“But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, NIV)
Currently in our country, we seem to be moving towards a time when believers will have to make a decision regarding civil disobedience. The recent COVID pandemic brings this to a case in point. In many states, the governing authorities ordered churches not to assemble for religious purposes, such as corporate worship. Yet, the Bible does tell us not to forsake the assembly of ourselves together (Heb 10:24-25). In Canada, pastors were arrested and put in jail for continuing to meet for worship on Sundays. A church in California was subject to a fine of $1,000 per day and forced to take the issue to the courts. In various countries around the world, what a pastor preaches from the pulpit is regulated by the state.
Civil disobedience is a tough position for anyone. Yet, there comes a time in everyone’s life when he or she must make tough choices. It is a difficult choice when we have to disobey an authority since God has established all authority and commands us to obey these authorities (Rom 13:1-7). However, here we see Peter and John clearly telling the governing authorities that they cannot obey them but must obey God.
Now, in a practical sense, we cannot go off willy-nilly and arbitrarily decide to disobey authority. There needs to be some prayerful consideration when we do so. Peter and John give us a key for making such decisions here in this passage.
Peter and John were fulfilling the command of Christ to preach the message starting in Jerusalem. Yet, here the authorities ordered them to stop. They had to make a choice, do we do what Jesus said or what the authorities say. Their choice gives us a principle for our choices in civil disobedience. They echo this sentiment in words presented in a subsequent confrontation with the Jewish religious authorities. “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV)
The key, in issues of civil disobedience, is to understand the supremacy of God’s authority over all. They realized that to obey God was their higher calling. While they were to obey the God ordained governing authorities, they should never do so if it meant their disobedience to God. (As a side note, their words speak to the Deity of Christ, as it was His command they chose to obey.)
This particular situation may seem a stretch for us who live in the “Land of the Free.” However, it is a serious issue in areas of the world where is illegal to proclaim the message of Christ. In our generation, we find people around the world martyred for preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus.
Moreover, this particular issue could easily hit home. Let me give you a scenario. What would we do if the government passed legislation redefining the basis of marriage and ordered churches to conduct marriages of any sort, regardless of counseling, compatibility, or biblical precedent? The legislation would bring us to an ethical dilemma, either disobey the government or conduct an unbiblical wedding. Similarly, we might come to a time when the government could dictate that we do not preach regarding the divine standard for biblical marriage and sexuality. In these cases, there would be no other choice than to obey God rather than the government.