The New Testament has similar accounts of resistance to tyranny, examples that show that there are times that Christians do not have to obey the government, that are also found in the Old Testament.
When Peter and John were ordered by the rulers and elders of the people to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), the two apostles refused to follow their command: “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” (4:19‑20).
Peter and John could not stop speaking what they had seen and heard because they had been commanded by Jesus to preach in His name (cf. Matt. 28:18‑20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 9:16).
On another occasion, some of the apostles were arrested for preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. Again, they were put in a “public jail” (Acts 5:18). During the night “an angel of the Lord . . . opened the gates of the prison” and commanded them to disobey the rulers of Israel: “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of life” (5:20).
When the apostles again were confronted with the command not to preach and teach, their response was quick and sure: “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).
Read related article: “Is Civil Disobedience Ever Right?“
The apostles’ obedience to God conflicted with the desires of the ecclesiastical and civil governments of the day. This resulted in the first apostolic death at the hands of a civil authority: “Now about that time Herod the king [Agrippa I] laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death” (12:1‑2).
Peter was later arrested for similar “crimes” against the State (12:3). Obeying God rather than men is legitimate. God certainly set the example when He sent one of His angels to release Peter from prison (12:6‑8).
Either God or man is ultimately sovereign. When these sovereignties clash and conflict, the Christian, first a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20), must obey God rather than men.
“William Tyndale (1490) taught that the truths of Scripture had authority over both the state and the church. Partly for this ‘heresy,’ government authorities in England tried to capture him, but Tyndale evaded them for years. He was finally caught, tried as a heretic, and executed in 1536.”1
No human authority is absolute. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus tells the Pharisees and the Herodians to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” He does not say, “render to Caesar everything Caesar commands and demands” giving all rulers unlimited authority. We are only to render those things that are Caesar’s. This means there are limitations on Caesar’s sovereignty, and by extension the sovereignty of all rulers, because we are told to “render to God the things that are God’s,” and Caesar, like the rest of us, was under God.
Read related article: “Christians! We Don’t Live Under Caesar.”
The authority and power not given to a ruler like a Caesar did not belong to Caesar. Any legitimate authority Caesar did possess had been given to him by God (Rom. 13:1). He was bound to govern in terms of God’s definition of “good” and “evil,” not his own. He did not possess authority to be a law unto himself.
We need to be reminded that we no longer live under Caesar or a ruler like King James I who claimed the following:
“Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only. . . .”
In our day, rulers are limited by Constitutions. We no longer live under a Caesar or a ruler like King James. The goal has been to set boundaries for rulers in every area of life because, as George Washington observed, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.”
Thomas Jefferson understood that there needed to be a concrete remedy to to keep the fire of unbridled power at bay: “In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”2
Randy C. Alcorn, Is Rescuing Right?: Breaking the Law to Save the Unborn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990),104. ↩