Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
The question of Christian submission to authority is becoming a more and more pressing one. While, in the UK at least, the questions around covid-compliance and the Church have pretty much blown over, the increasing possibility of serious state incursion into family life and preaching of the church in the area of sexual ethics may soon make us pine for the days when the issues were just masks and social distancing.
When it comes to civil disobedience, I think all Christians can agree on the following two premises: 1) we should obey the government/authorities wherever possible to do so without disobeying God, 2) it is not always possible to obey the government/authorities without disobeying God. So far, so uncontroversial. But how do we know when it is not morally possible, and how do we resist when we must? I’m no scholar on the subject, but my experience of discussions of the topic have usually been focussed on a few passages in the epistles, with little attention paid to the example of Jesus as figure of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. In fact, it was only studying 1 Peter with some friends recently that a few things fell into place about how we might navigate some of the questions.
The Calling: To Bear Witness to the Truth
When Jesus is questioned by Pilate in John 18, he stands accused of being a rebel against Caesar, a radical preacher of the Kingdom of God, and no doubt stirring up some to armed resistance and sedition. Jesus sees his mission slightly differently: he came to bear witness to the truth.
Whatever Christ does, the Church is called to imitate. We are in the world to bear witness to the truth, and this is where question, to my mind, becomes slightly more challenging than simply answering the question ‘does the Bible explicitly say the opposite?’ Bearing witness to the truth means not only defying laws that openly and obviously mandate sin, but naming and rejecting the subtle lies that seduce Christians to, and confirm them in, worldly living. The issue is not just whether certain practices or policies force Christians to sin, but whether they create conditions in which one cannot live the Christian life fully, whether they create conditions in which sins of omission become inevitable.
Let’s take a trivial, non-covid example, since we’re all bored of that (and since I discussed covid here): little Johnny wants to play on the school football team, who play half of their matches on Sunday mornings. Is it a sin to play sports on a Sunday? Let’s assume you’re no Sabbatarian, so it is not wrong. Your church even has one of those trendy afternoon services now, so you could play football in the morning, and go to church in the afternoon when there’s a match. The coach (not exactly Caesar or the Sanhedrin, but still the authority figure here) says if Johnny won’t play on Sundays, he’s off the team — he can’t even play the Saturday matches. So what to do? I would suggest that to let organised sports decide when you worship is to believe the lie that football is more important than worship. Bearing witness to the truth might mean not playing on Sundays.
The Consequences: Pay or Obey
When Christians consider whether or how to obey, they usually (in my experience), list two options: we can either obey the government/culture/authorities, or we can disobey the government/culture/authorities. Romans 13 says we should do the first, so there we have it. I believe that there are in fact three options: the way of Caiaphas, the way of Barabbas, and the way of Jesus. Or, alternatively, the path of least resistance, the path of armed resistance, and the path of submissive resistance, respectively.
The way of Caiaphas is the way of unquestioning obedience to the authorities. If this Jesus problem isn’t dealt with, Caesar may take away both our temple and our nation. We must submit to those in power. Don’t rock the boat. Obey.
The way of Barabbas is the way of defiant and open hostility and resistance. Barabbas was a murderer who had killed in the insurrection, and he was the kind of Christ that the Jewish crowds wanted: a fighter, not a lover. The way of Barabbas is the way of breaking the law and resisting arrest, neither recognising the legitimacy of the law, or the ones who enforce it.
The way of Jesus is the path of submissive resistance. Christians are to obey the law, granted, but there are two ways to obey the law: you can do what is says, or you can pay the consequences for not doing what it says. Jesus does not meekly submit to the world as he finds it: he proclaims the Kingdom of God, he rebukes religious leaders, and he bears witness to the fact that Caesar is actually neither god nor saviour. So he is clearly no Caiaphas. At the same time, he does not bear arms, and — most importantly — he does not resist his sentence. In his trial before Pilate, he does not exactly deny the charges, nor does he deny or resist the authority Pilate has. If Barabbas submits with resistance, but Jesus resists with submission.
It is, in fact, possible to obey God and man, but sadly there is one way to do it: let them crucify you. If you want to fulfil the law, you can either obey it in everything, or you can do whatever you want but agree to pay the consequences for your actions. So for little Johnny, it means not playing on Sundays, and then putting up with the fact that he’s off the team.
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide: A Deliberately Vague and Non-Committal Ending
This is all to say that the Church ought to be a lot less worried about obeying the authorities and a lot more concerned with bearing witness to the truth, and then bearing whatever consequences legitimate authorities decide for us. I judge that ‘How do we make sure we are submitting to the authorities?’ is a bad starting question, though we must think about it along the way. ‘How do we bear witness to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’ is a safer starting point for Christians. Well, depending on what you mean by safe — bearing witness to the truth led Christ to a cross as well.