May Christians ignore unjust laws? When you ask a Christian what the relationship between the Christian and the government is they are most likely to point to Matthew 22:21 (NET), “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This verse, along with Romans 13, is often considered the sum total of the political sentiments expressed in the New Testament. Christians are to give to Caesar whatever he wants and are to “be subject to the governing authorities.” Of course, logical and moral issues here arise when we consider questions like, “What about Hitler?”
Oh, well, Christians are not supposed to lie, so obviously we should give up the Jews.
But, wait a minute! Christians are supposed to treat others as we would want them to treat us.
No hold on, we need to be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as sent by him!
What I want to address in this article, then, is the question, “What are the limits of a Christian’s subjection to political authorities?” In other words, may Christians ignore unjust laws? The biblical case study I wish to use in pursuit of the answer to this is Acts 5, perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated interaction between early Christianity and the political authorities of the time. It has major ramifications for modern Christianity’s understanding of its place in relation to the State.
May Christians ignore unjust laws?
Before we jump into Acts, I want to discuss the language of the verses commonly used to justify Christian obedience to the State, namely Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. Both of these verses are grounded upon the words “be subject [to].” In both verses the Greek lemma hupotassó (ὑποτάσσω) is used. By conducting a word study of hupotassó we will be able to understand what exactly it is asking of Christians.
Strong’s Concordance defines the word as meaning “to place or rank under, to subject…” Souter’s Pocket Lexicon has the definition “I subordinate myself…I submit.” The New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon says “to submit to one’s control…to obey, be subject.” Wherever we find hupotassó in the New Testament it is likely to see it rendered as some form of “subject” or “submit.” Two uses of this word in the New Testament that I wish to highlight are Titus 2:5 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, as they both have similar uses and contexts.
Starting from verse 4, Titus reads, “In this way they will train the younger women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, pure, fulfilling their duties at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the message of God may not be discredited.” Corinthians reads, “…women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says.”
Both of these verses, then, spell out the relationship between Christian women and the Church. It does so in terms of “submission” or “subjection.” We understand, in the context of marital relations, what this means, although we must ask ourselves, “Is this absolute and inviolable?” Must women always suffer the conduct of their husbands, no matter what? The answer is no, they are not.
As studies into the nature of Christian marriage and the grounds for divorce confirm, divorce is valid in cases of adultery/sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32), faithless spouses (1 Cor. 7:15), and abuse (see this and this). Mentioning abuse is important, because at the center of this article is the question of how Christians should deal with unjust, or abusive, laws by “the governing authorities.” Can Christians, in a sense, divorce themselves from the State?
This is where we can jump into Acts 5 and examine a very vivid example of the early, apostolic Church interacting with the governing authorities. It is a real-time, real-world application of the Apostles’ teachings in passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and a possible look at the extents of said passages. First, I will quote the whole relevant portion of Acts 5:
“Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple courts at daybreak and began teaching. … When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!’
But Peter and the apostles replied, ‘We must obey God rather than people. The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him to His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.’”
So, in this passage what we witness is that the apostles are doing their thing, you know, talking about Jesus and stuff, and this angers the Sanhedrin. So, “they laid [their] hands [on]” (i.e., arrested) the apostles, but the apostles were freed that night by an angel. When the Sanhedrin discovers the apostles have been freed and are continuing to preach about Jesus, they are shocked and further irritated, arresting the apostles again, bringing them before the Sanhedrin, and telling them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” It is this particular verse that packs the punch of the whole passage and what we need to focus on.
Clearly in this passage the apostles are disobeying a governing authority, the Sanhedrin, which it absolutely was. This is made even clearer by the term “strict orders.” In the original Greek this is parēngeilamen (παρηγγείλαμεν), “We commanded/We gave strict orders…,” and a brief word study reveals that this word (parangelía) carries a lot of umph with it, validating the translation of “strict order.” In the Septuagint, this word is used of God’s commandments given at Sinai, and in secular Greek literature, most significantly, it is used to refer to the commandments of civil authorities. Parangelíes, then, are equivalent to laws decreed by a government, and here in Acts 5 we find the apostles explicitly disobeying one because, “We must obey God rather than people.”
Verse 33, unquoted above, makes it clear that the apostles were at risk of being executed, and indeed their whole lives are full of examples of them overlooking hateful mobs and rulers and preaching the Good News, even though, to use Paul as an example, it led to five lashings, three beatings with a rod, stoning, three times shipwrecked; many perilous journeys facing dangers from rivers, robbers, countrymen, Gentiles, cities, the wilderness, the sea, false brothers; many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing.
So, what about Hitler?
Let us take this knowledge and apply it to the age-old question, “What about Hitler?” In Nazi Germany it was law, a “strict order,” to not give aid or refuge in any way Jews, under penalty of death. As the esteemed theologian Francis Schaeffer put it, “A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state and hidden his Jewish neighbors from the German SS Troops. The government had abrogated its authority, and it had no right to make any demands.” The apostles, as shown above, faced an abundance of situations where they could have faced death, such as in Acts 5 when the Sanhedrin was going to execute them, yet they persisted in their ways.
Christians are endlessly exhorted to do good, protect life, and abhor injustice (Ps. 34:14, 37:27, 82:3; Prov. 31:8-9; Matt. 7:12; Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8), and so it would have been the duty, God’s strict order, of German Christians to hide and aid German Jews. Whether it is Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Tokugawa shogunate, or modern secular authorities who increasingly impose upon Christian ethics for purposes of “equality” or “reproductive rights,” Christians – come what may – “must obey God rather than people.”
What laws should Christians oppose?
If we say that anything a governing authority decrees is to be ignored, that would be silly, even harmful, equaling an endorsement of antinomianism. What Romans 13 does say is that governments qua governments should be just and enforce justice, “for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad” (v. 3). So, as long as a ruler is doing what is right, respecting the natural rights of his subjects (an important Christian concept), then the ruler is legitimate. Then, what is illegitimate?
Well, if we look for a moment at all the examples of disobedience/noncompliance in the Bible (e.g., Acts 4-5; Dan. 3; Ex. 1; 1 Kgs. 18; Matt. 2; Jdg. 6; etc.) we find a common feature between them all: opposition to coercion of others or oneself. In our case study of Acts 5 the apostles were being coerced not to speak about Jesus, in Daniel 3 Daniel’s friends are coerced not to worship God and to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar, in First Kings 18 prophets of Yahweh are condemned to death by Jezebel and Obadiah helps protect them, and in Exodus 1 the Hebrew midwives oppose Pharoah’s coercion of themselves to further the coercion (and the genocide) of the Israelites.
Hence, any law that coerces people (e.g., toward their persecution or execution is to be opposed (such as the Nuremberg Laws). Contrasting with another example, a law that legalizes gay marriage is not to be opposed on legal grounds because it is not coercing anyone to do anything. This reverses if the law forces Christian churches accommodate non-heterosexual weddings and lifestyles, like the law recently passed in Canada. (The New Testament does not endorse forcing sinners to repent; Paul commands sinful Christians to be “deliver[ed] unto Satan,” rather than physically punished/coerced [1 Cor. 5:5].)
The Christian message is inherently one that values the word of God over the word of Caesar. What is meant by “render unto Caesar” is merely, as Romans 12-13 (in context) shows, is to give the respect all humans deserve and not to be violent insurrectionaries (consistent with the New Testament’s advocacy of nonviolence and love for evildoers; cf. Matt. 5-7). We are to fend off the demonic influence over the nations through the peace and love of the Good News and replace devilry with piety. Books that I highly recommend for further study are Called to Freedom by Elise Daniel (ed.), Faith Seeking Freedom by Norm Horn and LCI staff (which is full of many more wonderful recommendations), A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer, and Civil Government by David Lipscomb.