I just finished preaching a five-week series on how Christians should respond biblically to secular government, especially when the laws and ordinances of secular rulers hinder various aspects of church life. I was compelled to preach on the topic, as many of our church saints were grappling with weekly orders issued from on high by local, city, county, state, and federal officials, with each order dictating how to respond to the spread of the current virus.
Our Current Situation
The ordinances were creating confusion because they were inconsistent. County ordinances conflicted with state decrees. State orders conflicted with federal proclamations and even long-standing federal law. City ordinances did not jibe with county ordinances. Many sheriffs (who are elected officials) decried state, county, and city ordinances. And many of the ordinances conflicted with basic commands in the Bible, the most fundamental of which was the order issued in early March stating that churches in California couldn’t meet but had to shutter their doors. This order was in complete contradiction to God’s Word which commands believers to gather corporately for worship (Heb 10:25; cf. 1 Cor 11:17, 33; 14:23; Neh 8:11; Kings 8:1-5; Psalm 22:22; Acts 1:12-13).
No one saw that coming. Soon other states, and even countries, followed suit as the powers that be were demanding that the faithful “stay home!” I talked to many pastors around the state, the country, and even the world at the time, asking, “What is your church doing?” A recurring response was, “We don’t know what to do!” which was second only to the number one response of pastors telling me, “Well, you know Romans 13—we need to submit to the government. We need to comply. We need to shut church down.” This latter response surprised me as I did not expect it from so many. Then, as weeks went by, and then weeks turned into months, I was still hearing pastors tell me, “Well, you know Romans 13—we need to submit to the government.” Now I was getting frustrated and even disillusioned.
More than Romans 13
Our church shut down in early March when everyone else did and I preached my first live-stream message to an empty auditorium. One question I asked in that sermon was, “If I asked many pastors that I know one year ago the following question, ‘Under what conditions would you shut the doors of your church if the government told you that you had to?’ I am confident that many, if not most, would have boldly said, ‘No way! The government can’t force me to shut the church doors and prevent Christians from gathering for worship, fellowship and celebrating the ordinances’.” Fast forward to the 2020 pandemic and almost every pastor I spoke with said, “Well, you know Romans 13—we need to submit; we need to shut ‘er down.”
It quickly dawned on me in late March that only half the truth was getting air-time from many Christians who were repeating, like a mantra, “Romans 13—we need to submit.” Romans 13 is true, but it’s not the only truth, nor the whole truth. As a matter of fact, it is only half the truth in light of Jesus’ teaching on the very topic when the Herodians asked Him how believers should respond to secular rulers’ demands when they conflict with religious practice. He did not respond by saying, “Well, we need to submit!” That would have been a stilted, unbalanced answer that did not represent the full council of God (Acts 20:27). Jesus’ complete answer, which was perfectly balanced with the right priorities, was, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). Jesus was saying that we are obligated to obey secular authorities within their limited jurisdiction, and their jurisdiction is delegated to them by God and defined by God. God is the higher, ultimate authority. We obey rulers in light of God’s Word. We don’t obey Caesar all the time in every area of life.
The Apostle Peter Said “No!” to Caesar
The apostles listening to Jesus that day got the message and lived accordingly—they knew the perfect balance. Peter wrote to Christians about the first part of Jesus’ statement in 1 Peter 2:13-21 where he explains the implications of Jesus’ words, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Peter wasn’t a one-trick pony. He also taught on and even modelled the second part of Jesus’ statement: “render…unto God the things that are God’s.”
When God started the Church with Peter’s powerful, convicting preaching, the ruling local authorities didn’t like it and tried to shut Peter down, first by arresting him and locking him up (Acts 4:3), then interrogating him (4:7), and then charging him to stop preaching, by formal decree (4:18). Peter did not submit to the powers that be, went on preaching, and was arrested and jailed a second time (Acts 5:18). He managed to get free and immediately went into the temple area to preach once again (v. 21) in defiance of the local ordinance, whereupon he was arrested by the authorities a third time (v. 26) and with the other apostles was tried by the Supreme Court (v. 27).
Filled with rage, the authorities reminded Peter that he was defying a city ordinance—he must stop preaching. Being led by the Spirit and filled with courage, Peter and the apostles did not cower in fear, but retorted in the face of the highest authority in the region, “We must obey God rather than men!” (5:29).
There it is! That is the bold, biblical response that I had not heard quoted in almost three months from countless Christians, including many pastors. All I kept hearing was “render to Caesar!” but not “render to God!” Peter knew kings, governors, and rulers have limited authority and they can abuse and misuse that authority (Prov 28:5, 15-16). Hence the need to obey rulers in light of God’s Word. Sometimes, the Christian must say “No!” to Caesar as the apostles did here. There is often a consequence for saying “no” to Caesar, even when a “no” is called for. In this case Peter and the apostles were beaten before being released (5:40). Eventually Peter would be executed by Caesar for being a Christian and for saying “No!” to man’s laws in obedience to God’s laws.
The Apostle Paul Said “No!” to Caesar
The same Apostle Paul who wrote Romans 13—the command for Christians to obey the government—is the same Apostle who also said “No!” to the governing authorities when called for. Paul also knew Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:21. Paul also taught and modelled the truth of “render…unto God the things that are God’s.” Paul knew that perfect balance which is so often neglected. He exemplified it many times in his ministry. He respected all authority, submitted to the laws of the land, honored civic leaders…even leaders who were morally compromised and pagan (Acts 23:5; 24:10). But he also had the discernment and courage when needed to say “No!” to Caesar if Caesar’s law contradicted God’s law. Examples abound.
The most poignant and overt is in Acts 16 when he and Silas were arrested, beaten and imprisoned by the local mayors in Philippi for practicing the Christian faith. The next day the mayors sent the police to command Paul to leave the city. Paul was a Roman citizen and Philippi was a Roman colony, so Paul had legal rights and all his rights had just been violated. He would not stand for it. He demanded justice in light of the highest law of the land and would not comply with some lesser, ad-hoc, discriminating, contradictory law that a local mayor and misguided police officers were forcing upon him. So, how did he respond to their demand that he voluntarily and quietly leave the city? He did not say, “Well, you know Romans 13—we must submit.” He actually did just the opposite. He said “No!” to Caesar:
Now when day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, “Release those men.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The chief magistrates have sent to release you. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out.”The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city (Acts 16:35-39).
Paul literally said, “No!” to the powers that be, and justifiably so. But in reality, Paul wasn’t being defiant. He was being compliant. Paul had the highest law in the land on his side—the Roman Constitution, which guaranteed him basic rights, like due process, which means he should never have been beaten. A local, arbitrary ordinance issued by self-serving local officials does not trump federal law…and Paul knew that.
God’s People Have Often Said “No!” to Caesar
Peter and Paul knew when to submit to the governing authorities and they also knew there was a time to “render unto God” which at times means saying “No!” to Caesar. This principle of striking the balance between honoring civil authority while maintaining greater loyalty to God was not new with Jesus, Peter and Paul. It has been the long-standing biblical ethic required by God for all time and is modelled by the greatest of saints through the ages. Saying “No!” to Caesar is actually basic to the Christian worldview. Too often Christians shy away from it for countless reasons—ignorance, peer pressure, fear of reprisal, convenience, spiritual pride, bad theology, and more. Consider the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, out of loyalty to God and in obedience to truth, and at the appropriate time “rendered unto God the things that are God’s” by saying “No!” to Caesar:
(1) Around 1550 BC the two Hebrew midwives said “No!” to Caesar when they refused to comply with the decree issued by the king of Egypt, demanding they kill every Jewish baby if it was a male (Ex 1:16). They “feared God” and rendered due obedience to Him (v. 17). God blessed their holy, passive resistance to the ill-founded human decree.
(2) Moses’ mother and sister said “No!” to Caesar around the same time when they refused to comply with a second decree mandated by Pharaoh, as he called everyone to cast all newborn Hebrew babies into the Nile (Exod 2:1-10).
(3) Jonathan said “No!” to Caesar around 1050 BC when he refused to obey King Saul’s royal order to harm David (1 Sam 19:1-2). This almost cost Jonathan his life (20:30-33).
(4) Around 850 BC Obadiah said “No!” to Caesar by defying King Ahab and the Queen as he hid the prophets in secret caves to avoid death by the monarchs (1 Kings 18:13).
(5) Around 600 BC Jeremiah said “No!” to Caesar when he defied all the rulers of Judah as he refused to stop preaching, even though they threatened him with death (Jer 26:7-11).
(6) Daniel said “No!” to Caesar when, as a teenage slave serving in the king’s court, refused to eat the King of Babylon’s sanctioned menu (Dan 1:8-16).
(7) Daniel’s three friends said “No!” to Caesar when they refused to bow down to the king’s statue, under penalty of death by fire (Dan 3:8-23).
(8) As an adult Daniel said “No!” to Caesar when he refused to obey the 30-day injunction of King Darius that banned all praying that was directed to any other god save Darius. As a result, Daniel was given the death penalty (Dan 6).
(9) In 520 BC Zerubbabel said “No!” to Caesar when he ignored the demands of the governor of Syria-Palestine who commanded him to stop construction of the Temple. Sixteen years earlier Zerubbabel did stop building the Temple from “fear” of pressure by local officials (Ezra 4:4). God sent Haggai to remind Zerubbabel that God’s law was higher than man’s law, so Temple construction must resume (Ezra 5) despite his fear and despite threats from human authorities.
(10) Around 440 BC Nehemiah said “No!” to Caesar when he refused to comply with the demands of Sanballat, the political leader in Samaria who was ruling under the authority of King Artaxerxes. Sanballat told Nehemiah to stop building the wall. Nehemiah refused (Neh 4).
(11) Jesus said “No!” to the Caesar’s all around Him…routinely. For three years He resisted the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 12:1-8; 21:12-13; 26:62-63), the local authorities with their own police force and prisons. Jesus said “No!” by thwarting Herod the “king” (Luke 23:9) and the Roman governor, Pilate (John 19:9).
(12) In the future, faithful believers will say “No!” to the powers that be, as they will refuse to comply with the government’s manipulation of the economic system. And for saying “No!” they will lose their life (Rev 6:9; 13:17-18).
The Call to Faithfulness
Christians are called on not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake (Phil 1:29). More and more, such suffering will result from the faithful saying “No!” to Caesar when man’s laws contradict God’s laws. The government has no authority over the Church, which is the living household of God (1 Tim 3:15) and the Body of Christ which Christ purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). Christ is the Head of the Church (Eph 5:23), not Caesar, some human governor or local city official.
It’s challenging to keep the balance established by Jesus, rendering to Caesar his due while giving greater priority to God’s commands. But there are times when Spirit-led believers, especially church leaders, need to discern when it is right to be bold like Peter and shout from the mountain tops, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and be ready to suffer the temporal consequences that may follow. To maintain the balance in such times Jesus’ guiding principle is paramount:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues;and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.Matthew 10:16-20