Can government instructions ever be disregarded by the believer?
Recent events have revealed uncertainty in many minds as to this question, leading to strife among brethren. As with all such questions, opinions are irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is “what does the scripture say?” (Rom. 4: 3). If believers do not get their compass from the Bible then they are certain to go wrong. Nor can it be right when some insist on following every government directive to the letter, and yet are far more relaxed about strict adherence to the “Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14: 37) in other areas of life. Such may well “honour the king” but they cannot be said to “fear God” (1 Pet. 2: 17). If we are to give “what is Caesar’s to Caesar”, we cannot leave out “what is God’s to God” (Matt. 22: 21)! This kind of moral imbalance leads to disorderly conduct, for if things are not in order in the heart, then there cannot be order in the walk.
Scripture never suggests that believers should always obey government, but it does insist that they should remain subject. It is important to see this. Paul writes disparagingly about those who are “insubordinate” (1 Tim. 1: 9), and instructs the Christian to “be subject to the authorities that are above [him]” (Rom. 13: 1; see also Titus 3: 1; 1 Pet. 2: 13). The Greek word for subject here is upotassw, and literally means to arrange under. By origin it was a military term and refers to operating with due regard to one’s place in the existing order of things. It is, therefore, the exact opposite of the spirit of rebellion (as in “he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God”— Rom. 13: 2). There are several instances of young men in the book of Daniel who could not obey the king’s commandment but were far from having any thought of insurrection. They were loyal subjects, but they were also unwavering in their devotedness to the law of God. Daniel himself “purposed in his heart” (Dan. 1: 8) that he would not defile himself with the king’s food (for it is clear that it was in some way regarded as polluted under Mosaic Law). Furthermore, he had made this decision even before he had asked the prince of the eunuchs for an exemption. Later, his three companions would not break the first and second commandments (see Exod. 20: 3–5), and years afterwards Daniel insisted on adhering to 2 Chron. 6: 38, by praying towards the land (see Dan. 6: 4-16). Thus we see that these men of God would not obey an instruction of man that ran contrary to God’s law, and nor would they disobey God’s positive commandment. But they were not rebels in the generally understood sense of the word. Indeed, their service to the government of the day was exemplary (see Dan. 1: 20; 6: 1–5). Their disobedience was all about God not themselves—and the fact that their actions were to their own personal detriment only serves to confirm this.
The NT gives a very clear example of when the instructions of rulers should be ignored: “But Peter answering, and the apostles, said, God must be obeyed rather than men” (Acts 5: 29). The verb to obey here is peiqarkew and is used only three other times in the NT (Acts 5: 32; 27: 21; Titus 3: 1). A more general word (upakuow—meaning to hearken submissively) is often translated obey, but this is never used for the relationship between Christians and their rulers. The specific word for the obedience due to a chief or ruler is peiqarcew. Peter and the apostles were therefore very definitely declining to obey the authorities over them. In Acts 4: 18 the elders and the scribes charged them “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” to which Peter replied “If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye” (v19). They were then placed in the prison, but an angel of the Lord released them, charging them to “Go ye and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5: 20). This they did, provoking another rebuke from the council: “We strictly enjoined you not to teach in this name: and lo, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine” (v28). All this corroborates what we have seen in the book of Daniel, namely, that when there is a clear conflict between what those who rule are saying and what God has said, then God has to be obeyed. This is very different from a rebellious spirit that uses the Bible to its own ends—often justifying a course of disobedience through Scriptures that only have a tenuous or contrived connection to the matter in hand. This fig-leaf of piety does not hide the naked fact that self is the governing principle. As with Daniel and his companions, a critical feature of Peter’s disobedience to the authorities was that it had nothing to do with his own advantage (indeed it was to his detriment), but was all about the “name of Jesus” (Acts 4: 18; see Acts 5: 41). He acted on behalf of God and not himself.