As followers of Jesus, we are called to be peacemakers not troublemakers, respecters of authority rather than despisers of authority. In fact, in one of the strongest rebukes of false teachers in the New Testament, Jude writes that these men “reject authority” (Jude 8), while other passages call on Christians to submit to earthly authorities (see, for example, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
At the same time, there are clear biblical examples where God’s people disobeyed the law, and there are examples from ancient history where the early church followed suit.
In the Bible:
- The Hebrew midwives refused to comply with Pharaoh’s edict to kill all male Israelite babies, as a result of which God blessed them (Exodus 1).
- Daniel’s three colleagues refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous statue, as a result of which they were thrown into a fiery furnace but delivered by God (Daniel 3).
- Daniel himself refused to obey the king’s command not to pray to any other deity for a one-month period, as a result of which he was thrown into the lion’s den but also delivered by God (Daniel 6).
- The wise men who came to see the baby Jesus disobeyed King Herod’s order to report back to him, having been warned not to do so by the Lord in a dream (Matthew 2).
- The apostles refused to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name despite an order from the Sanhedrin, their Jewish leadership, to cease and desist, saying in response: “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”; and, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).
Put another way, obedience to God sometimes requires disobedience to man.
But this is anything but an excuse for rebellion, self-will or pride. To the contrary, it requires emptying of self, crucifixion of the flesh and complete submission to God’s will, which is often challenging and costly.
But we are called to obey the Lord and his Word, regardless of cost or consequence, and the early Christians followed the example of the apostles, refusing to sacrifice to Caesar or call him lord, even to the point of horrific torture and death.
By saying no to man, they were saying yes to God.
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In the words of New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (in his book, “Simply Jesus”), “The day the church can no longer say, ‘We must obey God rather than human beings’ (Acts 5: 29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality since the very beginning, and for many Christians it is still the case today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers.”
The early Christians also took a stand against infanticide, one of the banes of the ancient Greco-Roman world, widely practiced, often legal, and socially acceptable.
Unwanted infants, in particular unhealthy males or most females (if the parents already had one daughter), would be drowned or thrown away, left outside for the forces of nature or the animal world to kill.
The early Christians stood against this firmly, with one of their foundational documents, called the Didache, stating plainly, “You shall not commit infanticide.” Other early Christian leaders even stated that infanticide was “child murder.”
So, these believers challenged the prevailing customs and laws, appealing to the government to make radical changes and ultimately changing the laws when they came into majority, to the point that infanticide carried the death penalty by the end of the 4th century A.D. in the Roman Empire.
But that’s not all that these Christians did. While infanticide was still legal and while it was against the law (and/or the customs of the day) to rescue abandoned babies, these believers went as far as “taking in and supporting babies which had been left to die by exposure by their pagan parents,” something that put them at great risk themselves.
Yet what else could they do?
They knew what the law said, but they also knew that God called them to rescue the perishing (see Proverbs 24:11-12), and so obedience to God required them to reject the standards (and even laws) of the society.
Today, as we are increasingly confronted with challenges to our conscience and beliefs, we do well to remember the example of the early Christians.
They were men and women submitted to authority, often paying with their lives for their convictions, but they refused to disobey divine edicts to obey earthly ones.
They obeyed God rather than man when it came to preaching and living the gospel, setting an example for us.
Will we follow their lead?
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