Much of the country is fed up with mandated quarantines.
People are struggling with cabin fever and chomping at the bit to break out of their living rooms. Since it’s also an election year and the virus was politically weaponized right out of the gate, any helpful information seems to have melted into this cauldron of suspicion we’re living in these days. Nobody trusts anybody. So, we the people, suspicious of our leaders, have decided to take matters into our own hands and do what we believe is best for us. I can hear them now.
Why should I agree with my elected officials? I didn’t vote for ‘em! They’ve shredded the Constitution! We must obey God rather than men!
Some churches have reopened their doors, while other pastors are more cautious about inviting people back to their campuses. That debate alone gives the Body of Christ one more reason to argue about who is closer to Jesus. That’s the space I’m living in these days, trying to balance faith and prudence, both biblical virtues. (I had hoped that this crisis would force all of us to come together and talk about the actual mission of the Church, but I’m quickly losing my optimism.)
This week, one of our leaders jokingly said, “I’ve gone from a church of thousands to a church of two, and that one’s about to split!”
Our self-interests and suspicions keep feeding the age-old spirit of lawlessness, that the Apostle Paul said was already at work 2,000 years ago. (2 Thessalonians 2:7) Turning a deaf ear to people in authority has always been a problem, quite frankly, because we just flat-out have really never liked other people telling us what to do. So the independent streak that runs in all of us is much deeper than one particular crisis.
This crisis is a big deal, but the virus aside, children have always found ways to disobey their parents. Spouses still struggle to love each other unconditionally. Students still don’t want to do their homework, and athletes still argue with referees. This is not just a one-off global crisis we’re talking about. But it most certainly has exposed the human heart for what it is (for the umpteenth time).
To better understand what the Bible actually contributes to this discussion, of whether or not it’s okay to break the law, we need to back up the bus to the beginning. (And, when I say “the beginning,” I really mean it.)
1. God created structures.
It took God exactly three verses to introduce us to His career as an engineer. He began the Creation narrative by establishing one of the most fundamental laws of the Cosmos. “Let there be light.” He didn’t start with light so He’d be able to see whatever He decided to do next. (I have to believe God can see in the dark.) By introducing light, He engineered a Cosmic structure. He built a mathematical box of light, inside of which the Universe would be contained. In doing so, He declared that, at least inside this Universe, nothing would travel faster than light. That was the first indication that the God who created us was a structural engineer at heart.
2. His structures are designed to encourage healthy relationships.
God created marriage, which you’ll notice has structure, complete with boundaries, function, and purpose. All of that to help a husband and a wife nurture a healthy growing relationship.
God designed a family structure, inside of which loving relationships can be enjoyed and modeled.
He engineered a structure for civil government. The legal blueprint outlined in the Pentateuch, what we typically call the Mosaic Law, encouraged mutual respect and civil interaction.
And then Jesus built a Church structure, to keep us all focused on the importance of all the other structures!
As you make your way through both Testaments, you’ll notice there are a ton of passages encouraging us to value marriage, the family, and the civil structures God created. God wants to give us every opportunity to enjoy healthy relationships, both with Him and the people around us.
Unfortunately, an awful lot of people choose to ignore the structures God designed. Some couples cohabitate without entering into the covenantal structure of marriage. Others try to be a family without living in submission to one another. Perhaps we all find it easy to ignore at least some of the boundaries of civil law. But, when we rebel against God-designed structures, we compromise God-given relationships.
Throughout history, while Jesus has built His Church, Satan has worked hard to dismantle God-ordained structures. Both strategies seem to be working pretty well. The Gospel continues to march forward as it is shared virally, primarily through close healthy relationships. On a parallel track, the spirit of lawlessness that corrupts the structures of marriage, family, and the rule of law. “Who cares what my parents think, or what my spouse thinks, or what my pastor thinks, or what our governmental leaders want. I still just want what I want!” Narcissism has always been a threat to relationships.
Government is structural. In fact, you could call it the skeleton of society. A skeleton is important because it provides framework for what the body requires for organic function. While there’s no doubt a skeleton is important, it was designed to support what is even more important. Society’s problem is seldom skeletal, it’s cardiac. Society has a heart problem, not a government problem. That is why the focus of the First Century Church was not the overthrow of the Roman Empire. Remember, the Caesars could be a brutal lot, and there were no options for even peaceful public protest.
Interestingly enough, that’s why the Jewish people ignored Jesus’ considerable credentials as their Messiah. They were looking for a Messiah Who would attack the skeleton, someone who would go after Rome. But Jesus came to save lost people. His Kingdom was one of the heart, one He could hang on most any frame.
3. Healthy relationships provide a platform to fulfill His purpose.
Our challenge as world-changers, then, is to make choices that best build relationships with people, including those in places of authority. The Bible is clear—submission is a powerful evangelism strategy.
If God needed a certain form of government to make disciples effectively, we wouldn’t see the Church grow where government oppresses people of faith. But, not only does it grow in those environments, they are among the regions where Christianity is growing fastest. So, it’s fair to say that Christianity is government neutral. But that doesn’t mean that Christians should be neutral about government. It just means that we do not need a certain type of government to function effectively. We are called on to submit to governing authorities, in whatever form they exist. There is no Christian form of government this side of the Millennial reign of Christ, which, by the way, won’t even be a democracy.
The goal of the enemy is not to give you a bad governmental structure. Satan knows how the game is played. He wants to remove governmental structure altogether, or any other kind of authority, for that matter. Christianity can flourish as well with bad authority as it does with good authority (often, even better). The goal of the enemy is to makes us suspicious or otherwise dissatisfied with any authority, so to crown ourselves the highest level of authority in our lives. By the way, that’s what we call anarchy, when everyone does what is right in their own eyes. One of the darkest seasons in biblical history was during the days of the Judges, and for exactly that reason. “Everyone did as they saw fit.” (17:6)
Be grateful for God’s engineering skills. We complain about a lot of things we should actually be quite thankful for, like our spouse, our family, our church, our schools, and our government. Rather than criticize and complain, let’s invest grace in those relationships, knowing that relational health provides positive platforms to represent Jesus.
Okay, back to the question du jour.
Would God ever break the law, or even ask His children to break the law?
Quadrants might help clarify the answer. Charting two axes, one of “obedience” and another of “agreement,” creates four different quadrants, and may give us a way to better understand our choices. Remember, every choice we make falls into one of these four.
Quadrant 4 is full of SINFUL choices, where we know something is right but we simply refuse to do it. That’s just being stubborn. Our sin created control issues.
Quadrant 3 contains choices that are simply SENSIBLE! I mean, why wouldn’t you cooperate with someone else’s agenda, since you want to do the same thing anyway?
Quadrant 2 contains decisions that value purpose over rights. Q2 is where purposeful Christians find ourselves more often than in any of the other three. It’s where we champion our purpose more than our rights.
Anywhere authority exists (in a marriage, a family, a church, or a country), as long as others are focused on our uncooperative spirit, they will not be able to focus on their own lostness. Illegal or rebellious behavior wastes valuable disciple-making time on distractions created by our self-interest. Try witnessing to the judge about the benefits of the Christian faith while he’s taking your license away for a DUI, or explaining the virtues of the faith to the policeman while you are signing a citation for reckless driving, or inviting the local IRS officer to church while you’re being taken into custody for tax evasion. A clear and consistent focus on our purpose as world-changers gives perspective on so many life choices.
Few things unite us as a Christian community better than our purpose of seeing people transformed by God’s grace. Most ballot issues do not separate the godly from the ungodly. Jesus-following citizens may vote differently on a variety of issues. (So don’t expect politics to ever unite a church.) You might agree or disagree with a ballot measure, but your vote is on the basis of a citizen’s opinion, not on the basis of Christian conviction. Confusion about the distinction between opinion and conviction has always compromised the Church’s mission.
But, if you’re in a position to improve government, strengthen your marriage, become a stronger family, or even have a talk with your child’s principal, then do it. Vote, sign petitions, hold signs, go to seminars, make appointments, pray together, whatever! You should never say, “My marriage sucks, and the wrong people are leading our country, but I’m not going to do anything because I just want to pray for my oikos!” Go ahead and work to improve structures and nurture relationships, but always keep your eye on the ball.
In God’s Kingdom, purpose is more highly valued than either comfort, opinions, or even rights.
4. His purpose generates His protection.
This is not to say, if you are intentional about your purpose, that God will protect you from difficulty or pain. Those things are part of everyone’s life. But it’s amazing how a focus on His purpose protects us from being sucked into the world’s dangerous vortex of narcissism. God’s structures sustain healthy relationships, which allow us to fulfill His purpose by protecting us from our own self-centeredness.
Quadrant 1 contains choices to not cooperate with those in authority over you. There will be times, albeit very few, where that is the right choice. But when you make that call, you better be sure. The choice should be so clear it’s UNQUESTIONABLE.
The general purpose of authority is protection. You could say that about every structure God created. God designed family structures to protect members of the family. The purpose of the governmental structure is the protection of its citizens. But no one can protect us like God can, so compliance with authority is never blind compliance. Most of the time, when we choose a lifestyle of compliance with governmental structure, we place ourselves squarely in the protective hand of the God who created that structure. But when we know that certain behavior would kick us outside of the protective wall of God’s Word, we really have no other choice than to choose God’s protection over anyone else’s. When we have to choose between two forms of protection, wisdom says we must choose the most effective one.
I’d propose two categories of circumstances that would land us in Quadrant 1.
1—When sharing the Gospel is forbidden.
Some of you who teach in the public schools have your hands tied, at least to a significant degree, when it comes to sharing your faith in Jesus. Those restrictions require you to find alternative ways to make a spiritual investment in their lives. In Acts 4, the apostles Peter and John were not asked to find a better way to share their faith. They were asked to not share Christ at all, and they simply couldn’t agree to that.
2—When an ungodly act is demanded.
In Nazi Germany, Pastor Martin Niemoeller took a stand against racism and refused to be an informant for the Nazis against the Jews. Predictably, he was thrown in jail. When a pastor visiting inmates asked him, “Why are you in jail?” Niemoeller responded, “Why aren’t you?”
But again, there is a difference between defying an ungodly act that’s demanded and protesting an ungodly act that’s allowed. There are a lot of very ungodly things that are allowed in this country. Thankfully, appropriate forms of protest are also allowed, so public assemblies, petitions, get-out-the-vote drives are not defined as civil disobedience. Working within the system to change the system is part of our ongoing strategy to change the world.
But, thinking back, over the course of your life, how often have you been forbidden from sharing the Gospel with the people sitting in your front row? How often have the authorities in your life, your spouse, your parents, your teachers, or your pastors expected you to do something that is clearly ungodly?
I am 65 years old and I can’t remember ever being forced into quadrant one. The social structures I have lived in have always been sufficient for me to pursue the purpose God gave me. I wasn’t always treated fairly and I didn’t always agree with those in authority, but my purpose was never threatened. I realize that everyone has not been that fortunate.
So, circling back to where we started, would God ever break the law? In a fallen world, yes, I’m sure He would. Just not very often. So let’s be careful.
Tom Mercer has been in pastoral ministry for almost forty years. He received his formal education at Biola University and Talbot Theological Seminary. For the past thirty-four years, he has been the Senior Pastor and primary teacher at the High Desert Church of Victorville in Southern California. During that time the church has grown from 125 to over 12,000; from one campus to four and has been featured in a number of publications including the New York Times. He is the author of the books, 8 to 15, The World is Smaller Than You Think and Common Sense Is the New Brilliance and Not My Church. Tom and his wife, Sheryl, have been married for thirty-eight years. They have three grown children and nine grandchildren.