“I am or would be of no sect or party, civil or religious, but a lover of mankind. It is my part to mourn over sin, and the misery which sin causes, to be humbled for my own sins especially, to pray for peace, and to preach the gospel. Other things I leave to those who have more leisure and ability, and I leave the whole to Him who does all things well.”
– John Newton
Have you ever gotten a good hand while playing Uno? You have many good cards (skip, draw 4, draw 2, wild, etc). In your mind you strategize when to play each card. As you place each card down, your opponents groan and sigh as they slowly lose their chance at winning. Sometimes in card games we may not have many good cards, but we may have one. We do not play it at any time, but we wait and strategize the perfect timing to put that card into play.
We have seen in life people use various “playing cards” or accusing people of “playing certain cards.” Even as Christians, we have cards that we like to play.
However, there is one card that Christians tend to play a lot in society. It isn’t a “draw 4” or “skip” card. Instead, it has another label: “We obey God rather than man.” This card is taken from Acts 5:29. This card takes on many forms, but it is mainly played in our relationship with government and politics.
But, are we using this card as it is meant to be played? Do we use it as an excuse to not obey government, or is there something else behind this card?
The Card in the Context of the Deck
When considering the phrase found in Acts 5:29 and our use of it, we need to remember that every verse has a context in Scripture.
This particular verse falls into a context of events leading to that statement. These events are found in Acts 3-5. In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a lame man and preach Jesus is the Messiah, He was crucified, raised from the dead, and the people should turn from their sins. However, this message gets Peter and John arrested in Acts 4. The religious leaders are not happy with this message, they command the two to cease preaching this message about Jesus. Once released, the apostles pray for boldness as they share Christ with all around them. Now we come to Acts 5 (where our phrase is contained). Skipping over the graves Ananias and Sapphira, we see the apostles are out sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet again, they are arrested and thrown into prison. But, God is a chain breaker (in this case physically), and miraculously opens the prison doors for the apostles to walk out. When the religious leaders discover the missing prisoners (and how they are back to preaching), they arrest them again. After scolding them and commanding them to stop, cease, and desist preaching, the apostles respond with, “We must obey God rather than people. (Acts 5:29).”
Were the apostles resisting a government order? Were the disciples protesting? Was there any political motivation to their message? Was politics even involved in this situation? No. In fact, politics is not found in the context. The message of the apostles was all about Jesus and who He is. Those who opposed their message were the religious leaders of the community. Yes, they did have power in the community, but could the religious leaders be compared to our government leaders?
When the apostles played the “we ought to obey God rather than man” card, it was in relation with the message they were speaking. In fact, throughout the book of Acts when the apostles are imprisoned, it is over their message of the Gospel and the effect it was having on people.. We do not see Paul singing in prison “This little light of mine I’ll burn down the pagan temples.” We do not see Timothy running through the streets with a petition from Paul asking for signatures to ban immoral behavior. We do see Paul, Peter, and the other apostles speaking out against immoral behavior, but it is addressed to Christians in how to live as Christians. We do not see unbelievers being told to turn from their sins before they are told about Christ.
Babies in the Nile and Standing in the Face of Fire
In these instances, those who feared God rather than man were rewarded, and they are seen as heroes in our Bible stories. But, again, we need to look at the context. In the case of the Fiery Furnace, the three men are having to choose between who to worship: the king or God. There was a government law in who to choose, but they chose to obey God rather than men. Were they protesting about this law? No, in fact they were respectful to the King why they were not obeying the law (Daniel 3:16:-18). They gave their reason and left their fate in God’s hands, because they knew God is sovereign. They did not have signs or write angry opinions on the wall. They peacefully stated their reason, and resigned the rest to their sovereign God.
In the instance of Exodus, the pharaoh ordered the murder of Hebrew male babies. The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the law. But, what kind of law was it? Was it one about freedom of speech? This law was about murdering children. In this instance, the “we ought to obey God rather than man” card was played in a proper way. The midwives, when summoned by the pharaoh, answered the king and let God take care of the rest. The midwives did not paint “Throwing babies into the nile is vile” across the sphinx. They were peaceful about it. (Now the issue of if the midwives lied and was that condoned is a whole other issue for another discussion).
When we consider these two scenarios where the “we ought to obey God rather than man” card was played, we see two things:
1.) The laws being broken were only broken in their individual lives; they did not require the law to be changed for the entire land. They saw the command went against God’s Word, but they did not protest for it to be changed. They left that in God’s hands, because He is sovereign (Proverbs 21:1).
2.) When questioned about their civil disobedience, they answered peacefully. They did not get into a debate, design turbans and robes with political sayings, or hold marches. The answer given was better stated in a peaceful way and seasoned with grace (Colossians 4:6).
Christian Testimony and Constitutional Rights
But, what about my freedom of speech and my right to protest? Now, we need to turn our attention to 21st Century American society. According to our constitution, we have rights to freedom of speech and freedom to protest.
Yet, according to God’s Word our main goal as Christians is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). There is nothing in Scripture about forcing governments to hold Christian values. In fact, there is nothing in Scripture where we have to make sure culture is redeemed and living exactly how the Bible states. Instead, we are to make disciples one person at a time. Can God use our obedience to the great commission as a way to change a government or nation? Yes, but it is not our goal. We should take jobs where we can be lights for the Gospel (including in government). But, according to Romans 13:1-7, we should be willing to submit to the government. We should strive to live at peace with all men, and to pray for our government (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Yes, we have constitutional rights in our country. We are very grateful for them. But, is our goal to create a Christian nation or make disciples? Are we willing to give up our rights to using free speech and freedom to protest in order to live out a Christian testimony?
Jesus has every freedom imaginable. He has the right to say whatever he wants and to do whatever he wants; he is God. Yet, God chose a different path in the incarnation. He chose to lay aside his “divine constitutional rights” in order to bring redemption to humanity (Philippians 2:5-11). He could have played the “God card” at any moment he chose. Yet, he strategized when he would use it. He knew the best times to play that card were when it would lead people to him. If we are to have the same mind as Christ, are we willing to lay aside our constitutional rights and freedoms in order to be a Christian witness as we make disciples of all people? Are we willing to play the “we out to obey God rather than man” card only when it leads others to Christ?
Strategizing our Card Playing
The New Testament church lived in a world similar to ours. There were laws they did not like, there was behavior condemned by Scripture being lived out in public, there was oppression, there were rulers and emperors the New Testament believers would rather see off the throne than ruling. Yet, we do not see them attempting to make the Roman Empire a “Christian Empire.” We do not see the New Testament church forcing laws to be changed to fit the teachings of Jesus. We do see them actively obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples of all people. We do see them sharing the Gospel before teaching others how to live as new creatures made in the image of Christ. We do see them striving to live peaceably with all men as shining stars in order to give the Gospel.
We can do the same. Instead of seeing government decisions, supreme court decisions, and political agendas as an opportunities to demand our rights, can we take a different approach? Can we see these things as opportunities to lay aside our constitutional rights in order to peaceably give the Gospel?
How is boycotting stores or throwing away items that may or may not be associated with a movement or political agenda help us make disciples of all nations? How does becoming a poster child for our political party give us opportunities to share Christ? How does picketing and protesting share the light God has given us?
Paul says in Ephesians 6:19-20 he wanted to use his imprisonment as an opportunity to give the Gospel. How can we use our current situation and our current political situation to make disciples of all people? Are we willing to lay aside our constitutional rights and stop playing the “we ought to obey God rather than man” card at every chance in order to have opportunities to share the light of God? Are we willing to strategize when we play that card?
The noise of demanding our freedoms can drown out the quiet voice of the Spirit, and the image of our political t-shirts, signs, and hats can blind people to the image of Christ in us.