apostles had no option but to defy them.
But what if the authorities had simply said, ‘You can preach — but not in the temple which we control’. Or ‘you can preach — but not in the streets where you could cause an obstruction?’ Would the apostles still have felt it was necessary to break the law?
If a government completely forbids us to do something which God has commanded us to do, we know where we stand. If the government were simply to forbid us to meet as a church, or to read the Bible, or to preach the gospel or to pray, or to baptise, or to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it would be simple. We would have to disobey the government.
But it’s rarely that governments work in that way. They prefer to hedge us round with restrictions. ‘Yes you may preach in the open air, but you must not say anything that could be regarded as stirring up hatred’. ‘Yes you may baptise converts — but not if they’re under 16’.
And believers have often found it difficult to know where to draw the line. Some believers became involved in smuggling Bibles illegally into communist countries. Others said, ‘God has told us to preach the gospel to all nations, but he’s never told us it must be done by taking Bibles into those countries. So we should abide by the law however unfair it may be’. Who was right?
Let me give you another example — one that many Christian parents in the UK have had to think about in recent days. God has commanded believers to bring up their children in the ‘discipline and instruction’ of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). But he has not told us exactly how that should be done.
He has never said that parents must do all the training and teaching themselves (if he had, none of us could send our children to be taught in Sunday school classes). He has not told us that our children must only be instructed by believers. (Remember Moses was brought up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’, Acts 7:22).
He hasn’t said that we must never let unbelievers influence their minds (if he had, we wouldn’t let them read any book — even a dictionary or encyclopaedia — written by a non-Christian).
Nevertheless, many Christian parents have decided that the best way of ensuring that they are brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, is to do most of the teaching themselves. So they’ve chosen to home-school their children. There’s no law to say that we must send them to a state approved school, so they don’t.
But what if the law changed? What if the government said that they must send them to school? Would they break that law? Some might say that the government is in effect forbidding them to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord? In that case presumably they would break the law. Others might argue that they could still bring them up in the Lord’s ways, even if they have to hand them over to a state school for six or seven hours each day. In which case they might see it as their duty to keep the law.
For those who decide they can send their children to a state approved school, where should they draw the line? Suppose that every school — whether in the state or independent sector — had to teach ‘gay’ practices to five and six year olds? Suppose that the curriculum required teachers to use graphic visual materials to illustrate those practices? And suppose that there was no opt out?
At present, parents have the legal right to withdraw their children from sex education classes. But there are active attempts in Parliament to change the law at that point. Would parents still say, ‘Well we must abide by the law of the land?’ Or would they say, ‘I must protect my children from being exposed to such corrupting things, even if it means breaking the law?’
I know many German believers who have wrestled with these questions. State schools in Germany have gone further than ours in teaching depravity to children. Christian schools are few and far between. Many believers would like to home-school their children. But home-schooling is illegal in Germany. So they wrestle with Ephesians 6:4 and similar passages. Some have decided that they can in good conscience send their children to school, and then try at home to counter any corrupting influences. Others have decided that they must break the law. Who is right?
Let me give you a few more examples. Example no 1. God has said (to Noah and his sons), ‘Be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply on it’ (Genesis 9:7). Suppose a government passes a law to say that any couple can have only one child. Are Christians bound by that law?
Example no 2. God has said ‘Do not withhold discipline from a child. If you strike him with a rod, he will not die… you will save his soul from Sheol’ (Proverbs 23:13-14). The law in England and Wales now makes it a criminal offence for parents to discipline their children in any way that leaves a bruise or lasting mark. Parents know that using a rod is always liable to leave a mark. Should they stop using a rod to discipline their children?
Example no 3. God has said, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a rest day for the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:8). Suppose the government, in a time of national economic crisis, required all citizens to work seven days a week. What should Christians do?
Example no 4. God has said, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’. (Hebrews 13:2). Every Christian has a duty to be hospitable. Suppose a government passes a law saying that no one could invite visitors to stay in their home, unless they held a certificate to show that they were ‘approved hosts’. Suppose you were refused a certificate. Would you still show hospitality to strangers?
Example no 5. The Lord Jesus has said, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…’ (Matthew 28:19). Suppose a government passes a law saying that the church must supply a list of all baptismal candidates to the authorities. Each candidate will be interviewed by a government inspector to make sure that he or she is acting freely without coercion and has not been brainwashed or otherwise exploited. Would we comply with the law?
Well, I think I know what I personally would do in each of those five cases. But I’m well aware that other Christians might come to different conclusions. Life isn’t simple. But I hope that we can agree at least on some big principles. Here are four.
1. Christians must submit to the law of the land even when it is unreasonable, unjust, or causes us inconvenience.
The only exception to that is when the law forbids us to do what God has clearly commanded, or when it commands us to do what God has clearly forbidden.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… Because of this you must also pay taxes’ (Romans 13:1). The tax system may be unfair — it certainly was in Paul’s day. But he still told Christians they must keep the law and pay their taxes.
Yes, the money might be used for all sorts of wicked purposes — to finance wars of aggression, the Emperor’s orgies, even the persecution of Christians! But Paul does not say that Christians should refuse to pay or evade payment.
Peter wrote to the churches of Asia Minor. ‘Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.’ The members of those churches included slaves. ‘Slaves be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the unjust’ (1 Peter 2:13-18).
We might think it was a bad law which allowed masters to treat slaves unjustly. But Peter says that Christian slaves must submit to it. They are not entitled to break the law and run away, or to try to foment rebellion in the household. Paul put it even more strongly, ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ’ (Ephesians 6:5).
Joseph and Mary obeyed the decree of Caesar and travelled to Bethlehem to be registered (Luke 2:1). The decree was bureaucratic, oppressive, inconvenient, but they kept it.
The Lord Jesus, God’s Son, kept the law of the land. He discarded the ‘traditions’ of the respectable, but when he was put on trial, no one could quote one example of an occasion where he had broken the law.
Paul on trial before Festus could say, ‘Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offence’ (Acts 25:8).
Many Christians have a very casual attitude towards law breaking. They feel free to break the speed limit when they’re late for meetings. Some churches feel free to ignore the red tape with which government tries to tie us up – whether it’s to do with record-keeping, or accounting procedures. But the Bible insists that we must be law keepers, careful to keep even unnecessary and absurd laws.
We may not think that it’s necessary to get a DBS certificate before giving a teenage boy a lift in our car, but if the authorities insist on it, we’ll submit to that regulation. We may not think the church kitchens need to be subject to the health and hygiene checks appropriate for a commercial operation, but if that’s the law we’ll accept it.
2. Christians must be prepared to break the law of the land when it clearly contradicts God’s laws.
I gave examples at the beginning of this article of Christians who had to do that in Bible times. And we could cite many more examples from the history of the church.
Christians in many countries all over the world today are being persecuted because they are determined to obey God rather than men. And we may find ourselves more and more often in that position.
God has commanded that churches are to put out of their membership anyone who lives an immoral life (1 Corinthians 5:11). If ‘equality laws’ tell us that we must accept adulterers or practising homosexuals into the church membership, we will break those laws. If ‘hate laws’ tell us that we must not witness to Muslims, we will break those laws. If a future government were to insist that unborn children known to have handicaps must be aborted, Christian parents will break that law.
3. Christians must be prepared to take the consequences of breaking the law in obedience to God.
We cannot lie our way out of trouble. I’m not saying that we must always parade our disobedience to the law. But I do mean that if challenged, we must be prepared to tell the truth, even if that brings persecution. The apostles were up front in their reply to the authorities: legal or not, ‘we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:20).
Daniel was equally upfront about his determination to keep praying — he did it in front of the open window. The believers who were pressed to worship at Caesar’s shrine could have bribed an official to turn a blind eye or to issue them with a false certificate. But no, they knew that lies and fraud are just as wicked in God’s sight as worshipping false gods.
Suppose that in days to come, churches are required to sign a form to say that they will discriminate against no one: they will give identical treatment to people of all backgrounds, beliefs, orientations and lifestyles.
What will we do? Will we sign the form and then quietly continue to exclude from our membership people who refuse to live by New Testament moral standards? No, we will refuse to sign, and we will accept the penalties that may bring.
Suppose that sex education lessons do become compulsory in all schools. Does a Christian parent have the option of keeping a child at home on those days, but writing a letter to the school to say that little Tommy was ill? No. God hates lies. Keep Tommy away from school if that is what you believe to be right. But then tell the truth and face the consequences.
4. Christians must not condemn or attack other Christians who may handle situations differently.
I’m talking about those situations where it’s not clear whether God’s law and men’s laws do contradict each other. Christians faced with those sorts of situations must respect other Christians who come to different conclusions from their own.
In Romans 14, Paul is not discussing the issue of our relationship with the state, but the principles he lays down there are still relevant. ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls… Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God’ (Romans 14:4-11).
Where God has not spoken clearly, it is not for me to judge my brother’s decisions. I must believe that he’s acting in good faith, doing what he believes the Master requires of him. And I must leave it to God to judge his actions — and mine.
Christian organisation A says, ‘we must smuggle Bibles’. Organisation B says, ‘no, we will find other ways to spread God’s Word’. Organisation A must not sneer at the ‘cowardice’ of Organisation B. Organisation B must not tut tut at the ‘irresponsibility’ of Organisation A. They’re not answerable to one another. Each is answerable to the Lord.
One family decides that they must pull their children out of sex education lessons, even if it’s against the law. Another family decides they must abide by the law — and then do all they can to counteract what the child is taught in school.
The two families must not quarrel or judge one another. They must continue to support and encourage each other. ‘Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer’ (Romans 13:13).
Living as a Christian in this world is never an easy matter. In the end we fall back on James’ words: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him’ (James 1:5). May God give us his wisdom for every situation we face.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk