The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” – Acts 5:27-29
The first Christians got in quite a bit of trouble. Over and over again they were told to keep silent. They did not. The Jewish leaders ordered them to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. They disobeyed. The Roman leaders ordered them to worship the emperor. They refused. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
I’ll sometimes hear Christians speak about faith as if discipleship to Jesus Christ is inextricably bound to “obeying the law of the land.” The argument is quite formulaic actually. A little Romans 13 here – “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” – a little 1 Peter 2 there – “honor the emperor.” And of course I take these verses seriously. BUT, I also think we 21st century Westerners have lost an appreciation for how subversive the early church was. Their obedience to God required a radical disobedience to their own religious and political rulers. Their obedience to God required them to defy an empire.
I think we also forget that there are Christians all over the world – even today – that risk their lives to obey God. In America churches go underground because it’s cool. But there are a lot of countries where churches go underground out of necessity. It’s not a trend. It’s not emergent. It’s a matter of survival. It dishonors the emperor. It’s radical disobedience to the governing authorities. It’s radical obedience to God.
Back to our reading from Acts – the apostles were once again released. And upon release, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” (6:40) “And every day in the temple the apostles did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (6:42) They kept disobeying.
If anyone reads this as a call to anarchy, please start over. All I’m saying is this – When we say that Jesus is God we are making a theological statement. But to affirm Jesus as Lord is to make a political one. And sometimes Jesus’ Kingdom clashes with other kingdoms. Sometimes Romans 13 has to yield to Revelation 13. At times being harmless as a dove will take a backseat to being wise as a serpent. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecc 3:1)
There’s no shortage of disobedient people in our world. There will always be men and women that disobey for disobedience’s sake – they are lost fools. But rare is the man and rare is the woman that disobeys for the Gospel’s sake – they are modern apostles.